The internet can be a scary place, or at least it for those not familiar enough to navigate it. Daunting with the amount of easily accessible knowledge, information, and porn that can be discovered, interpreted, and shared faster than ever before. Between Rachel Talalay's Ghost in the Machine and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, it seems that such a present and established part of our lives even today continues to hold true "new" horror for the masses. But now we have social media, an entirely new platform where the everyday masses can coalesce along content creators, journalists, politicians and more on a colossal scale. With the creation of a platform, discussion on how to use that platform inevitably follows, and two films, whether they intended or not, threw their own hat into the ring. In both 2014's Unfriended and 2016's Nerve, anonymity is linked to base aggression. Anonymous masses utilizing new internet technology as a medium for expressing and achieving primal desires. These films aren't anti-internet or nostalgic for the past but rather take the same anxieties from the past and showcasing them through modern apparatuses and devices.
"Are you a watcher or a player?" a text-to-voice generator repeatedly asks of NERVE's users, embracing a dichotomy stemming from archetypal teenage anxiety. Will you live your life without apprehensions, without fear? Or will you relegate to the sidelines playing it safe? That's how Nerve sets itself up: as a medium for youth self-expression, not dissimilar from other social media platforms, even if that expression manifests itself from outside the screen into the physical world. Like many young adult-oriented films to come out, Nerve at first manifests itself as a story of found self, transitioning from youth to adulthood. Vee leaves the confines of the isolated Staten Island to find her destiny in the big city, with new clothes and a new, daring attitude. Before, she was timid and unable to make the potentially life-changing decision to go to CalArts, but now she's spunky and quirky and dares to do things others can't. On top of all that, she can measure this success quantifiably via the number of watchers she receives. So is the magic of social media to be used as a tool of self-validation.
And there's an even trade-off for the watchers. There is no reward without risk, but if there was? That's where NERVE comes in, a game "like truth or dare, minus the truth". Players get paid insane amounts of cash to complete death-defying dares against each other, presumably paid money collected from watchers. The game's dynamic serves as a testament to classical voyeurism in horror. It's peering through the windowsill, but now the window is multi-dimensional and the peeping toms many. In NERVE watchers are also allowed to engage in their base urges without fear of reprimand. There's a reason they're all shown wearing packs and moving in packs across the city following the players who are given the center-stage. Nerve really just is a very thinly veiled metaphor for contemporary online interactions, and what turns off a lot of critics is its complete and total lack of subtlety. There's no nuance here, this is a Lifetime original movie out on DMT, with the preachy, near-tragic ending to tie off any doubts about what this message film is about. Anonymity as aggression. When one is not beholden to an identity, inhibitions disappear. More likely to sentence someone to death for entertainment when not tied to the consequences.
In Unfriended, the sympathies don't reverse but the perspective does. The protagonists go from innocent to problematic, and the anonymity switches sides. Blaire and her friends all follow a standard high-school social set-up, aware of their own trespasses but unwitting to the trespasses against them. They each used anonymous accounts to tear down those around them for self-validation, and continued to act like everything was okay around each other. They toss around anonymous and toxic comments today like the infectious, malicious rumors of yesterday. Characters will publicly express disdain or dislike of another character right before talking to their face directly. Unfriended hinges on its construction of a social circle built on arbitrary social obligations and false friendships, not created by the new space but enhanced by it. When Billy227 shows up to begin their reign of terror, the source of the terror isn't in any of the on-screen deaths but the fact that their trespasses are exposed where they are forced to answer for them in front of those they trespassed against. Billy227's primary objective in Unfriended is not to kill the people first but to lay everything bare for the collective to see. At its heart, what makes Unfriended tick is the social drama that gives each death meaning.
And it works, because who hasn't had incriminating private messages behind people's backs? Or to provide a more antiquated analog, secret back-room discussions about mutual friends. There's moral relativity, sure. Not all of us have cheated on our boyfriends or spread rumors about our besties, but we've all trespassed against our friends. Many of us have committed these trespasses without them having ever been unearthed, even to this day. The protagonists aren't the protagonists because of mere adherence to the slasher formula, but because of their distant relatability. Their despicable actions are also a testament to the newness of the social technology the utilize. Without a history of action to draw from, there's no set code of ethics for many using these interfaces. Nerve draws heavily on this idea as well with the abuse depicted.
It's really in the protagonists where we start to see the difference between Nerve and Unfriended. Everyone in Nerve gets a free-pass morally because their environment is shown to have shaped their actions and character under the immense pressure of society. The players' vanity and recklessness are never fully critiqued as one might expect, and as some have noted, even feels vaguely anti-technology at points. Unfriended is a more thoughtful and nuanced analysis on how modern social spaces shape our actions. It's never an apologetic film, despite being a sympathetic one. Environment and social pressure can shape a person's actions, but it's always mutual. Technology never creates this social drama or tension, it only amplifies it. And when you remove that aspect from the situation, the artifice still remains, even if the anonymity cannot.
Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.