Unfriended, Cyberbully, And Fear In The Social Media Age

We return to the 2015 horror Unfriended, and how it and other films explore the dark side of social media...

Note: The following contains spoilers for Unfriended. This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Unfriended is one of those horror films that becomes less effective the noisier it becomes. Released across America by Universal last year, the film’s a twist on the old teen-slasher format, so of course there’s lots of screaming, stalking, and violent death. But these scenes of bloody pay-off are a distraction from Unfriended’s quieter moments – for its here the movie’s true power lurks.

At a time when the found-footage genre is in desperate need of reinvention, Unfriended finds an ingenious twist on the old first-person, shaky-cam sub-genre. The entire movie takes place on the flickering laptop screen of its protagonist, Blaire (Shelley Hennig). We’re subjected to an initially dizzying array of opening and closing windows, as Blaire’s unseen hand flicks between YouTube videos, Skype, Facebook, Instagram and conspiracy theory websites.

At first, it’s difficult to discern the story emerging from this miasma of information, but gradually, the ingenuity of director Leo Gabriadze’s approach comes into focus. He’s effectively using the opening and closing windows as a form of digital editing, with the snatches of live Skype conversations giving way to private messenger discussions on Facebook or bits of old video on YouTube. It’s by moving between all these sites and apps that Gabriadze (and screenwriter Nelson Greeves) builds up a ghost story for the age of social media and – more disturbingly – cyber bullying. 

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Unfriended takes place one year after the death of high school student Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who takes her own life after a horrifyingly embarrassing video of her goes viral on the web Blaire and her friends Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Jess (Renee Olstead) all either knew the girl or had some kind of hand in her torment. It’s when a faceless stranger – with the name billie227 – appears on Skype with an unaccountably huge knowledge of Laura’s death that the depth of her bullying really comes to light.

Unfriendeds digital angle makes for a very different kind of supernatural horror; it’s a story where the ghost – if there is indeed a ghost – is in the web as opposed to a haunted house or a demon-possessed child. The unseen antagonist, who appears on Blaire and her friends’ screen and can’t be dismissed, becomes an all-seeing, all-knowing presence. It’s a clever comment both on the internet as an ocean of personal information and a service that is as insidiously addictive as any drug.

As the villain plays one teenager off against the other, using once private information to drive a wedge between them and shatter their friendships, Unfriended exposes a generation’s reliance on laptops, mobile devices and social media. Blaire and her friends could pull the plug on their computers at any time; their need to remain connected to everything and everyone at all times means it barely comes up as an option. 

Unfriended’s use of webcams and message boards is a modern analogue of a horror tale written in the first person. The story even contains distant echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story The Tell-Tale Heart, with its unreliable narrator and growing air of dread. In that tale, a murderer’s victim haunts the protagonist from beyond the grave, tormenting him (or her) with the sound of a heart beat which grows so loud that the killer eventually confesses his crimes to a pair of detectives.

In Unfriended, the teens’ collective guilt manifests itself in a collection of incriminating videos, messages and other actions on the web. At first, we’re not sure whether it’s a computer-savvy member of the group playing a prank on the others, or something even more sinister. Could it be that some kind of ghoul haunts the web, seeking justice for its victims?

Unfriended exposes the duality of our modern, interconnected culture. The power of the web means we have more ways of keeping in touch with our friends than ever before. The drawback is that particularly dedicated bullies can torment their victims at any time of the day or night. Social media means we can create networks of like-minded friends. The downside is that, if we’re suddenly ostracised from those groups, the vacuum left behind can be almost too much to bear – which is why Blaire and her friends are revealed to have all played their part in Laura’s death. Selfish though it seems from the outside, they all chose to join in the girl’s bullying rather than ostracise themselves by refusing to get involved or publically stick up for her. 

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The film also explores how the anonymity of the web changes our social boundaries, making us behave differently than we would in everyday life. It’s important to talk about Cyberbully at this point, the Channel 4 drama starring Maisie Williams. First airing in January 2015, it explores the duality of anonymity on the web. It shows how anonymity gives Williams’ teenager to make the kind of snarky videos she wouldn’t publish in her own name. But then an unknown stalker begins to torment her over social media, the darker side of anonymity rears its ugly head.

Simply put, the web allows us to explore multiple sides of our own personality – the creative, sharing side, the part that desires positive connections with other people – and the side that wants to exactly cruelty on those we barely know. Unfriended and Cyberbully – as well as other, less satisfying films like Chatroom and Uwantmet2killhim – are among a small number of films that ask what effects this relatively new era of technology is having on us. 

In some ways, Cyberbullys superior to Unfriended, not least because Maisie Williams’ quietly panicked performance is more relatable than the shrieking anger of Unfriended‘s cohort of teens. But it’s Unfriended that takes the bold approach of staging its entire story on a computer screen; where Cyberbully is shot conventionally, Unfriended creates an almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia with this simple approach.

Yet both films draw attention to the value we all get from our online friendships, but also the potential flimsiness of those networks. As Chibundu Onuzo writes in a recent article on the Guardian:

Social media companies grow richer every day from gathering the clues we drop while trying to indulge our craving for human connection. They know what food we like, what clothes we buy, and what songs we listen to. And they sell them back to us.

And what do we get in return? A cheap simulation of community when there are real communities to be made with the flesh and blood around us. We are encouraged to form weak ties with strangers and acquaintances, wispy threads that snap at the slightest pressure. There’s something unsettling about it all. We were made for deep bonds, for intimacy, for family – not WhatsApp chat groups.

Then there’s the scariest aspect of both Unfriended and Cyberbully. The web, whose tendrils can seem almost comforting when you’re able to chat to your best friends from the beige prison of your parents’ house, can suddenly feel like a vice-like grip when things start to go wrong. The webcam, which can be a benign means of flirting or chatting, then turns into a dreadful, unblinking eye of judgment. 

Inevitably, perhaps, Unfriended descends into more traditional slasher fare towards the end. The screaming begins, the deaths mount up, and some of its digital chilliness is lost. But even among the decidedly silly death-by-blender moments or bouts of shrill, panicked in-fighting, Unfriended’s irresistibly eerie concept remains. The film’s most effective shock comes not from a gout of blood or a jump-scare as such, but a still image.

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Val appears on a chat screen, her eyes unblinking, her expression impossible to read. At first, Blaire – and by extension, the audience – thinks that it’s simply a glitch – the stream of data has stopped flowing, so we’re left with a static image of Val staring back at us. The director holds us on this moment for an unnervingly long time, refusing to cut away by hiding the window or covering it up with a new one. And then we realize the truth: this really is a live feed, and that Val is staring, unblinking because she’s dead.

We may not consciously register it at the time, but this moment illustrates the spookiness of a life spent in cyberspace. The web can keep us connected to people tens, hundreds, even thousands of miles away. But without physical contact, without the age-old thing of sitting across the table from a friend in a coffee shop, we’re still disconnected in a very real way. Our bodies are sitting in one place, but are minds have gone elsewhere, lost in the tunnels of Twitter, Facebook or Skype. Unfriended is a reminder that, in the 21st century, we’re all the ghosts in the machine – and when the system goes wrong, that machine is a very scary place to inhabit.