How ‘Unfriended’ Makes Common Internet Images Terrifying: A Guide

Despite its place at the forefront of adolescent fears, thoughtful explorations of cyberbullying (which is to say, more ambitious examinations than the 2011 TV movie Cyberbully) have been stunningly rare. This is an indication of a clear cultural lack, a failure to consider this ugly yet common manifestation of adolescent feelings of powerlessness coupled with the Internet’s chaotic systems of control. But last week, the multiplex welcomed Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended, the “cyberbullying horror film” to top all cyberbullying horror films — of which, before its release, there were none.

Critics generally agree that it’s a narratively insipid movie that is, nonetheless, formally interesting; the plot about cyberbullying is underwhelming, and even trivializing, while the film’s visual framework — all set within one girl’s computer screen — is a stroke of brilliance. For that reason, it seems we still don’t have a good, thoughtful film about cyberbullying, whose victim count was, incidentally, doubled in 2014. What Unfriended offers instead, and quite effectively, is a more literal interpretation of the word “cyberbully”: its true horror derives not from the shame of adolescence, but rather from the familiar icons whose control we don’t often consider. The plot about the girl who’s cyberbullied, commits suicide, and returns as a vengeful spirit who makes people food-process their hands off and shove straightening irons down their throats doesn’t read as nearly as scary as, say:

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The Pinwheel

In Unfriended, the web-savvy ghost of cyberbullying victim Laura Barns sends the friends gathered around a computer screen a series of ultimatums, all along the lines of, “Load this or you will die.” There are so many commands that the system can get overloaded, and then comes the apocalyptic rainbow pinwheel, that universal (Apple) symbol for the halting of everything, that’s most likely to only end with an unhealthy “Force Quit.” In everyday life, this deceptively jovial icon signifies an interruption of whatever you’re doing — leading the stablest of individuals to pound their desks and spew expletives at their easily (or perhaps mockingly) perplexed iCompanions. Imagine, then, how you’d feel seeing it pop up, knowing that you have ten seconds to load something, lest a ghost does something violent to you. The pinwheel is especially effective in Unfriended because the audience, smothered up against the computer screen, can hear the discombobulated, disquieting whispering of the hard disk; it’s hard to tell if the computer is being controlled by the ghost, or, more simply — and far more frighteningly — if the ghost is just the computer itself.


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The Skype “No Picture” Icon

The Skype “no picture” icon was likely designed to make visual anonymity seem less creepy — and that’s exactly what makes it so unsettling in Unfriended. To avoid making it look too human, but still suggest that a person exists behind the bright blue-and-white veil, Skype gives us an abstracted bust, at once angelic and skeletal. The film’s suggestion that (for the five friends who can’t get rid of the icon) beneath it lurks a malevolent apparition shows the ease with which fear can be evoked through images that aim so desperately for neutrality and innocuousness. The longer you look at it — and the film ensures that you’re looking at it for nearly all of its 82 minutes — the more the icon becomes its own character that is, in fact, more fearfully multidimensional than any of the phoned-in teenage archetypes it’s antagonizing.


 

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The Loading Bar

Unlike the pinwheel, the loading bar isn’t a sign of malfunctioning, but rather a sign that something will function… eventually. It’s hard to tell which provokes more anxiety. While the pinwheel is cruelly cryptic in its withholding of a timeframe, the loading bar is wont to change its mind, rendering the whole countdown completely futile. Then there’s the notion, as is the case in this film (where a download might entail incriminating sexual images of you or, less realistically, a possession-by-your-dead-classmate), that the download at the end of the countdown is something you’ll wish you could have refused. It speaks volumes of our contemporary anxieties that a trope formerly used in action movies when bombs were about to explode is just as powerful when we know it ends in a shameful photo.


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The Soundscapes of Dueling Chats

Both Facebook and Skype chats will, as you’re probably well aware, make a diminutive noise when you’ve recede a message; Facebook’s sounds like a magical bubble bursting against your nose, while Skype’s bubbles sound submarine. As Unfriended‘s lead, Blaire (Shelley Henning), clandestinely alternates between Facebook and Skype to have a private chat with her boyfriend about all the scary shit that’s going on, the ghost of Laura Barns also begins Facebook-chatting her, leading to an all-too-familiar battle of the bubbles. That terrifying, twee symphony of multiple conversations on multiple platforms is indicative of the tenuousness of online friendships — of individuals’ tendency to blend into a swelling bubble chorus of “company”; responding to so many bubbling commands to command the “presences” of others is, as this movie exaggeratedly shows, completely nerve-wracking.


 

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Spotify’s Forced Shuffle Feature

Those who don’t pay for Spotify know the horrors of the “random,” shuffled playlists: the woe of wanting only to hear one song by a band, when the app seems dead-set on ensuring you hear everything but that, between commercials where a male voice grunts over a heavy-metal jingle, “Get in the zone… Auto Zone.” Unfriended uses what we already know of Spotify to creepier ends: in the beginning, we see Blaire hand-selecting some sexy indie pop to score the webcam burlesque she’s performing for her boyfriend. But as everything grows horrific, suddenly the never-seen presence starts making its own musical choices on Spotify, which Blaire cannot control or skip — much like the fates of those of us who don’t pay for the app. Never have I seen a better argument for purchasing Premium.


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Video Chat Distortion

At some point, you’ve probably been far from someone you love, and thought that video chatting would at least provide the illusion of rekindling a dormant intimacy. It probably even worked for a while, before the person on the screen transformed into a pustulous, cubist monster. It’s almost guaranteed that during any video chat, someone’s connection will cut for a moment, and the aforementioned transformation will take place, shattering false notions and sealing you, momentarily, in Internet-age solipsism. While other horror movies would create dread through a shrieking-violin soundtrack, Unfriended uses this very banal form of web distortion to indicate that these characters have no chance: they’re already gone.