As Jeffrey Sconce notes in his 1999 work Haunted Media, media technologies have always entertained a relationship with the supernatural and the occult. Ghostly images were believed to haunt nineteenth-century photographs, and voices from beyond the grave to speak through the radio, the phonograph, the telegraph, and the telephone. Media technologies, whether visual or phonic, open up a technological "other side," a "vast electronic nowhere" peopled with human spirits (126). The introduction of the television to homes across the country enhanced this relationship because through it stories of such hauntings could be broadcast to a mass audience, with both moving picture and sound. Sconce discusses television shows from the 1960s like Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, many episodes of which featured the television or other media as haunted or threatening devices. In these scenarios, media technologies are more than just media; they are affected by the material that passes through them. Narratives of haunted media suggest that this material--messages, images, voices--does not merely pass through; parts of it remain and leave their traces. Further, since these technologies act as extensions of human consciousness and perception, aspects of those faculties begin to rub off as well, resulting in narratives of technologies and technological devices imbued with their own will. The "other side" thus stores much more than the spirits of the dead; it provides the murky borderland for all sorts of other-intrusions to disturb the distinctions a society holds dear: conscious/unconscious, known/unknown, domestic/foreign, reality/unreality, life/death, mind/body, self/other.
We should not be surprised, then, that our newest media technologies have elicited their own ghost stories, especially because of their greater storage capacity. As Friedrich Kittler notes in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, "The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture" (13). In our culture, this would mean that the realm of the dead has become almost infinite in scope. Indeed, a string of recent films, including The Ring (2002) and Ring II (2005), Feardotcom (2002), Pulse (2006), and One Missed Call (2008), places ghosts in the videotape, the Internet, the wireless signal, and the cell phone, respectively. In spite of their contemporary settings, such films follow their gothic heritage, espousing traditional plot lines and narrative structures. They have a more difficult task than their predecessors, however, as they must market themselves to an audience that has been largely desensitized to violent images. The signs are many that the days of gothic terror are done, and that horror in the postmodern world has been reduced to mere disgust, if that. Contemporary audiences are characterized by their inability to be shocked, by their general desensitization to images and narratives of violence. Contemporary horror films, if they are not parodies, focus almost entirely on long and detailed scenes of brutal torture, leaving nothing to the imagination.
As Fred Botting notes in "Future Horror: The Redundancy of Gothic," contemporary film is moving more and more in the direction of "the empty but effective artifice of cinematic techniques of immediate and shocking realization. The technological process supplants rather than reinforces reality, natural emotion, and subjectivity ... Sucked into the wake of technological realization, human faculties" are spat out: in evoking emotion to excess, artificial overstimulation brings human emotions to the surface in order to evacuate affect and supersede all sensory faculties (5).
Botting's analysis focuses on the way in which contemporary horror lacks the emotional and psychological depth of the gothic horror of centuries past. Unable to evoke true terror, such films settle for mere sensory stimulation. Further, unlike the reciprocal relation between consciousness and technological image that Benjamin notes in his 1935 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the contemporary film experience does not tend to expand human perception but rather to replace it. (1) The imagination is no longer stimulated to create linkages between what it sees and what it does not see, between what it knows and what it does not know, because it sees everything. In contemporary horror, every organ, tendon, and nerve of the human body is exposed to view. The "surgical" nature of camera work that Benjamin notes is here taken to its extreme; no longer an analogy, the camera literally penetrates the body of the actor, and the "reality" within which he exists. (2) This exposure does not offer "an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment," as in the early films Benjamin references (234). Rather, the extreme literalization of filmic "cuts" on the bodies of the actors, which forces the actor to embody the penetration of the camera into reality and the audience to witness it, brings the artificial and equipmental nature of the image to the fore in a violent way. Yet, as Botting notes, we, the viewing audience, do not experience this penetration as violent because it has cut through all of the perceptual layers by which we might have been able to take a critical distance from it. Instead, camera, reality, and perception exist on one plane of immediacy, with hardly even an analogy to sustain the difference.
Films that focus on the way in which human perception and consciousness are affected by image technology, like those listed above, thus have an important and difficult job to do. Suggesting that there is something altering and disturbing in our relation to media technology is not creating intrigue where there is none; we have been altered by our relation to technology. But it takes a specific sort of …