by Emily Reuben

With the release of the horror movie Friend Request in the United States, it is difficult not to think of the film Unfriended released in 2015. Both feature Facebook and cyberbullying as major plot devices, not to mention the names of each film are very similar; however, the critical reception of the films has been wildly different despite a similar subject matter.

Unfriended was met with a respectable amount of praise for an independent horror flick:

Images from Rotten Tomatoes

 

Apparently Dowd isn’t the only one who praises Unfriended for its use of technology. CNN, IndieWire, and the New York Times have praised the “fresh” use of technology in Unfriended.

On the contrast, Friend Request has been receiving terrible reviews:

Images from Rotten Tomatoes

So what is Unfriended, and why is it garnering so much praise while Friend Request is failing despite its similar subject matter? More importantly: what’s the deal with Facebook suddenly being scary and what does this new trend of Facebook focused horror movies say about the fears of modern society?

Unfriended is your average cautionary cyber-bullying tale. High-schooler Laura Barns kills herself after an embarrassing video of her is posted online. The film operates in a found-footage style but with a twist: everything is seen on a computer screen. It begins with a group of friends on a Skype call, but the teen’s conversation takes a turn for the eerie when a stranger appears in their chat to harass them. This is the entire film.

Image from Giphy

Friend Request is a bit different in how it presents its characters. Instead of a group chat, the film is all about Laura – a girl who receives a friend request from a strange girl Marina. After accepting the request, Marina becomes obsessed and angrily approaches Laura wondering why she wasn’t invited to a party Laura posted about. After Laura unfriends Marina, the girl kills herself and posts it to Facebook. Laura is then haunted by the ghost of Marina.

These films both feature Facebook and the main character being haunted by a ghost (or supernatural entity) after  causing a suicide. The premises are similar, but Unfriended  has a more consistent message.

At the end of the movie, the audience is shown that all of these characters were terrible people thus to some degree, deserving of their gruesome fates. Stripping the cast of any redeeming qualities helps to lay out a moral judgement that audiences can easily get behind: these characters could have avoided their fates had they not been such awful people.

Image from MTV

Friend Request has a more confusing narrative. Laura is faced with an obsessive, abusive acquaintance and deals with it in a more or less healthy way by ending that relationship, but Laura is targeted and tormented by Marina’s spirit anyways (this relationship is explored further in a recent episode of Input 2).

The moral narrative is inconsistent. Laura is more open-minded and demonstrably less judgemental than the company she keeps, but this vulnerability is what dooms her. Had she been like her friends and ignored Marina, Laura wouldn’t have been haunted.

Narratively satisfying punishments usually match the nature of the original offense. In Unfriended the people who drove Laura Barnes to commit suicide are forced to commit suicide themselves. Conversely, in Friend Request Laura is rendered friendless by Marina because… she decided not to be friends with her stalker? What a monster.

Image from Giphy

So Unfriended is the more relatable film. Putting aside all of the positive press coverage it had received which helped boost the film’s popularity, this is one explanation as to why Unfriended has fared better than Friend Request. 

Now let’s look at why social media is showing up more in horror. In 2011 Meghan is Missing showcased the story of  two young girls who are kidnapped after chatting with a stranger online. This plotline arose again in the 2013 Russian film titled The Den.

After the devastating suicide of Amanda Todd in 2012, cyberbullying was ushered into the mainstream, becoming a fear for many parents. Rather than placing a focus on stranger danger, the focus turned to cyber bullying among peers. This becomes apparent in 2015. Releasing roughly the same time as Unfriended was the film #Horror which ironically also discusses cyberbullying on Facebook. So what was happening in 2015 to spark a major discussion on cyberbullying? Well for starters,  In 2015, the Cyberbullying Research Center conducted a random sample of 457 students between ages 10 and 15 which showed that the number of students who have experienced cyberbullying was 34.4%.

In a 2010 sample of 4441 people aged 10 through 18 the number was 20.8%.

As shown by the 13.6% increase, as more youth have grown up with social media, the numbers have risen. Between 2014 and 2015, the numbers were shown to be higher than ever before.

So social media based horror films are nothing new; the way social media is presented simply changes to match the issues of the time. We as a society love to make a villain out of new technology and the misuse of it. That fear is being capitalized on in the horror genre. Consider for a moment parents with teenagers. In a digital world, there is no way to fully monitor what a child is doing and who they are communicating with, and Unfriended plays on this fear by showcasing the worst type of people doing despicable things online. This is where the praise of this film openly discussing these frightening possibilities stems from.

After cases like Amanda Todd’s, media began to address the horrors of the terrible things young people do and say to one another rather than them being preyed on by older, unknown people such as in films like Meghan is Missing or The Den. The focus on strangers online with malicious intentions shifted to the evil that can be done by people you know online. The supernatural entity in Unfriended or Friend Request is the icing on the cake, not the source of the fear itself. Instead, what’s supposedly scary here are the “realistic” implications of what young people do online using social media, such as sparking suicides among their peers.

The problem with cyberbully movies exploiting fear of social media is that the characters are typically terrible people irrespective of their use of technology. This is seen in Unfriended where even without social media, these characters would be doing terrible things to each other.

Friend Request breaks this trope by making the protagonist sympathetic. However, as discussed previously, she is punished for her kindness. This is a strange message to send to viewers. Was Laura supposed to bully Marina? I doubt that’s what the filmmakers are trying to convey, but Friend Request is such a mess that an unhealthy message can easily be taken away by impressionable viewers. In reality, it’s unlikely the film was meant to have a message about cyberbullying at all. It was simply an easy method to garner sympathy from viewers.

Instead, Friend Request focuses more on social media addiction and the effect of maintaining online personas; however Laura doesn’t suffer from any addiction, making the idea pointless. A counter on screen indicates that her friend count is dropping throughout the film, but Laura hardly seems to care. She isn’t shown to have an interest in an exaggerated online persona; Laura’s simply upset she’s being framed for causing a suicide.

So to summarize, we have two Facebook horror films both featuring cyberbullying as plot devices but executed very differently. Unfriended is interested in showcasing teens going wild and being subsequently punished for their wrongdoings while Friend Request tries and fails to focus on the negative aspect of online appearances and online isolation. Unfriended was released when cyberbullying statistics spiked and the desire for public discourse was high. There is still a push to tackle the issue of cyberbullying, but after years of discussion, instances of cyberbullying have become regular occurrences. Let’s be frank, most celebrities and public figures engage in some unprofessional online exchanges. When our leaders and idols are allows to constantly tear down and and harass others with little to no repercussions, it’s not exactly a promising sign that cyberbullying is being taken seriously.

Social media can be scary. We all struggle to get likes and get noticed, and sometimes this desire for attention clouds our better judgement. People hide behind screens to say and do terrible things. Predators stalk and harm people online. The internet is scary, and we should discuss it, but let’s not forget to talk about the people behind the computer. Facebook isn’t making anyone kill themselves, but the Blaires of the world are.

Until horror movies are willing to stop making ghosts and witches scapegoats for human cruelty, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram will continue to only be scary to those who think social media really does operate on witchcraft.


Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, CNN, IndieWire, The New York Times, Cyberbullying Research Center, BuzzFeed

Images: Rotten Tomatoes, Giphy, MTV, Ricky’s Film Reviews, Cyberbullying Research Center, Twitter

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