The Fear of the Known and Unknown in Media

Ben Ho

When asking the question, “What is scary?” immediate answers might include things or feelings we know: spiders, heights, clowns etc. But when thinking about what makes horror movies scary, it is often the things we cannot understand that drive the fear throughout the movie. Perhaps it is a string of deaths that seem to be connected, but we do not yet know how. Or maybe it’s some movement in the background of a shot that has an unknown source. In the case of Ringu, it’s a VHS tape that kills you seven days after viewing it. The tape itself is a string of footage some might consider disturbing, but besides that, we never see how the tape kills its victims. Despite there being no physical killer and having no idea what causes the people who watch the tape to die, the tape evokes a sense of fear in viewers, even decades after when VHS tapes were popular forms of media. Which then begs the question, “why do we find Ringu and other forms of dark media scary?”

VHS tape from the movie Rings

Our discussion in class first centered around old vs. new media. Specifically, we talked about how viewing Ringu today, with streaming services being the predominant mode of media consumption, affects the way we watch it. For some, the “oldness” of the VHS tape creates a heightened sense of fear, both because we have a slightly lowered idea of how VHS tapes work and also because of some other less distinct factor that gives objects a scarier aura with age. For others, the it wasn’t necessarily the fact that VHS tapes were somewhat antiquated, but rather, that unlike modern technology, where movies are converted from 1’s and 0’s by our computers into pictures, a VHS tape has a physical form that can be haunted. This point brought about another discussion about whether or not a piece of media needs a physical form to be scary. Our answers to both questions ultimately left us with conflicting opinions, pointing towards the possibility of technology we consider cutting edge today becoming dark media in the future in a way we might find scary.

Another take on this topic comes from Thacker’s “Dark Media” which he describes as media or mediation which “… have, as their aim, the mediation of that which is unavailable or inaccessible to the senses”. While he doesn’t specifically touch on the ways modern media might be construed as dark media, for him dark media is not concerned with the age of the media or the form. Rather, it’s all about there being something within or behind the media that we perceive but isn’t the media being presented. Note that this is not limited to any technological form since the media only becomes dark media when we perceive it. In other words, whether it be a radio broadcast, VHS tape, DVD, or stream, when we view the media we are viewing and, in a sense, creating whatever dark force, be it demon or otherwise, that makes the media dark media.

I’ll now offer some of my own thoughts on these topics and their implementation in movies. I don’t think a VHS tape is uniquely scary or that technology must be old for it to be scary. The latter is evident since VHS was at its peak when Ringu came out and smashed the box office. Horror movies and games might turn to VHS for their preferred form of haunted media because of the aesthetics and ease of story telling offered by having a physical object. This way, there is a sense of unique-ness to that one particular tape that cannot be shared with as much ease as digital media today. For the viewer, it also makes more sense that the tape itself could be haunted, instead of the digital signal that is reproduced as video on our screens when we stream. Ultimately, I think that what makes an object or piece of media scary is how it is presented to us as viewers. The reason it becomes increasingly difficult for us to pin down ‘the thing’ that makes something scary, is because there are many aspects that factor into such an opinion: visual effects, music, setting, lighting, and the time and place we actually watch the movie as well. Perhaps we can expect haunted iPhones or a demonic Oculus Quest in the future, and, if done right, be warned! What might seem mundane today, could terrorize your nightmares tomorrow.

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