Picture it. A dark wood. A haunted house. A creepy series of steam tunnels. A remote and scary location, and the hero/heroine is running from a madman/serial killer/vampire/toilet ghoul. Oh no! They’re all alone, isolated, in the dark. Scary! Then they pull out their cell phone and call the cops, call their boyfriend, call the SWAT, call their best friend, tell them where they are, and in five minutes the place is crawling with the FEDs and National Guard.
What? How do you keep your scary levels on maximum high when your hero can at the slightest provocation whip out their cell and call for help? Nothing ruins the mood more than ending a moment of isolation, and that’s why we get endless variations on people’s cell phones getting no reception or having dead batteries.
But you know what? That’s a cheap way out. Anytime that happens now I immediately lose my connection to the story. Are you serious? It’s 2011 folks. You can pretty much get reception everywhere. Sure, OK, fine. If you’re three basement levels down, in an elevator or the true wilderness it can get dicey. But no urban location these days is without total coverage, and phones these days can go days without a recharge (unless you bought a new iPhone, then you’re good for a couple of hours).
So why do authors keep pulling this same trick?
Because they don’t know how to handle connectivity. Old school terror depends on isolation. Being alone is the scariest thing. If you’re alone, you’re automatically seven times more scared. But if you can jump on Facebook or Tweet or dial your buddy, the fear factor plummets. Especially because you can then call for help.
So what’s a poor horror author to do? They need to realize that artificially enforcing solitude by arbitrarily killing the cell phone won’t cut it. Instead, they need to start asking: how else can I isolate a modern person in today’s tech-laden world? There’s the man alone in the crowd. I saw one enterprising movie use cell phone networks as conduits for ghosts (it didn’t work, but it’s a move in the right direction). There’s the evil that nobody else can see, so that it doesn’t matter whether you can call for help or not. There’s Freddy Krueger stalking the cellphone free dreamscapes.
We’re becoming so interconnected that we might as well be ants in the same nest. How would you go about scaring just one ant? How would you terrify him (or her!) when they are constantly surrounded by friends and frenemies? I think you either remove said ant from the nest in some plausible way, or you find a way to break their connections with their friends and frenemies so that they are now isolated while still being surrounded. Make it so that their little ant cellphones still function, but they don’t want to use them. Make it so that their societal ties themselves have become an isolating source of danger.
Or something! Just don’t say their cellphone has gone dead or no longer has reception!