I rarely expose myself to anything in the horror genre. Unless there are computerized ghouls emerging from subway tracks, only to be blasted away by comedic goddesses (I see you, Ghostbusters 2), I have very little interest in deliberately scaring myself. I’m more energized by the possibility of a good laugh or cry than the spine-curling, hair-raising horror shows and films out there.
Despite this, over the summer, like many, I endeavored to watch Stranger Things. The show gripped me without necessarily “scaring” me in the conventional sense. There were no axe murderers on the loose and not too many sudden movements. While the first few episodes definitely gave me an aura of unease, once I realized that the “stranger things” were actually just monsters in the “upside-down,” my fears were mostly alleviated and I could appreciate the show for what it was. It harked back to an era of scary stories, making us all feel a bit transported and transfixed. And the performances were unusual and impressive. We all got to root for the little guys, in this case, children. Winona Ryder, who I remembered from her role in the film version of The Age of Innocence, plays a mildly batshit but ultimately endearing mother. This show worked, and I wouldn’t quite characterize it as a horror series. Instead, it felt more like a Goosebumps novel, one that anyone and everyone could find some pleasure in.
What scared me recently was surprisingly the British television drama, Black Mirror. I decided to watch it late one night over fall break after feeling disenchanted by my Netflix queue. In reading the show description, I began preparing myself for a thriller or psychological drama. I ended up feeling deeply disturbed, profoundly troubled and ultimately very paranoid. And yet, I continued to watch more episodes of the show, managing to finish the first and most of the second, seasons in just a few days. Granted, the seasons are short, and the episodes, while long, are not unmanageably so, but still. For a show that genuinely scared me, I was surprisingly captivated.
Black Mirror is not a show about characters. You don’t watch an episode and immediately connect to one figure or another. And the characters don’t stick around from episode to episode. Actors change, narratives diverge and the each episode feels more cinematic than the last. It’s a collection of concepts, a series of thought experiments in which quirky-minded, somewhat sadistic writers take you on a trip. Make you stretch your mind to points you never quite wanted to.
Black Mirror forces us to reconcile with the possibilities of the future and to deal with the ethical issues surrounding emerging technologies. While some episodes feel like they exist decades away from our current world, others are alarmingly similar to today’s landscape. There are chances that all of us might become (or perhaps already are) hamsters in a wheel, working solely for some materialistic reward. We may gain access to our memories in ways we’ve never had before, remembering even the darkest moments with just the press of a button. All of this, while farfetched in the present, is alarmingly possible in the long-term. It’s 1984 all over again, warning us of what may happen if we let our agency go and allow our technology to control and consume us.
After watching the five or so episodes that I did, I wondered what I could do to make the paranoia go away. I retreated to Family Guy and The Office, hoping that the mindless jokes and endless wordplay might balance me out again. Somehow nothing quite seemed to help. And maybe that’s the point.
I’m still not sure if I want to see what more Black Mirror has to offer. Season three just came out, and it features an episode co-written by the beloved, comical Rashida Jones. Maybe there will be humor here and there, or I might continue to squirm in my seat at the possibilities our future brings. But I do believe that it’s good for us to endeavor in those thoughts every now and then, to be more cognizant of what might happen if we don’t remember our humanity or if let our technology go too far. Shows like Westworld promise a similar sense of paranoia, and I think this genre will continue to expand as technology does. Sci-fi has existed for ages, but this visualization of the future, this deeply troubling, imagined perception feels somehow new to me. New, and all the more unsettling.