Obviously I can’t say if this is true for everyone, but the cultivation of social media profiles involves the selection of specific images, phrases, and the aspects of one’s personality that they want to present to the world. The goal isn’t to present your whole self but a public self. Troll profiles are in an odd space between public and private in that the identities behind those profiles are anonymous even though the profiles themselves are highly public. The profiles may voice extreme versions of the troll’s ideals, or they may just say the most controversial possible thing. Phillips describes how trolls distance themselves from their profiles, referencing things the author wrote on their troll profile as if a separate, real person ran that profile. I wonder if the cultivation of social media profiles, especially when the viewer doesn’t know the person behind the profile, provide an extra sort of justification for trolls. The troll knows that one-sided profiles exist because the troll himself exists, and if the troll views social media as fake showboating, why should the troll believe in a genuine emotional response being expressed on that page? Everything posted by a certain profile contributes to a persona. Trolling evokes an emotional response that breaks that persona a bit using the trolled person’s anger.
Although the first thought someone has when they hear “possession” might be “demonic,” contemporary horror has expanded the definition of possession to include ghosts and other people. Two stories, the video game Oxenfree and the film Get Out, both explore what it means to be possessed by other people. Oxenfree is about a group of teenagers who unwittingly open a portal to another dimension using a radio and must face a group of ghosts that want to possess them and get a second chance at life. Get Out follows a young Black artist as he meets his white girlfriend’s family. Chris’s life plans are thrown into chaos when he discovers that his girlfriend and her family replace the minds of Black people with brains of rich white people. In both stories, the use of technology creates a record of the present and a connection to past victims that forces the audience to consider our own existence and impact on the world. Possession and the use of technology to break free from that possession represent our existential fears of repeating past mistakes and being erased from history.
In Oxenfree, the possessors take the more traditional form of ghosts. The ghosts are the spirits that were aboard the submarine USS Kanaloa when it disappeared into an interdimensional pocket in time. Their sudden disappearance, inability to escape, and direct contact with time itself has both made them angry and caused a mental regression so they function and process information like children instead of the adults they were on the submarine. Their child-like tendencies emphasize their selfishness. These beings feel that they deserve to live again because everyone forgot them, and it doesn’t matter to them that possessing the main character, Alex, and her friends will prevent the teenagers from living full lives. In fact, if the teenagers are possessed, it is implied that they will be erased and overwritten even more thoroughly than the ghosts, though their bodies will still exist. The ghosts’ faulty logic can be exploited if the player collects researcher Maggie Adler’s notes from around the island, which prove that the people of the USS Kanaloa were not forgotten. In one of the final scenes, Alex can speak directly to a single spirit instead of the amalgamation of every soul; in doing so, she lets the spirits know that they are remembered and do not need to return. I argue that this is a comment on how the past affects the present. Ignorance of the past forces Alex and her friends into a time loop of their own, whereas acknowledging the pain and suffering of a previous generation convinces the ghosts to move on, release Alex and her friends, and, on a second playthrough, can end the loop entirely [See video below from 35:05 to 37:20].
History has a strong presence in Oxenfree due not only to the presence of the ghosts but also the analog technology presented in the game. Alex’s radio is the only form of available, visible, and functional technology, and it operates as the primary mechanism of the game. The radio opens the portal in the beginning of the story, freeing the ghosts, but is also the mechanism through which the player can access information about the island and the disappearance of the USS Kanaloa. Dotted around the island are plaques that indicate installments of the radio tour, which offer kind, gentle, and whitewashed versions of the island’s history. The radio tour is in direct contrast with the “anomalies,” which are strange signals created and corrupted by the presence of the tortured souls of the Kanaloa. The anomalies often reference real and horrifying events, such as the atrocities committed during the American-Indian war of the mid-1800s and the bombing of the USS Arizona. Radio in Oxenfree is an excellent example of Ewan Kirkland’s theory of how analog technology corrupts the digital in horror films and video games (Kirkland 122). The static-y sounds of the radio eclipse the ambient music in the game, and occasionally the anomalies interject recordings of big band music from the 1940s, the same time period in which the fictional Kanaloa sank. Visual static further contributes to the corruption of the player’s screen during time loops and any ghostly interference. The computer itself and therefore the player becomes haunted, just like Alex and her friends. [The video below illustrates visual, sound, and time distortions in Oxenfree.]
Paired with the radio are several cameras, which create a visual record of the ghosts throughout the game and can change depending on the player’s actions. Part of the game aesthetic is the 80s nostalgia-type group of artsy teenagers who stumble onto something horrible, and the polaroid photos taken throughout the game to create a record of the teens’ time on the island are significant contributors to the aesthetic. One of the characters, Nona, specifically states just before Alex goes to confront the ghosts that she wants to take a picture to prove that the group existed, in case someone comes looking for them. The teens have proof of their existence in a way that the ghosts did not, and the visual record offers the audience hope that the teenagers will be able to free themselves from the dangers of the island. [Below: the last photo taken before the final confrontation.]
Get Out also uses photos as a mechanism with which to free characters, but the need for freedom and the way the camera frees its users differs from Oxenfree. In Get Out, Chris first uses his phone camera to take a picture of the odd Logan King, and the flash sends Logan into a fit. Chris’s friend sees the photo and identifies the man not as Logan King but as Andre Hayworth, who had disappeared months earlier. For Chris, identifying Andre is the last straw, pushing him to flee Rose’s house. As he packs, Chris finds pictures of Rose and her previous boyfriends, about a dozen other Black men, one of whom is Walter, another possessed Black man living at the Armitage house. Rose previously stated that she had never had a Black boyfriend before and thus denies the existence of these photos; when Chris finds them, he finally has evidence of something strange going on in the Armitage home. The pictures are printed, offering physical proof that these people had real lives before their possession, and they convince Chris that he must leave or become just a body like Andre. [Below are the pictures Chris finds, framed on the wall behind Rose.]
Although the possessors in Get Out are arguably more human than the supernatural ghosts of Oxenfree, they share a similar selfishness and desire to live a different, better life. The rich white people seek to possess Black bodies for several canonical reasons, including physical ability and being labeled “cool” [See video below from 2:40 to 3:20].
In Get Out, it is the possessors who are ignorant of the recent history of prejudice and its effects on the lives of Black people in the modern day. They believe that Black people have better lives, or at least that these white possessors would be better at living and appreciating the lives of Black people. In taking possession of a Black body, the possessor erases the original person’s cultural identity as well as their personality.
Stuart Hanscomb explores the idea that existentialism and questioning of self drives the horror within horror films (Hanscomb 1). He argues that the feelings of fear and disgust are inspired by depictions of the abject. In psychological horror, however, the abject augments fear and disgust rather than causing them outright; most of that fear and disgust is inspired by the ideological values of the evil characters. In both Get Out and Oxenfree, the abject takes the backseat, appearing late in the story if at all. The possessors in both stories feel entitled to the bodies of others and are willing to go to extremes to live again, even though they do not deserve a second life at all, especially when compared to the rights of the possessed to finish their own lives. The audience’s fear comes not from jump scares but from the idea that forgetting the past and making mistakes in the present will erase us from the future. The connections to Alex and Chris and their proximity to nonexistence throw the player/viewer into existential anxiety (Hanscomb 12).
Possession in horror films is in a unique position to offer a deeper view into our perceptions of ourselves and our existence. Technology allows us to delay our disappearance but does not prevent it; after death, we can exist only in the memories of those who come after us. No matter how many photos we take, our lives will still eventually end, those photos will decay, and we will be forgotten. The possessor has a second chance at life, but at the cost of another’s first chance; to have one’s identity stripped away during that one chance at making a mark inspires a more psychological fear, one that allows a deeper look at how we view the past, its legacy, and our own potential.
Get Out. Dir. Jordan Peele. Perf. Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams et al. Blumhouse Productions, 2017. Web.
HANSCOMB, STUART. “Existentialism and Art-Horror.” Sartre Studies International, vol. 16, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23512850.
Kirkland, Ewan. “Resident Evil’s Typewriter: Survival Horror and Its Remediations.” Games and Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, Apr. 2009, pp. 115–126, doi:10.1177/1555412008325483.
Oxenfree. Apple iOS version, Night School Studio, 2016.
Horror often relies on what the camera and therefore the audience does not immediately see to increase suspense and set up scenes like jump scares. Video game creators accomplish this not just through near-constant darkness but also through the limited perspective of the “camera.” In games like “Until Dawn,” in which action scenes are interspersed with dialogue options and relationship-building, the player does not control the angle of the camera. This allows the camera to focus on a character’s facial expressions or point out a detail in the scene, moving the story forward while keeping the player more engaged than a cutscene would. For instance, when Ashley, Josh, and Chris use the spirit board to communicate with what they believe is the spirit of Josh’s sister, we get several close-ups of Ashley’s face as we choose her dialogue and then of Josh and Chris as they react to whatever she says. In this case, the visible tension between the characters is what builds suspense, as the player knows that every choice they make will affect the story.
This character-focused perspective also hides information. When we discover that Josh was playing a prank on his friends, the audience has to wonder how he set up aspects of the prank, like the spirit board. Upon review, we can’t quite see how the pointer flies off the table or what Josh’s hands were doing. The obfuscation of reality heightens tension in the scene and leaves us as confused and scared as Ashley and Chris.
The night of the exorcism, Merry acts as if nothing is wrong, clinging to Marjorie’s back and asking her to carry Merry away like a backpack. Although young Merry does change throughout the filming of the show, she forces herself to act as if everything is fine and at least somewhat the same. Sometimes, this is for the cameras, as Merry notes when she goes into the basement to look for a snack because she would “feel pressure to perform” for her father and the TV producers if she went into the kitchen (118). She also launches herself around the room while the family watches TV the night before the exorcism, as energetic as she had been before Marjorie became ill and looking to receive a “sign of approval” from Ken and Barry (194). When the TV crew comes into Marjorie’s room to set up for the exorcism, Merry yells for them to stay out, hoping she can remain with Marjorie and their mother, safely sequestered away from the men and their prayers downstairs.
In her blog post, Claire discusses the idea of the liminal in the novel and how the exorcism should serve as a sort of rite of passage but leaves Marjorie hanging in the air forever. Merry is similarly in a sort of stasis, trapped by her desire to keep the family unchanged, or at least to avoid this particular night/rite. *Spoilers ahead* When the rest of the family dies, they end up at the table, eating pasta exactly like they did in the beginning of the book, before Marjorie really showed signs of mental illness. Merry is found under the table, hiding like she did so many times. These parallels lock Merry’s childhood into a sort of loop, one that we never see break, just as we never really see Marjorie fall.