Steen Christiansen Weird Media Ecologies
The weird is a form of affect. I mean that in both senses of the word. The weird is a particular kind of affect, but the weird is also a particular form that the kind of affect takes. This argument lets us examine both what weird cinema makes us feel and how weird cinema makes us feel. Indeed, the weird as a form of affect allows us to pose the question of how cinema is weirded; how cinema becomes strange. As Mark Fisher argues in his book on the weird, “the weird is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete” (Fisher loc 95). For Fisher, then, the weird is closely related to the new, something unnameable that pushes through the symbolic order.
This unnameable something is of course precisely weird affect, what we might call, in Jeff VanderMeer’s words “ horrific interrogations of body and mind” (VanderMeer xi). But there is another avenue of weird, horrific interrogations: the weirding in recent horror films such as The Den, Open Windows, and Unfriended. These films belong to the tradition of the New Weird, a recent mode of the fantastic, where writers like Steph Swainston, China Miéville, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer engage in a speculative move into the nonhuman world, where the distinction between humanity, technology, and the environment becomes irrelevant. Weird fiction, as Fisher notes, is obsessed with the between and in classic weird fiction that obsession manifests in a proliferation of portals, doors, and thresholds. In doing so, weird fiction denaturalizes worlds by exposing their openness to the outside (Fisher loc 304). Fisher’s argument is a variation of China Miéville’s argument that the weird “impregnates the present with a bleak, unthinkable novum.” (Miéville 513)
Unfriended presents us with the nonhuman world as a weirding of the network; the network comes alive and takes its revenge on the characters. Briefly, the story of Unfriended is that five friends hang out on Skype on a Sunday evening. An unknown user intrudes on this chat and we, and the friends, slowly realize that this is the ghost of Laura Barns, who committed suicide a year ago, following the release of a video of her passing out and defecating herself at a party. This ghost makes the friends reveal the ways in which they were complicit in either making the video or otherwise betraying each others’ friendships, after which the ghost kills them.
This rather straightforward narrative is not the reason the movie fascinates me. Instead, the movie almost entirely takes place on Blaire Lily’s computer desktop. We see her switch between different application windows, typing messages, attempting to unfriend Laura Barns on Facebook, pausing Spotify, and so on. Slowly, she loses control of her computer as the ghost of Laura Barns takes over. Blaire’s loss of control of her computer presents an intensification and variation in terms of the tropes of contemporary horror.
While horror movies have always engaged with the idea of openness, oscillating between hiding and revealing the monster and the horrific, recent found footage movies intensify this through decentered framing, broken composition, static shots of empty rooms where nothing happens, what Cecilia Sayad calls the frame’s undoing in found footage horror (“Found-Footage”). As what we might call a desktop movie similar to movies like The Den and Open Windows, Unfriended weirds the frame rather than simply undoing it.
Weirding the Frame
Sayad’s argument is couched in a tension between reality and fiction, a tension that we also find in Unfriended. For Sayad, the open frame suggests a desire for the film to be a “fragment of the real world” so that “its material might as well spill over into it” (“Found-Footage” 45). Not that any viewers are truly tricked but rather that the formal features of the movies’ documentary style intensify the already existing relation between horror and society — what Sayad calls the allegorical function — that horror movies say something about society (49).
Conventionally, the frame exists to focus the viewer’s attention to the most salient aspects of the narrative. With the open frame in found footage movies, we are put in a different position. The frame is often empty, devoid of action and sometimes even of people. Nothing happens. Except, of course, something might be happening just outside the frame. Paranormal Activity has made a virtue of having the horrific take place outside the frame, only occasionally exploding the horrific into the frame. Unfriended pushes this logic even further through its use of the desktop’s multiple windows, where the horrific takes place behind as well as outside the frame.
As we can see here, the frame remains static in that we only ever see Blaire’s desktop, but there is movement within the frame from the layering of several windows. In this instance, there are at least five layers: desktop, Skype, Spotify, Chrome open on Gmail with several other tabs open, plus an extra floating Skype window. There is a kind of staging in depth, which is of course nothing like conventional deep staging. Instead, this layering effect works like what Lev Manovich calls spatial montage (Manovich) and what Sayad calls decentering the frame (“Found-Footage” 46).
While most found-footage horror shot with surveillance cameras make us scan the entire frame for movement and meaning, Unfriended instead weirds the frame through this layering process. Evan Calder Williams suggests in his piece “Sunset with Chainsaw” that we rethink horror movies through their “horrible form” rather than their horrible content (32). Williams convincingly shows how background and periphery play significant roles in the horror of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Similarly, the layering effect of application windows produces its own kind of weird form in Unfriended. Let’s have a look at a few examples.
Looking at the frame, we see that movement is dispersed or distributed across several points of simultaneous action. The characters speaking over each other adds to the cacophony of movement, making for a busy scene. We constantly scan from one character talking, to the pictures as Blaire scrolls through them, to another character talking and back again. While Blaire toggling through the windows does guide us in terms of where to look, generally speaking we scan as movement and interest catch our eyes.
In other words, we perform our own editing, as much as there is editing in this single-take movie. Obviously, this was not a single-take movie on the level of production but we experience the movie as continuous. And yet the film does not feel continuous or smooth at all. Our experience is jarred by the toggling through windows, us having to scan across the frame to find the most pertinent area to focus on. Rather than filling the entire frame with dread, the way Paranormal Activity’s decentered framing works, the frame is filled with agitation in Unfriended. We are never sure if we are looking at the right place. The danger, the horrific moment, always arrives from a place we didn’t see. Openness in Unfriended comes from this agitation of the frame, as well as the breakdown of the computer medium itself.
When Ken dies it is announced first with a long stare off-camera that we never get to a reverse shot of. This is classic horror movie opening of the frame, the way that Sayad has shown. But Unfriended adds another fold to this opening of the frame by bringing in the glitchy medium of the computer. The Skype connection fails just as Ken is attacked by the ghost. We don’t know if the lost connection is at Ken’s end or Blaire’s, but we can see that Blaire has a wifi connection, even though Skype claims she doesn’t. I’ll admit that you only notice the connection icon in the Mac menubar after multiple viewings but this simply speaks precisely to Manovich’s idea about spatial montage and how we become our own editors and even cinematographers.
The glitchy medium becomes another way of opening up the frame, this time the opening is temporal as much as it is spatial. We have to wait for the connection to work again before we see what has happened. The delay/reveal strategy of horror comes to the foreground here, and as we wait for the Skype connection, we can imagine all sorts of horrible things happening to Ken. But the open frame remains spatial as much as temporal, because we all probably feel that we should be able to see what happens behind the non-connected Skype window. Something is happening, we just can’t see what. But it’s happening there, behind the window, on the other side, right now.
Here, with the glitchy medium and the opening of the frame into that medium itself, we get the weird framing. Suddenly, there is a sense of the between of media, no longer is the medium transparent or simply a conduit, but we become aware of the medium as medium. Clearly, this tension has been present the entire time in the film, due to the constrained nature of the frame, the static, continuous shot that toggles through layers of application windows. But it is here, at Ken’s death, that we truly experience this tension fully for the first time. This sensation is the sensation of the weird, weird as affect.
Weird Form, Weird Affect
The weird emerges as media expose their openness to the outside, revealing that they are not closed systems. As Thacker has pointed out, “In contemporary horror film, video tapes, digital cameras, mobile phones, and webcams are used in such ways that they provide a link to what American author H. P. Lovecraft once referred to as ‘cosmic outsideness’” (Thacker 91). In Unfriended we are presented with a mediatic horror: horror at the very act of mediation and the presence of media technologies. These films provide a glimpse of what we might call the mediatic outsideness.
This glimpse is weird and strange, precisely because there is no way to reconcile the sudden, strange agency of the media technology — in this case the computer. There is an elision between the ontological status of the computer and the ontological status of the ghost: computer and ghost fold into each other. We are dealing with more than Heidegger’s broken hammer here. The weirding of Unfriended comes from more than simply the functional breakdown of an object. Instead, the weirding comes from the form that this weirding takes. We are faced with a weird, mediatic awe, a particular affect of the strange liveliness of the computer, but that weird, mediatic awe manifests through the film’s weird form.
Such a scenario runs parallel to what Timothy Morton calls “weirding” in his recent book Dark Ecology. Weirding is turning, looping, twisting, as well as the in-between of different ontological orders (32). Thacker argues that “media are “weird” when they negatively mediate between two ontological orders, whereby the object recedes into a thing.” (Thacker 134) This thing, the medium as thing, something beyond our control terrifies us because they emerge as agents in the production of horror.
Sayad argues in her article “Cameras and Ghosts” that “the very act of revealing ghosts or demons previously unseen attributes to the apparatus the power to transform reality.” (n.p.) But Unfriended does not reveal the ghost but rather becomes the ghost. There is a collapse of the distinction between film, computer desktop, and our experience. Reality is still transformed, the weird affect still radiates outward, but no longer is the ghost revealed except as the agency of the medium itself.
That is the true weirdness of Unfriended and the short cycle of desktop movies (short so far, at least). Media technologies are given agency and shown to be part of the way we live. Media technologies are of course portals, thresholds, and doors, passages to the between. But they are also entities in their own right, what Matthew Fuller calls “massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter” with an “interplay of constraints and freedoms, affordances of imaginal and sensory domains” (Fuller 2, 116). Media technologies are shown to be vast, ecological assemblages, what McKenzie Wark calls “the swarm of the distributed network.” (Wark 153) Weird cinema allows us, briefly, to encounter the nonhuman world of this network swarm.