Zoom Horror Films: Ill-Timed or Helping Us Process Covid-19?
As seen in hit shows like Grey's Anatomy, black-ish, and This Is Us, the entertainment industry has attempted to incorporate dialogue and storylines centered around Covid-19 into its emerging media. Since 2020, the format of Zoom, social media sites, and the internet have gained immense popularity, allowing filmmakers and actors to produce and release content despite Covid-19 safety regulations and quarantine protocols. Yet the topic continues to generate a mixed response from audiences: for some viewers, witnessing your current struggles and anxieties on screen can feel suffocating, as there is no outlet for distraction. For others, engaging in discussions about the pandemic within the context of a favorite show or movie can serve as a form of remedy, in both an entertaining and informative way. That being said, this compelling trend of desktop cinema has taken advantage of online platforms as a medium for storytelling, while also resonating with contemporary audiences.
Remember Unfriended? The 2014 horror film thrilled audiences by depicting gruesome themes of teenage friendship and cyberbullying entirely through the screen of a computer. The supernatural story told through Facebook posts, multiple computer tabs, and a Skype call was one of the first mainstream horror films to be a part of this decade's desktop horror film craze. Desktop cinema, also known as computer screen films, is a style of films set entirely on a computer screen, allowing viewers to experience the story solely through a virtual setting.
In recent years, there has been an increase of computer screen films within the horror genre, as well as several other different genres. For instance, the Shudder original horror film Host, released in October of 2020, brought in almost $444K for its 57-minute story, which follows six friends who hold a virtual séance over Zoom. The film, directed by Rob Savage, shattered audience expectations and received an overwhelming amount of positive reviews for embracing its filming limitations during the pandemic.
A clip from the 2020 film Host
Ultimately the question: are recently made films or television shows reflecting on Covid-19 ill-timed, or are they a way of processing the hardships of the pandemic? Debated throughout countless news headlines and social media posts, film goers are continually divided on the role of Covid-19 in contemporary media. In an article published in The Guardian, the term "Corona-sploitation" was used to discuss the release of new films about Covid-19 (Bramesco). Likewise, a Variety article commented on the feeling of “emotional exhaustion” felt by viewers while consuming pandemic related media (Keslassy). But there are also individuals in support of watching films and television shows about Covid. On the YouTube page for the official trailer of Host, users praised and recommended the film to others in the comment section. Alongside an overwhelming amount of positive feedback, viewers described the relatability of the film as it portrayed the horrors of being on a Zoom call during the pandemic.
In an NPR article titled “New 'Quar-Horror' Films Show Staying At Home Is Scary Too,” Neda Ulaby states, “[Host] effectively exploits what's inherently creepy about Zoom: garbled audio, inexplicable dropouts, those weird fake backgrounds used to disguise where people actually are, and special effect filters that add horns or animal noses to human faces.” Host highlights the humorous aspects and struggles users have had while using Zoom for personal and work related meetings over the past few years. But the film also reveals the horrors and anxieties around integrating new unknown forms of technologies into our life, a topic heavily present in other horror films like The Ring, or, most recently, Megan. Host commentates on some of the worries Zoom users have had over “zoom-bombing” while also subtly representing the struggle of using new technologies throughout daily life.
That being said, though the film Host proved to be a remarkable success earning over $440,000 despite its modest budget, some may perceive the film's success as merely capitalizing off of a traumatic event. At a time when many working-class individuals in the United States were, and still are, facing significant financial hardships due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the film’s profiting raises questions about the ethics and timing of its success.
A clip from the 2020 film Unsubscribe
But Host is not the only film to jump on the horror Zoom bandwagon. Earlier in June of 2020, film producer Christian Nilsson and YouTuber Eric Tabach released their short film Unsubscribe. The short film follows a group of YouTubers joining a Zoom call for a friend’s birthday. The joyous occasion quickly takes a terrifying turn as the group becomes haunted and hunted by a mysterious internet troll named “Whitey.” With a zero-dollar budget, the film went on to be the number one box office movie in the United States using Four wall distribution, “a process through which a studio or distributor rents movie theaters for a period of time and receives all of the box office revenue” (Wikipedia). While this film did not receive any outside profit from individuals attending screenings at a cinema, it still asks the question: are Zoom horror films being released during the pandemic exploiting our national health crisis or helping us overcome it?
While many of the Covid-19 safety protocols and regulations have been lifted since 2020, the pandemic has left lasting effects on the film industry, including the way content is being produced and consumed. Whether exploitative, ill-timed, or an entertaining way to process our new normal in a post-pandemic world, these new Zoom horror films allow for viewers to confront and cope with death and societal anxieties, both on and off the screen. Something the horror genre has done for decades.
Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com/?ref_=bo_nb_gr_mojologo
Bramesco, Charles. “Corona-Sploitation: Is It Too Soon for Hollywood to Make Covid-19 Movies?” The Guardian, 26 May 2020, www.theguardian.com/film/2020/may/26/coronavirus-movies-hollywood-exploitation.
“Four Wall Distribution.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_wall_distribution.
“Host - Official Trailer [HD]: A Shudder Original.” YouTube, 30 July 2020, youtu.be/SNlKbqHqGcY.
Keslassy, Elsa. “Covid on Screen: Are Movies and TV Avoiding the Pandemic?” Variety, 12 Feb. 2022, variety.com/2022/film/global/covid-on-screen-film-tv-1235174467/.
Tabach, Eric, director. I Made The #1 Box Office Movie In America. YouTube, 14 June 2020, youtu.be/vvAi7JvRmkI.
Ulaby, Neda. “New 'Quar-Horror' Films Show Staying At Home Is Scary Too.” NPR, NPR, 3 Aug. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/08/03/897314108/new-quar-horror-films-show-staying-at-home-is-scary-too