Isolation and Subjugation: The Telephone in the Slasher Film
“The telephone is so much a part of our lives that use of it is habitual rather than conscious.” (1) Since its invention by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 19th century, the telephone has affected our social and economic life in ways we have come to take for granted. The telephone is the pillar on which our telecommunications revolution is founded.
|The use of the telephone for subjugation. Annie is strangled with the telephone cord in Halloween|
Despite all the talk about the information superhighway and the advent of multimedia, what happens to the telephone itself will have more influence on people's lives through at least the first decade of the next century. Not only is the telephone roughly three times more common, even in the developed countries, than the personal computer, it can already be used to check a bank account, take part in a radio show, sell insurance, lobby a politician, chat up a pornqueen, check messages, or call a friend (2).
This extent of the telephone's influence is not surprising when we consider that “the biggest machine ever built is not an array of supercomputers in the Pentagon, nor a nuclear energy facility or a particle accelerator” (3) but the telephone network, which is a “thousand times larger than any of these. It has been growing for more than 100 years...At this moment more than a million engineers and technicians are working around the clock to extend and maintain it.” (4)
Though the telephone “may reduce loneliness and uneasiness, its likely contribution to the malaise of urban depersonalisation should not be underestimated.” (5) Today the telephone means that there is less need for people to visit one another: why make the effort to leave the house when one can order food, pay bills and ring an escort on the phone? We have come to rely on the telephone to keep in touch with friends and relatives, and so we no longer need to live in the same street or suburb in order to keep in contact. The telephone has become our link to the outside world.
But what if this link were somehow to break down?
Isolation, the Telephone and the Slasher Film
The telephone's influence is so pervasive that only when things go wrong with the technology – for example, a thunderstorm renders it inoperative – do our problem of isolation becomes apparent. Suddenly we cannot call the police or the ambulance for help, and friends who might otherwise provide companionship and advice become unreachable. Isolated, we find ourselves at our most vulnerable – and if it's the killer who has cut the line, then we also feel a sense of threat.
This is the case in Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980). Set in a secluded summer camp, teenage campers are murdered one by one by an unseen figure. Towards the end of the film the two survivors, discovering that something is not right at the camp (all their friends seem to have disappeared!) rush to an office to call the police only to find the killer has cut the phone line. This is a common chain of events in the slasher film: the victim, stalked by the killer, reaches a phone only to discover that the lines have been cut. Like the car that won't start, it is a cliche. Films such as My Bloody Valentine (George Mihalka, 1981) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles E. Sellier Jr, 1984), just to name a few, feature a similar use of the telephone (6). The moment when the telephone breaks down is usually one that seals the fate of the character or at least sees them at their most helpless. This reflects our strong connection to the telephone, our reliance on it as a means to alleviate our sense of isolation.
But this use of the telephone is only one part of the story or one edge of the sword, the other edge being the notion that even when the telephone is still operative one remains vulnerable; in fact it is the telephone that makes us vulnerable. This is because the telephone becomes a weapon for subjugation; it is not merely an instrument for isolation but, along with the knife, a weapon for the killer. The difference here is subtle but distinct: in the telephone as isolation you have the killer cutting the lines, while with subjugation you have the killer using the telephone as a means to violate the victim.
Although notions of the telephone as a weapon or an instrument may be present in the one film, it seems that the modern horror films represent the telephone as a weapon for subjugation rather than an instrument for isolation. The reason, as we shall see, has much to do with the advancement of telecommunications technology; after all with technologies such as the mobile phone it becomes pointless to have killers cut telephone lines. Using such concepts as “disappearing bodies”, “surveillance” and “privacy”, this article aims to map how the notion of the telephone as a weapon for subjugation emerged in the slasher film.
The Masked Killer and the Disappearing Body
Technologies such as the telephone have contributed to what David Lyons calls “disappearing bodies”. We no longer need to make personal contact with those we deal with; we no longer need to be in the same place as the people we interact with, or even to know them personally. It is important to note that although disappearing bodies result from communications technologies such as the telephone, the telephone is not the only player in the fragmentation of our social environment:
Modes of integration began to alter radically in modern times, as transport and communication allowed people to be more mobile, and social institutions helped to mediate their relationships. So the signature, for instance, became more important as a guarantee of legitimate identity and was accepted by organizations such as banks. These organizations extended the range of human actions, as did artefacts such as the telephone, so that more and more could be done at a distance without the co-presence of bodies in relation. A token of trust, such as a personal identification number, became a proxy for the kind of trust that arises from an ongoing relationship of co-present persons (7).
Whether the use of the telephone has facilitated this fragmentation or whether it is the fragmentation that has made the telephone pervasive is a “chicken or the egg” argument that is beyond this essay. What is important for our purposes is the connection between the masked killer in the slasher film and the notion of the disappearing body. The modern slasher movie not only thrives on a breakdown of privacy, but in the slasher text the masked killer is the disappearing body, who is also a representation of the “other”.
Though the “concept of Otherness can be theorised in many ways and on many levels” (8), for this essay it stands for something that is external to the self. The other could be your neighbour, it could be someone at work, it might even be your best friend or a relative. The slasher film has no strict formula to who the other, this disappearing body, might be (except, perhaps, that most often they are crazy). This is intentional: by multiplying the possibilities, slasher films play on our sense of paranoia. But whoever this other may be, they gain the power to threaten us physically only by first invading our sense of privacy.
What sort of privacy are we talking about here? Why is privacy important? In Privacy and Its Invasions, Deckle McLean distinguished four types of privacy:
One is privacy as access of control; controlling one's personal boundaries and the release of one's secrets: not having one's mask stripped away. Another is privacy as room to grow: cultivating interior processes for understanding, enrichment and integration of character and personality; and sharing the same with trusted others. A third is privacy as a safety valve: resting and recuperation from the public arena. A fourth is privacy as respect for the individual: insisting that one is more than a cipher and respecting others for being more than ciphers (9).
Privacy becomes crucial in a society where technologies such as the telephone have carried people “forward to the point where their continued success and survival requires that they meet interior, almost spiritual, challenges, for which privacy is a facilitator and symbol.” (10) Privacy allows a sense of self-control and the containment of deep insecurities and fears (11). Whatever physical threat the other imposes, it must also include the violation of one or more of these notions of privacy.
Using these notions of privacy a distinction can then be made between the telephone as an instrument for isolation and the telephone as a weapon for subjugation. When the telephone lines are cut it is the privacy that relates to access of control which is threatened, because means of help (the police for example) are placed out of reach. Here the victim is usually outside of their natural environment, with the telephone becoming the only link to society, to a means of some sense of control. This is the world of Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, where the telephone is merely an instrument rendered inoperative. With the telephone as a weapon, it is the presence of the telephone that threatens privacy. Privacy is the safety valve, allowing one to escape the world and meet those interior spiritual challenges; the telephone becomes the means by which the other makes an act of intrusion into private settings such as the home.
To illustrate this use of the telephone as a weapon of subjugation, I will discuss three milestones in the history of the slasher film: Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1985) and Scream (Wes Craven, 1996). Together, I argue, these films make up a historical text illustrating the emergence of the telephone as a weapon.
The '70s and Halloween: Analog Fear
Halloween was released to an American public growing conscious of a new, pervasive form of surveillance invading their private lives. This new form of surveillance was not “an oppressive 'Big Brother', [but]...a myriad of well-wishing 'little sisters', relating to each one of us on a personal basis because they know who we are.” (12) This is a shift away from the “Surveillance State, to the surveillance society” (13). Incidents such as the “phone phreakin” craze of the late '60s and early '70s, where a handful of people took control of the telephone lines in America with the help of small devices called “blue boxes” (14) fuelled a growing public unease with telephones and surveillance.
Halloween takes advantage of this growing unease: First, it sets up the killer Michael Myers (Tony Moran) as the faceless other, the disappearing body. Second, it associates this other with the telephone by juxtaposing the telephone with the killer. Third, it establishes the telephone as a weapon of subjugation in the hands of the other.
The story of Halloween is simple: Myers, who as a child murdered his sister, returns to his hometown of Haddonfield on the night of Halloween after having been locked up in a mental asylum for 15 years, and begins a killing spree. Throughout the film we know very little about the masked Myers. There is no motive for his murders and even Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), his psychiatrist, admits that any trace of humanity was absent in the young Myers the moment he was brought to his care. Myers remains an enigma, the faceless other. Even when his face is uncovered at the end, during a struggle with the heroine Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), it is still partially hidden in shadow and mutilated. The effect is not to give a face to the faceless, but to further horrify us and alienate us from the grotesque figure.
At the same time Halloween continually reminds us of the importance of the telephone in a modern society. The three female characters, Laurie, Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles) keep in touch with regular phone calls, even when, towards the end, they are babysitting across the street from one another. So all through the film a growing connection between the telephone and the killer underpins the tension and fear. Three scenes in particular establish this connection.
The first occurs early into the film: Laurie walks into her bedroom and moves to shut the window when she sees the masked Myers looking up at her from outside. Laurie slams the window shut and recoils in terror as the camera pans to the telephone. The haunting music fades as the phone rings ominously. Hesitantly, she picks up the receiver, but there seems to be no one at the other end of the line. She hangs up apprehensively only for the phone to ring again moments later. This time Annie answers; it's all a joke, much to Laurie's relief. “I thought it was an obscene phone call,” Laurie says. These are the first hints of a connection between Myers and the telephone and (especially with the bedroom setting) of the telephone's potential use for the invasion of privacy.
But this is only a teaser; the connection is soon to become more overt when we find ourselves in the kitchen, watching Annie while she is talking with her boyfriend Paul over the phone.
|Annie trapped between the telephone and the Other|
As she moves from one end of the screen to the other, with the receiver pressed tight against her shoulders, we see Myers peering in at her through the open patio doors at her back. Here the telephone is again juxtaposed with the other, but this time both appear within the same screen space rather than being separated by cuts as in the previous scene. More to the point, the patio door is open, the threat more immediate. Our worst fears are confirmed when Annie is murdered moments later.
Annie calls Laurie as Myers approaches from behind wrapped in a bed sheet. Here too the victim is trapped between the telephone and the disappearing Other
The promoters must have sensed the power of this scene, because a shot from it became a publicity still promoting the film.
With the murder of the second girl, Lynda, the connection between the telephone and the other becomes complete. As if a mask is not enough Myers is covered in a bed-sheet, impersonating a ghost, a disappearing body that appears to Lynda at the doorway of her bedroom. He strangles her with the telephone cord, while she screams into the receiver for help as Laurie listens from the other end oblivious to her friend's danger.
A connection is made.
Here we get the telephone and the killer withinhe same room; the other is no longer just watching, he is an intruder into that most private of spaces, the bedroom. The telephone is now a physical weapon; Myers doesn't cut the line, he uses it to subjugate. He then takes hold of the receiver and places it to his ear, setting the scene for his climactic confrontation with Laurie.
As Myers chases Laurie through the house to the bedroom, he is shot by Dr Loomis and falls from the verandah to the lawn, where he vanishes. We are left with the feeling that he is out there, somewhere, anywhere, with a series of shots of the shadowy interior of the house, followed by a series of exterior shots; all locations where the other could be. Muffled heavy breathing is heard throughout the sequence, like the breath of someone at the other end of the line. Thus at the climax Myers becomes a complete representation of the disappearing body.
The significance of Halloween for this discussion is that it associated the telephone with an invisible, dangerous other and with subjugation. That's not to say that Halloween does not portray the telephone as a tool for isolation: at the climax Laurie is rendered helpless and isolated when the telephone line is cut by Myers. However, it is the theme of subjugation that would be developed further in the slasher films that were to follow.
The '80s and A Nightmare on Elm Street: From Analog to Digital
The '80s were a time when digital technology was changing the face of communication. As Trevor Barr comments:
Telecommunications networks traditionally used analogue technologies in the supply of their core product, plain old telephone services, but they have progressively converted to digital technologies. Digitalisation is the process which converts any type of information into a compressed form to be sent as a stream of bits for use at the receiving end…In the past two decades or so, almost every telecommunications system in the world has been expanded and modernised to some extent through digitalisation. Digitalisation has facilitated the rapid traffic increase of multiple modes of communication (15).
With digitisation the telephone became an adjunct to other information services (ultimately including the Internet). Whereas in the past one could at least hear a voice through the receiver, with the Internet, the other's disembodiment became complete. With the proliferation of such integrated technology, privacy seemed in greater jeopardy; suddenly these technologies were opening up a Pandora's box of problems for privacy advocates. From a more recent period, one example Trevor Barr gives involves paedophiles:
Bulletin boards on the Net have fostered networking between paedophiles, enabling them to become more anonymous, less risky and possibly more active. A National Crimes Authority report (1995) said that paedophiles had turned to the Net because the exchange of pornography and names of victims via on-line services was relatively anonymous: exchange was easily achieved, material could be received immediately, and there was unlimited potential to reproduce and distribute it. Paedophiles can be put in touch with young children via fee for service computer mail boxes, clouding the real identity of the source and making detection difficult. There are many reports that those with deviant intentions have been quick to recognise the potential of the Net by offering competition prizes and gifts to gain information about children and their families (16).
In A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) Freddy Krueger is a child murderer who was burned by a neighbourhood of residents for his crimes. He comes back to kill their children in their dreams, as revenge. The story is similar to Halloween in that the victims are stalked by the other, though this time in their dreams; like Halloween, the film also has a young female protagonist, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). Although Krueger does not wear a mask, his face is so horribly burned and scarred that he is beyond recognition. As with Myers we know very little about Krueger's history, except hints of his past crimes.
But while in Halloween Myers begins as a figure of flesh and blood, becoming a disappearing body by the end of the film, there is no such transformation in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Krueger begins as a supernatural figure, disembodied, one whose powers lie in dreams; he is a being shaped from the stuff of dreams and he is able to change his body and the dreams of the victims to lure and kill. Thus it is not merely that we can never really know who is at the other end of the line but that with the advent of digitisation, the other can deceive us. There is a sense of manipulation, game playing, in the way Krueger stalks his victims that is absent from Halloween; a strong emphasis on illusion, where dream and reality become indistinguishable. As Nancy's teacher says: “What is seen is not always what is real.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street recognises a shift from analog to the digital. In A Nightmare on Elm Street the dreams represent the digital realm, which can be manipulated and used against us. Furthermore, if we take the act of dreaming as the most private moments in our lives, a representation of who we are that reaches deep into our subconscious, with the advent of digitisation what is at stake is not just the private space around us, but the private spaces we hold in our thoughts, our identities. If we are just numbers in a networked society, then digitisation makes it possible for the other to change those numbers, leaving our identities open for subjugation. Credit ratings could be changed, criminal records introduced, without our knowledge, so that, in the eyes of the society at least, the individual becomes someone else altogether different, with terrible consequences. Just ten minutes into A Nightmare on Elm Street we are introduced to the power of the telephone in this context.
|Glen fools his mother into thinking he is at the airport|
Nancy's boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) fools his mother into thinking that he is at the airport seeing a friend rather than at his girlfriend's house. He does this by playing a tape of an aeroplane landing while talking to his mother over the phone. She thinks he is at the airport, we know he isn't. It's a simple scene, but it sets up the notion that the telephone opens up to a world of illusion and uncertainty, where a virtual, digital space becomes intertwined with identity and is easily manipulated; a realm similar to the dream-world that Freddy Krueger dominates.
In this context, one of the most telling moments in A Nightmare on Elm Street occurs towards the climax of the film, when Krueger uses the telephone to initiate contact with the heroine Nancy.
|The receiver becomes Freddy's tongue as Nancy enters Freddy's world of dreams|
When Nancy answers the ring of the phone in her bedroom, he screeching of Krueger's knives is the first sign that things are not what they seem. Terrified, she rips the line off the wall, but this doesn't stop Krueger. The phone lies on the bed, cord ripped, when it rings again. And here notions of reality break down as Nancy (and the audience) are thrust into Krueger's world. When Nancy answers, the receiver transforms in her hands into Freddy's mouth and tongue. It's a moment that marks the beginning of her nightmare; the telephone becomes the point of contact between Nancy's and Krueger's worlds, a sign that Krueger's influence has now taken over. Freddy doesn't cut the line (it is Nancy who, because of Krueger's influence, pulls out the cord), he transforms it, using it against Nancy. Again the phone is used for subjugation.
Although this scene, like the climax of Halloween, begins in a bedroom, once the telephone rings we enter Krueger's dream world. The shift to digital means that settings such as the bedroom or the house no longer represent the private, they become part of the dream, part of the digital and thus open to abuse. As Lyons warns,
one consequence of disembodied relationships is that modern notions of “public” and “private” are challenged. The boundaries between them are blurred when all manner of once “private” life details circulate within very “public” computer systems. Part of the problem is the shift from physical to electronic space (17).
In A Nightmare on Elm Street “the private act of dreaming become[s] an exposed and very public matter” (18) and this becomes a metaphor for the way digital technologies like the telephone, in a society were communication technologies prevail, leave our identities and our most personal secrets open for abuse by the other.
The '90s and Scream: The Postmodern Telephone
By the release of Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), with the advent of digitisation, the traditionally independent IT sector (providers of electronic hardware such as the computer), the media sector (providers of content for television, music, books etc) and the Telecom sector (controlling the telecommunications infrastructure such as the telephone) had converged (19). Computers were now hooked up to the Internet via the telephone, with media conglomerates such as Newscorp and Paramount providing content. Now advertising could reach you anywhere at any time; cameras could be hooked up to the Internet for video-conferencing; clients could shop and do banking online. With such a media-enriched environment, with so many ways to communicate, not only does it become very difficult to tell advertisement from information, but we become complacent, we begin to take technologies such as the telephone for granted. Such a media-enriched environment is the setting for Scream.
This time it is in the small town of Woodsboro that a masked killer is stalking victims (mostly teenagers) in their home, most often after initiating contact over the telephone. Again, the film's protagonist is a female teenager, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). However, what sets Sidney and most of the characters in Scream apart from previous slasher film characters is that, in a world of integrated communication, they are very media-savvy. We see this the first time Sidney is attacked by the masked killer, in her house, after he has made contact via telephone. The hands-free phone drops from her hand and, when she runs to her bedroom, she finds that she is unable to use the phone in her room to call for help, for the line is engaged. So she uses the Internet (which is presumably connected via cable) to call for help.
This familiarity with media technology is crucial in a film where the twist on the slasher formula is that the characters are teens that watch horror movies. They are familiar with the slasher film rules: “don't answer the door, don't leave the house, don't answer the phone” (20).Yet, somehow, they still end up falling victim to the conventions because the violence of the horror movies they watch is so prevalent and dramatised that they have grown desensitised to it. When violence strikes in the opening sequence and a friend is murdered, the characters treat the incident like a movie. “We're not just talking killed, we're talking splatter-movie killed”, Tatum (Rose McGowan) tells Sidney casually as they make their way to school. The students joke and laugh about the whole affair, running around the hallways with masks on for the thrill.
The characters' only point of reference to murder is provided by the media that surrounds them. They are so caught up in these illusions that when the killer strikes they fail to pick up the signs of danger until it is too late. This is the world of Baudrillard's simulacra, where the media become “weightless”:
it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference (21).
The telephone, here inseparable from other media technologies such as television, the VCR and videocameras, plays its part in the simulacrum because it creates a false, yet normative, sense of control and safety, of privacy and community through distance, available at our fingertips. This is what Niall Lucy has termed the “postmodern” phone, which he proposes:
will become as “invisible” as the telephone has been for at least the past 30 years. For again, as Gumpert points out, the telephone has always had the potential to disturb our sense of the real: “there is nothing intrinsic in the medium of the telephone that indicates location” (22).
The opening scene of Scream sets up these notions of a postmodern phone and the illusion of connectivity upon which the film is based.
|Casey answers the phone in the lounge room|
After the main titles, the opening shot is a close up of a phone ringing. Casey (Drew Barrymore) is in the lounge room and, as she picks up the receiver, we see a hint of the television in the background. The television is like an eye through the whole sequence watching as she answers the phone – in Scream the media is always there watching, just as much as we watch it. She hangs up when the caller fails to identify himself. He calls again, wanting to chat, but she politely tells him there are other places to call for that and hangs up. There is an important cut here to the exterior of the house, showing Casey's house to be in a rather isolated part of town and suggesting that the telephone is her only link to the community.
A few moments later he calls again. This time Casey is in the kitchen, cooking popcorn. It is a different phone, a hands-free phone, and we already start to get a feel of the media-rich setting, with the presence of the television and a telephone in each room.
|The phone is juxtaposed with the knife|
Again the caller seems friendly enough; all he wants is a chat. She tells him that she is about to watch a horror movie, her favourite horror movie: Halloween. “You know, the one with the guy in the white mask who walks around and stalks babysitters”, she says casually as she plays with the kitchen knife in her other hand.
Clearly Casey is media-savvy and knows the rules. We see this because, unlike in Halloween, the telephone is juxtaposed with the knife rather than with the other and both are in her possession. Her playing so casually with them suggests that for the moment she feels a sense of control, she feels safe. Behind her persists the blue screen of the television. As much as she may know the rules of the slasher film she has already broken a rule of the genre: don't talk to strangers on the phone.
The danger becomes clear, however, when the other lets out that he is watching her from the patio window. “Listen, I am two seconds away from calling the police,” says Casey, to which he replies: “They'd never make it in time. We're out in the middle of nowhere.” And suddenly the illusion of safety and control that the telephone provided is shattered. Here, unlike in past slasher films, there is an understanding that, as much as the telephone connects us to the community, a spatial and geographic isolation remains that even the telephone cannot displace: the “illusory” nature of any connections we make via the telephone gives us a sense of safety that is also, in fact, illusory.
From this point on the nature of the game changes and the mise en scène becomes more frantic, the camera stalking Casey as she rushes about the house locking the doors and windows while begging to be left alone. Her playfulness gone, she is now a victim desperately clutching the phone and the knife, both now useless in her hands. Two scenes in particular aim at emphasising her sense of helplessness, even with technology in her grasp. The first finds Casey trapped between the television set and the telephone as she helplessly plays the killer's game of horror quiz. In the second, Casey cowers outside the house with nowhere to go, the knife and the telephone both pressed to her chest as she weeps helplessly. Casey dies holding the receiver just as her parents arrive home and find themselves listening to her dying moans through the telephone line. Only then is the line disconnected: the killer's last laugh.
Scream understands that the telephone, in a world of convergent telecommunications, has become another form of media through which we are flooded with information. With the telephone we become complacent because the invisible and illusory nature of the connectivity it provides is taken for granted. This only becomes apparent when the other takes control, by which time it is too late. It is this complacency that leaves us vulnerable. In Scream the telephone becomes the mask behind which the masked killer hides.
Turning a Watchful Eye
We have seen that the telephone functions in the slasher film as a means of both isolation and subjugation, and that with the development of new information technologies the modern slasher film has tended to focus more on the latter. But the story does not end with Scream or the slasher film genre. The use of the telephone to subjugate can be seen in other horror films – recent examples include The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington, 2002) and both the Japanese and US versions of The Ring – as well as in thrillers such as Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher, 2003). Indeed, many earlier films such as Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) and The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) are concerned with the use of the telephone as a weapon for subjugation in one way or another. This essay could only touch the surface, but I have tried to demonstrate that a study of the way such technologies are represented in films can open up new ways of understanding our relationship with those technologies. Now is the right time for us to keep a watchful eye on often-disregarded but all-pervasive technologies such as the telephone.
© Charles Spiteri, May 2004
The author would like to thank Steve McCredie, Edward Turk, Dr Darren Tofts and Dr Arran E. Gare for their assistance, as well as Peter Ciszewski, John Ward, my parents and brother for all their encouragement and support.
This article was refereed.