There is a running joke that most episodes of Seinfeld would be solved merely by use of a cell phone. Likewise, smartphones throw a wrench into how most people believe a horror plot. The gradual evolution of technology’s integration into horror plots is interesting, as you couldn’t get films with a scary voicemail being left on the answering machine until they were invented in the 1960s.
The call is coming from inside the house
Scream really did get how to make technology scary. Caller ID hadn’t been a thing for that long, and a major plot point and notorious scare from the 90s suspense film was when the killer calls his victims. Or the ever-famous: the call is “coming from inside the house.”
Evolving the concept of phones in horror films
“Oh god, I’m trapped in this spooky house and my boyfriend is possessed by a demon! Better call 911. Oh, they knocked down the cell tower. No biggie, I’ll just connect to WiFi. Oh no! My possessed boyfriend unplugged the router!” It doesn’t really have the effect horror aficionados are looking for.
You can’t kill phones as easily as horror movies make it seem
Movies have made many clever attempts to get rid of cell phones from their movies, as this Mental Floss piece points out. Films have used every excuse from a missing phone charger to the killers forcing everyone to put their phones in a bag.
Besides just the many alternatives to simple cellular network calls and landline calls, even if all internet is gone, all cell towers gone, and all satellites crashed and burned from some horrific apocalyptic calamity… our smartphones are still a means to communicate.
Hey me? It’s you, we’re gonna die!
One Missed Call (2003) is a Japanese film with a 2008 remake that got lackluster reviews. “The plot revolves around Yumi Nakamura, a young psychology student whose friend Yoko gets a strange voice message on her phone. The message is dated two days in the future and Yoko can hear herself screaming in it. After Yoko mysteriously dies, her death sets off a chain of events which leads Yumi to discover that this phenomenon has been occurring throughout Japan long before Yoko received an alarming call from her future self.”
John Dies at the End was another film with a highly graphic (although much more absurd) take on calls from your future self-prophesying your doom!
More psychological thriller than horror, one interesting movie that’s whole premise was a scary phone call—the 2002 film Phone Booth has Colin Farrell picks up a call from a pay phone box, assuming it’s a stranger calling. He quickly realises the stranger knows about Farrell’s character’s indiscretions and has a sniper rifle pointed at his head from a building far away. Maybe not spooky, but definitely scary! Or as our millennial readers may wonder—what’s a phone box?
A mysterious scary voice on the other end of the phone can sometimes come off as cheesy, but done right, can evoke a very specific sort of fear that is both primal and modern.