The world is about five billion years old. In the year 2000, Hollywood wasn’t even a century old! The first website launched in August 6, 1991. So cinema is a new art form, but movies about the internet are a radically new cultural artifact.
Although internet horror movies feel new, the underlying narrative structure taps into timeless concerns about humanity’s uneasy relationship with technology. Are technical tools good for us? Or is the employment of technology akin to playing with a dark magic wrought with unintended consequences?
Before the birth of Christ and the start of the common era, Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo was setting off the alarm bells about the new technology of a visual alphabet and the written word. Socrates thought literacy would corrupt the education system and was bastardization of the art of oral speech. This critique is similar to the arguments against early web giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok — except the concern is with the bastardization of the written word, not oral speech.
Anti-technological fervor or Luddism only gained real transaction though during the Age of Enlightenment and the ensuing Scientific Revolution. Published in 1818, Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein is the paradigm example of the anti-technological sentiment emerging at this time because the book is underpinned with a critique of the hubris of science and rationalism.
That said, social media and internet horror cinema often only hint at philosophical problems about technology and instead their plots focus on more concrete problems the networked world of cell phones, computers, trackers and cameras and so forth create in society. Below are some of the most common tropes found in these films.
- Surveillance and the loss of privacy
- Sexual abuse
- Dangers of instant gratification
- Preoccupation with other people’s lives and status
- Ghost in the machine: technology as host cell for the supernatural/paranormal
- Lure of criminal behavior enabled by digital networks and the anonymity of the dark web
- Loss of identity driven by information overload and/or obsession with fame
Social media and internet horror movies started appearing in the mid 90s and this list explores the whole cannon of the subgenre.
If you remember the TV series To Catch a Predator, it involved a scheme whereby unwitting pedophiles chatted up what they thought were underage girls online and came to meet them, only to be confronted by a male adult who was taping them for national television. Hard Candy is like that, except it’s an actual 14-year-old girl doing the fishing. Hayley (Elliot Page) is a charming and intelligent young girl who lures 32-year-old Jeff (Patrick Wilson) by chatting with him online for three weeks until they agree to meet at a coffee shop. Jeff takes her home, drinks a spiked beverage Hayley has prepared, and wakes up tied to a wheelchair. Hayley tells him that she’s going to castrate him on camera as punishment for his sickness—she’s been testing him through multiple online personas, and Jeff only responded to girls who were under 18. From there, the plot only gets more twisted and terrifying.
Emma (Ashley Benson) is a young and beautiful graduate student who has recently moved from the Midwest to New York City to clear her mind after breaking up with her boyfriend. But she will find no peace in the big city, either—an anonymous stalker hacks into all her digital devices and keeps her under constant surveillance. What’s even more torturous is that she can’t be sure whether or not the new man she’s met at school who promises to protect her from the stalker is actually the stalker himself.
McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrandl) are a pair of popular high-school girls in the Midwest who are obsessed with two things: serial killing and online fame. After becoming aware that there’s a serial killer loose in their small town, they kidnap him and force him to teach them about how to become serial killers. They also work out a plot where they figure out how to blame him for their crimes, write a blog about it, and become famous without ever doing a day in jail. Tragedy Girls is a comedy, but it’s also a cautionary tale about the lengths people will go to achieve social media notoriety.
A hybrid of a home-invasion movie and a social media film, Keep Watching by director Sean Carter and writer Joseph Dembner focuses on a family who go on a ten-day vacation, at which point a team of stalkers enters their house and wires every inch of it for sound and video surveillance. When the family returns, the intruders are still there and put them through a series of mind games which end in (tap to reveal spoiler) the family’s mass slaughter, which becomes a mass media event which many viewers mistake for a horror movie rather than the real thing.
Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is a disturbed and obsessive social media hanger-on who, after a stay at a mental institution for stalking someone, moves to Los Angeles to ingratiate herself into the life of Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Since Taylor feeds on attention, she lets Ingrid into her life, not realizing she will have her dog kidnapped, her most intimate moments photographed, and her vehicle damaged. A review in Reel Views states, “as much as social media may have enhanced communication, it has created a grotesque and disturbing subculture of people no longer capable of existing entirely in the real world.”
Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is a well-liked college student with countless friends both on Facebook and in real life. Impressed with the animations of a girl named Marina (Liesl Ahlers), Laura accepts the lonely and friendless girl’s friend request. But when Laura tells a little white lie to Marina and doesn’t invite her to her birthday party, Marina confronts her, causing Laura to unfriend her. This leads to Marina’s suicide, the video of which somehow gets posted to Laura’s social media. Things unspool further from there as all of Laura’s friends start dying and their murders mysteriously get posted to Laura’s Facebook page. In the end, alienated from all her friends, Laura realizes that from beyond the grave, Marina has cursed Laura to experience a life as lonely as Marina’s was.
Garrett (Keiynan Lonsdale) is a YouTube star with a big and ever-growing following. Shell (Ema Horvath) is a mentally disturbed fan of Garrett’s who tracks him down and lures him into a one-night stand. Garrett realizes to his dismay how dangerous it is to bridge the chasm between star and fan. Shell sends him endless texts, breaks into his home, and drugs him unconscious. She also attempts to murder him by shooting a flaming arrow into his house, only to accidentally kill a cop instead. When she tracks him down at a secluded cabin, she attempts to kill him but winds up being killed by him instead. Then, when another girl arrives to “rescue” him, Garrett realizes that this girl, too, is another unhinged fan.
Matias (Colin Woodell) is a teen who finds a new laptop and keeps it, hoping to work on a software program that will enable him to communicate with his speech-impaired girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). But over time, Matias discovers that there are snuff films on the laptop as well as a link that shows the previous owner had about $10 million in cryptocurrency. It is eventually revealed that finding the laptop was no accident—it was purposely left for him to find by a crew of murderous cyber-criminals known as “The Circle” who’ve set him up to take the fall for all their crimes.
Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer) is a popular camgirl whose ambition knows no limits. She streams on a site called FreeGirlsLive as “Lola_Lola” and hopes to one day take the #1 spot. But then she wakes up one day to find that there’s another “Lola_Lola” who looks and sounds exactly like her and has stolen her password, profile, and followers. Her new doppelgänger also performs much more explicit acts than Alice ever did, which draws the attention of her friends and mother, leading to public humiliation. Alice soon finds that other camgirls are also finding their replicants, and it all may be orchestrated by a man she thought was her friend—a man who may have supernatural powers.
In a film which is entirely shown through the point-of-view of laptop and phone screens, David Kim (John Cho) is a man who contacts authorities after his 16-year-old daughter goes missing. But more than a day later and with no progress in the investigation, he decides to do a deep dive into his daughter’s laptop. He pores over photographs and videos, and all clues lead to a secluded lake house his daughter had been known to frequent—and her car winds up being dragged from the lake with blood on the dashboard. David receives both condolences for his daughter’s death and accusations that he played a hand in it. But his dogged search of the trail of clues she left on her laptop leads him to find that she isn’t dead after all.
Host is Shudder Original that was produced during 2020 pandemic and the ensuing global lockdown where must governments around the world mandated people stayed at home. It’s a short film with a duration of less than an hour but is a unique contribution to internet horror movie sub-genre because the entirety of the film happens on a Zoom call. The plot involves a medium joining the Zoom call and conduct a séance, which obviously does not invoke a friendly ghost but in fact a dangerous demon.
In this film about the pathological quest for social media attention by director and writer Eugene Kotylarenko, Joe Keery stars as Kurt Kunkle—aka @Kurtsworld96, a rideshare driver with almost no social media following who discovers an easy path to fame—he’ll pick up passengers, give them free beverages that knock them unconscious, and murder them on his stream. The film is shown entirely through the lens of social media and streaming feeds. Through his spree of murders, Kurt teaches his ever-growing legions of followers something he calls “The Lesson,” which is a hollow sermon about nothing more than the empty quest for online clout.
This thriller from Poland by director Jan Komasa and writer Mateusz Pacewisz is about a young man in Warsaw named Tomasz, who has ambitions as a right-wing social media influencer. Tomasz earns his dubious fame by going on smear campaigns against perceived political enemies. As the film proceeds, the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred, and Tomasz suffers a complete mental disintegration as his entire soul becomes consumed in the half-truths and outright lies of digital media.
A hybrid porno/horror/social media film by Gary Orona and Tabitha Stevens, Die Influencers Die tells the story of a social media star named Stue Harrington (Frankie Rivers), who fools a crew of other influencers into joining him for an all-night live-streaming event in at an abandoned film studio in Las Vegas. But lurking within this crumbling movie set are bloodthirsty killers such as a clown model named Moxie (erstwhile porn star Tabitha Stevens) and a creepy man who goes by the name Coyote (heavy metal singer Lizzy Borden). One by one, amid a sea of fake breasts and blood, the unwitting influencers die.
This black comedy is based on the true social media story of Aziah “Zola” King (Taylor Paige), a part-time stripper whose new friend (Riley Keough) convinces her to go on a road trip to Tampa, Florida. When Zola gets there, she is unsatisfied with her pay scale, so she edits their Backpage ad in a way that nets them significantly more money, which winds up with the girls being targeted by hired mob assassins. In Variety, critic Owen Glieberman called Zola “a true story so extravagant it feels like it must have been made up.”
Mia (Daisye Tutor) is Mia, a online makeup influencer with a huge following. As a device, the film starts of showing Mia’s closest friends through their social media profiles. Mia soon finds herself the target of an online campaign of terror where she must diligently follow clues to prevent all of her friends from being murdered. But is that what’s really happening, or is someone merely playing tricks with Mia’s mind? The main point of Shook seems to be that the real life of a popular social media influencer is nowhere near as glamorous as it seems to be.
This horror film by writer/director John Berardo centers around a fraternity house where a group of sexist frat bros are planning a party where rape is possibly on the menu. But even worse is looming—there’s a masked killer in a hoodie who uses a power drill to murder people all over campus. The social media angle is that the characters’ cell-phone messages and social media feeds float around their heads as they go about their daily business, communicating both through spoken dialogue and written text.
In this TV movie from the Lifetime channel, Mack Meyer (Rachele Schank) is the host of a wildly popular true-crime podcast called “How I Met Your Murderer.” In her troubled private life, however, she is enraged with her cheating husband, Henry (Chris Zylka). Her rage turns to fear when she realizes that Henry repeatedly discourages her from researching further into a local murder that happened fifteen years earlier—and when it becomes more and more clear that Henry may have been the killer.
Writer/director Tiller Russell’s film is based on the true story of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), a libertarian webmaster who created the titular site Silk Road, a Dark Web venue where viewers were able to order drugs and other contraband and have them delivered to their homes, or, preferably, to a PO box. It traces Ulbricht’s rise to fame and wealth at the age of 27, only to be brought down by a pair of DEA agents who were proved to have committed crimes in their investigation of Ulbricht. The two-real life agents are fused into once character in the film, Baltimore DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), who has recently been released from a mental hospital due to addiction issues. Silk Road follows the twists and turns of the investigation all the way to the point where Ulbricht was arrested at a public library in San Francisco.
Jo (Julie Cristante) is a popular but vain fitness instructor with a large online following who acquires a stalker (Marty Lindsey). Jo must employ all of her fitness acumen and mental sharpness to save herself as her stalker’s threats become physical. Although not a Lifetime channel production, many reviewers have suggested that it resembles a female-empowerment film more than a standard horror movie. A reviewer on IMDb wrote, “Great performances and excellent production values make this thriller easily worth the watch. Some good edge-of-your-seat moments and the film is a bit of a whodunit as well. Very relatable for our social media generation. A fast and fun albeit scary ride.”
Clickbait is an interesting television miniseries created by Tony Ayres and Christian White. Told through the perspective of many different characters, it’s a twisted post-modern fairytale about how new media technologies can be inadvertently used with disastrous consequences. Over the course of its 8-hour runtime, it confronts many of the main tropes of the internet: mass media complicity, catfishing, online dating, content moderation, viral videos, and so on. The series is particularly good because the horror of the movie is not connected to one villain, but rather like the internet distributed and diffused across a network of small mishaps that add up towards a grand catastrophe.
More Social Media Horror Movies
- The Net (1995) a computer programmer (Sandra Bullock) accidentally stumbles upon an online conspiracy that threatens her and everyone around her.
- Strangeland (1998) teens are lured online into a world of horror and death by a psychopath who calls himself “Captain Howdy.”
- Feardotcom (2002) everyone who logs into a website called “feardotcom” dies within 48 hours of their first login.
- Cry Wolf (2005) a group of friends at a prep school start a hoax email about a killer that suddenly and unexpectedly becomes all too real.
- Pulse (2006) a group of college friends enter a downward spiral when a hacker associate of theirs unleashes evil into their world.
- Untraceable (2008) this film by Gregory Hoblit was marketed as Silence of the Lambs for the internet age. The plot involves someone posting snuff films online and the FBI investigating. Most people found the movie to be silly and unbelievable.
- Chatroom (2010) a teenage mastermind befriends five separate teens via webcam and slowly draws them all into his charming yet manipulative world.
- Chain Letter (2010) a serial killer stalks and murders any teens who refuse to forward his chain email.
- Disconnect (2012) is a romantic drama centering around a group of friends’ desperate and often failed attempts to find love in a cold and wired world.
- Open Windows (2014) is a voyeur movie about an obsessive fan who suddenly finds he has access to his favorite actresses’ cell phone and all other electronic devices.
- Abzurdah (2015) a teenage girl falls in love with an older man via the internet, finds her love to be unrequited, and then endures a savage bout of anorexia.
- #Horror (2015) a group of young girls addicted to an online video game find themselves in a world of trouble. This film also covers cyberbullying.
- E-Demon (2016) as a group of college friends gather together for an evening party via webcam, they accidentally release a demon that had lain dormant since the Salem Witch Trials.
- Bedeviled (2016) five teenagers download an app called Mister Bedevil which somehow knows how to prey upon their darkest fears.
- Don’t Hang Up (2017) is a telephone horror movie where two teenagers are trying to make viral videos by making prank phone calls. The cards turn against them, though, and they realize a deadly prank is being played on them.
- The Circle (2017) based on the book of the same name by Dave Eggers, this Hollywood thriller explores the world of large tech giants and surveillance capitalism. While the company featured in the book is fictional, there are many similarities to Google and their parent company Alphabet as well as Facebook.
- Livescream (2018) a video game streamer finds himself and his fans in a terrible murder plot.
- A Simple Favor (2018) a female vlogger (Anna Kendrick) seeks to uncover the truth behind the sudden disappearance of her new mysterious friend (Blake Lively).
- Dark Web: Cicada 3301 (2021) a group of hackers encounter unexpected trouble when they are lured into a secret society’s puzzle game that is actually a social-recruitment trap.