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Spiral sparks a debate on tech and horror movies

New York Times tech reporter and horror buff Taylor Lorenz joins Galaxy Brains to talk upgraded scares

Actor Chris Rock from the movie “Spiral” on a graphic background Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Lionsgate

The average horror movie could be ended with a single phone call, a smart home security system, or a GPS-enabled device. Today’s technology would be like a cheat code in a video game for most of the protagonists of classic horror films like Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The conventional wisdom is that Big Tech has ruined the suspense of horror, either by giving convenient solutions to classic horror tropes or forcing filmmakers to contort their stories to account for the fancy gadgets everyone carries in their pockets. How many truly scary situations can you get into if you have a phone, compass, flashlight, and map in your pocket at all times?

Well, what if I told you that horror movies have been accounting for the rapid pace of technological advancement, from the steam trains and telegrams in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, to the cancerous TV signal in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome? Technology, and our dread at its influence on our lives, is paramount to horror’s appeal across generations.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw not only adds Chris Rock to the venerable film franchise, but it also forces the Saw movies to deal with all manner of modern (in)conveniences like urban surveillance and smart watches that double as tracking devices. How does the Jigsaw copycat killer in this movie commit their crimes when we’re always being watched?

In a new episode of Galaxy Brains, my co-host Jonah Ray and I are joined by New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz to discuss the Saw franchise and horror’s connection to the never-ending onslaught of technological advancement. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation (which has been edited for clarity):

Dave: Spiral has technology in it. There is a thumb drive that has the killer’s messages to the police. One of the victims is wearing a Fitbit. There’s a lot of surveillance and cameras everywhere. But at the end of the day, at the core of the Saw movies is this fear, in my opinion, of 20th century technology. The machines that are used to torture people are always these kind of industrial machines in factories or warehouses abandoned by society. Do you think that these movies are, in a sense, the 20th century coming back to haunt us?

Taylor: Yeah, the real horror is the Industrial Revolution and factory work! But I think there’s something creepy about that. People, I think, are kind of spooked out by things that are just a little bit out of the everyday. I’m just thinking of medieval torture machines or 18th-century factories, like they’re just a little bit removed from today. And so there’s something kind of unsettling about it.

Dave: You could see the gears, you can see the the machinery of it, whereas everything that we own now is a sleek package that is designed for commercial use, that you look at and you say, “Wow, look at the angles on this and look at the beautiful metallic sheen on my laptop.” And it’s just this wonderful, aesthetically pleasing device as opposed to, you know, the machines that Jigsaw uses to kill people, which are like pistons firing and it stops and it starts and it’s smoking. And all of those visible gears where it’s almost like seeing the inside of someone’s body. I guess it’s very gross to me.

Taylor: It’s disturbing. There’s also something about how you feel like you could stop it. If you saw some sleek machine, there’d be nothing you could do. Whereas like if you see these gears, it’s like, “Oh, if you could just throw a wrench in there...”

Dave: A literal monkey wrench into the system! I often wonder where the Jigsaw killer finds the plans for these machines. And you think about what you can find on the Internet today on Reddit or on the Dark Web. You know, you could figure out how to build a nuclear bomb if you just, like, downloaded the right PDF. Is that scary to you?

Taylor: It’s almost less scary because it’s so overt. The concept of 3D printing a gun ... people in the maker movement do that. Yes, it’s terrifying, but it’s an expected fear. And, personally, I like movies that tap into a slightly unexpected fear, like something that is normalized in your daily life being used in a new and terrifying way.

Jonah: Saw is like a very steampunk-maker movement. That’s where that’s probably where, like the Jigsaw copycats get their knowledge from. They go to these weird steampunk maker clubs.

Dave: Jigsaw enthusiasts on Reddit!

For a bigger deep dive into Spiral, or to hear our episodes on Josie and the Pussycats, Star Wars, Mortal Kombat, and Godzilla vs. Kong, check out the Galaxy Brains feed, wherever you get your podcasts.