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Collage featuring TV with a scary woman crawling through the screen and severed hand holding a cell phone Illustration: Rafael Alejandro for Polygon

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‘Everything new will kill you’ is the worst trope in horror

We love technology, so why is the entire genre still pretending it’s terrifying?

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Too much of anything good gets boring after a while. People who work at pizza places eventually start to hate the smell and taste of pizza. A video game fetch quest that was challenging and thrilling the first time around becomes rote after enough repetition. And horror tropes that were effective at scaring our pants off when we were younger start to get stale if they don’t constantly update. That’s part of the reason horror is such an unusually responsive genre. It’s also the reason that one of the most popular horror tropes of all time has become an exhausting bore.

Humanity is only afraid of a couple of really basic things, and horror explores those ideas over and over. But the forms constantly shift and evolve, either to reflect whatever’s weighing on people’s minds at the moment, or to imitate the last big success in the field. It’s an old pattern. The years after the first atomic bomb tests in the 1940s saw a surge in horror movies about monsters spawned by radiation. The space race in the 1950s turned America’s attention to the stars, which sparked a decade of horror movies about alien invaders. The Charles Manson murders inspired a micro-trend of horror movies that villainized hippies as drug-crazed, murderous cultists. The Abu Ghraib scandal and George W. Bush sanctioning torture closely coincided with a trend of horror films obsessed with Americans being tortured in excruciating detail. Horror tends to come in waves, chasing whatever people might be freshly afraid of.

In the 2000s, the rise of digital cameras helped prompt the found-footage trend in horror, which often focuses on the horrible otherwise-unseen things cameras might catch, now that they’re cheap, lightweight, ubiquitous, and capable of running for hours with minimal cost. That era seemed to mark a turning point, where miniaturization and computerization accelerated, tech innovation sped up, and the “processing society’s anxieties” subgenre of horror suddenly narrowed considerably, until it focused almost exclusively on the terrors of technology.

Virtually every emergent technology has prompted horror movies (or horror scenarios in other genres of movies) about whether it might be dangerous and even murderous. Mainframe computers in the 1960s becoming a significant part of space flight? Well, what if computers in space wanted to kill us? News cycles in the late 2000s fussing over genetic engineering and patenting? Well, what if genetic engineering wanted to kill us? Scientists in the 2010s talking about artificial intelligence projects? Well, what if artificial intelligence wanted to kill us? Kids these days spending too much time online? Well, what if they’re using those connections to build communities of like-minded young people with shared interests, supportive and nurturing and educational communities that no generation before them had access to? Ha ha, just kidding! What if online wanted to kill us?

The unease about every shift in culture or society has always been horror’s bread and butter. There’s no fighting how the horror genre processes and reflects its audience’s subconscious fears of change and the future, which is just another kind of fear of the unknown. But as it has focused less on broader societal fears and more on specific tech developments, it’s become more and more rote, and less insightful about what’s frightening.

We’re facing so many threats, as a society and a species, that the attempts to turn innovation into a threat just feel wearying. In the abstract, it’s great that horror creators are constantly trying to re-invent the genre, chasing after fresh scares and novel threats. But the gleeful demonizing of every possible aspect of online life has just gotten redundant and obsessive. Just over the past few years, we’ve had horror stories about killer drones and killer laptops, killer Uber drivers and killer Uber passengers, killer hackers and killer Twitch streams, killer VR therapy and killer online persona games, killer Zoom calls and killer websites. Even Siri wants to take control of humanity, and lure us into committing murder. And horror creators are convinced that killer apps aren’t just a dumb pun, they’re a huge threat, given that they come in a variety of forms, with a wide variety of deceptive lures to lead us into trouble.

Even when young people in this particular horror subgenre are facing old-school ghosts, demons, or slashers, it’s still because of the rise of social media and online communities. There seems to be an infinite number of movies about vloggers, influencers, YouTubers, and Instagrammers who let their hunger for photo ops and followers lure them into confrontations with everything from supernatural threats to torture-happy sadists, and even psychotic, ratings-obsessed AirBnB hosts. It’s just one more way horror creators suggest that the internet wants to consume people’s souls, by drawing them to dangerous locales they never would have explored if they weren’t trying to please a restless, content-hungry audience.

Trouble is, technological paranoia now feels behind the times. Smartphones and laptops have seamlessly become part of day-to-day life. Stories that try to portray them as baleful, sentient monsters just feel quaint and out of touch. Social media companies are full of mundane, banality-of-evil threats, given how they spread misinformation and manipulate politics, or just waste our time and increase our discontent and restlessness. Reimagining social sites and group chats as portals for hungry ghosts and ancient evils feels petty, small-scale, and vaguely hilarious by comparison with the real-world ways they’ve changed society. And trying to particulate every single aspect of online life into its own horror movie leads to a laughable form of specificity. YouTube might be society’s downfall, but it probably won’t be because YouTubers summoned a demon in hopes of getting more likes and shares.

Maybe the problem is that horror movies fixated on the danger of novelty and innovation don’t work particularly well in a novelty-hungry age, where people are simultaneously starved for every new convenience and entertainment, and a little jaded about taking them all in, given how fast one follows another. It’s hard to get properly worked up about the dangers of some new invention when it’ll be considered obsolete a month from now, replaced by something newer. To actually be scary, horror has to tap into some fear of the unknown — and as mysterious as we may find the inner workings of our phones or tablets or networks, we don’t really consider them unknowns anymore.

And as apps and tech-driven services and devices pile up, the horror genre’s attempt to find some form of terror in absolutely all of them just starts to feel like a boring stereotype, an “old man yells at cloud” reaction to the world, rather than a way to deal with real fears in the zeitgeist. We aren’t afraid of technology the way we used to be. It’s a frustration, sure, but it’s also a friend and confidant, more than an equivalent of yesterday’s werewolves, zombies, and giant marauding radioactive ants.

We aren’t likely to see an end to horror stories that capitalize on whatever’s new and different out there. But it’s worth wondering whether we’re going to see a strong shift in focus, away from new tech and back toward the things that actually drive conflict, anger, and fear in America. We’re already seeing more onscreen horror stories about wealth inequality and civil unrest, like the Purge movies, Jordan Peele’s Us, or even the Netflix mega-hit Squid Game. And the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement, amid a series of highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black citizens, has led to an increase in the number of horror stories about racism and racial conflict, and the perils of being Black in America. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before the boring tech fears finally get buried for a while, and replaced with more stories about the kinds of societal shifts we’re struggling to face as a society. At least until Facebook introduces its augmented-reality “multiverse” where we’ll all be expected to live. Now that’s technology that actually sounds frightening.