HAUNTED MACHINES

Joanne McNeil, Fear of Zero Bars

A scene from the horror film, The Ruins very well encapsulates what I fear the most about life in the crosshatches between data transmission signals and the wild. The film is about a handful of American college students on spring break in Mexico, who adventure out to find an obscure Mayan temple in the jungle. When they arrive at the base of the site, people from the village surround them with bows and firearms. The locals won't go near the temple and refuse to let them back out the way they came in. So the students hike to the top and set up camp with little more than a day's worth of food and water between them.

Soon enough they find out the place is infested with carnivorous intelligent vines. The villagers have them quarantined.

The screenwriter missed an opportunity to comment on the entitlement of white college kids abroad, who didn't bother to talk to the locals but instead barged right in where they never should have gone. Race and class analysis is too much to expect from this gristly, sleazy Eli Roth knock-off. A typical screamy moment involves a DIY tourniquet - "We're going to have to amputate his legs," a twenty-two year old shouts before excruciating, exaggerated sound effects for broken bones.

I don't particularly like this film, but nevertheless I will defend this clip as one of the greatest scenes in horror film history. It begins as the gang hears a cell phone ringing from inside the temple. It seems unlikely - none of them have reception out there - but it is that distinctive ringtone. You know it. It is that pre-smartphone cell phone ring with digital bleats measured out like delayed heartbeats. Two young women climb down a flimsy rope through a perilously deep shaft to reach the temple floor to find the phone. They hunt around inside as it continues to ring.

This diegetic sound was electrifying to hear inside a movie theater. I saw it in 2008. Then a cellphone ring was the ultimate movie theater impropriety. Films would begin with theater policy ads after the trailers that instructed the audience to shut off their phones or else risk annoying everyone in the theater. The cell phone was ringing on screen but you might have jumped at the sound, put on edge, jerked from concentrating on the film to wondering whether you or your companion just violated the sanctity of the theater dreamspace with noise coming from a purse or pocket.

Back to concentrating on the movie, the two women walking with torches step gingerly through the cavernous temple draped with vines. With a gasp, the character played by Jena Malone discovers a cell phone in the hands of a vine-covered dead white woman. But the cell phone is smashed. Completely dead. Yet the cell phone ring keeps coming. The sound appears to be coming from a section of the vines with red flowers. She walks closer. The red flowers are vibrating. The red flowers were mimicking the sound of the cell phone. As the vines lunge for her, they switch to mimicking her voice.

This film was released the year after the iPhone debuted. This was the year so many of us switched to smartphones and haven't looked back. A senseless trust in technology stems from intimacy born out of frequent use. I default to trust the thing I hold in my hands all day long, and sleep with, tucking it under my pillow each night. Would I ever think a cell phone ring, similar to my own, were spoofed? But it is so familiar to me.

The scene is a classic depiction of a precarious dependence upon technology in an unsafe situations. Cellphones replaced so many gestures and traditions of calling for help. Gadgets also instilled in us a sense of personal responsibility - the only way to call for help is to call, an act which is itself now a near skeuomorphism, as speaking and hearing another person's voice seems too personal and intimate than the extra five seconds it might take to text. This trust in technology is bolstered by a false sense of control over one's experience with a device. We could change TV channels but someone else decided the programming, someone else wrote the scripts. But screen life comprised a collage of browser tabs of our desires, customized and interactive experiences that seem like control, yet limited depending on a person's technical literacy.

The fear of the wild, the fear of the unknown, the sensation felt passing through dark corridors late at night, wondering whether a stranger is trailing you; there is a new dimension now. It is like losing your eyesight, going mute in danger. This is the fear of zero bars.