Cell phones have changed the way people think, act, and communicate. They’ve also been hell on the horror genre. Smartphones have rendered many classic horror movie tropes ridiculous, or even implausible. However, they’ve also provided opportunities to scare us in new and inventive ways. Let’s look at where modern horror has succeeded, and failed, to enter the digital age.
Horror is a genre that thrives on fear and isolation—we can’t be scared if we feel safe. And what do phones do? Make us feel safe. Nowadays, a huge portion of the country has instant and constant access to programs like Google Maps, Find Your Phone, and Uber. The moment someone has entered your home, you can dial 9-1-1 and have the operator track you using your GPS. Cell phones have taken some of horror’s ability to make us feel alone.
Of course, for many horror films and shows, the easiest thing to do is simply take the phone’s power away. Sometimes figuratively, but most of the time literally. This can work if it’s done right—but there are a lot of ways it can fail, showing how some of horror’s usual tactics are stuck in the past. Here are the most-common ways horror movies get around smartphones, along with examples of when they’ve worked or fallen flat.
There’s a reason there’s an entire video dedicated to the saga of “No Signal.” It’s the easiest trope in the phone book. The heroes are trying to call for help, but they can’t get a bar. This works when the location calls for it. For example, this happened to Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Not only was it tense—as she strained against her restraints to get a signal—but it tied into the mystery. Are there no bars because she’s in a bunker, or because there really was an alien invasion? And in Ex Machina, the lack of reception was purposeful, as Nathan didn’t want word getting out about his project.
However, oftentimes it’s just an excuse for the phone to be a dead brick of nothing. In Jurassic World, Claire’s cell phone reception was immaculate on that island...right until she needed to warn the boys about the dinosaur. Jeepers Creepers 2 blamed sunspots of all things. There are also times when the lack of a signal is caused by other forces, like a ghost or signal blocker. The supernatural ones are always my favorite because they’re never explained. It’s just...ghosts hate cell phones.
This particular plot device worked better in the early to mid-2000s, when phone maps weren’t as widespread as they are today. That said, there are still areas where there isn’t good reception. I visited upstate New York recently, and I got stuck in some dead zones. If you can find one of those sweet spots, your killer’s got an advantage.
The dead battery might soon replace “no signal” as the most-popular cell phone cliché in horror. It’s more realistic, can happen anywhere, and prevents the hero from using the phone for any reason, like checking a map or taking pictures. It also can be downright terrifying...when done well. The idea of your phone going dead can leave you helpless. Much like having your car break down, it’s a loss of power.
By far, the best use of this has to be Get Out. Throughout the film, Chris wakes up to find that someone has unplugged his phone in the night, preventing it from getting a full charge and guaranteeing it will die sometime during the day. This adds to Chris’s feelings of isolation and makes it harder for him to trust the people around him. There was also House of Good & Evil, where Maggie had just moved and couldn’t find her charger. A common mistake, but in this case a terrifying one.
That said, it’s also really easy to abuse. The average smartphone can hold a charge for nine hours, but it seems like phones in movies are dead after 45 minutes. Let’s not forget that infamous Cloverfield phone, that dies right as Rob was about to talk to Beth, so he frantically runs into an electronics store to find a fresh battery. There was also Drag Me To Hell, where a demon instantly drained Christine’s battery through supernatural means as she looked on in horror. Oh no, not my phone! It was quite silly.
This is any situation where the phone is lost, destroyed, or otherwise taken out of the equation. This can be something as simple as having it slip out of your hands, or as convoluted as a group of friends putting all their phones into a giant bag during their weekend out camping because it’ll help them bond better, like with Hold Your Breath.
This trope has got to be the most ridiculous because if often plays out very stupidly. For example, in the latest Halloween movie, (minor spoiler for current film) Jamie Lee Curtis’ granddaughter had her phone thrown into a punchbowl by her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend. Sure, it succeeds in making sure she can’t be contacted, but throwing someone’s phone in a bowl of punch is not exactly something people do. However, that doesn’t hold a candle to the silly ploy in 30 Days of Night, when a bunch of vampires snuck into every person’s house and stole all the cell phones in town, burying them in the snow. Now that’s what I call dedicated.
A creative solution to the cell phone dilemma has been to simply make it part of the story. Given the popularity of found footage horror, adding cell phones is a logical choice. However, there is a limit. While there are occasional horror films shot entirely using cell phones, like Hooked Up, for the most part these type of films combine cell phones with laptop cameras or other forms of security footage, like Paranormal Activity 4 and Unfriended: Dark Web. I imagine it’s because found footage films need static shots every once in awhile, otherwise the Shaky Cam factor is too much to take.
On the other end, there’s the “just make it retro so we don’t have to bother” angle—like, for instance, Stranger Things, which mined nostalgic gold from its 1980s setting and freed those kids from being tethered to anything beyond land lines and walkie-talkies. Making your horror film or series a period piece is an easy way to avoid the problem, but it does prevent films from addressing issues that affect people today.