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The Retina of the Mind's Eye: Horror's Obsession with the Television Screen

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

The year is 2020 and there's not a single flying car anywhere in the world. But that doesn't mean technology isn't growing at a terrifyingly fast rate. While we all deal with the daily struggle of a global pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that we take way too many things in our everyday lives for granted. Whether you’re one of the courageous heroes and key workers fighting on the front line in hospitals, care homes and the retail sector or whether you’re stuck at home, mindlessly enduring the company of loved ones and eagerly counting down the days until the return of normality, I think we can all agree that as a society, we are unhealthily bound to our possessions. Blowing all other indulgences out of the water is the television screen or for sake of argument, visual media. Laptops, tablets and more commonly our mobile phones. It has become our human need to drown ourselves in binge-worthy information on an almost catatonically dangerous and subservient level. 

Cinema has regularly used the television screen in various different ways over the years. Most commonly of course, it’s simply used as a background object or in news reports as a way to help steer a certain story thread in a particular direction. This works well in disaster or outbreak movies where the movie starts in the aftermath of a terrible event and the characters and we, the viewers, concurrently ask “What is happening and why?” A good example of this happens in George A. Romero’s 'Night of the Living Dead'. While Ben, Barbara and the rest of the crew are held up in the house in the countryside, a news reporter is seen on a television set recapping some of the events that have occurred prior to the beginning of the movie. This is a fairly transparent and effortless choice but it doesn’t make it any less rewarding. It can also be a way to plant an idea into the viewers mind as well as a discussion starter for the on-screen characters.

Think of it as kind of an expository technique. Instead of having two characters partake in a banal discussion, it’s easier to just let a news reporter talk directly to the audience through the lens of their own television camera and then allow the character’s subsequent dialogue and/or actions dictate where the story goes from here. A version of this is used in Jordan Peele’s phenomenal 'Get Out'. When Chris wakes up strapped to the chair towards the end of the film, the TV in front of him begins to play a recording of Roman Armitage’s 'Behold the Coagula' confessional. A video explanation addressing exactly what the hell is going on and why these people are behaving in this way. An easy way to let the penny drop but Peele may have also done this as a nod to Rod Serling and 'The Twilight Zone'.

Another common use of television in movies is what I like to call the “seeking approval” tactic. It’s when a film pays tribute to other movies or TV shows in a way to silently request an endorsement. This happens in nearly every single teen, coming of age movie and there’s obviously various levels of recognition, some just as easter eggs, others more on the nose. Hey, this character is really into this cool movie that everyone likes so I guess he must be cool too right? It’s another really straightforward ploy that almost always works. Parallel with this idea is when a character playfully uses something they’ve seen on TV to indicate a choice of action later on in the film. If you need a character to do something in Act 3 you show him or her watching said action on a television set in Act 1. In the final action sequences in 'Gremlins' when Billy is being attacked by Stripe in the store, Gizmo enters the fray driving a toy car and ends up exposing Stripe to sunlight which kills him. How did Gizmo know how to drive a car you say? Well he’s imitating a race scene from the 1950 Clark Gable led 'To Please A Lady' that he watched on TV earlier.

But there’s more to a television screen than meets the eye. What happens when cinema uses TVs to expose mankind’s most damaging and unstable tendencies? There’s no genre that explores this dark, predatory preoccupation with television screens better than the horror genre. Fifteen years before Peter Weir’s magnificent Academy Award nominated film 'The Truman Show' delved into the public fascination with reality television, Canadian auteur David Cronenberg absolutely tore the subject to shreds in 1983’s 'Videodrome' starring James Woods as Max Renn, who has never been better, and the extraordinarily impressive Debbie Harry as the masochistic Nicki Brand.

Max Renn is the neo-seedy CEO of a modest, boundary pushing TV station specialising in softcore porn and hardcore violence. But Max is on the search for something even more exploitive and he thinks he’s found it when he becomes consumed by Videodrome; an alarmingly trashy show that Max brandishes as “just torture and murder. No plot, no characters. Very, very realistic.” The sheer authenticity of the activities witnessed in Videodrome is both shockingly repulsive and hypnotizing to Max, so much so that he must find out more. As Max falls deeper down the rabbit hole his reality begins to warp with perversely, mind bending repercussions. 

Hidden behind the guise of a schlock body-horror to some, 'Videodrome' is Cronenberg’s bleak, satirical take on consumerism and the damaging idolisation of technology, which the filmmaker has stated in interviews “is an extension of the human body.” He’s not necessarily attacking the TV networks head on but rather their effect on human beings. Thematically taking his cue from philosopher Herbert Marshall McLuhan, a fellow Canadian who primarily mastered in the theorisation of media, Cronenberg devises a world that is almost entirely infiltrated by technology to the point where man and machine become symbiotic. Using the television screen as it’s starting point, 'Videodrome' continues to explore society’s deviant fixation with visual media. How does it make us feel? Do certain images conjure reciprocation in our behaviour? Is there a connective tissue between our sexual and potentially violent desires and if so, are we in total control of them? Sex and violence existing exclusively as a partnership is often alluded to here. Cronenberg highlights the idea that man may be a blank canvas being both morally strangled by callous billion dollar corporations and physically manipulated by technological evolution, a subject that McLuhan also had strong opinions on that led to him coining the phrase ‘Global Village’ and essentially predicting the existence of the internet. Cronenberg hints at this during the Brian O'Blivion monologue segment, “Soon all of us will have special names.” A prophetic blueprint for social media? 'Videodrome' is basically a combination of surreal adaptations of McLuhan’s theories and Cronenberg’s own nihilistic vision of censorship versus freedom, distortion versus reality. 

There’s plenty of hidden messages rife in Cronenberg’s classic, especially encompassed in the Videodrome within the film itself. Barry Convex, the corrupt and malevolent face behind the malignant Videodrome signal and ensuing torture of Max Renn’s mind, represents misguided censorship and the longing urge to rid the planet of the repugnant audience who is sick enough to want to watch. He is reminiscent of Conal Cochran, the heinous owner of the Silver Shamrock Novelties company that develops creepy kids masks in 1982’s 'Halloween III: Season of the Witch'. The third film in the series isn’t a true sequel but was meant to launch an anthology of Halloween themed feature films and although it performed well at the box office it was a critical misfire, despite being a fairly creative idea. To say it was divisive would be a huge understatement however it has garnered some belated love in the last decade or so. The entire plot of 'Season of the Witch' could not exist if it wasn’t for the household television set. The Silver Shamrock masks are specially designed and imbued with mystical rocks from Stonehenge that triggers a massive brain anomaly to kill the children wearing them. The catalyst for this is a commercial that has been advertised to air on Halloween night as part of a promotional giveaway being offered by the company. The commercial will cast a flashing, subliminal message that the microchip in the masks will pick up, sending a harmful surge to the mask wearer's brain. Throughout the film the Silver Shamrock commercial is played repeatedly and is memorable for it’s catchy and repetitive jingle. I say memorable like it resonates some sort of happy connotation but by the third act of the film the jingle is increasingly nauseating. It’s like a rusty hammer metaphorically smashing the inside of your skull, although I tend to find myself humming it for weeks after every watch so I guess it does it’s job. The idea that a commercial could do damage to anyone on a literal level is a bit absurd of course, however the symbolic intent that 'Halloween III' might be striving for here is that consumerism is comparable to a slow death, monotonously eating away at our brain cells, suffocating our cerebral freedom. 

TV’s have been used to an even more glaring degree in films like Tobe Hooper’s 'Poltergeist' and the fantastic Japanese classic 'Ringu'. Neither of these movies beat around the bush in their association with the television sets. Like 'Videodrome', 'Ringu' uses the videotape as a deadly weapon. Watch the cursed videotape and you die a week later. The image of Sadako appearing from within the TV, dripping wet and clearly with sinister intent, is still a truly haunting experience, despite being endlessly parodied. 'Poltergeist' is a little bit less threatening in hindsight but not without potentially deadly circumstances. The threat initially announces itself via a static TV image to the young Carol Anne, another iconic piece of cinema, and after emerging from the television, maintains its intrusion of the family household by way of increasingly intense, supernatural disturbances. 

A dangerous plot twist not necessarily pertinent to the horror genre is a character's ambitious infatuation with wanting to appear on television. A couple of super fun examples of this happens in 1971’s 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' when Mike Teevee’s obsession with being on TV leads him to having an unfortunate shrinking accident. In 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors' during the scene when Jennifer is smoking cigarettes late at night in the common room, Freddy Krueger appears from the top of the television set, grabs her firmly by the shoulders and spews out the iconic line “Welcome to Prime-Time bitch!” before smashing her head through the screen. One of the coolest kills of the entire franchise. It’s equal parts hilarious and gruesome but in the end it’s just fucking sad. However the struggle to become a TV star is illustrated much more seriously in 2019’s 'Joker' starring Jaoquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, an average comedian wrestling with his own depression and fighting an ongoing battle to overcome a crippling debilitation in order to become famous. There’s already been enough said about 'Joker' recently so I won’t bother going into further details but again a lot of what transpires harks back to self-control. How much of what we do are we in total control of? A similar theme that is continuously explored in 'Videodrome'. Supposedly Cronenberg is as atheist as they come so his work bears no religious significance outside of one’s ability to be the master of their own destiny. Cronenberg's film takes it to another level by showing the lead character literally being controlled by a videotape. Max Renn’s body becomes mutilated in order for the videotapes to be plugged into him. An extremely violent action with a not-so subtle hint at possible sexual gratification too. The grotesque slit in his abdomen, made by the incomparable practical effects legend Rick Baker, is an outstanding effect but evocative of a giant vagina nonetheless.

What 'Videodrome' and some of these other films have in common is their ability to tap into the fear of present day society through what normality presents to us everyday. Specifically the fear of losing control. There is nothing more normal to many of us than a television. Visual media and technology have become part of us. Highlighted in 'Videodrome' by Brian O'Blivion, who has grown a brain tumour after being exposed to the show's signal. Or like Max Renn when he is being controlled and programmed to assassinate his partners, his hand and the gun that he holds within it physically become one. A highly influential scene that would be exaggerated to great lengths a few years later in Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s insane 'Tetsuo: The Iron Man'

“First we build the tools, then they build us.” - Herbert Marshall McLuhan

The French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also shared in this belief that advancing technology is not artificial to our bodies but is in fact “a natural, profound evolution of our own nervous system”. Deep stuff right? Teilhard was also a Jesuit priest whose work was first written in 1930 but published posthumously in 1955 in the infancy of television and long before the integrated circuit was invented. 

Of course horror isn’t the only genre obsessed with the television screen. There’s a bunch of other movies that use it in even more obvious ways than what I've mentioned above. Gary Ross’ fantastic 1998 drama 'Pleasantville' and the 1992 adventure comedy 'Stay Tuned' are great examples and even Joel Schumacher’s 'Batman Forever' plays around with the idea of mind control by television. And who could forget the big screen adaptation of 'The Running Man', which steals some ideas from the world of professional wrestling to beef out the already excessively violent reality game show and present it as merely entertainment. But horror is a genre that works, for the most part, by over stimulating our minds. By obscuring the veil of sensitization. I think Nicki Brand said it best during her televised interview with Max Renn “We live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it's tactile, emotional or sexual. And I think that's bad” Nicki goes on to admit that she herself "lives in a highly excited state of overstimulation." So she's confessing that her choices are bad but that she has total control, at least consciously. 

Or does she? Did Max Renn have total control over his decision to kill himself at the end of the movie. In fact he only does so after already witnessing himself do it on a TV screen moments prior. Is he just another robotic monkey doing what he is told to do? That's the magic of television and technology in general. The endless debate about what is bad and what is good for us will always be open for interpretation. Perhaps horror's obsession with the television screen is a way of advocating its own existence. Bad or good, television screens and visual media are not going away anytime soon.

Long live television! 

- Gavin Logan

*Herbert Marshall McLuhan - The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - The Phenomenon of Man (1955)


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