Host, and Why Social Media Horror Works

I like to think of myself as quite the horror veteran. Which is to say, I love the genre very, very deeply, but I’ve seen so much of it now that the scares that might have been effective on me when I was first getting into it just don’t hit the same way they used to. I’m always on the hunt for a horror movie that actually freaks me out, because they’re so few and far between these days – and when I find one, God, I’m reminded of just how much I crave that good ol’ hit of horror movie horribleness.

Which brings me to 2020’s Host. Directed by Rob Savage and produced in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, it’s mere existence at all feels like something of a miracle: working remotely, Savage relied on his long-distance cast to pull off stunts, lighting, and camerawork, shooting over the course of twelve weeks and more Skype calls than I would care to venture a guess at.

But I’m so glad Savage and his cast endured through the less-than-ideal production, because the movie they made on the other side of it is simple, brilliant, and, best of all, it scared the shit out of me. Host revolves around a video call between a group of locked-down friends, as they try to spice up a distant Halloween with an online séance led by a medium. Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to get distinctly un-fun and a little too Halloween-y, as a malevolent spirit invades the chat and begins tormenting the unsuspecting victims.

What makes social media-centric horror so frightening, I think, is how it taps into something we interact with pretty much every day of our lives. If great horror is about subversion of the normal, there’s little better way to do that in our current media landscape than by crawling in to the ripely rancid world of social media to do it. Host was a particular masterstroke, using video calling and lockdown at a time when almost everyone in the world could relate to it, in using the familiar as a backdrop for the horrifying.

But beyond the meta-textual excellence of it’s spookery, Host is just a really good haunted house (well, haunted houses, I suppose) story. Turning the various characters into viewers of the movie alongside the actual audience – with them helplessly watching their friends picked off over video chat from miles away, unable to do anything to stop it – invites a level of identification with the victims that’s basically a goldmine for a horror movie, ratcheting up the tension by a few more notches. The limited budget and distance in production forced a movie that relies on imagination more than it does gore, obvious jump-scares, or big set-pieces, and the slow, tense build-up leads in to a nerve-shredding and unpredictable third act that’s relentless right up until the final minute. At only sixty-five minutes long, there isn’t a second wasted here, the movie building and building until it finishes with a short, sharp shock that had me fully behind the couch like I was nine and watching the Autons for the first time again.

Host is a superb example of how well social media and tech horror can turn out a truly scary story, and, if you need something to scare yourself shitless this weekend, I can’t reccommend it enough. Just re-schedule your weekly video work meeting this time around. You know, to be on the safe side.

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By Lou MacGregor

(header image via Roger Ebert)

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