Can you fear me now?

Dissecting the mainstream.
Feb. 8 2006 3:45 PM

Can You Fear Me Now?

The cell phone goes from annoying to evil.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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In your right hand, you hold the source of all the evil in the world. A few days ago, it was the source of some medium-sized evil—a stray ring in a movie theater or a mournful text message to an ex-girlfriend after midnight. But things have changed with your cell phone. It is no longer just a nuisance. It is death incarnate.

In the recent months, cell phones have become newly terrifying. Our once-mundane cellular-inspired fears—of brain cancer, of terrorists using them to detonate remote devices—have been replaced by more gruesome visions. Horror maestros from Stephen King to Takashi Miike have taken our ambivalent post-9/11 feelings about cell phones (they played a crucial role in nearly staving off a terrorist attack, but they were also the source of incredibly painful goodbyes) and reworked them into a vehicle for evil—ghosts, plagues, and rampaging psychos. The cell phone, in their hands, is not a tool of empowerment but another instrument of terror. Humanity's going to hell, and you don't dare call your mother.

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Stephen King's Cell, which sits at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, is the bloodiest encapsulation of this worldview. A pulse sent out over cell phones by someone—Islamic terrorists? disgruntled hackers?—turns cell-toting humans into predators who bite one another's necks and club one another's children. Soon, the zombified masses are roaming the streets by day and pausing to "recharge" by night—lying side-by-side in moonlit stadiums, like a thousand Nokias resting in their cradles. It's up to a crusty band of outsiders—read: Luddites who cling to land lines—to battle their way out of the cities and regroup in wireless-free zones up north. "What's the market penetration?" one of them asks, surely the first time those words have been uttered in a Stephen King novel. So despicably evil is the cell phone that the survivors rarely speak its name—they indicate it with a sad gesture, a thumb at the ear and a pinky held at the mouth.

Cell-phone terror rules the cinema, too. In When a Stranger Calls, a remake of a 1979horror movie that opened on top of the box office last weekend, a teenage girl is forced into indentured babysitting for going "over plan" by 800 minutes. While looking after two children in a giant house, she's terrorized by a cell-phone-wielding maniac—Hollywood's favorite villain, it seems, since similar psychos appeared in Hostel(2005)and the Scream trilogy before that.

The apogee of mobile-phone horror is Takashi Miike's One Missed Call, a 2003Japanese film released in the United States last year. In it, Japanese teenagers robotically swap numbers and text messages the way their horror-movie predecessors used to trade sexual favors. One by one, their phones emit an unfamiliar ring tone indicating that they've received a message. The message, dated a few days in the future, is their own voice—a recording of their desperate last moments on earth.

To be sure, the cell phone is merely the latest piece of demonic hardware. It follows the evil computer (2001: A Space Odyssey) and the evil car (King's own Christine), to name just two. And its scariness springs from some of the same sources—it's a pedestrian object hiding in plain sight, and humanity is perhaps too reliant on it for its own good. But because of the eerie way it mixes the public and private, the cell phone, perhaps more than anything to come before it, seems like an ideal instrument for horror.

After all, we already hate cell phones. We hate the reception, hate other users, and hate our billing plans, and it comes as no surprise when the above are revealed to be the work of a demonic force from the beyond. But what really bugs us is that cell phones clumsily merge the public and private spheres—what sociologist Hans Geser has called a "transspatial version of particularistic communalism," and what the rest of us call rudeness. In Cell, King takes the usual complaint about cell phones to a new level. Before the phone plague, King depicts a woman ordering a sundae from a Mister Softee ice cream truck while absent-mindedly babbling into her phone. It was an "act which would have once been considered almost insufferably rude," he writes, and as the woman becomes infected and tries to take a bite out of the ice-cream man, it seems like only a slight loss of civility. Likewise, King's zombified hordes resemble the cell-phone users plodding down urban sidewalks, each grunting to his own tune and oblivious to the world around him.

Moreover, as King notes, the cell phone is the only truly populist menace. For all the attention lavished on the dark corners of the Internet, the Web remains a fairly rarefied domain. Cell phones reach across race, class, and gender—they're an equal-opportunity device. If cell phones make bourgeois life all the more livable, they also enable drug dealers and prostitutes who used to rely on pay phones and beepers. One of the delights of Cell is watching professional women in power suits join ranks with the criminal class, dopey teenagers, construction workers, and the elderly to create a roiling, multilayered zombie class—as King puts it, "the Tower of Babel all over again … and on nothing but electronic cobwebs."

On the level of plotting, cell phones can make a horror story more difficult to conceive. Andrew Klavan, who is writing the American remake of One Missed Call, says, "If I had to pick two things that have changed the world of genre writing, one would be the fall of the Berlin Wall, which eliminated a whole genre of fiction. And the other would be cell phones. The question everybody asks about crime stories is, 'Why don't they just call they police?' And now, with cell phones, you have to come up with a pretty good explanation."

But on the flip side, cell phones have dragged horror into the light. The old idea of fear was being trapped in a dark house alone. The new fear is of interconnectedness, of being perilously joined to the rest of humanity. In Arthur C. Clarke's1964 story "Dial F for Frankenstein," the world's land lines all ring at the same moment, signaling that the phone system had gained consciousness and was rising up to enslave humanity. "For homo sapiens, the telephone bell had tolled," Clarke wrote, and these days, market penetration being what it is, Armageddon is more likely to announce itself with a custom ring tone. The final gruesome twist of One Missed Call is that every time a teen dies, the demon spirit selects a fresh victim from his "contacts" list. It's enough to make you rethink your weekend nights. You seem nice, baby, but do you have to program me into your phone? Can't we do it like the old days and use a cocktail napkin?

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