On its surface, the nascent trend of the screencast film could be dismissed as a mere vessel for cheap, hokey B-movie fare, typically preoccupied with stalkers, supernatural beasties, and the worst monsters of all: cyberbullies. Taking place predominantly on computer screens, in which the audience is privy to the private contents of the protagonist’s digital life, these films have demonstrated an innate affinity for thrillers that are as paranoid as they are claustrophobic, from The Den (Zachary Donohue, 2014) to last year’s Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018). Yet within their lowbrow thrills and didactic moralism lies unique insight into our online lives and the digital domain where people in the Global North, including Australians, spend almost a third of their day. 1

Recent films have typically been reticent in depicting the fundamental transformation of our lives by our relationship with technology, either unable to or unwilling to engage with how our daily routines and some of our most important, intimate life events are being mediated online. But while multiplexes are becoming increasingly dominated by flashier flights of fancy, screen-captured films offer voyeuristic experiences which revel in the mundane, akin to our engagement with social media and live-streaming services.

The screencast film itself might not even exist in its current capacity were it not for participatory online platforms such as YouTube and Reddit. While the earliest example of this genre dates back to The Collingswood Story (Michael Costanza, 2002), films such as Internet Story (Adam Butcher, 2010) and Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014) build upon one of the internet’s most spine-chilling traditions: creepypasta. Creepypasta refers to online urban legends, which originated from the depths of the collaborative website 4Chan before spreading throughout the internet via copy-and-pasted text dumps, pictures, and videos. username:666 (published in 2008) is one such example, a prototypical screencast film portraying the desktop of someone accessing the YouTube profile of ‘user 666’, which causes the website to convulse into a bloody, glitch-ridden mess filled with pulsating apparitions.

The cursed online domain of ‘user 666’

Perhaps the most affecting part of username:666 is the user’s helplessness; the mechanisms to close the browser or turn their computer off are disabled, and this sudden lack of agency over basic technological functions as a result of supernatural interference is replicated in films such as Unfriended. It may be silly gimmickry, yet it mimics a relatable, all-too-real terror of technology failing us at the most inopportune times, and our ongoing struggle to acclimatise to the ceaselessly-updating software of our programs and devices. None of the gory kills in Unfriended are anywhere near as anxiety-inducing as the sequence where the main character desperately searches for a removed ‘Forward’ button on Gmail.

In mining these particular anxieties, these films expose how our lives are inextricably interlinked with digital corporate products, and how little agency we have over them. Social media sites, for example, are no longer optional for many people, who rely on these platforms to promote their brand, disseminate their content, or simply to communicate with their loved ones. Yet they are fundamentally precarious and even ethically dubious. Recently, we’ve seen Instagram suddenly pull ‘like counts’ from its service, YouTube was fined a record-breaking $170 million for alleged violations of child privacy laws, and Twitter obstinately continues to house Nazis. 2

The self-termed ‘desktop documentary’ Transformers: The Premake (Kevin B Lee, 2014) further demonstrates how screencast films are uniquely poised to materialise the inescapable horror of our diminished free will in the digital age. Leveraging an entirely different, non-horror approach to the format, the experimental short depicts an anonymous user falling into the rabbit-hole of amateur YouTube footage shot by bystanders during the filming of Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, 2014). The director supplements the cavalcade of free marketing with insights on the monumental production itself, slyly pulling up tax credit laws and videos of Chinese press conferences at key moments. As we watch him spontaneously gather data from a bottomless pit of YouTube results and recommendations, Vadim Rizov suggests: “there’s a tension generated by the question of agency: how much is the technology dictating what’s being accessed, as opposed to merely enabling it?”.3

Recent films have shifted focus away from desktops onto phones, and in doing so have highlighted just how physically connected we are with our electronic tools. Ratter (Brian Kramer, 2015), for example, presents the screencast film from the perspective of a stalker with access to all the cameras on an unwitting college girl’s devices. The film frequently captures irregular close-up perspectives from her phone, whether it’s being used on the toilet, staring up at her in her handbag, or in between her legs during class. Similarly, Pocket (Mishka Kornai, Zach Wechter) portrays a teenage boy’s life as if his iPhone cameras were always recording, while also simulating his on-screen footage. Just as the screen-captured digital footage accompanying these films can make us question our own online practices by simply replicating our habits in all their time-consuming absurdity, there’s something alarmingly intimate in how the adolescent protagonist constantly stares down at his phone (and, by extension, the audience), effectively throwing our gaze back at us as he uses his phone. This uncomfortably close alignment with the film’s subject is further complicated when he masturbates, stalks, and sexts. It serves as a visceral reminder that these products have become virtually inseparable to our own flesh and blood, accompanying us during every waking second while being held tightly in our most personal moments.

Prelude to a sext in Pocket

Hannah Macpherson’s Snapchat thriller Sickhouse (2016) provides a fascinating suggestion of where the screencast film can go. While the majority of screencast films are preoccupied with social media (frequently utilising programs like Skype and Facebook for storytelling purposes), this is the only film from this trend that has been distributed directly through social media itself. Essentially The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick, 1999) for the Zoomer Generation, Sickhouse covers very little new narrative material. However, by being shot and distributed in ‘real time’ on Snapchat by influencer Andrea Russett (who plays herself in the film), the film initially managed to deceive her followers with its realism in a manner akin to The Blair Witch Project or the infamous The War of the Worlds broadcast, to the extent where social media accounts for the fictional character Taylor ended up amassing thousands of followers. 4 Her followers consumed the project in 10 seconds increments in the exact same mode as every other Snapchat story, following her journey over several days as she hangs out with her influencer friends, then wanders into the woods towards the titular haunted house.

While other screencast films have focused on the voyeuristic thrills of observing livestreams and social media activity, not to mention our own paranoia of being watched through our webcams, Sickhouse engages with our exhibitionist tendencies when we perform our own lives for these services. The characters don’t act like regular teenagers—a typical criticism of teen horror movies— but they do act like regular teenagers acutely aware of being watched, trapped in the knowledge that their social lives and even their careers rely on how well they’re presented. Even at its most ridiculous, it’s difficult to parse just how divorced from reality this film is; when the teenagers keep recording everything in spite of a demonic presence (also another frequent criticism of found footage films), it can be read as a commentary on the lengths influencers will go to maximise views (lest anyone forget the Logan Paul controversy). Similarly, when the main character, Taylor, captures the awkward initial fumbling and the aftermath of losing her virginity, it’s a reminder that some people gain celebrity status by showcasing the rawest, most intimate parts of their lives online. Moments like these cut to the heart of screencast films as a whole: they may be cheap, tacky, and even downright exploitative, but they transcend their own limitations in their verisimilitude and willingness to grapple with online interfaces.

Coming of age in Sickhouse’s Snapchat stories

Endnotes:

  1. Ernst & Young, Digital Australia: State of the Nation (Australia: Ernst & Young, 2017), 6, https://digitalaustralia.ey.com/Documents/Digital_Australia_2017%20edition.pdf
  2. “Google and YouTube Will Pay Record $170 Million for Alleged Violations of Children’s Privacy Law”, Federal Trade Commission, published 2019, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/09/google-youtube-will-pay-record-170-million-alleged-violations.
  3. Vadim Rizov, “Information Overload: Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake”, Filmmaker Magazine, published June 7, 2014, https://filmmakermagazine.com/86361-transformers-premake/#.XXOlZCgzZPY.
  4. Ben Child, “Sickhouse: how the first ever Snapchat movie redefined viral,” The Guardian, published 23 June 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jun/22/sickhouse-how-the-social-media-horror-film-went-viral.