To someone living exclusively online, many of Freud’s “primitive beliefs” would be literal truths. The dead live on in their videos and social media feeds. Thanks to targeted advertising, a pair of boots we put in our cart months ago stalks us at every turn. The notion that a single utterance can turn a random citizen into an influencer might have sounded to Freud like magical thinking. We see it happen every day.
Or consider the uncanny motif of the double, which has inspired writers of dread from Dostoyevsky to Tana French. The fear of having our identity appropriated by a look-alike doesn’t seem atavistic in the era of catfishing and deepfakes. We all lead parallel lives in which presence is absence and reality is malleable.
Those online lives can be deeply fulfilling, assuaging loneliness and fostering new communities. But when we depend too much on them, things can go awry. Reality can lose its reality, as it has for those sufferers of video-game-related disorders who reportedly see Tetris blocks floating in midair. And that’s where the space for uncanny fiction opens.
The horror tale that best captures the uncanniness of virtual life may be the cult film “Kairo” (“Pulse”), which was released way back in 2001. The director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, uses a simple horror conceit — ghosts are online — to summon the terror of dissolution. His specters aren’t digitized serial killers or vengeful A.I.s, but the spirits of people like us who have overflowed the afterlife and colonized the virtual world.
From screens, these ghosts haunt the living, their aim being not to kill us but to “make people immortal by quietly trapping them in their own loneliness.” One by one, the film’s living characters evaporate into pixel-like fragments, their individuality flowing into a stream that includes the now and the then, the living and the dead. The offline world slides toward a quiet apocalypse.
Like Jackson’s Hill House, Kurosawa’s internet is crammed with ghosts who offer one another no society or solace. “People don’t really connect, you know,” an I.T. specialist warns an internet novice. To connect online, “Kairo” suggests, is to be more alone than ever, crowding the world with echoes of humanity that never reach a receptive ear. The film is chillingly prescient about the loneliness we feel as we refresh our feeds late at night, searching for proof that we’re real and finding only other digital ghosts doing the same thing.
I strove to channel that loneliness in my own cyber-horror book. The plot involves a video game that lives on the dark web and taunts potential players with a legend of unbeatability. But software is not the antagonist. Like me refreshing my feeds, players of the game are caught in a loop of desire and rejection, a compulsion to keep playing when there are no rewards left. It’s that loop that ensnares and destroys them.
Writing about the scary side of screen time taught me that, uncanny as it may be, the world of ones and zeros doesn’t birth monsters; the human compulsions we bring to it do. The solution may be to develop a talent for disconnecting, not permanently, but periodically, to allow ourselves to feel the nagging pain of isolation that underlies so many of our virtual connections, a reminder that when we live online we’re all in the same uncanny boat — present in our absence, together alone.