An old house. Sleepaway camp. The woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland. Every generation has its dark places, settings where horror filmmakers stage the zeitgeist’s fears. During a pandemic, just about any spot where people congregate will do. But the new film Host takes an unexpected approach. The director Rob Savage sets his movie in a familiar virtual zone—a Zoom session—flipping the script on the current conventional wisdom that online meetings are a safe alternative to in-person gatherings. In reality, of course, they are. But Savage’s film portrays the paranoia that haunts the housebound this summer as a demonic entity unleashed by a Zoom call.
The first great entry in a genre already dubbed “quar-horror,” Host imparts the message that nowhere is safe—especially not the online spaces that Big Tech offers as refuge. Made remotely over 12 weeks during lockdown, Host is about a group of friends who hold a virtual séance over Zoom on July 30, 2020: the same day the movie premiered on the horror streaming service Shudder. The circumstances of Host’s production lend the film a realism that makes viewers feel as though they themselves are on the call. (The actors even use their real first names.) As the movie begins and the characters join one by one in their comfy clothes and pajamas, the mood is festive and reminiscent of the early days of the coronavirus, when non-work-related Zoom hangouts felt like a novelty.
The six friends are representative of a typical gathering of sheltering-in-place Millennials. There’s the girl who moved in too hastily with a significant other and now seems to regret it; another is back at home with a doddering dad. The sole guy of the group hit the quarantine jackpot and is staying at his new girlfriend’s rich parents’ country getaway. During the call, the women tease him for his newly grown man-bun and compliment one another on their natural looks. Nearly all of them are drinking; before the spiritualist they hired shows up, they conspire to take a shot every time she utters the phrase astral plane. In a nod to the big-picture realities of the pandemic, the bored Millennials tempt fate with their nonchalance toward an unseen danger.
One of Host’s chief accomplishments is its ability to refocus attention on what’s been normalized by COVID-19. Savage remystifies Zoom by reminding the audience of all its nerve-racking unpleasantries, finding parallels in horror tropes. A sense of foreboding is present from the start, when Haley, the organizer of the séance, appears on-screen nervously patting her hair. When Jemma, the first to arrive, enters, she makes the mistake of joining on two devices, prompting the appearance of a “doppelgänger.” Both Jemmas widen their eyes in mock terror as a banshee-screech of audio feedback begins to wail. As the film continues, these moments of humor fade. Sudden movements and noises trigger jarring, full-screen cuts to their source. When characters pick up their devices to explore the dark corners of their homes, Host takes on the precarious feel of a found-footage movie. Conversely, when characters leave the frame—initially to pee, and later on to die—the feeling of dread is even more oppressive.
Host isn’t the first horror or suspense film to play out on a computer screen (see 2014’s Unfriended, 2018’s Searching, and this year’s Followed), but its ability to immerse viewers in the action stands out. I felt myself entering self-protective mode for the first time when Haley, checking for strange noises in her apartment, turns up her output volume and asks her friends to listen. (I turned my volume down.) When another character hears a bump in the attic, she carries her device to a hatch in the ceiling and peers up before hurrying off to grab a tool that I’ll never look at the same way again: a selfie stick. When she returned to the attic, I said aloud in spite of myself: “Don’t make me go up there!”
This sense of absorption is frequently interrupted by pings from Zoom. Rather than reminding us of the movie’s artifice, these notifications assume the sinister air of messages from the beyond. As the free conference call creeps close to its time limit, a dialogue box appears on-screen to promote an upgrade. A simple cash grab that people usually ignore morphs into a life-and-death shakedown. When the call ends on cue at the 50-minute mark and the courtesy message “Thank you for choosing Zoom!” appears, it hits like a slap in the face. A demon might have ruined the virtual séance, but Zoom was the host of this paranormal nightmare.
Horror directors seek to subvert expectations of safe spaces, leaving viewers with brand-new fears after the movie has ended. The most famous example of this is perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; for many traumatized moviegoers, showers would never be the same. Fifteen years later, Steven Spielberg seemed hell-bent on destroying the idea of beachgoing as a pleasant summer pastime in Jaws. Its famous tagline—“You’ll never go in the water again”—wasn’t subtle. Rather than trying to instill a fear of sharks, Spielberg wanted his audience to get the heebie-jeebies every time they went swimming.
Fans of horror know to steer clear of haunted mansions, dense forests, and bucolic cabins after sunset. But showers? The beach during summertime? These are places associated with comfort and relaxation. And while Zoom isn’t exactly that, it is—unlike the beach—unavoidable for many Americans, a necessary evil. The insidious power of Host is how its terrors follow viewers as they leave Shudder’s website and go to a Zoom work meeting, or to yet another Zoom happy hour.
For many people, however, Zoom was already a sinister place. Though the platform was widely adopted to facilitate social distancing at the start of the pandemic, its status as a digital sanctuary was short-lived. “Zoombombing”—a practice in which bad actors hijack meetings to bombard patrons with disturbing videos and imagery—became so common that the company was forced to enact new safety measures. There have been several instances of violence caught on Zoom’s cameras; in one case, a 10-year-old girl was attending a Zoom class when a domestic dispute in her home escalated into a fatal shooting. These serious online threats come at a time when the coronavirus crisis is already wearing on Americans’ mental health. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified an increase in depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder during the pandemic, especially among young adults. A New York Times story published last week cited research from April that listed more screen time, more time indoors, and fewer face-to-face interactions as “tremors in the [country’s] mental-health firmament.”
As The Atlantic’s David Sims wrote last month, low-budget horror films are thriving during a summer-movie season devoid of the usual blockbusters and packed theaters. But Host stands out for the way it taps into the undercurrent of unease produced not only by the pandemic, but also by the new forms of communication that have taken over our lives and changed how we interact with others. Though it uses supernatural horror tropes, the film also speaks to the natural feelings of alienation and social anxiety that have become a part of daily existence. One of Host’s promotional posters is an apt illustration of pandemic paranoia and its cousin, Zoomphobia. The image features a woman cowering under a blanket, a single, teary eyeball peeking through. Her pixelated expression is that of someone who is lost and alone, with no one to turn to—especially when the tenet of “safety in numbers” no longer applies.
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