The internet is haunted! Ghouls are discussing the many horrifying things about the internet from cyberbullying, doxing, swatting, and more. They're covering Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web. Both films have some truly fun and creative deaths, each with its own unique villain. Tune in to learn just how important 2-factor authentication is!
Sources in this Episode: Unfriended: Dark Web wardrives straight into the bad-tech-film toilet
Media from this week's episode:
Unfriended (2014): A group of online chat room friends find themselves haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force using the account of their dead friend.
Director Levan Gabriadze
Unfriended Dark Web (2018): A teen comes into possession of a new laptop and soon discovers that the previous owner is not only watching him, but will also do anything to get it back.
Director Stephen Susco
Unfriended Series: The Real Horrors of the Internet, Cyberbullying and the Dark Web by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
In the first Unfriended, we follow a group of teens chatting online. This conversation and virtual hangout comes after the death of a fellow classmate. Throughout the film, we learn what led to the teen’s suicide as well as what part the teens we see had played in her fatal end. The entire film takes place on a computer screen. We get to glimpse the protagonist, Blaire’s virtual journey in it’s entirety. From private messages, Skype windows, her music playlists, what videos she’s watching, and her incredibly teen-inspired tabs (Forever21 and FreePeople, here we come!). What I really appreciate about this specific brand of found footage is the creativity. It can feel like a setup for failure at first, given how limited our point of view is, but each death was interesting and because we, like the characters, are confined to these small squares on a screen you can feel just as hopeless as they do.
What starts as a harmless group hang spirals into creative and disturbing deaths after an unknown person joins the call. This virtual ghost reeks havoc on them from beyond the grave and through a screen. These teens are no angels and their sins are put on display, secrets are revealed and the truth comes to light. As the ghost begins picking them off one by one, we are experiencing those frustrating tech glitches synonymous with every Skype experience, camera’s distorting, calls dropping, and audio not syncing. Blaire frantically googles what to do when a ghost contacts you through the internet while her friends meet their untimely demise. One girl unalives herself off camera, a young and irritating boy dies by blender (a scene that still haunts Kat), and another boy shoots himself though by then it is revealed that the ghost has full control of these characters.
In a scene I thoroughly enjoyed, she (the ghost, Laura) skillfully prints a message to Blaire and her friend, Adam. It’s been revealed that these two were having an affair or had slept with each other in the past. As her boyfriend, Mitch, struggles with Blaire’s infidelity and lies he urges them to reveal what the ghost sent them. Which they both insist they truly cannot. In a moment of pure panic, Blaire chooses Mitch over Adam and reveals her paper so he doesn’t leave the chat (resulting in his death). Adam immediately shoots himself as we read, “If you show this paper, Adam will die,” which allows us to infer that had Adam showed his paper, it’d be much the same about Blaire.
As absolutely messy as these teens were (as well as the plot), the deaths were fun. There were times where I was truly curious and stressed. One scene had a new caller join in the conversation, this time with their video on showing a room through a latticed item, such as a laundry basket or trash can. As the kids berate the silly ghost for leaving their camera on, they realize the VIDEO IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE. This, like so much of the movie is a fun albeit silly time. The film doesn’t try to have much in the way of reality or probability with it’s horror (other than the technical glitches) but I still enjoyed it for the campy scares.
Unfriended 2 takes the virtual horrors a step further by incorporating a more realistic monster. This film follows a new group of friends, this time adults, for their virtual game night. An activity that these days is normal but in 2018 would’ve been a bit unique. Our protagonist this time is Matias, a man with a new computer. He is “seen” re-entering his own passwords and bypassing the auto-fills on websites from the previous owner, Norah C. IV. Matias installs a new program he’s been working on that would allow him to better communicate with his girlfriend, who we learn is deaf. This program will translate his words into sign language using videos he’s recorded of him doing the signs. We learn that he acquired this computer online to better run this program, however the memory is overloaded and it runs glitchy. His tech-savvy friend tells him he needs to run a program to find excess files to delete. This is when Matias discovers some hidden files containing videos and information. As this is happening he is being inundated with pings on Facebook from Norah C’s “friends” and a woman named, Erica Dunne. Erica turns out to be a friend of Erica’s who’s using her account to communicate with the person who has stolen her computer, Matias.
While we learn about his theft, Matias’ friends question him about his lack of energy. One of the Facebook “friends” asks Matias if he could fulfill a request for an exchange of money. It appears Norah C has a lucrative business. After being pressed about this computer, Matias tells his friend that he’s uncovered some questionable files. They watch together via screenshare some of the very many videos on the drive. The videos seem harmless but unsettling at first, those of people in their homes. It appears someone has hacked people’s home cameras and his tech-savvy friend Damon explains, they can hack in and even shut off the light that indicates the camera is on so folx don’t even know this is happening. After looking at the last video, they see that a man has snuck into a young girl’s room, seemingly to show that he can and possibly to show off “merchandise.” The Facebook buyer requests a special event, that of “trephination” which Matias, thankfully, has to Google. It is a surgical procedure in which a circular piece of bone is drilled and excised, most commonly from the human skull. Truly terrifying and dark stuff.
Matias’ computer’s former owner, was a member of a dark organization on the dark web. He finds videos that hint at horrible things done to women, though he thankfully closes out of them before they become too much. In terror, the friends decide they need to alert the police.
We learn that Erica Dunne is not Norah C’s friend but rather, the lastest victim of this dark web group. This is when Matias learns that Norah C or rather, Charon IV knows where he is, is mad that he hasn’t returned the computer, and is going to kill his girlfriend. Things spiral out from there and the friends begin dropping like flies.
Unlike the spectral and unbelieving horrors of Unfriended, this film provides villains and deaths that however absurd aren’t entirely fantastical. The friends are attacked or strategically taken out by these elite hackers, dark web org folx. They don anti-surveillance gear which gives them a digitally spectral look on camera but they are incredibly real. The way they undo these humans was incredibly unique and scary in an entirely different way than the first one. Where that one had absurd gore, clever glitches, and distortion, this film has the true horrors of the internet, doxxing and hacking.
The Charons are able to locate each one of the friends, and they aren’t shy to reveal just how talented they are by screen sharing their hacks with the group. They watch as one Facebook post leads to an alma mater to a listserv on a University site and eventually to their friends home. One friend who is incredibly anti-social media and is seen in the beginning harping on the problems with surveillance, is notoriously off-grid. But given that he needs a platform to spout his mistrust of the government and the internet, he has a podcast (because of course he does!). The Charons then show the group various videos from his show, then slice up those videos to create a horrible message. This message is a threat to the government which they play on a phone call to 911, fully equipped with his address and name. They realize the call had been made awhile ago and the feds are at AJ’s door. As he walks with his hands up, shouting to the police that he will comply, the Charons hack his desktop and download a sound clip, one of a shotgun cocking. They turn up the volume as loud as it can go and let rip, resulting in the police (as trigger-happy as always) to absolutely lay into him. That is only one of the incredibly interesting and stressful deaths. One person is forced to choose between her sick mother or her new fiancé. While others are framed for the abduction of Erica Dunne. Turns out this isn’t only Game Night for this group of friends but also of these Dark Web Weirdos.
As someone who isn’t computer-savvy, I was impressed with this film. Whereas I find myself rolling my eyes during certain silly found-footage film techniques (as someone who works in film themselves), I couldn’t catch the flaws in this. Was it unbelievable at times? Certainly, for one - what hacking genius has an auto-fill option on their computer, especially for their bank!? But I had fun while also being quite worried, during the film.
In an article on ARS Technica titled, Unfriended: Dark Web wardrives straight into the bad-tech-film toilet writer Sam Machikovech explains more of the technical flaws that simply went over my head. Firstly, the problem is with AJ’s theory that the videos are a result of “wardriving” which I had to Google (thank you Kaspersky.com). It apparently means, “Wardriving in cyber security is the act of looking for publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks, usually from a moving vehicle, using a laptop or smartphone.” which is what I thought AJ explained but Machikovech says it’s wrong? “The term derives from the 1983 movie WarGames. In the movie, the character played by Matthew Broderick engages in an activity called war dialing, which involves using a computer to dial multiple phone numbers to identify a working modem. Wardriving is seen as an evolution of this process.”
Machikovech explains, The film's logic, sadly, is already toast at this point—why is Mattias entering his personal credentials into some laptop he acquired without wiping its existing contents to orbit?! Yet U:DW still flexes its "technical consultant" muscles whenever possible. Eventual malware on this laptop mimics existing programs' takeover abilities and interfaces; Mattias runs terminal commands and DaisyDisk when he faces hard drive issues; real (and disturbing) darknet marketplaces are name-checked. When it comes to basic technical questions, U:DW answers them with clear and accurate representations on Mattias' desktop. (The biggest exception is how the Macbook in question juggles multiple Facebook accounts without having credentials cancel each other out or requesting any two-factor authentication. I wish U:DW had ended with some form of PSA reminding viewers to use the heck out of 2FA.)
I agree with those last points - you would need a different browser to balance the two accounts. I know at least that much. There are certainly enough plotholes to sour anyone’s experience, mostly to do with convenience and timing. But I think ultimately, the film offered a fun and creative way to kill off a bunch of friends playing Cards Against Humanity, which is their only sin. There is a bit of hate for the film out there though. Tara Brady of the Irish Times said this of the film, “Figuratively speaking, Unfriended 2 puts a sheet over its head and says "whooo; the internet is scary". It is seldom as scary as a sheet. There are few interesting twists and turns and the mounting horror of too many message alerts and unsolicited Skype friend requests is, as in real life, enough to elicit a sense of dread.”
This film has four endings. Apparently, theaters would play the endings randomly? So you wouldn’t know which you were going to get. I find this part the silliest. Firstly, if you’re going to film four different endings, then we should have some say in which we get. Let it be a choose-your-own-adventure (its been done!...kinda). Or simply pick one. You don’t get to have them all. There will always be a better ending between them (I’m looking at you depressing alternate ending to The Descent) so don’t put the work on us to figure it out for you, this isn’t a video game.
While the first one is, by no means, trying to instill a fear of the internet in us (instead, it's a tale against cyberbullying), I found the intentionality of the second one just as fun. I think virtual specters and hooded hackers can be frightening. It would be truly terrifying to be pursued by an entity you cannot touch that also knows all of your darkest secrets, who could then force you to end yourself over those secrets. But it is also terrifying to be met with the truth of the dark web, there are monsters out there who have found community with other monsters, who then work together to harm people. Sometimes that harm is murder and torture, but other times, that harm is simply an invasion of privacy. For someone to so easily have access to your life, your digital presence, and image is horrifying. We’ve covered it many times on this show with our surveillance episode about Snowden, our internet episode about the Net, CAM, and sex workers, and even with Host. We should be under no illusion that our internet presence does not belong to us, and that we are at risk of losing ourselves and our livelihood always. Whether we lose that to sinister hackers or dark spirits of the net, the loss is terrifying.
The Internet is Scary: Trauma, Identity & Permanent Mistakes by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
The internet can feel scary for a lot of reasons, not usually in the fear of actual ghosts, but more out of its all encompassing access to human experience. The internet holds and sees and shines a magnifying glass to a lot of people that otherwise might have operated under the radar. It gives access to information that is overwhelming, amazing, invasive, and dangerous. It has vastly altered the human experience, changed how we socialize, both to our detriment and benefit. There is also lots of ambiguity and lack of understanding of how invasive the internet can be. When utilized by certain hands, they can access things you might never even thought about. Whether it’s someone taking screenshots of conversations, images, tweets, and other things, our entire selves are constantly at the disposal of others. Identity theft is a very real and ever present threat that the internet increases the chances of. With identity theft extending from literal theft of personal information, finances, etc., to someone masquerading as someone they are not, hacking profiles to use one person's influence to reach more victims. There is an intense level of vulnerability that is exchanged for an online presence. This vulnerability is something that can haunt people, and result in real and lasting consequences. As we witnessed in the first Unfriended film, we are given protagonists that have amazing tools of social media, Youtube, Skype and other methods of constant communication access to each other. These tools are given to humans who are too young to really understand the permanence of their words, and actions on a digital platform.
What they are forced to confront is that once something is posted on the internet, it becomes alive in a way that is hard to comprehend. It takes on a life of its own with the instantaneous influence of others. Something being removed from the internet by one person can be downloaded, screen capped and reposted by someone else. Things deleted from a computer can be reassessed if someone has the hacking capabilities at their disposal to unearth it. The internet makes it so that a bad decision can last forever, and live on without a person's consent. It’s a literal representation of how actions and words have lasting consequences. Where those consequences used to be siloed into tight knit communities, are not out there for any and everyone to see. There is an obvious danger that exists with that, but it’s especially dangerous for a very young and not fully developed brain having humans who have the ability to voice things they may regret later in a very public and unforgiving way. We see these consequences play out in a life ending way throughout the film, as each character reveals their role in the death of their friend.
The undying presence of the internet also extends to the trauma associated with events like the loss of a friend that we see in the film. This applies to trauma, or things you may want to forget as well. If you lost a loved one, the painful memories associated with that person are significantly harder to avoid than they once were, because of the digital footprint that is left behind. Where before, you could separate yourself from those memories if that’s what you needed to heal. Now, you can’t put them away in a photo album and walk away. The Facebook memories feature specifically is notorious for this, in that it sometimes can remind you things you might not want to remember, without warning or buffer. This unexpectedly being faced with a painful reminder of what once was can be really mentally damaging, especially in instances where you weren’t seeking that information out. This applies to other forms of loss, be it an ended romantic relationship, marriage, friendship, pet, etc. There are also many instances where the option to see that information and travel back to those moments can be really special, and help keep otherwise forgotten memories alive. Profiles of lost loved ones can act as a space to honor those people, as well as an outlet to get unspoken feelings across in a way that can provide closure, or create a feeling that that person is still with you.
In addition to loss, the internet has other ways of haunting us, in that we can be haunted by our choices, words, fashion choices, and more for years. You can be reminded of things you might now want to be reminded of, without willfully seeking it out. The permanence of the internet is also very apparent when looking at the celebrities that have been haunted by their past actions, and statements. I think that’s largely why so many famous people are now getting called out on their upsetting and problematic behavior over the years, because the internet provides something they didn’t have to deal with on mass scale before - accountability. There is also a level of separation from accountability that can exist on the internet simultaneously, in people who vocalize opinions or hot takes that they might not have shared with someone to their face. Unfriended does a fantastic job of showcasing this, the lack of direct or honest communication that exists with the highlighted friend group, as well as the access to immediate negative feedback that floods in without end.
With access to information, comes an unorganized funneling of true and false information. The danger with that is that a claim made on social media can be where people end their research on a subject. A person can say blatantly untrue things about you, and thousands will believe it outright without a second thought. The same applies to the intake of news, events, and politics. While this isn’t internet specific, there does exist implied “news” channels that define themselves as entertainment platforms but many listeners take the information shared at face value. People on said channels can make unsubstantiated claims or opinions as if they are factual sources. Just as it was stated that not everything you find in a book is true, the same can be applied to the internet, in that literally anyone can post on the internet, make a website, or spread false information if they so wish.
The introduction of the paid verified check mark is especially concerning when so much is decided via twitter on someone's public stance. Anyone can make a profile and post as if they are that person, without much consequence, and the implication of the verified check mark implies further validity to whatever claim they make, as well as their perceived identity.