When I was in my early teens, my friends and I loved making a beeline to the faraway corner of my neighborhood Blockbuster, so we could rummage through their small but well-curated selection of shitty horror movies. At 27, little has changed, except for the fact that I’m now able to peruse Netflix to find these B-rated gems, and can legally down a few glasses of wine while doing so.
Recently, when I was on one of my cult movie binges, I explored a new corner of the genre: horror movies aimed at today’s teens. Technology — from demon apps to the darkest corners of the web — is what haunts their dreams… or so these movies would have us believe. Gone are the days of fearing a ghost will hit up your landline. Now, it’s about keeping them out of your DMs.
While many of these movies aren’t well known, financially successful, or particularly good, more of these dystopian flicks are popping up. One of the most prominent of these films, Unfriended, will see its semi-sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, released July 20. Slender Man, an upcoming horror thriller about the infamous Creepypasta urban legend, hits theaters August 24.
These movies, along with The Den, Bedeviled, Unfriended, #Horror, and Friend Request, are like the Scream of the texting age; I Know What You Did Last Summer with Snapchat filters. They’re dystopian slashers where kids are terrorized and isolated, not at summer camp, but on Skype. They are kitchy, gory, ridiculous — and I loved every second of every one of them (in the same way I loved Final Destination, Ghost Ship, and Darkness Falls, mind you).
After months of talking about these Gen Z horror movies with friends, family, and confused acquaintances at parties, I began to feel like an expert on this new generation. That, of course, was a delusion: Like previous generations do to my millennial peers, I was only pigeonholing everyone who doesn’t remember 9/11. I knew I had to go to the teens themselves to find out if these movies actually reflect a change in fears or if it’s just what Hollywood studios want kids to love.
So, I took to Reddit, texted my friend’s younger brother, and enlisted a handful of people under 20 to watch my “favorite” Gen Z horror movies and the trailers for those upcoming films, and then tell me about their experiences. Mild spoilers for the aforementioned films ahead.
Here’s the thing about the teens I interviewed: They were, for the most part, pretty smart. I began to feel like a high school teacher, pulling my hair out to get these kids to watch campy horror movies marketed to their generation. There were a few who half-assed the “assignment,” while some ghosted me, and others gave up halfway. But most of these young adults treated my weird horror movie questions like a college application, which I appreciated, but also resented. I’ve always been a fan of Gen Z because of their passion and progressive nature, but I couldn’t help but feel salty that none of them sent me an apple… or were “dumb” enough to give me wild answers. Instead, I ended up with cerebral responses which I hated agreeing with.
Of the people that I interviewed — most in their late teens, both men and women, mainly from the United States — most liked psychological drama and cerebral thrills as opposed to half-baked jump scares. The Shining was mentioned by four teens, while David Lynch’s Eraserhead, The Silence of the Lambs, and Psycho were also noted. David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro are respected filmmakers. Most mentioned they enjoy Black Mirror, which is a higher brow version of a lot of these cheesier teen horror films.
“I dislike strongly horror films that are just for the sake of horror,” 18-year-old Matthew L. Rice of Silver Spring, Maryland told me over a voice memo. “I never found enjoyment out of those films.
“I really find horror to be best when it’s not only horror,” he continued, “when it’s also telling a different story and horror happens to be in it because it needs to be there.”
All the way from England, 17-year-old Thomas Prince told me that while he’s a fan of myriad genres of horror — I found him on the r/horror subreddit — his favorite “teen horror” movies are brutal slasher franchises like Final Destination and Saw, not because they are particularly scary, but more because they are fun to watch. I related.
“I am most scared by films that are more subtle in their presentation, and rely on tension rather than in your face jumpscares,” he said. “Whether that’s achieved in a film about ghosts, cultists, demons, etc. doesn’t matter much to me.”
“I wanted to see real psychological fears that keep people up at night. Like the fear of death or fear of not being good enough to survive.”
Bedeviled was by far the most hated film of the bunch. This made me pretty sad, because it’s my favorite shitty horror movie in years. In case you’ve missed this B-rated gem, Bedeviled follows a group of high school friends who are haunted by a demon app who appears as a Slenderman-Jigsaw lovechild donning a bowtie, who feeds on their fears. In fact, part of the reason why I wanted to write this article was to inform the public of this film, and in a sadistic way, actively force others to watch it.
“I think if it was a little bit more subtle, it definitely would have made more of an impact and it would have been a movie that I could’ve recommended to my friends,” Ariana Garcia, 17, of Reston, Virginia said, “but it definitely didn’t deal with any of these issues in a way that made sense or was constructive.”
“Bedeviled was hard to sit through. It honestly felt like a waste of 90 minutes of my life,” said 18-year-old Ellis Maclean of Silver Springs, Maryland. “If it weren’t for this article I wouldn’t have sat through it.”
“I sort of liked the concept that maybe the devil was controlling this app that was killing these kids with fear but the stuff that these kids feared was so stupid,” Maclean — my friend’s brother, who I’ve known since 2011 and is honestly a bit too smart for these movies — continued. “I wanted to see real psychological fears that keep people up at night. Like the fear of death or fear of not being good enough to survive. Instead the kids’ fears were of bears, Asian ladies, and the token black kid was afraid of police.”
On the flip side, one of the most popular was The Den, a film featuring deep web hackers, revenge porn, online snuff films, and the “stranger danger” element of websites like Chatroulette or Omegle. In a way, it’s a cautionary tale that resonated with the teens as Hostel does with young people who travel abroad on the cheap. It’s also the highest critically rated film, garnering a 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Bedeviled’s 17 percent (audience rating; critics didn’t even watch it).
“I liked the concept of having a random hacker ruin this woman’s life,” Maclean said. “It also seemed more realistic than the other movies.”
“This opened my eyes to what could have gone wrong, because there are a lot of bots or scammers on there that would send links,” Ariana Garcia, who mentioned regularly going on Omegle during sleepovers when she was young, reflected. “If you open them, that could be bad, which is shown through this. But I think my favorite part about The Den, honestly the best scene out of all these movies, was after the main character had died and it had been filmed, you see a man purchasing the film of her dying. I thought that was something to think about.”
She’s right; the ending is chilling. It accurately, albeit dramatically, reveals that people on the other side of the computer screen can be totally normal-looking, even if what they are doing is reprehensible. Sure, there’s a strong torture porn aspect to this film, but it’s not gore for gore’s sake. It’s a tangible story, as human trafficking and digital snuff films are very real, as is the idea that someone, whether it’s a stalker or the government, is watching you through your laptop. (Hi, FBI agent who watches me. I’m sorry for what you’ve seen).
“I think there’s always the danger on my webcam getting hacked and having it recording as I’m doing things like changing… that would be terrifying,” she said, noting that some friends cover their webcams for that exact reason.
The other movie that most resonated with the teenagers was Friend Request. In the film, a popular, blissfully basic college student accepts an outcast’s friend request on royalty-free Facebook, a decision with a body count. It’s ultimately a witch “satanic panic” story, but also touches on cyberbullying, sexual abuse, and the difference between Tumblr art and the creepiest stuff you can find in the dark corners of the world wide web.
I honestly thought Friend Request was one of the dumbest movies of the bunch — the villain would have been social media famous within twisted circles, not “friend”-less — so I was genuinely shocked it resonated with The Teens. Most found it genuinely scary at times, were more invested in the characters, and enjoyed the fact that Friend Request was realistic — well, when put next to Bedeviled, that is.
Maryland’s Isabelle Hoskyn, 18, was pleasantly surprised by the film.
“I did enjoy how the technology and use of social media was incorporated as it connected the excessive use of screens to the use of black mirrors in witch cults therefore making the plot stronger,” she said.
After watching Friend Request, Garcia reflected on just how far online stalking can get. “Who is looking at my pictures? Because my Instagram is public and sometimes I’ll get like weird DMs or like follows out of nowhere and that creeps me out because they’re more like, old men, and like ‘how did you find me?’ You never really know who’s looking at what you’re posting.”
Suffice to say it’s reasonable to be afraid of the possibility of being hacked along with the idea that someone can easily take over your social media accounts without permission, because it happens. And the problems that arise aren’t just pop-ups and malware.
“One of my friends was on Tinder, and she found someone using her pictures,” she said. “It’s definitely a bigger thing than people notice or really pay attention to. But personally I don’t think that’s something always on the forefront of my mind when I’m posting something.”
But interestingly, the other film about “Facebook,” Unfriended, wasn’t popular. Although it had a similar format as The Den — laptop found footage — its supernatural corniness did turn people off. The film follows a bunch of kids on their laptops being haunted by the ghost of one of their classmates. Things get gory, and also pretty silly.
“Unfriended was reminiscent of Sharknado in being so bad it was somewhat enjoyable, but as a horror it was just not scary in the slightest,” Prince said. “They overdid the Skype gimmick and the final jumpscare looks like someone just googled ‘scary zombie girl.’ It had a nice concept and promising beginnings, but it just fell flat on its face.”
And it’s not looking good for the sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web.
But there’s still hope for Gen Z horror, this time in the name of Slender Man, which many of the teenagers found appealing after they watched the trailer. The controversial film follows the story of Slenderman, the digital urban legend now infamous after two girls attempted to murder one of their friends in order to appease the dapper supernatural character back in 2014.
“Slender Man looks promising, I am quite excited for it, as it seems to promise a more subtle horror than most teen horrors, with a premise that is relatively different to the rest,” Prince said.
Overall, all the teenagers I talked to were intrigued by this new brand of techno-horror, although they don’t believe that it has been perfected. “If it is done right, it has the potential to be really good,” Prince said. “Social media and technology play a huge part in our lives, so addressing that in a horror has the potential to create something genuinely scary.”
Ellis Maclean agreed: “This new brand of techno-horror seems like it can work in some cases, mostly it seems like a tactic to relate to teenagers so most of the movies end up shitty. However, I do think it can be done well if they focus on making a good movie instead of focusing on what teens would like.”
That said, my experiment of terrifying teenagers worked. “I think that after watching these films I had gotten a little bit more paranoid,” Garcia mentioned when I asked if she has any new tech-based fears. “I realized that Snapchat tracks my location, I didn’t realize that, so I turned that off and went private on a couple things, just because I started thinking more about my social media footprints, I guess. Like what I’m putting out there.”
Watching these movies on computer screens, multiple teens were freaked out by tricks these films used to, well, do just that. As you’re supposed to fear Samara coming out of your own TV static at the end of The Ring, filmmakers have anticipated that you’re facing your computer screen and webcam while you watch films like Friend Request, Unfriended, and The Den.
Isabelle Hoskyn explained: “I think it’s an interesting way of incorporating technology into the horror genre since a lot of horror films are about dark magic or ancient demons. As technology advances and people use social media more and more, it makes sense to target some plots around something that everybody uses and to turn it into something dangerous.”
Echoing the views of most of the teens, Ariana Garcia, who dabbles in filmmaking herself, prefers psychological horror movies that are more thrill than gore, because she’s less scared of demons and monsters but of what could actually happen.
“I think my generation will address these issues,” Garcia continued. “Probably not in the way they’re being addressed right now, because the people that are directing these movies are much older than us and definitely sponsored by studio execs. I do think it will be done better when we get the time to talk about it and make films about it.”