Over the course of twenty-two impressive minutes, the former White House intern/presidential paramour described the seemingly endless string of public scorn she faced, from being sexualized in over 40 rap songs to her mother’s crippling fear that she’d commit suicide and be “humiliated to death.” Lewinsky also called for an end to the “culture of humiliation” that’s only spread in the years since her infamous Oval Office tryst.
“Cruelty is nothing new. But online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible,” said Lewinsky. “Millions of people can stab you with their words and that's a lot of pain.”
A new film now playing in theaters, Unfriended, tackles not only the price of shame, but also the price of shaming. It’s set inside the computer screen of a high school girl replete with open tabs and video chats with her soon-to-be-dead besties.
Unfriended employs typical teen horror film packaging, featuring a group of friends enjoying a nighttime Skype call on the anniversary of their friend Laura’s suicide. You see, the popular girl killed herself after a video of her passed out drunk and soiling her booty shorts went viral, inciting a vicious barrage of cyberbullying consisting of trolls literally telling her to kill herself. A year ago Laura succumbed to social pressure and was buried six feet under, but now she wants to dig up this group of teens’ secrets—through the haunting powers of modern day tech.
While gabbing away on Skype, they notice a mysterious user is also on the call (Laura, duh). After numerous attempts to dump the phantom, they finally realize it’s their peer who took her own life. She surprises her nemeses with incriminating party photos of them unable to be deleted from Facebook, videos exposing unfaithful behavior, and of course messages from her own profile, just in case any of these mean teens weren’t convinced that this is indeed Laura who’s back to make their lives a living hell.
This group of “friends” fits the typical teen horror lineup, complete with nerd and slut archetypes, and one by one they’re taken offline both digitally and IRL by Laura. Although their deaths are not very surprising, the laggy video (a product of the Skype format) and startling imagery effectively balance suspense and morbid gruesomeness.
While audience members get what they expect when it comes to dispatching the Skyping squad, the experimental, fresh presentation is what makes Unfriended so noteworthy. It fully commits to setting the action on Blaire’s (Shelley Hennig) Macbook computer. The unconventional format is akin to The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity—two other horror films that played around with form. But as groundbreaking as those two movies were, they don’t possess the timeliness of Unfriended.
Teens are swamped in simultaneous chatter. Blair, for instance, is not only mid-video conference, but also privately iMessaging her boyfriend (who’s also on the call) and Facebook messaging the murderous spirit. This sense of tech ADD feels all too nauseatingly familiar.
Also genuine is how the actors interact with one another while Skyping. Some are illuminated solely by the glow of their computer screens, their framing is imperfectly off-center, but not sloppy, and the delay in the stream when the connection gets fuzzy all add to the film’s realism. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Hennig said that the actors all filmed in separate rooms in order to make the action seem as natural as possible.
There’s also, of course, the issue of cyberbullying. While a genre film like Unfriended isn’t exactly a life-changer, it does shed some necessary light on the problem, and viewers will acknowledge that online harassment is a horrifying byproduct of our Internet-entwined world—or, as Lewinsky preached, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.”