It has probably never crossed your mind. It is silly, it is subtle, and it is the height of banality. But once you read this article, I suspect you will view horror movies in a whole new way. I am talking about telephones, and how they are the most important prop in the horror genre.
The Call is Coming From Inside the House!
Even if you have never seen 1979’s When a Stranger Calls, you probably know the infamous line: “The call is coming from inside the house!” From that, I’m sure you can infer that the bad guy who is stalking the girl is calling from, well, inside the house she is at. You don’t need to know that she is a babysitter, alone, or being tortured by a mystery phone caller. “The call is coming from inside the house!” is truly all you need to know. Back in 1979, there were no cell phones; no call waiting or caller ID; and a home having two phone lines was almost unheard of. The film itself is not exactly a classic - most people forget that the majority of the film takes place seven years after that call came from inside the house. But that one sentence is so memorable that the 2006 remake focused entirely on the one night babysitting.
When you think about The Ring, you probably think about the mysterious video that arrives, signaling the beginning of the end for its hapless viewers. But without the follow-up phone call, the video loses its power. On its own, the video is weird, maybe a little creepy, but ultimately the kind of thing that is easily forgotten about. The follow-up phone call, however, is tougher to shake. It means that someone - corporeal or otherwise - is watching you, is within spitting distance, and is taking their time to make sure to scare the shit out of you.
What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?
The Scream franchise is essentially built on the menacing prank call. The opening scene of the original 1996 opens with Drew Barrymore getting the call that asks her, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” This sets off a chain of events that not only makes the calls the harbingers of doom, but it also set off the chain of events that made critics and audiences sit up and take notice. At the time, Drew Barrymore was easily the most famous cast member of Scream. Normally, that would guarantee her a pass to the end of the film. But due to scheduling conflicts that prevented her from taking a larger role (initially she was supposed to play Sidney, a role taken by Neve Campbell) she took a role that killed her off before the main credits. This was something that didn’t happen very often. Normally the first kill would go to an inconsequential pretty face. But by killing off the most recognizable face, Scream set itself apart and went on to become one of the biggest-grossing horror franchises of all time. And all of it started because of a phone call. Scream was also the first major horror movie to prominently feature a cell phone (Ghostface places his “scary movie” calls on one).
But Scream could have been done with a landline. Not as elegantly, but it could have been done. Another film, one of the first to specifically use a cell phone as the focal point of the story (and the entire marketing plan) was the otherwise forgettable 2004 film Cellular, which starred Kim Basinger. In it, Basinger plays the victim of a home invasion whose kidnappers lock her in an attic safe room, smashing the (landline) phone so she can’t call for help. But she manages to jury-rig the phone together to place an outgoing call - she just has no way to dial a number. She reaches a young man (played by Chris Evans) on his cell phone who, at first, thinks this is a very expensive prank call (remember back in the day when it was cheaper to have phone sex than it was to use your cell phone?) Once she gets him on board, they have a new obstacle to overcome: a quickly dwindling battery.
The advent of cell phones has forced filmmakers to be more creative when putting their heroes and heroines in dangerous situations. Phones need to be lost or damaged or jammed, especially since it is getting harder and harder to find “no signal” zones - even out in the middle of nowhere. Some have lamented that the saturation of cell phones has destroyed the horror movie. After all, what would Night of the Living Dead have been if Barbra had had a cell phone? However, cell phones are really no different than landline phones in the movies. Before cell phones, a storm would conveniently knock out power or down phone lines, or the killer would simply snip the line.
So what is it about the telephone that makes it such an important prop in the fear factory? For starters, the telephone is almost a phantasmagorical way into your personal space. If a person were to physically enter your home, you could confront them. You could know who - or what - you are dealing with. A disembodied voice can let our imaginations run wild. When I was a child, a girl from my school prank-called my house late one night, and in a spooky voice announced that she was the devil. I don’t believe in the devil, and I knew it was a crank call - I even knew who was making the call - but for weeks after, whenever I thought about that call it would give me the chills. There is a safety in making a phone call because it is easy to stay anonymous. But when you are on the receiving end of that call, the anonymity becomes powerfully unnerving.
The telephone is also a way to bring people together, especially if you are housebound. Whether it is at a remote cabin in the woods or merely a babysitter left alone for the night, telephones are a lifeline. If that lifeline is cut, it’s a pretty good indication that your lifeline is about to be cut as well. Virtually every slasher franchise of the 1970s and 1980s has an example of this in one way or another. (Examples include the downed phone lines in Friday the 13th; Freddy Kruger tonguing Nancy through the phone in Nightmare on Elm Street; and Michael Myers strangling Lynda with the phone cord in Halloween.)
So next time you watch a horror film, don’t be so quick to judge the “conveniently lost” cell phone or the stereotypical dead landline. Think about where horror flicks would be without these tropes, and just enjoy the ride.