Allow me to get all Grandma up in here and take you back to the year 2002. I was a bright eyed, angry 16 year old with a habit of getting blind drunk at parties and getting myself into all sorts of crazy shenanigans (oh, the shenanigans!). Back then all I had was a trusty Nokia brick phone with no camera (I say Nokia, it probably wasn’t. They were the i-Phones of their time after all and my pocket money just did not stretch that far) and used the internet for little more than sending pictures of Seth Cohen to my best friend via email with messages like ‘He can ride my Captain Oats any time LOL!’ (I don’t even think the word LOL was a thing yet thankfully but innuendos were still huge).
It was a golden era of growing up where you could pick a confidant to hit the town with, use a disposable camera to document the evening and then hide all the evidence in a nifty photo wallet that you could bury under your bed. Unless a really snide bastard felt the need to take negatives into a Max Spielmans for spare photos to be made of the total embarrassment you made of yourself at the Friday night piss up, then there was no proof but hearsay. And fuck hearsay. Pictures or it didn’t happen, bro.
But it’s a totally different playing field now. Everyone has a camera on their phone and everyone has quick and easy access to all of the salacious social media sites that exist to market oneself and destroy others. I don’t know how the modern teenager handles it. My 16 year self would have gone viral by now, though not in a good way. And the only thing that went viral when I was 16 was when I got ‘the kissing disease’. Because I was gross, guys. I liked kissing.
It was whilst hate-watching the new small-screen-Scream show (spoiler alert: It has about as much to do with Scream as Glee does with American Horror Story – same producers and completely horrific in their own way but boy are they totally unrelated) that I realised something: We’ve entered a new era of the ‘teenager’. And it is horrific.
Now, I’m not going to sugar coat the past and pretend like all teen TV shows and movies were completely void of horror. After all, I grew up in a time when Buffy was what you called your best mates up about at 10pm to discuss the latest episode and where films which engaged with the teenage experience from a horror slant (like Idle Hands, Heathers, Carrie and Ginger Snaps to name but a few) were the absolute best sleepover videos you could blag your older brother to rent out for you from Blockbusters.
Because in itself growing up is a horrifying experience and it’s easy to see why horror films have so commonly time and again utilised a pack of confused, hormonal teenagers as the central characters of their narrative – before the monster even enters, there’s plenty of everyday horror to be setting the tone. But the blend between genres has shifted, the monsters have changed and so too has the parameters between hero and villain, good and evil.
The teen TV show – as we know it – seems to be completely out of favour with modern audiences. Shows that attempt to stay on the straight and narrow of showing a traditional teenage narrative (in as much as TV can handle, there’s nothing ‘normal’ after all about constantly showcasing rich, white kids in an affluent neighbourhood and a flashy school) are rarely the most popular, and more often than not get cancelled. And who can blame them? Does anyone really want to watch a shopping montage on The Carrie Diaries when Pretty Little Liars can offer twists, murder and intrigue? Of course not. And especially not when an on screen ‘shopping montage’ can now happen in real life and without spending a penny by wasting hours hand picking outfits on ASOS.com for shit you’ll never be able to afford.
The internet has obliterated what we know as ‘the teenager’. It has put them in control of their own narratives and identities which they can curate and develop online. They don’t have the same need that we did to see their experiences empathised through characters on a TV show or in a movie – they have blog followers and social media friends they can do that with now. The teenager is public and that’s a dangerous territory.
The primary modern narrative of teen TV shows and movies now revolves around survival. The new monster isn’t, generally, a single figure in a bad mask but is the much more daunting ghoul of society as a whole. It utilises technology in the same way that Freddy Krueger utilised dreams in order to catch his prey, and often there’s no hero or villain involved but just a slew of teenagers punishing each other for their mistakes. In content that features no technology whatsoever – usually in films like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner – it’s simply because it’s set in a dystopian landscape without such luxuries where teenagers are given little time to enjoy or despise the experience of growing up because they’re being forced to physically attack each other for survival instead.
Being a teenager is shown as being a competitive sport now, which is no surprise considering they’re all being taught to value their self worth based on the amount of blog followers they have on Tumblr, Facebook likes they can get on a profile picture and what excess they can flaunt on Instagram.
Gossip Girl was well ahead of the curve on this one. And whilst GG was fun, camp, stupendously melodramatic and flamboyant with excess it could have easily have shifted tone at any time and been believable as a horror. Essentially, it was Pretty Little Liars without death threats, spooky dolls or murder. Every character on GG was detestably competitive and gloriously so. The weekly arc also barely changed, it was the dependable thread of one character getting revenge on another character with a little help from the mysterious ‘Gossip Girl’ who was the worst kind of stalker imaginable: a big mouth with a fast internet provider. And whilst the rich, white, deplorable ‘gang’ of the Upper East Side repeatedly tried and failed to bring down Gossip Girl, they more often than not resorted right back to targeting each other instead. There was nobody necessarily ‘good’ to root for. You simply rooted for the juicy, shocking ruin of everyone involved. Let the bad people do bad things, let them have their secrets outed and watch them as their lives get ruined. That was A grade fucking television right there.
They competed for status, they competed for lovers, they even competed for parties. The Upper East Side was made to look like the battlefield from The Hunger Games but with iphones for artillery and money for bullets (and Blair Waldorf was obviously the mother-chucking Queen).
Whilst Pretty Little Liars has taken a turn for the worse, lately (which we won’t talk about here, mostly because I stopped watching when it looked like sexy teacher Ezra Fitz wasn’t the dude that had been simultaneously shagging and torturing his students), in it’s prime it was a master example of shift change in both horror and teen TV. Here was a pack of teenage girls, mourning the death of their best friend and all trying desperately to keep their respective deepest, darkest secrets from being made public. These, supposedly anyway, were the popular girls in school. They were the prettiest, the smartest, the coolest and the most powerful. They were also horrible fucking people (I don’t know what season it was but I clearly remember a storyline where they accidentally blinded someone in a bullying misstep and showed very little remorse for it).
In PLL, threats are sounded like war trumpets within a wall of phone notification noises and leaked photos and videos spiral from one handset to the next like the cursed VHS tape from The Ring. Everyone is suspicious because everyone is an asshole (that’s probably what ‘A’ stands for).
It’s basically standard revenge narrative, but with the perspective skewed. Whereas normally we’d follow our hero taking vengeance on the people who have wronged them, instead we follow the individuals being punished for it. Whilst this is certainly the standard fare of your average slasher movie (ooh! What’s that big twist? It was the bullied kid who got humiliated at the prom all along!) it certainly takes on a new life within the online realm of the personal avatar: the blog, the youtube account, the facebook profile, the Tinder app. It’s a vulnerable location to invest your identity to, and not just that but to commit intimate conversations, photos or videos to which we assume are buried because of privacy settings. Which is like thinking your diary is unreadable just because it came with a crappy lock on it.
2014’s Unfriended (Pro tip: Turn out the lights, watch it on your laptop and have a B-L-A-S-T. It’s an absolute riot) took cues from both Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars in introducing a set of abhorrent teenagers with horrible secrets being pitted against each other for their mistakes. It’s a glorious piece of static filmmaking in which the fourth wall positions us almost as the mysterious entity torturing our gang via the one laptop screen over skype. Over the course of the film every possible social media avenue is used in providing evidence of our characters personal monstrosities or is manipulated to push them further into malevolent despair.
The teenagers of Unfriended are no different from the ones of the traditional teenage narrative: they party, they plan to lose virginities, they sleep around, they’re bitchy as hell. But whereas in a teen show like The O.C or a movie like 10 Things I Hate About You our main characters would deal with the fallout of a relationship or the big reveal of a destructive secret via an emotional storming off scene soundtracked by Imogen Heap, here they deal with it via the public battlefield of social media and it ends not in Mischa Barton crying herself into a heap but with a beautifully high pitched screaming match over Skype followed by somebody shoving their face into a blender (you heard correctly. This film is that good).
The introduction of Scream into the TV landscape seems to signify that this shift in tone is one that’s only going to continue, too. Whilst the self-awareness of the show initially seemed to be there just to validate the tone of the original movie series, it actually seems to be developing into a fantastic homage to contemporary teen culture too. We have the shady Ezra Fitz-style English teacher who is sleeping with one of his students (this is far too cliché to be anything but pastiche, surely), our lead protagonist who is maintaining a secret text dialogue with the killer just like the girls from PLL and even scenes where the push of a single, random button can instantly and miraculously send a private, cataclysmic video to an entire high school, just like the technology on Gossip Girl could do.
The characters, for the most part, are all nefarious to the core in some way too. All cradling their dark secrets like an unpinned grenade and all too aware that an action from their past has made them all too worthy to at least one person, if not more, of punishment for it. They’re all vulnerable because they all have something to hide.
Played right and the main villain of Small-Screen-Scream should turn out to have little to do with whoever is prancing about in that terrible mask and more to do with how far the characters are willing to destroy each other in discovering who the killer is.
In many ways this development of characters – exposing their dark sides alongside their likeable traits – is a push in the right direction of complex characterisation (not that you could call any of the characters mentioned in this article ‘complex’. But hey, these are just shows I like to eat crisps to) and if there’s anything I remember from being a teenager it was that it was definitely complex. And that we were all assholes in our own special way. Still, let me get all Jerry Springer Show up in here now and say Hey, teenagers. Go easy on yourselves and each other, eh? We all make mistakes. And if I’ve learnt anything from the aforementioned culture it’s that punishment might feel good, it might even look good on screen, but it sure as shit doesn’t solve anything. And that’s why Pretty Little Liars is still on the air when it should have been cancelled years ago.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a batch of old photos that I think I need to burn.