After watching the first two episodes of Canadian horror web series Darknet (spoilers for the first two episodes of Darknet to follow, by the way) I’ve concluded that they are really, really disappointing. It’s not even because every plot is dependent upon the main character making unrealistically stupid decisions (although that doesn’t help). The problem is the same problem that I have with a lot of modern horror: Everything is cranked up to 11. The extremeness of all its violence and sexuality ruins the terror. You can’t add horrific extremes to creepy premises. Creepiness stems from subtlety and suggestion, not overt gore and sex. A mixture of the two styles of scary results in the terror becoming silly. Whatever made the show scary in the first place is overshadowed by unnecessary twists.
Let’s take the main story of the first episode. It’s based on a popular internet legend, that of the unexpected stranger in one’s home. Darknet relates the story of a young woman who begins to find things slightly disarranged in her apartment. At first, it’s effectively spooky. As she lives on her own she keeps her toilet seat down at all times. But one day she comes home to find that the seat is up. It freaks her out, but she can’t find anything else suspicious in the place, so she cautiously lets it go. Later on though, she takes a falafel wrap out of the fridge and discovers that someone has taken a bite out of it. To prove that she’s not crazy, the girl sets up a webcam in her living room. She leaves for the day, returns, and checks out the tape. Lo and behold, there’s a man hiding in her apartment. Worse: The tape shows that the man is hiding in the closet right behind her.
Now that’s all the original video needed to show. I’m freaked out, the audience is freaked out, the apartment’s owner is freaked out. There’s nothing else for this story to accomplish. It’s done its job. We’re scared. But Darknet isn’t satisfied. For some reason, they decided that the girl needs to viciously stab the dude in her closet. Which, okay. That’s a twist I can handle. It’s stupid and unrealistic, but they’ve adequately set themselves apart from the original formula. But no, Darknet isn’t even satisfied with that. Turns out the girl actually enjoys killing. The episode ends with her tricking the main character of another story arc into traveling to an inconspicuous location, where she kills him too.
So that’s all dark and gritty and bloody and edgy and yadda yadda. But the original reason we were scared was because of how relatable it was. It’s the classic story of a person facing the unknown, and all the terror that comes with it. VBlogger Michael Stevens breaks down why this is so effective in this video. (A very good breakdown of creepiness, by the way, really helps to explain why Darknet fails.) It’s the introduction of a foreign presence into a familiar location, what should be a sanctuary, that terrifies us. But Darknet tries to twist the terror into something else by making the girl into a killer herself. Which, while disturbing, utterly eliminates everything that made the story so scary in the first place. The terror is sacrificed for a cheap twist which, while shocking for a couple minutes, is ultimately much less satisfying and much less lasting than the original realization that some weirdo is hiding in your closet.
The second episode makes the same mistake. One of the stories follows a sexually insecure young woman whose suspects her husband is cheating on her. The woman then notices a man watching her between nearly-closed curtains in the apartment building across the street. At first she is disgusted, but then the idea of putting on a little peep show amuses her. By way of retaliating against her husband (I guess?) the woman does a little striptease dance for the man. Then, because that’s not extreme enough, she pulls up a chair and starts masturbating. That’s when the police pull back the curtains and reveal that the peeping tom is actually a man who has hung himself, his dead eyes open and faced straight out the window. Okay, that’s creepy. Unnecessarily sexual, but I’ll take it. But not Darknet isn’t done there. Let’s take it a step further. Darknet decides that the woman is strangely turned on by masturbating in front of a dead man, and continues to do so.
The original story for this one is another urban legend, albeit a much earlier one. There are many variations, such as the Mudhouse Mansion. The version I originally heard was about a man who became enthralled with a ballerina who he would see practicing in her apartment across the street. He just loved to see her sway and twirl, and admired the determination with which she practiced every night. Eventually he decides that he just has to meet her. He goes across the street, goes to the room he believes is hers. He knocks. No answer. Another knock, louder. He just saw her in the window a moment ago. If she’d just left the building he would have seen her on his way up. He turns the knob and realizes that it’s unlocked. He decides that he’ll just take a peak in, on the chance that something bad has happened to her and she needs help. He is greeted with a terrible sight: A woman, dressed in a tutu, hung by the neck from the ceiling, swaying and twirling as if she were dancing.
Spooky, right? Darknet‘s elaboration on the story is completely unnecessary. It’s scary because of the fridge terror: The realization after the fact that you fell in love with or were trying to titillate a dead body. Making the woman sexually attracted to dead men not only destroys the character’s relatability, it distracts from the impact of the original twist. It’s a silly attempt to be edgy.
While I wouldn’t say that the scariest things in life are necessarily what you don’t see, I would say that the scariest things in life are those that you can’t explain. Like, what’s scarier: Those clowns standing on the streets of Northhampton, California or a rockslide? The rockslide is clearly dangerous, but the clowns are otherworldly, their uncanny valley faces defying explanation. The story of the hanged person in the window and the story of the stranger hiding in your house are scary because you’re facing that inexplicable presence. Any development upon the inexplicable is ultimately unnecessary. We’re already afraid. Adding more weight to it will break the tension, make it silly and unbelievable. And Darknet keeps doing that.