A classic convention of Western “scary stories” is isolation. Many horror films go to great effort to get the protagonists on their own–as completely cut off from aid as the script can make them–before bringing in whatever the looming threat happens to be in that particular story. Stephen King places the Torrence family in a snowed-in hotel during the off season in “The Shining”; a group of young filmmakers wander deep into the woods with nothing but each other and their video equipment in “The Blair Witch Project”; and Bram Stoker makes sure that anyone who seeks out his Count will have very little recourse in an old, drafty castle out in the Transylvanian countryside in “Dracula.”
Sadly for the modern horror writer, though, isolating one’s unfortunate main cast was a much easier task before the ubiquity of the cell phone. In 1970, it was completely reasonable that a couple of teenagers who had car trouble on an isolated road would be sitting ducks for whatever brand of terror or threat chose to come along. In 2011, however, anyone trying to write a scene like that convincingly would be forced to contend with the first question that will spring to the lips of his or her audience members after the couple (or group) discovers that they are stranded: “where the heck are all of their cell phones?”
Some modern horror movies spit in the face of the safe-guarding connection to the outside world that technology provides by coming up with answers to that question. The most popular answer seems to be “reception is bad out here–our phones don’t work.” (The “isolate the main characters” rule, which places the casts of many scary stories in remote locations, gives this method of neutralizing those bothersome cell phones some solid credibility).
This, however, gives birth to another potential issue: creating a cliché. Horror films are particularly famous for trafficking in a variety of go-to clichés as a part of their story-telling method. I do not know if “the reception is bad” is an “official” horror cliché yet, but if it isn’t, I am willing to bet that it will be, very soon. Once this explanation gains cliché status, its intended effect will be neutralized: what was intended to help the audience suspend disbelief will serve to momentarily shatter the story’s illusion of realism, in the same way that well-worn clichés like, “let’s split up” and “I think I’ll investigate that strange noise, in the dark, alone, with just a flash light,” already do.
For this reason, it might be worthwhile for the horror writers of 2011 to consider new ways to get that irritating technology out of the way. The obstacle probably won’t be going away any time soon, so finding a variety of believable and interesting ways to get around it will result in a nice little sharpened tool in the corner of the story-teller’s tool box, just right for smoothing out those edges that are especially vulnerable to cliché status before they hurt the story’s believability.
If “bad reception” doesn’t work for you, or you’re afraid of over-using it, there’s always, ‘my phone died,’ but the success of that explanation depends on the number of people that one is trying to isolate. If there are two girls in a car, for example, it might be reasonable that one of them left her phone at home and the other one let hers die; but if the car holds a group of three or more modern teenagers, all of which have probably been familiar with the care and keeping of cell phones since they were about twelve, it might stretch the audience’s suspension of disbelief when they all reach for their phones only to discover that every phone in the car has gone dead.
In a case like this, it might be best to mix it up. For example, let’s say we have a scene with three teenage girls in a car–Jane, Andrea, and Rose. They’ve broken down on an isolated road in the middle of the night, and the success of the plot that’s about to unfold hinges on the group’s being unable to get immediate access to outside help. When Andrea informs the others that the car won’t start, Rose volunteers to call AAA, and pulls out her phone to discover that it has died. (One explanation used up; two more phones to neutralize). Jane says she’ll call, but, digging in her bag, discovers that her phone is not with her. Establishing beforehand that Jane has a little sister who likes to borrow her phone without returning it might add extra realism to the idea that she would leave the house without her phone on her. (Two phones down, only the driver’s to go).
For the last phone in the group, the author has a certain choice to make: he or she might neutralize it in some other way (“this damn thing loves to drop calls”;” I don’t have much power left” etc.) or he/she can allow Andrea to make the call. The second option offers a real boost to realism and believability, but it requires the storyteller to find another way to allow the plot time to unfold: perhaps triple AAA says they will send a truck out, but because of the girls’ location, it will take a while; or the truck is dispatched, but has trouble finding them; or even a little twist in which the people that the girls have turned to for help–the police, the towing company, etc.–turn out to be the real threat, once they arrive.
The modern world can present some unique obstacles to horror writers that their predecessors never had to contend with, but what appears to be a stumbling block to believable storytelling can, with the right attitude, become a fun workout for the imagination. Regardless of era or genre, the best thing that any writer can do is determine that he or she will not fall back on clichés or give up on an idea that they love, regardless of the bumps in the road. Give the imagination the freedom to do its work, and results might surprise even you.