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Modern horror films are finding their scares in dead phone batteries

Killing off the characters’ cellphones is now a standard trope, so horror filmmakers are learning to tackle it in creative ways

About halfway through Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning directorial debut Get Out, protagonist Chris Washington (played by Black Panther’s underused Daniel Kaluuya) is pretty sure he’s in serious trouble. As a black man making his first trip to visit his girlfriend Rose’s rich, liberal, white parents, he’s determined not to provoke any sort of confrontation that might make him look defensive or volatile. So he tries to ignore the unsettling things he encounters: the gardener who aggressively runs around the estate at night, the housekeeper with the rigid, plastic smile, the endless seemingly well-meaning but racially tinged comments. He even tries to shrug it off when his girlfriend’s mother hypnotizes him, sending him to the Sunken Place where he can’t control his own body.

But he can’t overlook one thing: someone keeps unplugging his phone when he’s trying to charge the battery.

Photo: Universal Pictures

The business with Chris’ dead phone and repeatedly unplugged charger stands in for a lot of what he experiences in Get Out: it seems controlling and malicious for someone to mess with his battery life, but he can’t entirely prove they’re doing it on purpose, and just bringing it up makes him feel paranoid. (When he tells Rose that the housekeeper might be messing with his charger because she disapproves of him, Rose laughs it off: “So you are so sexy that people are just unplugging your phone?”)

But that’s because Chris isn’t aware that he’s in a horror movie. If he was just aware of the genre, he’d understand that his dead battery is entirely deliberate. It’s become a standard part of the horror movie lexicon, a way of dragging modern horror protagonists back to the isolation they used to experience much more naturally just a few decades ago.

Back then, it was possible for a horror movie to isolate its victims by taking them slightly outside the warm glow of civilization. Classics like 1960’s Psycho, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or 1980’s The Shining dropped the protagonists at remote houses. With no access to landlines, the characters in those movies were so removed from help or contact with the outside world, they might as well have been stranded on the Moon. Even as of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, it was plausible that a group of tech-savvy young people would venture into the woods without cellphones or a GPS tracker, and have no way to alert anyone else when their situation took a bad turn. But with upward of 75 percent of Americans owning smartphones, and upward of 95 percent owning cellphones of some kind, modern horror films have to work harder to keep their characters from summoning the police the second a maniac starts waving a chainsaw in their direction.

These days, a dead phone doesn’t just cut users off from emergency services; it also cuts them off from the conversation, the daily flow of online life that so many of us use as our primary form of contact with the outside world. In that sense, the need to kill a victim’s battery before killing the actual victim is becoming less of a predictable cliché, and more of a way of building the stakes and establishing sympathies. Horror movie audiences may find it hard to believe in Cloverfield’s group of friends fleeing a Godzilla-sized monster through the streets of New York, but they can certainly believe in a guy coming away from a party with a drained phone battery and obsessing over the need to make one last phone call before the night’s over.

Which is why, at this point, the “neutralizing the characters’ cellphones” moment has become a standard part of horror movie language. The most common way around cellphones in horror films is putting the characters in a dead spot where they can’t get reception, either because they’re too isolated or more often because of some kind of technological or supernatural interference.

But there are other, less-common methods to take phones out of the picture: sometimes characters drop them at a crucial moment, into water or onto a hard surface that shatters them. Sometimes characters leave them behind to charge, then get trapped away from them. Or their phones slip out of their pockets in a compromising place. Or the antagonists destroy or disable them. In science fiction-tinged horror, it’s fairly common to hand-wave cellphones away as a rescue option because of “some form of electrical interference” or other technobabble.

But “I can’t get reception here!” is the standard, so much so that it’s become a repetitive horror movie cliché. As savvy audiences catch on to the trope and mock it, “My battery is dead!” seems to be creeping into the lexicon as a viable alternative. It’s used as a plot point in the original Cloverfield, where the lead character has to break into an electronics store in the middle of a monster attack to get a new battery for his phone because he ran his down trying to reach his ex-girlfriend and confirm that she’s safe. It’s a device in the eerie home-invasion thriller The Strangers, where one of the invaders quietly steals a victim’s phone, then puts it back with the battery pulled out. It comes up in Jeepers Creepers, when two siblings are attacked on a road trip and can’t call for help because their cell battery is low and their car’s cigarette lighter doesn’t work, so their charge cable won’t function.

And battery death can also function as a form of character development. In smaller horror movies, like Siren, The Roost, or The Gingerdead Man, dying phone batteries are played off as a sign of the main characters’ haplessness or lack of attention to detail. If they’d just been paying attention to their indicators, the scripts imply, they wouldn’t be in these messes. A dead phone can also be an early indicator of how characters will handle the crisis to come: by blaming each other, by blowing up or shutting down, or by focusing on problem-solving and solutions, sometimes when they should be focusing on escape.

It can also just be a sign of straight-up supernatural nonsense going on, like in Sam Raimi’s horror-comedy Drag Me to Hell, where the terrified lead watches some sort of demon-thing drain her phone battery to nothing right in front of her disbelieving eyes.

Very few smartphone users are ever going to have to deal with that particular problem. But otherwise, the dead-battery issue in a horror movie is an unusually relatable part of stories that often leave plausible reality far behind. Developers and consumers are equally obsessed with the quest for a long-lived phone battery. Recharging a phone seems like a simple task, but the internet keeps coming up with more efficient ways to handle it. And low-key concern over other people’s battery life has become a strange form of human empathy in an online world that often, notably, lacks empathy.

So when that horror movie victim realizes she’s run down her battery on nonessential texting and talking, and it isn’t available when she really needs it, the filmmakers aren’t just tapping into a tired cliché. They’re channeling the low-key real-world anxiety of needing a phone for a specific purpose and suddenly not being sure whether it has the juice to perform. Historically, horror movies could unnerve audiences by conjuring up an empty field or rambling mansion, far enough out in the country that no one could hear the protagonists screaming. The remote cabin in the woods is such a familiar device that it’s part of the standard language of horror film parody in films like The Evil Dead, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, and, well, Cabin in the Woods. Now, though, horror filmmakers can summon up the same sensations of echoing, unbridgeable distance just by putting the characters in a room with a failing battery and no available power outlets.

The running theme of Chris finding his phone unplugged in Get Out is creepy because it’s such a small, simple thing, but it’s also so obviously a way for the people he doesn’t trust to keep him away from contact with the friends he does trust. Even if there wasn’t a specific, murderous agenda involved, to an audience used to using their phones to maintain a constant, low-key awareness of their friends or family’s presence and status, a dead battery symbolizes an entirely modern form of isolation.

And occasionally, given how often modern horror films address technological anxieties, the dead battery trope can even be subverted into something more helpful and positive. In 2016’s Cell, based on the Stephen King novel, protagonist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) escapes a kind of zombie-making electronic virus because his phone battery dies at just the right time, and he’s on a pay phone rather than his cell when the killer signal comes through and fries humanity’s brains.

Mostly in horror films, isolation is a scary but crucial part of the plot and tone. But as horror films channel our queasiness with the perceived threats of technology — including the dangers of living online, dealing with social media, and exposing ourselves to dangerous strangers — they may start to suggest that there’s safety in isolation. Maybe that unplugged phone or stolen battery will eventually be seen as an attempted helpful intervention for horror movie characters instead of one more form of attack.