Sci-fi slasher flick Ghost in the Machine, directed by Rachel Talalay, was released in 1993 to absolutely no fanfare. All records indicate that nobody liked this movie. To this day, it has a 10% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I recently watched it for the first time and understood why: It’s a campy mess, riddled with bad special effects and casual misogyny. The tone is off; it reads essentially like a DCOM with blood and cursing but no real subversion. Still, I think it tells us something useful not just about what the general American population in 1993 feared about computers, but how we’ve come to use them.
Ghost in the Machine follows single mom Terry Munroe (Karen Allen), who just so happens to leave her address book at the store where employee Karl Hochman (Ted Marcoux) is secretly the notorious “Address Book Killer.” Bad luck. Her teenage son, Josh (Will Horneff), is not just a prankster and general nogoodnik, but also a white kid desperate to appropriate rap aesthetics. After Terry finds herself subject to a series of unfortunate tech-based mishaps (she unwittingly receives piles of lingerie and creepy notes from an online catalog; her bank account is drained and canceled when she tries to use the ATM; someone seems to have racked up $700 worth of calls on the landline), Terry is approached by reformed hacker Bram Walker, played with charming earnestness by Chris Mulkey, who has discovered that a hacker seems to be invested in digging up information about her and ruining her life.
Said hacker, it turns out, is Karl—who died in a car accident on his way to murder Terry, was electrocuted in the MRI when found and taken to the hospital, and is now haunting the internet, or the airwaves, or something. He travels through wires and computers to cause chaos and destruction, all the while killing down Terry’s address book: her boss, the guy she’s seeing, the babysitter.
Karl receives basically no character development beyond “spooky killer guy,” but watching from 2023 allowed me to fill in some of the holes of his personality: For lack of better terms, he’s a incel, obsessed not just with one woman but with attempting to reclaim masculine power by killing in the domestic sphere, using address books and household appliances (two kills use a microwave and dishwasher, respectively).
And he pulls one particular move from the contemporary online bad guy playbook: swatting. Karl gets inside the local police scanner and calls in an abundance of alerts to every cop in town: domestic violence, armed robbery, hostage situation, shots fired. Swatting—the act of making a prank call to get a large number of armed officers (usually a SWAT team) dispatched to an innocent civilian’s home—is often associated with hackers and gaming communities; it’s an online practice. Strange and compelling, then, that this movie, so focused on fears and paranoias about the newfangled internet, seems to have effectively invented swatting by predicting that people like Karl would use the internet to their advantage in taking bomb threats and crime hoaxes to the next level.
Another of Karl’s tactics demonstrates fear about the touch screen. Josh, while playing a sexual video game on the computer in his room, receives a serious of alarming, anonymous messages from Karl: “DON’T BE SCARED. I WANT YOU WITH ME. TOUCH THE SCREEN.” Touchscreen technology was first invented in the sixties and developed significantly in the eighties; IBM released a prototypical touchscreen cell phone called the Simon in 1992, the year before this movie’s release. But touchscreen technology didn’t become widely used and accessible until the release of the iPhone in 2007. That’s when the touchscreen truly entered the domestic sphere. The ghostly demand to for Josh to touch his standard computer screen, then, speaks perhaps to nineties anxieties about technological advancements that would allow for this intimate technology requiring physical touch to enter the private home, even to be used by young people without their parent’s knowledge (remember that Josh is playing a sex game, and that Karl’s messages could easily be misconstrued as sexually predatory).
The weird part, of course, is that Ghost in the Machine was right about all this. The intimate touchscreen lives in our hand and we are almost never parted from it. Even children. The digital specter calls to us and we respond without question. We, like Josh, feel compelled to touch the screen. We, like Karl, become part of the electronic landscape. We, like Terry, are terrified but unable to stop what’s coming.
When handed a stack of personal information including her arrest history and her son’s medical history by Bram, Terry remarks: “You give us Ticketron and bank machines, but then we get some sort of Big Brother who keeps a record of every time you sneeze. I tell you, paranoia is underrated.” This monologue seems outdated and melodramatic now, but considering what we know for a fact about how digital companies like Meta and Amazon use the information we exchange for their services—and considering that we can’t seem to pass legislation to control their reign—she may be onto something. We all know that we exchange convenience and entertainment for a piece of ourselves. Should we have heeded her warning and treated the internet like a serial killer, shut it out of our houses while it pounded at our windows and dialed our phone numbers? But also like a serial killer, the corporate internet disguised itself, hid in plain sight. Put us in a stranglehold. We didn’t know what it really wanted from us until our lives were in its hands.
Videodrome this movie is not—but it has a message hidden among its bad dialogue, weird racial politics, and sexualization of teenage girls, and a prophetic one at that. May all bad movies reveal us to ourselves like this. Whether accidentally or on purpose, the best and worst of bad movies often do.