The Glitch Aesthetic in digital Horror films

Essay written December 8, 2020 in Film Studies at Concordia University for a Horror Film class. May contain typos.

Glitched Universal introduction sequence in Unfriended

Cinema is a deeply technological form of art. Whether it is analogous or digital, creating film and moving images has, in most cases, required the presence of a complex apparatus. Machines intervene in every single aspect of film-making. Even if that apparatus has been much simpler to use since the arrival of digital technology (one can create a film by using only smartphones and different apps for each stage of the film-making process), the complex and technological nature of film stays. This makes the cinematographic medium especially prone to tackle the anxiety-inducing post-modern relationship between human and technology. This subject has only gotten more popular with time, taking numerous forms and creating well-established tropes. One of these new expressive forms of post-modern anxiety is Glitch Art. Rebecca Jackson, in her thesis The Glitch Aesthetic published in 2011, makes a very concise definition of the glitch: “A glitch is the result of miscommunication from sender to receiver during the transcoding of information.”1 While the glitch is originally spontaneous, many artists have tried manufacturing them for aesthetic and poetic purposes, hence the term glitch art. Originating from niche and underground artistic circles, glitch art has since infiltrated popular media, and eventually the horror genre in video-games, short films, and feature films. Indeed, there have been multiple uses of glitch aesthetics in horror or horror-adjacent content in the late 2000’s and throughout the 2010’s, and said use will be our subject of study in this paper. However, it is important to point out that we will only be analyzing visual glitch art, such as pixelation, data-moshing or color degredation, as auditive glitches take place in a whole other realm that we won’t get to dive into. We will focus here on a selection of works featuring glitch horror, such as Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves); Unfriended (2014, Leo Gabriadze); Unfriended: Dark Web (2018, Stephen Susco); the Tuesday the 17th segment (directed by Glenn McQuaid) in the anthology film V/H/S (2012, led by Brad Miska); the fourth and sixth episodes of the web-series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (2015 & 2016, Becky Sloan & Joseph Pelling). We will cite repeatedly some very useful and recent works on the voluntary use of glitch visuals in film. Such as Rebecca Jackson’s The Glitch Aesthetic, or the fifth chapter of Shane Denson’s book Discorrelated Images, called “The Horrors of Discorrelation”, where the author analyses the presence of the glitch in Unfriended. Denson here is particularly interested in the role of the glitch in a possible transition to post-cinematic media. His examination of the glitch is one of medium analysis, focused on the psychological, social and even political aspects of the subject, while ours is much more oriented towards the glitch’s poetic and practical language, and what it can symbolize in a horror setting. It is also important to precise that we will here only study the digital glitches and not the analogous ones. This means we won’t study films like Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg) or Ringu (1998, Hideo Nakata). This essay will be organized by a set of categories of the different uses of glitch in horror: the glitch as index, the glitch as monster, and finally the glitch as existential or cosmic threat. This will help us create a broad, but not complete (due to length limits), understanding of the different uses of glitch horror in recent cinema.

In The Glitch Aesthetic, Rebecca Jackson studies examples of glitch art of the 2000’s and early 2010’s. While many scholars have argued that the cinematographic medium lost its indexical properties by transitioning to a digital form of production (properties that were first theorized by Peter Wollen studying Bazin’s What is Cinema?), Jackson presents the idea that the presence of the glitch is very much an indexical one: “Glitches index communicational and computational infrastructures and, by extension, external conditions that impact transcoding processes like instances of overcrowded bandwidth and inclement weather. Although spontaneous glitches’ index does not bear the likeness of what it represents, as is the case with photography and film, it traces moments of flux. The temporal moments of flux also index their origin.”2 For Jackson, the presence of a glitch is indexical of the digital apparatus and everything that influences its behavior. However, the concept of indexicality is used here in the context of spontaneous glitches, which are not expressively created by humans with a direct artistic intent. I would argue that the manufactured glitch can also be used as a storytelling tool, as a fictional and poetic index. Let’s take Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield as a first example. This “faux-footage” (as in fictional found-footage) monster film uses glitch aesthetics in its very first minutes. The initial shot of the movie is a test card, accompanied by written information such as “US Department of Defense”. Later, the film chooses to use glitches as transitions between shots and scenes, particularly when the camera is facing technical difficulties due to the destructive events happening around the characters. Here, the index is clear: the glitch, accompanied by elements such as video grain, is here to indicate and remind us that in the film’s diegesis, we are watching raw content from a slightly corrupted SD Card. Daniel North, in Evidence of things not quite seen: Cloverfield’s obstructed spectacle, notes the importance of this use of the medium : « It is crucial that viewers notice these technical facets, since it is through their presence that the film accents its impression of authenticity, but it is equally crucial that they suspend disbelief and attribute them to the diegetic equipment and crew (the camcorder carried by Hud), and not to the massive resources of 20th Century Fox »3. In Cloverfield, the glitch is here only to remind us of what we are supposed to be watching, and increasing the spectator’s reality impression of the film’s images. The first Unfriended film has a similar use of the glitch as index. The entirety of both Unfriended films take place on a computer desktop, more precisely one of a Mac. This concept of film originated from producer Timur Bekmambetov, who called it the “Screen Life” genre, and then proceeded to work on multiple projects taking place on computer desktops. Similarly to Cloverfield, Unfriended uses the glitch in an indexical way, to immerse the spectator into the film’s virtual diegesis. But it also shows the failings and problems of digital technology, and this as soon as the first seconds of the film. The famous Universal Studios introduction begins as usual, but ends up appearing corrupted, with visuals using data moshing (a technique that freezes the pixels of a frame while still applying the shot’s original motion). The usual soundtrack of the introduction is also glitching with hiss and static, before ending with a disturbing, painful moan. As Shane Denson explains: “glitches will indeed play a role in the movie, but their appearance here, in connection with the studio logo, draws attention to the materiality of the video file itself, calling its reliability into question before going on to channel this uncertainty into a horror story that connects a group.”4. Unfriended’s way of using the glitch as an index is even more textual and poetic than Cloverfield’s one, as it shows at the same time the presence of the technology, its failings, and the possible dangers of said failings. But Unfriended doesn’t only use the glitch as an indexical tool.

Unfriended (2014, Leo Gabriadze)

Using the glitch as an index is one of the most frequent expressions of this technique, and although it is a very important one, it is not directly related to horror. One very much horrific use of glitch aesthetics, is using them either as monsters or as effects accompanying the monsters. In the first Unfriended film, a group of teenagers having a group call on Skype is being haunted and hunted by the virtual ghost of their deceased classmate Laura Barns. She manipulates the character’s computers and their social media profiles, putting them in damaging social situations, pinning them against each other, before eventually manifesting herself in real life and killing them. Almost every single murder scene in the film is accompanied by uses of glitches, where the victim’s webcams become extremely choppy with their frames freezing before cutting to black. Ken’s murder is a good example of this. After finding an unknown object (or person) in his closet, the call between the characters stops by itself. When they call back Ken, his webcam takes a while to load and appear. And when it does, it shows extremely short, glitchy visions of him having his hand and neck destroyed by a blender. Those short visual attacks act as jumpscares. This is a creative way of surprising the spectator in a film that appears as a continuous still shot, as we are supposed to see in real-time the characters’ use of their desktop. The glitches in these scenes could also suggest the presence of Laura’s ghost in each of their room, even though this is interpretative and not precisely stated in the film. This would mean that the glitch is Unfriended is not only accompanying the monster, it is the monster. This idea of the glitch as monster is even more present in the film’s sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web (which we will simply refer as Dark Web, to be shorter.). Once again, a group of friends (young adults here instead of teenagers) talk with each other on Skype. The main character uses a laptop he just stole at his workplace, and will eventually find out that the original owner of this laptop is a very dangerous person. Instead of being stalked by a ghost, the characters are hunted down by a secret, underground network of hackers and twisted criminals contributing to the real-life horrors of the dark web (websites that aren’t referenced in the public search engines and manage to avoid any kind of surveillance). The film still uses the glitch and choppy frames in murder scenes to create jumpscares, as well as distorted audio, reminding us of the fragility of the devices that are used here (and putting the characters in vulnerable positions), but they also go further. Every time a murderous member of the dark web shows up in front of a webcam, they appear as a dark silhouette, with numerous glitches around them, hiding their faces to protect their identity. One of the criminals will eventually end up talking to the main character of the film with his voice pitched-down. It is understood that the members of the society can activate or deactivate jammers that will make any recording device near them glitch out. In Dark Web, the glitch behaves as a costume for the monster. While many horror classics (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween) use plastic masks to hide their monster’s identity and humanity, Dark Web’s monsters are using virtual masks, somewhere between diegetic to the film, and extra-diegetic to the webcams. The glitch is here a very important element of the film’s monster design and artistic direction overall. However, Dark Web is not the only filmic content that used the glitch as monster, or as costume. The found footage anthology horror film V/H/S, led by Brad Miska in 2012, features a short-film named Tuesday the 17th. In Tuesday, a group of friends take a camping trip to a nearby forest. Once there, Wendy reveals to the other characters that some unresolved, mysterious murders happened in the same forest a year prior to that. She later tells her friend Joey that the victims were her former friends, and that she used her new ones as bait to catch the killer. The killer itself is another case of the use of glitch as monster. Once again, we can distinguish a human silhouette as the killer, but this silhouette is partly hidden by displaced pixels. She is aware of this, as she says “Why can’t I film you?” when running away from a certain death. However, the killer takes fatal blows from Wendy multiple times near the end of the segment. They eventually survive a plate of spikes impaling their body in multiple places, one of them being the head. They release themselves from the spikes and finish by killing the “final girl”. Here, the glitch isn’t just protecting the killer’s identity, it is hiding the monster’s inhumanity. While the silhouette is still one of a human, the monster clearly isn’t one, and the glitch keeps us from understanding their nature. This makes the surviving of the impalement even more surprising and scary to the spectator. So, as we’ve seen with both Unfriended films and Tuesday the 17th, glitch aesthetics can be used as an integral part of monster design, and can assist horror techniques and devices. We could also cite the classic YouTube series Marble Hornets (2009–2014, Troy Wagner) as one of the first examples of the glitch as monster, with the camera starting to malfunction when The Operator (a character better known as Slenderman) shows up. Although the glitch as monster is a horrific use of these aesthetics, it is not the only one as we are about to see.

Tuesday the 17th (Glenn McQuaid) segment in in the anthology film V/H/S (2012, led by Brad Miska)

The YouTube series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, originally created by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling in 2011, was a massive hit on the platform. To this day, the first episode has approximately sixty-two million views5. It is primarily a disturbing pastiche of children’s T.V shows, similar to Sesame Street. It presents a trio of puppets meeting singing objects, teaching them about subjects such as creativity or time. Each episode starts in a very colorful and innocent way, before diving deeper and deeper into unsettling tones and visuals. The series plays with different genres, one of them being horror. Let’s focus on episode four (published in 2015)6, where the trio meets a computer, who tells them all about his capabilities before bringing them into a virtual space. However, he doesn’t bring the characters into this space peacefully. While in their living room, the computer aggressively bombards them with questions, invading their privacy. The character commonly called “Red Guy” tries to stop him by putting his hand on him, but the computer reacts by screaming “Don’t touch me!” while his cartoony eyes turn red. Glitches then start to invade their reality, making Red Guy disappear from it before the image cuts to black. We then get to see multiple visual glitches in the middle of the darkness, appearing as distorted shapes and lines of colors, with corresponding audio distortion with electronic noises. These shapes and lines then transform into the deformed 3d version of the three characters, moving frantically across the screen. The audio distortion becomes very high-pitched, reminiscing of screams and sounds of suffering. All of this becomes increasingly loud, crowded, and fast in only ten seconds. The computer then welcomes them in a colorful digital world, similar to children’s virtual spaces of the late 90’s. They end up being stuck in that space, where the computer presents them the same three activities to do endlessly. The appearance of the digital world quickly starts to decay, becoming more and more glitchy. Two of the characters end up being stuck in that digital hell. Their blocky, ghostly figures even appear in the real world, infested with glitches. Red Guy seems to have survived this dimensional shift, and lives in virtual and real spaces at the same time. He eventually finds a large red cable that leads him to a door, which opens to a low-budget “behind-the-scenes” version of DHMIS before his head explodes in confetti. We find him again in episode six (2016)7, living without his friends in a different world, one that is much closer to ours. In that world where everybody looks exactly like Red Guy, he holds an office job and sometimes remembers his old musical adventures with his friends. Later in the episode, he is once again teleported in another dimension. There, he finds a massive computer, that seems to control the happenings of his original reality, the one he was in at the beginning of episode 4. The machine controls the appearance and disappearance of the singing objects. Each time he changes a character, a glitch shows up. He ends up unplugging the machine itself, making all of the realities reset. DHMIS plays here with the popular concept and fear of living in a simulation. But even then, it goes further than this, as Red Guy is still teleported to another dimension after escaping said simulation. In other words, DHMIS expands on the concept of the “Glitch in the Matrix” (concept originating from the series of The Matrix films created by the Wachowski Sisters), adding more dimensional layers to it, and bringing it into horror-adjacent content. As you would’ve guessed, in episodes four and six, the glitch is the main horrific device. The glitch appears as a crack in reality, as a sign of the cosmic. It questions the character’s world, and by extension, their very existence. This presents to us a very different use of the glitch than those we’ve seen so far. One that challenges our perception of reality, and our place in said reality. Without diving into it too much (the essay is already long as it is), the film Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015, Gregory Plotkin), uses the glitch in a similar way asthe film to indicate the presence of a paranormal realm in the character’s house. Those two examples show us that one can use glitch aesthetics to create cosmic, or existential horror, reminding us of our smallness and uselessness in the presence of other dimensions. Especially if these dimensions contain beings that are more powerful than us and can play with our lives.

Glitch horror sequence in Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared Episode 4 (2015, Becky Sloan & Joseph Pelling)

Throughout this paper, we’ve tried to tackle the use of glitch aesthetics in recent horror cinema. We’ve seen that there are at least three distinctive ways to use the glitch in a horror setting: glitch as index, glitch as monster, and glitch as existential threat. There are probably more categories to this, and glitch horror is still a very new aesthetic. In a longer essay we could’ve talked about the use of glitch horror in videogames such as Slender: The Eight Pages (2012), Batman Arkham Asylum (2009), or even Five Nights at Freddie’s (2014). Since these works operate on a different medium, their use of glitch horror, and the meaning of said horror, changes from the films we’ve seen here. As long as virtual and digital spaces will hold an important place in our lives, glitch horror will be more and more relevant to us.

1. Jackson, Rebecca. The Glitch Aesthetic. MA Thesis. Georgia State University, 2011. https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=communication_theses. Accessed 28 November 2020. pp. 11

2. Jackson, Rebecca. The Glitch Aesthetic. MA Thesis. Georgia State University, 2011. https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=communication_theses. Accessed 28 November 2020. pp. 35

3. North, Daniel. « Evidence of Things Not Quite Seen: Cloverfield’s Obstructed Spectacle ». Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. Vol. 40, no. 1. Spring 2010. pp. 88

4. Denson, Shane. Discorrelated Images. Durham, Duke University Press, September 2020. pp. 155

5. Sloan, Becky & Pelling, Joseph. “Don’t Hug me I’m Scared”, YouTube, uploaded by Don’t Hug Me .I’m scared, 29 July 2011, https://youtu.be/9C_HReR_McQ

6. Sloan, Becky & Pelling, Joseph. “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared 4”, YouTube, uploaded by Don’t Hug Me .I’m scared, 31 March 2015, https://youtu.be/G9FGgwCQ22w

7. Sloan, Becky & Pelling, Joseph. “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared 6”, YouTube, uploaded by Don’t Hug Me .I’m scared, 19 June 2016, https://youtu.be/dbL-NSkXnl8

Double Majoring in Film Animation and Film Studies at Concordia University in Montreal