In 2015’s Curve, starring Julianne Hough, the pervert drifter antagonist stomps her phone, snuffing out its electronic life and hampering her escape plans—no further explanation required. A phone ends up in a punch bowl in David Gordon Green’s Halloween to explain its later critical absence, disappointing given the original’s iconic phone scene (a ghostly Michael Myers murders Lynda with the cord).
The babysitter lifeline, the emergency call, originated in London in 1936. According to a BBC report, “Police stations during the 1920s and ’30s were often receiving too many visitors alerting them to emergencies.”
While first responders immediately embraced the utility of the technology, there were concerns on the consumer side. According to the book America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940, in 1919, North American Bell executives were concerned that they “never thoroughly educated the public to the possibilities of the use of the telephone.”
One man who understood its incredible potential for social change was the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. In his book Understanding Media, McLuhan correctly predicted the power of the telephone to “decentralize every operation,” and he didn’t live to see continents-apart call centers. But he did point out a few unexpected social results of the technology, including the “elimination of the red-light district” in favor of the call girl who could work remotely, unburdened by technology.
Landlines provided much fodder for horror fare. After all, you could always cross the street if there was someone who looked suspicious, but a “decentralized” stalker sets the imagination into Panopticon overdrive, with the ring acting as its own jump scare. Futurist Ray Kurzweil said, “The telephone is virtual reality. It's as if you are together with that other person, at least as far as one sense is concerned, the auditory sense.”
Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology Black Sabbath leaned heavily on the mouth breathing aural immediacy of a threatening human voice in the installment “The Telephone.” The character Rosy is harassed over the phone by her ex-pimp, who warns that “nothing can help you.” Frightened Rosy reaches out to her estranged lover for solace and the phone serves as a major plot device.
Sticking with the Italians, Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper features a telephonic antagonist. When a model is missing and murdered, her landlady saunters into the police station to report that before the unfortunate victim had met her maker, she’d received an odd telephone call. And it was apparently from someone who sounded like a duck, though “they didn’t say ‘quack’ ‘quack’ ‘quack’” according to the helpful witness, whose claims are summarily dismissed by NYPD detectives. The sicko subsequently goads police, updating the epistolary communiques of the Zodiac Killer and Jack the Ripper by using a phone (and indeed, talking like a duck, a surreal in-joke referencing Fulci’s 1972 giallo, Don't Torture a Duckling). Cops trace the call to the “Lower West Side,” which is not actually used by Manhattanites at all as a geographical reference.
The underrated warning horror movie Don’t Answer the Phone! also features another phone harasser in the burly guise of Vietnam vet and model photographer (if not model citizen), Kirk Smith (played incomparably by Nicholas Worth). Smith prowls the streets of Los Angeles and repeatedly hounds Dr. Lindsay Gale, a genial psychologist with a radio show à la Dr. Frasier Crane. The psychopath calls in to her show and murders a victim with a stocking with Dr. Gale listening in.
Murder by Phone, aka Bells, certainly delivers on its promise. In the opening scene, a transient on a Toronto subway platform answers a ringing payphone, which then blows up (between this and Scanners, Canadian tax shelter filmmaking was definitely explosive!)
Staying in Toronto, in Prom Night, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, a silhouetted figure hisses at three high school girls over the phone, just before the big night in question, with obscene phone calls about it being “my turn,” while warning them not to “play games.”
Following a swervy killer POV introduction outside, the Yuletide classic Black Christmas moves indoors to phone harassment to a bunch of sorority coeds. The girls gather around the receiver and listen to the obscene phone-caller as he grunts unintelligibly over the strains of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Black Christmas was a variation on the urban legend of “the babysitter and the man upstairs,” which also inspired When a Stranger Calls and the bone-chilling question the killer asks of Carol Kane’s character, Jill: “Have you checked the children?” The case that is said to have inspired the film is the murder of Janett Christman in 1950 Missouri, the 13-year old babysitter who was killed by an unknown assailant who’d crawled through the window. A phone features prominently in the story, as it was off the hook when authorities arrived, and the poor girl’s phone call had been interrupted by the vicious killing. In other real-life horror, the BTK killer infamously posed as a telephone repairman.
Throughout the years, victims have become bolder in their interactions with phone harassers. In Wes Craven’s Scream, Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey, engages in playful winking banter with a caller, being quite cordial until the escalating creep offers this choice verbiage, “You hang up on me again, I’ll gut you like a fish.”
According to Gizmodo, “Smartphones have rendered many classic horror movie tropes ridiculous” (as if they weren’t already, but hey). With the merging of eye and voice in smart technology, a spate of horrors have already addressed the nascent anxiety: Unfriended, iMurders, Cam, Cam2Cam, Friend Request, etc., and Internet of Things (IoT) and AI horrors are now coming to the forefront.
Christopher Lombardo is co-author of Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons and co-hosts the Really Awful Movies Podcast.