The beauty of horror is its ability to transform the mundane into the monstrous. Any object or activity can become sinister in the right setting, like say, reframing the role of something as ordinary as a telephone into a harbinger of doom. Rather than using this device to contact help, the reassuring quality of a landline or cellphone is converted into another source of tension that isolates characters further. In some cases, it becomes a literal weapon, or part of an overall plan to toy with the soon-to-be victim. The evolution of this device from a fixed spot to cordless gave filmmakers more room to be inventive and the subsequent cell to smartphone shift has delivered even more options — and challenges.
In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween gave rise to the slasher subgenre, twisting the picture-perfect safe suburban location into the ultimate nightmare setting. Locked up since he was 6 years old, Michael Myers (Nick Castle) aka the Shape, has returned to the scene of his original crime in a movie that was originally titled “The Babysitter Murders.” Laying the foundation for the next 40-plus years, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the original Final Girl archetype that sees her defeat the bad guy while her friends are less fortunate.
On the Blu-ray audio commentary with Carpenter, Curtis points to the banality of the telephone referring to it as "a source of regularity" before it becomes "a source of terror" later in the movie. Carpenter establishes the calls between girlfriends while they babysit to lure the audience and Laurie into a false sense of security. Safety is emphasized by this connection between the houses — if anything is amiss then Annie (Nancy Kyes) can always call her father who is the Haddonfield sheriff. But cops in horror are always too late.
Annie ditches her charge with Laurie, opting to go pick up her boyfriend, but she doesn’t see the killer sitting in her backseat until it is too late. When their other friend Lynda (P.J Soles) uses the empty home to hook up with Bob (John Michael Graham) the phone shifts into murder weapon territory. Laurie thinks the gasps and moans she hears on the line are carnal, never imagining that Lynda is being choked to death with the cord.
Carpenter’s genre-defining horror is so effective because he takes the ordinary and inserts a figure as blank as Michael into the tapestry. When Laurie does venture across the street to investigate, her innocence is shattered. Screaming at the top of her lungs does nothing to bring aid and by the time she gets to the phone, Michael has cut her line to the outside world. Her friends are dead and so is the device she was just gabbing away to them on.
Disconnecting a landline is a go-to method for isolating a character, replacing the familiar dial tone with an eerie silence. There are other ways to remove the ability to call for help, including leaving an extension off the hook. A busy tone is just as frustrating to the person trying to get aid — but it can also lead to a horrifying discovery. Scream took the latter approach when Casey Becker’s (Drew Barrymore) mom picks up the phone to alert the authorities about the disarray she has found upon arriving home. Little does she know that she is about to hear Casey’s final gasps, the cordless phone still in her hand as she is stabbed to death. What began as a semi-flirtatious wrong number chat quickly descends into premeditated horror. A conversation about favorite scary movies ensures that every viewer knows exactly who the killer in the first Friday the 13th is — even if you have never seen the original 1980 slasher movie classic.
It isn’t surprising for a film that references Halloween throughout — and even features the infamous closet scene — to incorporate a direct homage to Laurie hearing her bestie getting killed on the other end. Director Wes Craven takes it up a notch so that Casey’s mother is under no mistake as to what is happening to her child. Being powerless to call for help is an added level of cruelty. All she can do is listen (and then scream). In a self-referential centipede scenario, Halloween H20 even shows the scene with Sarah Michelle Gellar as Cici (aka Casey Cooper) just before she gets killed in Scream 2.
Hours spent talking on the phone is a teenage rite of passage — now it might be FaceTime or texting — and the joy of chatting to the friends you have spent all day with is part of the ritual witnessed between Laurie Strode and her friends. Without caller ID there is an element of not knowing who will be on the other line, which leads to wrong numbers and crank calls. Scream takes this unpredictable factor and cranks it up a notch. A voice modulator makes the caller unrecognizable and what begins as harmless banter shifts to menace.
Heavy breathing is incredibly creepy, violating you intimately even from afar — but the killers in Scream know better than to lead with the detailed description of their plan to slice and dice. Instead, they lull the home-alone teen girl into a friendly chat before revealing he wants to know her name “because I want to know who I am looking at.” Scream ushered in the first generation of horror movies to utilize the proliferation of cell phones at a time when they weren’t ubiquitous for teens.
Long before Scream took up the telephone horror trope, a common urban legend had already laid the groundwork for a disturbing scenario to be repeated over campfires, at sleepovers, and on film. “The call is coming from inside the house” still sends shivers and like all urban legends, it is rooted in truth. While this phrase was not uttered during the horrifying (and still unsolved) murder of 13-year-old babysitter Janett Christman in 1950, it is often referenced as the case that led to the embellished story most are familiar with — including young Karen in the recent Baby-Sitters Club TV series. A babysitter receives a string of sinister calls telling her to check on the children sleeping upstairs.
Janett did call the police asking them to “come quick” but tragically she did not have time to tell them where she was ringing from — and the technology did not exist to trace the number after contact was lost. Playing into fears about teen girl vulnerability, it is hardly surprising that the babysitter urban legend has been portrayed in multiple horror movies.
Released a year after Laurie Strode’s fateful babysitting duties, 1979's When a Stranger Calls is a rather self-explanatory title — the Casey Becker Scream sequence also references the joke-turned-terror tone of the opening scene. While Black Christmas had already utilized the terrifying trick of the killer masking his location by calling from a landline inside the house — in this case, that of a sorority — When a Stranger Calls achieved the urban legendary status. Ticking another archetype, the Carol Kane-starring psychological horror uses the escaped-from-an-asylum killer plot. When Jill (Kane) is an adult and has children of her own, she gets the disturbing “Have you checked on the children?” calls once again. The 2006 remake opts to turn the original movie’s 20-minute opening sequence into a whole film. Obviously, the call is coming from inside the house and this version lacks the bite of the original sequence (and the lack of Carol Kane doesn't help either). Horror tropes can feel incredibly tired in the wrong hands.
Movies evolve with the technology, but telephones have long been utilized to aid cloak and dagger acts long before the call was coming from inside the house or asking if "you like scary movies." In Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder, a phone call is the lure to get Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly) out of bed, drawing her to the attacker her husband Tony (Ray Milland) has blackmailed to kill his wife. Tony is the one dialing his home number but the plan goes awry when Margot reaches for a pair of scissors and ends up stabbing her would-be killer. The phone was meant to be an accessory to the perfect crime, but Tony did not account for his wife's tenacity or the fortuitous placement of her craft box.
Our modern smartphone-laden world has added new horrors and hopeful possibilities alike. Laurie's granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) finds the former when her terrible boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold) throws her phone into a bowl of custard after a fight in 2018's Halloween. Not only does he wreck her possession, but he also prevents his soon-to-be-ex from finding out that the man who stalked this neighborhood 40 years ago is back for a third helping. Nice going, Cameron. The symmetry is underscored when Allyson is left to discover this breaking news the hard way. Cameron's petulance is part of another slasher trope and while he isn't the worst boyfriend, his actions sure don't help Allyson.
Of course, there are more obvious methods of losing one's connection to the outside world than custard bowls. Cell and smartphones mean it has become harder to isolate someone, but we've all experienced the real-life horror of no signal or a drained battery. Chargers and power banks complicate matters, but in the case of Get Out, Chris's (Daniel Kaluuya) phone is repeatedly unplugged. Nevertheless, he had enough juice to take a photo of Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) and send it to his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) before his phone dies once again.
Telephones are a narrative hurdle for horror to overcome, particularly in a contemporary setting. A phone can be a saving grace. Unfortunately, it all depends on who is on the other end of the line. Just make sure you know who the killer in Friday the 13th was.