The Den. 2013. Directed by Zachary Donohue. Screenplay by Donohue & Lauren Thompson.
Starring Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, Adam Shapiro, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Matt Riedy, Katja Pevec, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Anthony Jennings, Victoria Hanlin, & Anushka Rani.
Cliffbrook Films/Onset Films
Rated R. 81 minutes.
Ah, the joys of the internet! Those of us who’ve grown up alongside the internet – I was born in 1985 – are well aware of its dangers. From the beginning, there was a dark mystery about cyberspace. It’s a lawless, boundless space, where untold things can occur. We know, entering that online space, we’re headed into a Wild West-like territory where we remain vastly unprotected. A digital frontier.
Above all, it’s an open doorway into our homes, our lives, and our minds.
The Den uses found footage to put us directly in the protagonist’s perspective, as we sit behind a computer screen the entire time watching events unfold. Just like they’re happening to us in real-time. Part of this is an experiment in tension. The other part is a commentary on us: how many of us live postmodern lives through a series of screens, whether a television, laptop, desktop computer, or smartphone.
The proliferation of screens is a problem in postmodern life. Cities become more dangerous when there are technically – in the digital landscape – no more real cities, rather one giant, global, imaginary city linking us all together. A screen becomes a window through which almost anybody can crawl. Even worse, they do so through the guise of anonymity. The Den preys on all of these fears at once by putting us in the protagonist’s perspective, questioning our online interactions with strangers, and illustrating how nebulous digital anxieties can become corporeal truths in dangerous human hands.
Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is doing an academic study on the internet. More specifically, she focuses on a Chatroulette-style site called The Den. Basically, for the uninitiated, Chatroulette lets you look in on random webcams, then you can skip to the next if you don’t like what you see. Effectively it reduces people to an image. Strangers make contact mostly through how they determine the other looks. It’s a haven for perverts, rather than people like Elizabeth or the occasional woman who’s looking to actually chat. So, it becomes a literal den of iniquity.
Not only that, our interactions online with strangers is so questionable to start. Is seeing someone on a screen the same as really seeing them? Or, is the intermediary a distortion of our actual connection(s) to people? Avatars become identities rather than remain mere avatars. We often implicitly trust an image, a name on a screen, even though, in reality, behind it could be lurking anybody. This is an element of the vague illusion of privacy we believe in, seeing as how so many of us willingly give up that privacy to those anonymous strangers drifting in/out of our digital lives.
What happens fast is we see the fragility of postmodern boundaries, where the gap between public and private space is reduced to nothing. All it takes is a few clicks and your personal photos, your videos, and the most intimate parts of your life are sitting in the inbox of everyone you know, even strangers. This is devastatingly shown in a scene where a video of Elizabeth and her boyfriend having sex is hacked and sent to the academic committee at her college. Security in the cyber world is near non-existent as opposed to the walls and security measures of a physical space. A program such as Chatroulette figuratively/electronically puts any number of anonymous identities into your physical space, and, as The Den shows us, it can become like playing Russian Roulette instead when one of those anonymous people literally enters your physical space.
As a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, I can’t help thinking of his theories on media while watching The Den. Even on a basic level, such as how people make a distinction between ‘real life’ and ‘online life.’ Today, there’s no more distinction. People can live anonymously online, they can create different identities, but what occurs online can, and does, have effects on real life. In this sense, the online world is an extension of our own physical world.
More specific to McLuhan is the idea of the screen. Like when Elizabeth uses how-to videos to figure out how to use a gun and protect herself, employing media to learn rather than actual experience. No longer do we have to engage with real life for most purposes – Elizabeth physically orders a gun online, she finds the instructions to use it online – so real life can be lived anywhere via the extension of ourselves: the computer/smartphone screen. Our screens are us— an extension of our eyes, our eyes, our hands, our legs, all of which we use to experience and interact with the world in various ways. At its essence, the online world is the extension of our will. Later in the movie this is put quite literally, after Elizabeth wakes up with a GoPro connected physically to her head/skin. She physically embodies the camera, a literal piece of media herself.
This McLuhanian condition bridges the gap between the supposed un-reality of the digital landscape with the reality of our physical one. At the end of the movie, we switch from online to the city, going underground. What’s so interesting is the switch afterwards in the last shots, once Elizabeth becomes the star of a snuff movie— we go from the screen POV to the standard cinematic shot, connecting those distant online videos to the real world. Most upsetting, this final scene features a father engaging in the cycle of capitalism + consumerism (the terrorising and brutalisation of bodies + buying/selling of bodies as commodities online) by buying a snuff narrative off a website while his little boy sneaks up in the background. Horrific stuff.
By exposing the dangers of the internet, The Den exposes our own naivety about the online world. Most of us know how dangerous it is, and yes this is a fictional piece of cinema, but nevertheless the plot gets under our skin because we recognise these dangers not as nebulous worries with no consequence, we see them as present in our daily lives and capable of serious destruction.
Although Father Gore loves found footage in general, movies like this one in particular do the sub-genre a good service. This has palpable tension, the suspense is tight. Most importantly it gets at the core of our fears about cyberspace and all the ways in which our boundaries, our security in the physical world are compromised by the lack thereof in the digital world. What appears as just another found footage horror romp in this movie is actually a smart, impressive scarefest that’s sometimes too real for its own good.