As far back as you can go, cinema has been a place for stories of unrequited love and unhealthy obsession. In the early years of the silver screen, crime films, comedies, dramas, and even horror films would tell stories of men and women (although mostly men) who yearned for affection and attention, often posited as the villain of the piece or, more commonly, a pompous yet somewhat harmless thorn in the side of our protagonists. However, in the decades since, depictions of these characters have grown more realistic and diabolic, specifically in terms of their manipulative and possessive qualities, with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski crafting tales that posited an incredibly uncomfortable truth about dependent personalities gone wrong (often eerily punctuated by both Hitchcock and Polanski’ s real life reflections of these traits). And though these qualities would later craft a subgenre unto itself–the domestic thriller, which peaked in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with films such as Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Body Double, Basic Instinct and The Vanishing–stories of stalkers, scorned lovers, and voyeurs would mostly go dormant as a string of ho-hum studio sleepers would relegate the genre to either the indie space (in which storytellers would craft stories with haunting, transgressive punchlines) or low-budget films aimed at urban audiences (where the films could still find a healthy profit despite rehashing many elements from their more popular, suburbia-targeted predecessors).
Nonetheless, there has been a bit of an uptick regarding these tales of real life creeps as of late, one that has risen more around the small screen, in which the drama of soap operas are mixed with the structure of the domestic thriller. In the past few years, series such as Stalker, Eye Candy, The Following, Nip/Tuck, Scream: The TV Series, and more have found stalker stories to be integral towards their central conceit, while high-profile dramas such as Ray Donovan, The Path and Nashville incorporated major storylines regarding dangerous and terrifying stalkers. On the other side of the coin, purported reality shows such as Stalked: Someone’s Watching Me, Stalkers Who Kill, and Catfish put forth the seemingly commonplace nature of stalking, now enhanced due to the internet and mobile technology. Meanwhile, big screen tales of stalkers in suburbia are once again beginning to creep up into the mainstream following the success of The Boy Next Door,Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, Creep and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Of course, the longevity of stalker stories is likely in part to the longevity- and, frighteningly, accepted nature- of the crimes themselves. The sad fact is that stalking, in its many forms, has become more prevalent than ever, as stalking has become much easier thanks to social media, in which people can basically keep a watchful eye on someone without them even knowing it. Unfortunately, encouraging this behavior even more is the lack of outright denouncement from society at large, as well as the alternative methods of crossing boundaries. Gone are the days of following and photographing someone, as illegal ways of accessing cell phone, tablet and laptop cameras have become a hot ticket on the dark web. Compound the easiness of cyberstalking with the growing difficulty in combating these crimes in cyberspace, and you have an incredibly dangerous platform in which impressionable youth might be persuaded to chase their baser, repulsive instincts.
But when put into context, films and television series about stalkers from before the age of cyberstalking were relatively harmless in the big picture. For the most part, these films wouldn’t necessarily have the power to influence similar behavior in the real world as stalking took a great deal of effort and dedication. Furthermore, stalking was never glamorized in the way that psychopaths could be on the silver screen; unlike trigger-happy drug kingpins or sadistic vigilantes, stalkers were almost unanimously portrayed as desperate and deeply flawed individuals defined by their absolute absence of power. And then there was simply the means: while one could still reach an object of their obsession, sometimes as easily as finding their number in the phone book, becoming a credible threat was an entirely different story altogether, and often carried a greater risk of being identified and outed as such.
In today’s current media landscape, however, having direct access to the people around you has become expected, in no small part to the awe-inspiring rise of social media. Whether it be someone attempting their 15 minutes of fame, an independent artist seeking a larger audience, or a regular person trying to stay active among their friends, neighbors, and co-workers, the temptation to put yourself out there on the internet is greater than ever, despite the consequences that may come with it. And with this unprecedented amount of access comes a dissolution of social boundaries, which is now shockingly commonplace: if one were to ask you the last time you personally saw a comment on social media that was inappropriate or uncomfortable, would you feel particularly surprised?
With that in mind, the game has changed in terms of the depiction of stalker media, as has the potential problematic nature of the stories being told. Sure, it may be cool to see Mr. Robot turn hacking into an art form, but when the reality of hacked camera phones and webcams feels almost like an accepted risk by the world at large, there’ s not much stopping someone from digging into the recesses of the internet to learn how to do it themselves. It might be easy to dismiss these concerns as reactionary, especially considering the perpetual hysteria surrounding gun violence in movies and video games that arguably pull the blame from family and environmental issues, but while cyberbullying has become a front-page issue for parents’ groups around the country, cyberstalking still remains a serious problem among impressionable youth. Factor in the many unknown psychological effects that the information age may press upon people (as we are all, in many ways, social and technological guinea pigs), and it might be easier to imagine someone finding more inspiration from a contemporary stalker film than, say, the late 1990s.
Perhaps one reason for this is that, as previously mentioned, old stalker tales operated from a place of a twisted emotional power struggle, whereas modern depictions of stalkers offer people with a unique God Complex. By being able to create fake social media profiles, learn hacking tips to access photos and videos on the cloud, or using online dating apps to manipulate someone’ s entire life, cyberstalkers have a sense of agency and power that did not exist in the pre-internet world. But even worse is that Hollywood fails to give these characters a proper face: while fictional stalkers are often depicted as super creeps and mentally unstable, these stories fail to grasp that sometimes this horrifying behavior can wear a seemingly normal face, and more often than not does.
Yet these facts posit a very frustrating catch-22 for storytellers in this day and age: in a world where cyberstalking is extremely prevalent, how can a filmmaker ignore the reality of the problem when telling these types of stories? Many filmmakers and producers pride themselves on being able to push boundaries and bring a sense of honesty to the screen, and to depict stalkers- cyber or otherwise- accurately, one would assume they would have to bring this type of deep, dark behavior to light. But in doing so, these stories may have the ability to push someone in that same disturbing direction, as, emotionally speaking, the cathartic release is instead replaced by morbid fascination; in fact, some outlets accused Kevin Williamson’s Stalker TV series as being a “how to” guide for real life stalkers, especially considering the series was inspired by real-life stalking cases.
Furthermore, these stories can also go a long way to helping people curb behavior or keep themselves from becoming victims of cyberstalking. Obviously, some of the trashier titles will simply function as melodrama for melodrama’s sake, but in an age where so many people are vulnerable and the youth largely eschews the news cycle, these stories can help posit ways of combatting obsessive behavior, whether it be putting stickers over laptop cameras, customizing privacy settings, or taking a sabbatical from the digital grid entirely. And in the case of a series like Black Mirror, there’s an active intent to start a dialogue about the effect technology has over our lives and our relationship to our digital identity.
Oddly enough, there’s something to be said about the recent rise of these stories and our increasing comfort with potential cyberstalking vulnerabilities. In this day and age, when convenience is front and center of our priorities, almost every modern piece of technology can be used to record you without your consent: drones, video game consoles, smartcars, tablets, laptops, smartphones, etc. While privacy is still a constitutional right, most people are honestly fine with social media services and search engines selling off our private information to advertisers just because it’s easier than going without. In essence, our complacency with the lack of privacy in the face of our daily hardships have done most of the work for those who seek to exploit and insert themselves into our online footprint, and thanks to our willingness to agree to constantly changing Terms of Service forms, that’ s not looking to change anytime soon.
Perhaps the strangest part of stalker stories, particularly in the contemporary space, is that so much of it is presented as morality plays that are bizarrely affirming to women. Whether it’s women being stalked by an online creep watching her every Instagram post, an obsessive ex going after a more stable woman who stands by her man, or a working woman rejecting the advances of a dangerously invasive colleague, these stalker stories are often painted as elevated soap operas, and they hope that the inherent drama and intrigue is enough to draw a female-centric audience. In this sense, stalker cinema and tv series are likely the closest thing to the exploitation genre that is marketed towards a mainstream crowd, especially when it’s at the expense of a very real and incredibly vulnerable target audience.
In addition to the female-centric stalker stories, there’s also the worrisome factor that the other demographic for these shows and films are the youth of today, a plugged-in generation far too susceptible to dangerous ideas floating in the ether. With shows like Eye Candy and Scream: The TV Series offering young, fresh-faced characters roped into situations involving digital blackmail and cyberstalking, it’s clear that producers want a viewership who understand and can be affected by the various avenues of new media, whether it be social media, livestreaming, etc. Furthermore, these stories are easy targets for youth, who are far more likely to actively fear tangible threats like online psychopaths or pervasive creeps than werewolves, vampires, and ghouls.
But with all things considered, perhaps the most damaging aspect of the contemporary stalker story boom is that the solutions are few and far between. In the interest of drama, there’s always heightened or unrealistic responses to cyberstalkers in modern media: whether it’ s going to your “local, quirky” hacker, luring them into a convoluted trap, or even turning the tables as an outright vigilante, these films and tv shows never quite advocate going to the police, or, in worse cases, portray the police as impotent and ineffective towards the issue of digital stalking. Sadly, the reality shows about stalking rarely have happy endings for their cases as well, which may further portray stalking victims as hopeless. While these content creators are certainly within their rights to continue crafting these stories, one hopes that the effort to offer help to those in real life stalking situations can be addressed with more frequency and a sense of responsibility.
Above all, however, the influence of media on cyberstalking and vice versa can be best addressed through the simplest of means. Though media is evolving with each passing day, it’s important that parents, siblings, and friends express to their loved ones the importance of boundaries, as well as the clear separation between fact and fiction. Entertainment is meant to entertain, and any reflection that has upon the real world, whether it be our vulnerability to our electronic devices, the relaxed privacy standards on the internet, or getting professional help for unhealthy emotional impulses, goes only as far as the understanding of those consuming said entertainment. Stalker stories will never go away, nor should they in the grander scheme of freedom of expression and the limitless stories within our collective imaginations. But if a little more attention is paid to what these stories are saying, consciously or otherwise, and what they potentially could say, that could make all the difference to the next lonely soul on the verge of doing something truly desperate.