Cringe: On Empathy, Online Culture, and Technohorror

The uncanny quality of early film reflects the anxieties of our digital age.

Les Grands Films Classiques
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Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist short film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, was originally screened in 1929, to a rarefied audience of Paris’ artistic elite. Buñuel claimed he had stashed stones in his pocket prior to the showing, “to throw at the audience in case of disaster.” No such outrage occurred, despite the film’s provocations. Un Chien Andalou is now available for free on YouTube, for anyone with a smartphone to see. If Buñuel feared for his audience’s volatility then, among a circle of friends and creative peers, one can only imagine his anxiety upon the film’s dissemination online.

“This film is 91 years old and the eye slicing scene still gives me the creeps,” observes one commenter. Near the beginning of the film, a woman’s eye is cut open. Later she flees in terror from a crazed pursuer. A dead horse is pulled over a piano. The images flicker, refusing to relate to each other or to coalesce into narrative. The banal veers into the violent, which in turn lurches without warning into slapstick. Upon viewing, one feels the anxiety that film’s novelty once provoked in audiences almost a hundred years ago: the disorienting cutting-and-pasting of unreconciled images into a hallucinatory moving collage.

It’s an arresting feeling, to glimpse how film technologies we now take for granted once terrified people. Film is an illusory medium, as demonstrated by the apocryphal tale of a stampede of cinema-goers fearing they would be run down by a movie of a train. The sense of reality cinema imparts is a sham, an image of a whole stitched together from disparate pieces of footage. As modern viewers, we fall for the trick, taking in films as if they were real, empathizing with the characters and valuing psychological realism as an aesthetic ideal. Watching Un Chien Andalou reminds us of the deception inherent within film, the sense of a coherent story forged from many unrelated images shot at different times and places. The dominant realist style of modern filmmaking suppresses this feeling of illusion by immersing us in a story. Dalí and Buñuel, however, work to make the fakery obvious, to show their hand.

The short’s defamiliarizing effect becomes even more salient in its YouTube form. There’s something about the arbitrary kaleidoscope of images that makes Un Chien Andalou seem to speak to contemporary online culture. It feels a little like doom-scrolling, the endless reel of violent images that refuse meaning or resolution, the clash of the horrific and the absurd. The alienation of the film’s surrealist aesthetic resembles the layers of irony and removal that characterize digital experience. Most contemporary films haven’t completely reckoned with the impact of social media on our cultural consciousness, but a short from 91 years ago feels like a mirror of the internet age: an odd moment where the past becomes uncannily recognizable. We see our own misgivings about online culture staring back at us from the early days of cinema.

The short’s most memorable scene is the moment where the eye is slit with a razor. It’s a masterful effect, achieved by splicing footage of the actress with the real cutting of a cow’s eye, wonderfully disturbing and convincing. Watching it, you can’t help but cringe: the mutilation of the eye is an act of aggression towards the viewer. Our role as voyeurs is split: on one hand we are complicit with the violence shown on screen, and on the other we identify with its victim. We feel the cut as if it is happening to us.

This sensation of cringing, of recoiling even as you fail to bring yourself to look away, is also characteristic of internet culture. ‘Cringe’ is one of the more peculiar emotions of online life, a term mainly used as a tool of social discipline to ostracize those who do not conform to nuanced and rapidly evolving social codes of the internet. It is also a subset of online comedy: ‘cringe compilations’ assemble clips from across the internet and present them for the amusement of viewers. When we find someone ‘cringe’, we stigmatize them for their oddness, their inability to follow the implicit codes of online culture with seamless ease, and we humiliate them for it. This is a punitive form of comedy. But cringe comedy also relies, paradoxically, upon our investment in the humanity of its object. We cringe because we vicariously experience the visceral feeling of humiliation. The sensation of cringing is predicated upon recognition and identification with another person’s pain.

“Comedy,” Angela Carter once wrote, “is tragedy that happens to other people.” This holds true of cringe comedy. But tragedy, too, is a dramatic form, staged for an audience’s benefit. Tragedy also happens to other people. So does horror. In fact, all of these forms rely on the fraught dynamic that links the watching eye with the body that is the object of spectacle. We respond to violence visited upon another by feeling their pain ourselves and by taking pleasure in the spectacle of it. At the same time that we turn away in revulsion, we cannot help but imagine ourselves in their position. As viewers, we cannot detach ourselves from the humiliations of the victims of horror and comedy, even as we participate in their abuse.

The image of the scalpel raised to the eye is a mainstay of horror for exactly this reason: it forces the viewer to recognize themself as implicated. Audiences are not passive, nor are they detached. Rather, they too are vulnerable to onscreen violence, experiencing both the killer’s sick thrill and the victim’s terror. In Un Chien Andalou, this dynamic is gendered: the eye is a woman’s, and the scalpel is wielded by a man. As avant-garde surrealists, working to pioneer a new artistic vision in a new medium, Dalí and Buñuel characterize the conventional values of the audience’s bourgeois culture as a feminine body, to be assaulted by the visionary male genius.

But contemporary, female-led horror has also fixated on the eye of the audience. Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor, like Dalí and Buñuel, also taps into the anxiety surrounding the advent of visual technologies. Set in the 80s, at the height of the moral panic surrounding ‘video nasties’ newly made available by video tape distribution, Censor’s heroine Enid is a model of a detached, impassive viewer. A film censor, Enid sees herself as impervious to the workings of horror films: she imagines herself as a line of defense between the depravity of exploitation films and an impressionable public. But she, too, becomes infected by the socialized violence that these films embody. Embarking on a moral crusade against video violence, Enid loses the ability to distinguish between video and reality. In the end, her role as impassive moral arbiter is as tenuous a fiction as the schlocky films she redacts.

One moment that lingers from Censor is Enid’s inscrutable gaze in a darkened room as she calmly watches footage of an eye being gouged. The film juxtaposes two modes of spectatorship: the depraved, which allows itself to be penetrated by deviant images, and the detached, which neutrally assesses what it sees without being contaminated. But, as Enid loses her grip on reality, we realize these are the same thing. The neutral, moral viewer participates in the fiction of the horror film as much as the one who surrenders to spectacle and degeneracy. Enid becomes instrumental in the circulation of violence, the spilling-out of horror from the screen. The moral panic against ‘video nasties’ surrounding visual technology offers itself as a means to resist the violence of technology, its ability to disseminate uncontrolled information and infect impressionable minds.

The horror of film and video anticipates our contemporary fear of social media: its remolding of human relationships, the exponential spread of dubious information and violent ideologies, the inability of the human mind to make sense of such an onslaught of images, our vulnerability and powerlessness. The brave new world of the internet age is characterized by the same fears that defined the advent of cinema. Horror films have a tradition of exploiting anxieties about their own medium, playing off our fear that something might reach out of the screen and hurt us. The most iconic example is 1998’s Ringu. The haunted videotape at the centre of the film is an icon of our vulnerability as viewers, our fear that a disturbing image might change us irreparably, that it might destroy us. The film ends with the monstrous Sadako climbing out of our own screen, culminating in a close-up of her bloodshot eye. The final image is a provocation to the viewer, the watchful eye: that we, as an audience, construct the horror by being afraid of seeing it. It is our terror that brings the nightmare out of the containment of the screen.

Technophobia, like that of Censor’s Enid, promises to protect us from technology by letting us stand outside it: to look dispassionately at the screen and critique it. But technophobia cannot avoid participating in the fiction of the screen by buying into the reality of the image, its ability to penetrate us. We become the audience of the Lumière brothers, diving to avoid a fictitious train. Horror plays off this fear by making us feel the scalpel in the eye, the ghost watching from the screen — making us cringe, as though the image of violence were being enacted upon our own bodies. We cannot avoid being implicated in the culture that image technology creates.

So what does this mean for us today, in the age of social media? The distinction between spectacle and audience is more permeable than ever before: any one of us could be photographed and put online, without our consent, at a stranger’s whim. Calls to log off and quit social media cannot change the fact that the internet has reshaped our cultural landscape. The ubiquity of the smartphone means that we are always accessible, always able to be recorded and documented. Online-ness isn’t something one can opt out of on an individual level: it has saturated our culture, our political sphere. The distinction between technologically mediated and unmediated interaction is fuzzy. There isn’t really any such thing as offline anymore.

The work of the horror film – to make us wonder if a scary image could actually harm us – is done by social media. As such, we can draw a parallel between the cringe induced by body horror, and online cringe comedy. Both operate within nuanced and fraught modes of connectivity. We cringe at images of violation, of humiliation, and thereby participate in violence, but we also recognize that we too are vulnerable – that the next victim could be us. 

Horror viewers and the extremely online are alike in that they seek out the sensation of cringing. It’s repulsive, but it’s pleasurable. Cringe culture might be reactionary in its turning away from the image of the victim, but it is predicated upon recognition of the victim’s humanity, their reality. Ethically fraught as it is, the horror and comedy of cringe rests upon a visceral feeling of empathy. Techno-horror shows us that the neuroses peculiar to the age of online have in fact been acted out before in response to the moving image. The terrors of social media are not new but uncannily familiar – the problem of how to see another person through a screen continues.

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