It may not have received the best reviews, but Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare is one of the deftest and eeriest horror films made about social media over the last couple of years, with a profit of $94 million against a $3.5 million budget indicating just how effectively it insinuates itself into the fears and anxieties of teenage digital culture. From the very first scene, the screenplay is obsessed with borders and brinksmanship, opening with a surreal crime that takes place right on the American-Mexican border, and which involves a woman responding to an invisible “truth or dare” request by setting a stranger alight in an isolated convenience store. The action then shifts to a group of teenagers who are planning to spend spring break in Mexico, and follows them as they cross the border and start on their holiday. On the final night of their trip, and the threshold of adulthood, Olivia (Lucy Hale) and Markie (Violett Beane), the two main characters, are approached by a charming stranger, Carter (Landon Liboiron), who invites them and their circle of friends to an abandoned convent to play a game. While we don’t get much of a sense of where this convent stands in relation to their Mexican town, they have to traverse a fence and step over a sign stating “Prohibito El Paso,” which means “prohibited to pass” in Spanish, but also recalls the prohibitory signs around El Paso, and the rhetoric of border control, with the result that their entry into this convent is figuratively tantamount to returning to the United States, but this time illegally.
The moment that the teenagers figuratively enter America the wrong way – as aliens – the atmosphere of the film turns Gothic, gathering all the thresholds we’ve experienced so far – the Mexican border, the last night of Spring Break, imminent adulthood, the opening scene – into the truth or dare game that Carter encourages the friends to play. Almost as soon as it begins, this game starts to uncover unpleasant and uncomfortable secrets, since whether it’s the strange atmosphere of the convent, or the fact that they have been drinking, the teenagers immediately request and disclose quite traumatic truths about their relations to each other, as well as daring each other to surprisingly dangerous and risky acts from the very outset. In fact, so damning are some of these acts and revelations that the film could easily proceed as a realist teen drama, in which the collection of friends are forced to reconceptualise and reconstitute their relations to one another in the wake of these disclosures. Yet the film takes the narrative one step further, with Carter admitting, somewhat ambiguously, that he has only brought the friends to the convent to avoid being killed, before they head back uneasily into the night, and return to the States the next day.
For a while, it’s unclear exactly why Carter brought them to the convent, or what his fateful confession actually meant. One by one, however, the friends experience the presence of an entity that forces them to commit a truth or dare, threatening them with death if they don’t obey its command. This entity doesn’t take any one form, but can appear through any object, person or situation, as the words “truth or dare,” start to turn up everywhere in the characters’ environment, starting with walls, desks and flyers, and then gradually taking other people as its mouthpieces, as the surveillant voice of social media (“tell the truth or you die, do the dare or you die”) operates through every interface, in an internet of things that eventually incorporates the surface of the characters’ own bodies, which also become conduits for this “truth or dare” command. While this entity is therefore too omniscient to ever be properly visible, or tangible, it does distort the faces of its human mouthpieces ever so slightly, especially when they are speaking in tandem, as if Wadlow were trying to visualise the imagined gaze, or collective voice, of social media, producing an effect that Markie describes as “looking like a messed-up Snapchat filter” after seeing it the first time.
The result is an incredibly astute vision of the extent to which social media demands teenagers to offer up either an unbearable truth or a dangerous spectacle to remain in existence, or to remain socially relevant. Like so many horror films made in the last decade, it recognises that the greatest fear facing teenagers is not death, but being exposed, humiliated, or outed online, meaning that it’s par for the course that the game makes one of the characters come out to his conservative father, but also not surprising that this moment is dealt with in a fairly cursory fashion, since it’s become such an integral trope to millennial horror that it barely needs to be elaborated or articulated in any detail anymore. What makes the game even more chilling is that it doesn’t exactly kill the characters if they don’t accept the truth or dare, but instead forces them to kill themselves, a process that is always preceded by them adopting the gaze of social media – “the weird Snapchat filter” – on their own faces, and then finding some spectacular and gory way to end their own lives.
In the world of Truth or Dare, then, social media is a sustained mode of brinksmanship, demanding that you render yourself emotionally and physically vulnerable enough to remain visible, but not quite enough to remain suicidal – or, alternatively, that you internalize the gaze of social media, but not quite enough to destroy yourself in the process. Yet as the teenagers take one risk of another to stave off the omniscient possibility of self-harm, it also becomes clear that the game is rigged, and that there is no clear way to win it, let alone to escape it. For one thing, as the game develops, the teenagers learn that they have to do a dare at least every two rounds – they can’t escape the dare – and that the dares grow more self-destructive as they proceed. For another thing, truth and dare start to converge anyway on moments of traumatic self-disclosure, and to become more inextricable as well, as the shame of their truths induce the characters to accept and even embrace the dares with greater and greater recklessness. Finally, beyond a certain point, both truth and dare options end up advocating the very suicidal ideation they are designed to forestall, whether by being dared to do something that is so dangerous that it is tantamount to suicide, or demanded to disclose a truth that is tantamount to social suicide.
While the truth or dare game may seem to keep suicide at bay, then, it evokes a wider social media sphere in which suicide, and suicidal ideation, is not only perpetually present as a point of reference, but structurally necessary in the dissemination of social media in the first place. Without the prospect and possibility of teen suicide, the film seems to suggest, social media wouldn’t be able to command the power that it does, which is perhaps why the final truth and dare converge on the suicide of Markie’s father several years before. On the one hand, the entity takes the form of a video of her father on her SmartPhone to dare her to commit suicide, while her one bulwark against suicide – her friendship with Olivia – is also denied to her, since the entity simultaneously demands that Olivia – truthfully – disclose that she was with Markie’s father on the night that he committed suicide, and could conceivably have stopped it. With no way to win the game, then, and no way to permanently relegate suicide beyond the horizon of possibility, the most that Olivia and Markie can do is to indefinitely expand the game, and recruit new social media participants.
Alternatively, the only way they can end the game is to die – the end game of social media –since by the time they’re the only two people left amongst their friendship circle it’s clear that the entity’s demands grow stronger when there are less people playing. While that fact is never exactly explained, it’s presumably because, once the entity has killed everyone around the remaining players, they have nobody to turn on but themselves, meaning that the game is destined to condense itself to a self-destructive standoff between two participants if it’s not continually and exponentially expanded. As chilling as it might be to return to this convent, which now plays like the aleatory vantage point of social media itself, it’s even creepier when the two girls start to disseminate the game on YouTube, not least because the dares demanded by the entity come so close to YouTube spectacle, from a character hitting their hand with a hammer, to another character walking tiptoe along the edge of a roof until she finishes a bottle of vodka. At the moment at which they sync up with YouTube, then, these dares imbue the shareability of social media with a dark and unsettling valency, as Markie and Olivia realise that the best possible outcome is to saturate the internet with so many new participants that it becomes indiscernible whether people are doing stuff of their own volition, or being dared and truthed by the game – that is, to identify the game so thoroughly with social media that it effectively ceases to really exist.
Unfortunately, that’s also what the game wants – and what it has already achieved – with the result that the film ends in an eerie and elliptical space in which the horrific import of social media is not quite aligned with social media, but not quite abstractable from it either. Instead, the game hangs over social media like an epiphenomenon, an entity that it produces, but that doesn’t directly affect it in turn, instead reserving its consequences for the users and experiences that are mediated through the sites that produce it. For that reason, Truth or Dare often recalls the peculiar stillness and quietness of 90s horror movies that were about social media before their time – proto-network films, in which the game often took on the omniscience of a slasher, and mimicked the way in which a slasher games his victims. Twenty years later, it is as if this slasher figure has been entirely absorbed and abstracted into their own gameification of death and violence, which is perhaps why the entity here often exhibits the same charismatic anonymity as the most memorable slashers.
In fact, as Truth or Dare puts it, that charismatic anonymity, and the inexorability of that charismatic anonymity, was always a way of glimpsing social media ahead of its time, just as the slasher was a figure who mediated precisely those truths of suburban life that were too confessional or dangerous to be properly borne. It’s that anonymity, too, that expands the ambit of the film from slasher exercises to all those 90s features – from The Game to The Net to the Final Destination franchise – that were obsessed with the possibility of an anonymous, networked, inherently ludic force that might be operating through characters even at their most apparently individualistic and charismatic. No surprise, then, that the brinksmanship of this particular game, and of this particular vision of social media, continually comes down to calibrating the demands of people close to you against the anonymous gaze of social media. The very first truth or dare in the convent forces Olivia to decide whether she’d choose her friends over the entire population of Mexico, while the mantra of her friendship with Markie is “Between you and the world, I choose you.” By the end of the film, she’s proved that mantra in the most extreme way possible, condemning the rest of the world to the game in order to avoid being dared to kill her best friend, and yet the selfishness of that gesture is also what allows her to find some line of flight, however provisional, from the oppression of that anonymous gaze as well – an appropriately ambivalent climax to one of the most unsettling horror films about social media this decade.