For many of us, Zoom has become synonymous with screen life during the pandemic, so it makes sense that it’s the backdrop for Host, the first great work of quar horror, and the flagship release of the Shudder streaming platform. The entire film takes place in one Zoom meeting and, at only 57 minutes, is about the length of a Zoom meeting. The premise is fairly familiar – a group of teenage girls holds an online séance that unleashes a spirit – but it takes on a new eeriness with the Zoom platform. Even before we get to the horror, however, it’s fascinating and catharic to just watch a Zoom hangout as a film – and to see Zoom reimagined as a big(ger) screen experience, rather than as a trudging compensation for normal social life.
In part, that’s due to how well director Rob Savage understands the Zoom dynamic, which makes sense for a film that was written, shot and directed during quarantine – in other words, a film that was probably conceived and executed largely through Zoom. As might be expected, there’s lots of sonic and visual glitches going on here, but Savage quickly moves beyond this particular disruption, as if prescient that it’s a hangover from Skype and previous video chat platforms, rather than then being truly unique to the Zoom experience. These glitches are thus just the bedrock for the real Zoom signature here – the weird pauses, lapses and beats in conversation that are amplified when all social life is deflected online. For the first part of the film, Savage simply builds a looming sense of dread through the furtive gazes and gestures that take place away from the main conversation, along with the rhythm of people entering and leaving the meeting, and the screen shifting amongst whoever happens to be speaking.
In Savage’s hands, Zoom intensifies the psychopathology of everyday life, which is enhanced further by the fact that none of these characters can leave their houses. Host realizes that the strangeness of Zoom stems in large part from the strange domestic arrangements of the pandemic, both in terms of individual living situations (one character has moved in with her new boyfriend for lockdown, another has moved in with her in-laws) and our new proximity to our friends’ personal spaces. As the different characters move in and out of the meeting, Savage’s camera luxuriates in the eeriness of empty backdrops on Zoom – and the way that Zoom both encourages casual scrutiny of our friends’ bedrooms, and distorts houses that we may well know around the single point of contact that now occurs at the computer screen.
This is perhaps the central feature of Host – its prescience that the pandemic has returned us from a mobile culture back to a desktop culture. While many of us do access Zoom on our phones, the fact remains that the platform is most stable on laptops, and needs the larger screen of a laptop for the kind of group session that occurs during the film. Since they’re stationary, and since their cameras are slightly different configured from those of phones, laptops vantage points always make people seem especially vulnerable in domestic space, with huge rooms and houses yawning away to dramatic vanishing-points behind them. Of course, that’s only intensified with a pandemic, where the laptop becomes both the point of contact with the outside world, but also the most dramatic reminder of our constriction too.
Savage’s conceits are, at times, so close to those of Unfriended and Paranormal Activity that the whole point of Host must be to compare how this neo-desktop culture, and return to laptops, compares to the great wave of laptop horror, and stationary camera horror, that surged about a decade ago. In his own way, he’s periodising the pandemic, except in technological rather than historical terms, eventually bundling all these discrete Zoom features into one conceit – the creepy way that Zoom gives an illusion of togetherness only to reiterate isolation. When Seylan, the séance host, joins the meeting, she immediately emphasizes that this is her first Zoom séance, and that their physical distance on Zoom makes them all “more vulnerable than they might otherwise have been.” Accordingly, she spends the first part of the séance helping everyone to imagine the physical proximity of a séance, reassuring them that, if they want to dismiss an unfriendly spirit, they need only picture a rope connecting them to the front door, and the sever it to protect quarantine sanctity again.
In other words, the séance intensifies what is already eerie about Zoom, and draws out the central paradox of Zoom – our longing to use the platform to effect a physical connection with our friends and family that could well be deadly if it actually occurred. This paradox plays in beautifully to the central paradox of suburban horror, which tends to focus on external intruders that are simply intensified versions of what is already taking place within the normative nuclear family. In the great slasher films, for example, the slasher takes advantage of a dearth of suburban father-figures, but also becomes a hyperbolized paternal presence himself, revealing the monstrosity of suburban law as he parodically over-identifies with it.
Something similar happens in Host, since the evil spirit that eventually emerges seems to embody both the coronavirus and legal infrastructure enforcing quarantine, meaning it encroaches from outside but also prevents the characters escaping outside as well. Even when one of the characters “escapes” her home in the closing scenes, she inevitably returns to another house, and another Zoom screen, since the combined forces of virus and quarantine seem to have removed any outside to escape to. Host thus viscerally captures the sense of being terrorized on two fronts – by the threat of the virus and the oppression of quarantine – and the peculiar intensity this holds for teenagers, who are less susceptible to the virus, and so more attuned to the world that has been lost with the arrival of lockdown.
Yet Host also evokes a deeper synergy between the virus and lockdown – an awareness that the very forces of law and order that (belatedly) produced quarantine are also complicit in the early spread of the virus, and in the construction of a world where the virus can have such devastating socioeconiomic effects on certain classes of people. These people are beyond the reach of the film, which takes place entirely in affluent suburban environments, but we glimpse them in the final trajectories of each character, which all end violently at the cusp between their houses and the outside world – the moment just before they would put on a mask. And Seylan first describes the spirit as a free-floating mask – a description the spirit apparently agrees with, since its first concrete appearance is as a Zoom mask filter, beneath which it waits, the demonic global system that has made masks our very last line of defence.