In many ways, horror has become harder to achieve during the streaming era. Since so much horror depends upon the sense of being trapped within the film, the fluidity of exiting and entering a stream can mitigate against genuine suspense. Deadstream addresses that problem by adding a new platform to the burgeoning ScreenLife genre – livestream horror. Since we can’t escape streaming, the film reasons, the best way to generate horror is by turning the stream itself into a claustrophobic space. Writer-directors Vanessa and Joseph Winter do this by way of Shawn, a YouTuber played by Winter himself, who has to rebuild sponsorship and fandom after one of his videos goes “too far”. To that end, he decides to spend a night in “the most haunted house in America” – Death Manor, a rural property that is supposedly inhabited by the ghost of Mildred Pratt, a Mormon heiress. Several people have died in the house under mysterious circumstances, so Shawn hopes that the stakes will be high enough for his first fully solo stunt to propel him back into the social media stratosphere.
Two distinct types of horror emerge from this premise. First, we have a more traditional found footage mode of horror, although there’s no doubt that the Winters manage to put their own terrifying take on it. This horror emerges in quite an unsettling manner, since the tone of the film is completely comic in the opening scenes, which detail some of Shawn’s most iconic stunts. Even when Shawn arrives at the house, he finds it hard to generate horror from his footage, so “meta,” ironised and tongue-in-cheek is his commentary on it all. Similarly, it’s difficult to tell the difference between real and fake horror – and, after a while there is no difference, since the moment Shawn experiences genuine fear, he amps it up to play to his audience. The result is a kind of a benign, banal and bathetic endpoint to digital horror, much as Shawn’s entire persona feels utterly inimical to fear, not unlike Randy Meeks in the Scream franchise. As a latter-day Randy, Shawn starts by explaining the “rules” of digital horror, but, a quarter of a century down the track, even explaining these rules has become a rule in itself, forcing Shawn to ironise the very notion of rules, along with everything else: “Should I be offended that clowns wear whiteface? I’m just so out of touch with the rules on these things.”
Concomitantly, Shawn presents his film as a culmination of every conceivable iteration of digital horror. He starts by comically quoting The Blair Witch Project, and continually builds on the innovations of Paranormal Activity, as if to encompass the entire horror history that those films bookend, in the span of his livestream, which also curates every major haunted medium from the last two decades. We see a photograph of the house from 1995, an episode of Ghost Hunters from 1998, and an EVP session from 2002, all of which Shawn shares as he streams. Later on, when things start to get scarier, fans respond by sharing videos with critical information, turning the stream into a convergence point for horror media past and present. Rather than amplifying the horror, however, this convergence tends to dull it, until Deadstream seems like an embodied history of digital terror – a walk-through of the last twenty years – than a fully realised piece of found footage horror in and of itself. Of course, there are still scary moments, but for the most part this opening act plays as a deliberate downplaying of digital horror, as if to experiment with what else might emerge in its absence.
As it turns out, the second source of horror emerges from the livestream viewers, who maintain a steady stream of comments on the bottom right corner of the screen. The Winters split the balance between horror and comedy perfectly in this respect, pairing creepy visuals with deflating comments from fans, who are quick to register the exhaustion of Shawn’s digital tropes. From the moment he enters the house, these fans are losing attention, which they register in a variety of ways – logging off, expressing disbelief, asking him to do scarier things. Even when the haunting gets into full gear, these fans remain nonplussed, seemingly aware of the danger, but unable to rouse themselves from a torpid state of semi-distraction. Shawn might be covered in blood, or pursued by a ghoul, or trapped by a monster, but nobody calls the cops. Instead, fans casually comment on irrelevant objects in the background, launch off on tangents or, in some cases, simply use the stream to promote their own livestreaming.
That’s not to say that the fans are entirely disengaged, but that the horror gradually emerges from the disconnect between the house and the way the fans mediate it. It’s the fans who first notice a ghost moving across one of Shawn’s cameras, although this isn’t apparently enough to stimulate their fear receptors, while the next entity that appears in the house turns out to be Chrissy, a superfan, played by Melanie Stone, who has made her way to Death Manor so that she can consummate her fandom on what she assumes will be Shawn’s most iconic livestream to date. Or so it seems, since the prospect of ghosts quickly disperses into a new uncanniness that emerges around Chrissy. When Shawn first comes across her, he’s flooded with relief at finding a real person to help him navigate the house, but she soon starts to behave in unusual ways – she’s alternatively a little too fixated in her gaze when he swivels the camera back to her before she’s had time to prepare her face, and a little too casual about the general fear factor in the house, whether in her proclivity for hiding from Shawn to create jump-scares, or in her tendency to fansplain his actions during their most precarious scenes.
All of these uncanny qualities culminate with three revelations that occur in quick succession – first, that Chrissy was in the house before Shawn arrived; second, that Chrissy is as much a stalker as a superfan; and third, that Chrissy is actually a manifestation of Mildred, the ghost who haunts the manor. In a livestreaming variant of the calls coming from inside the house, Shawn turns out to be haunted by the very fandom he was trying to assuage, transforming the space between livestream and viewer into the film’s main source of horror. Accordingly, the crisis comes when Shawn is trapped, with his tablet broken, in his car outside, unaware of whether he’s still livestreaming from his computer hub back in the house. At this moment, at the fragile cusp of livestreaming, he realises that Mildred is not only a monstrous superfan, but the original livestreamer. As he puts it to a livestreaming audience he’s not even sure exists any more, Mildred is enlisting followers, rather than accruing victims, gathering ghosts to read her poetry in the same way that he hopes his own words will go viral. The only solution is to put a copystrike on Mildred, to demonetise her need to demonise, which means enacting the same Satanic ritual she used to become an influencer over Death Manor in the first place. Shawn prepares for this ritual while traversing the space between car and house, his longest trajectory without a secure digital feed, as the livestream itself becomes the contested space, the claustrophobically haunted zone that both ghost and victim struggle to make their own.
It’s at this point that Shawn’s backstory, and his past media shame, comes full circle, as he tries to cancel Mildred to stave off the trauma of being cancelled himself: “I understand why you do what you do, but in the words of my manager, “You’ve taken things too far, way too far.” The livestream started as an effort to redeem himself for his past media gaffes, and escape the legacy of perpetual douchebaggerie, but ends with him acknowledging his demonic douche double in Mildred’s ghoststreamer. In the great comic twist of the film, he realises, in retrospect, that Mildred was always a supernatural douche, an occult troll, bent on irritating him as much as terrifying him, promulgating the same charismatic unlikeability that has made him such a hit with his own fans. Hence Mildred’s penchant for mixing horror with the gross-out spirit of YouTube, whether by periodically sticking her finger up Shawn’s nose, waterboarding him with a bucket of his own urine, or just scaring him for the fun of it.
For all that Shawn might apologise for his past stunts, and dedicate his feed to “the blacks and the Mexicans,” this grovelling performance is the mere prelude to his ritual of dethroning and replacing Mildred as supreme livestreamer – and in doing so, providing his fans with “the most cinematic experience in livestreaming.” For a brief beat, Mildred gets the upper hand, taking his camera and turning it into her POV, but Shawn quickly shows that he can outdo her for resonant grossness, whether through eating her eyeball, or cutting off his own finger for the requisite blood sacrifice to make the ritual work. We see the occult power of influencers writ large in these final scenes, as Shawn and Mildred compete to be the prime livestreamer, and while there’s a winning twist that sees Shawn overtaken by another horde of monsters just as the credits drop, the film’s comic thesis overrides it: namely, that only a livestreamer can defeat a ghost, or a monster, because livestreamers are ghosts and monsters at heart.