AR Horror Gimmicks: Sites of Unbounded Potential and Vulnerability

Curator's Note

On Friday, October 13, 2017, Lionsgate studio released a Snapchat-based augmented reality (AR) facial filter (or Lens) for the horror sequel Jigsaw, which “trapped” users inside one of the titular villain’s infamous torture devices. In video recordings of the real-time AR experience, we can watch as the seconds quickly pass before the user’s head “bursts,” splattering pixelated viscera all over the frame.

Such AR-driven promos seem to me apt examples of Brian Rotman’s notion that we are always “becoming besides ourselves” across digital technologies and systems, mutating and externalizing so much data that our “bodies” exist as hybridized networked information - and thus given to their own possibilities of material unboundedness and breakdown. Importantly, these notions of bodily excess and malleability are often key concerns of the horror genre.

Indeed, this entanglement of AR and horror carries potential in the ways we can imagine, perform, and display the self. Enabling people the ability to augment reality in this way - becoming blurred, transmogrified, refashioned - can potentially allow us to play with, subvert, and make messy any supposedly fixed notions of identity, beauty, and corporeal cohesion. Arguably, the body becomes beside or in excess of itself in manners that confirm the body as always in a state of becoming.  

Yet I also feel compelled to consider such breakdowns in terms of vulnerability. As image and data, we experience a potential loss of control over where our bodies travel - the augmented, dispersed self potentially stuck in its own looping nightmare. Linked to this, Snapchat and similar digital applications that make use of AR gimmicks are notoriously unbounded things – given to privacy violations, hacks, and misleading promises of ephemerality and user control.

In its own small way, the ability to view and share a YouTube video of a 24-hour, supposedly vanishing AR encounter is evidence of this. Texts like these can show us a world where our digital selves can be astonishingly transformed, rearranged, and resurrected. Yet they also point to the ways marketers and content creators are able to find new and creative ways for the body to be mediated, managed, packaged, and sold.


Fantastic analogue you've identified there, body horror and anxieties of bodily integrity (or lack thereof). I'm reminded of the artist Martina Menegon's work. In one piece, she creates and distrubutes a Snapchat filter of her own face—imagery straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wonder, is this more a reclaiming of one's own image, or foremost a surrender to its increasing propsensity to be infinitely appropriated and abused?

Thank you Alexander!  I appreciate your analysis here of new technologies as revealing both the body's potential (the body as malleable and always in a state of becoming) and the the body's vulnerability (our lack of control over its transformations).  We often experience vulnerability (and often appropriately so) negatively--as, in your words, a "violation" or a "nightmare."  I wonder if we might also embrace vulnerability as having positive potential as well.  Experiencing ourselves as vulnerable can be scary (the stuff of horror) and yet we all do/will (eventually) decompose physically--although, we hope, somewhat more slowly!   And many of us will also experience moments along the way where we (affectively) lose our composure or 'explode.'  Perhaps there is something liberating in embracing these vulnerabilities playfully and experimentally?  You are, of course, quite right to note that such playful urges will be exploited by marketers and content creators.

really appreciate your thinking here r.e. mutation and material unboundedness (to what degree to we compromise agency when interacting w. technologies that track/record our bodies + facial expressions?) New kinds of distorting affects made possible by VR/AR/MR which allow tech to see us as much as we see them. Do you think there is something about wanting to see ourselves as mediated/some kind of pleasure gained when our embodied action is reciprocated by a technological actor? Think all the pieces this week are dealing w. new kinds of becoming with new media, as Shelley says. Also interested in your thoughts on intersections of horror specific AR apps and what you see the potential being for horror in this space more generally?

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