By MICHAEL BROWN
As we spend more and more of our time online, screens have become a permanent fixture in our lives. Whether at work or in the home environment, we interact with loved ones, co-workers, social networks, and the wider community through our desktops. As computer users, this “window” to the outer world often reflects back to us the messiness of our inner world via the desktop clutter of multiple open windows. At any one time, we might have an internet search engine, a video clip, music track, email, social media chat, text document, picture file, or folder open. As terms such as document, file or folder imply, the experience of the desktop is very much an archival one, sorting, storing, and retrieving information much like an archivist does. The last decade has seen an influx of desktop horror and thrillers, films in which a large portion, if not all, of the action takes place on a computer screen. A few examples include The Den (Zachary Donohue, 2013), Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014), and Host (Rob Savage, 2020). In Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (2018), the desktop itself becomes a source of anxiety and fear, and the brightly lit screen holds some dark and disturbing secrets.
David Kim (John Cho) wakes one morning to discover his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La), is missing. Despite three unanswered messages left on his phone during the night, David has no clue as to what could have happened to his usually reliable daughter. When he begins retracing her steps online, however, he soon uncovers Margot’s hidden second life, a life of depression and loneliness. Told entirely through computer screens and smartphones, Searching delves into the dangers of the online world and the mysteries we become to each other when we start keeping secrets. The film opens with the familiar load screen of Microsoft Windows as we watch Margot’s mother Pam (Sara Sohn) create a profile for her infant daughter, marking occasions such as the first day of kindergarten and early piano lessons. Such scenes remind us of how often we turn to computers in our daily lives. They show the beginnings of an archive, a digital trace of events, milestones, and memories that can be saved and revisited at a later date. But it also reveals how these digital remnants can help give us a sense of identity and shared history.
Today’s web history, social media feed, or screen life is like the contemporary version of the photo albums, scrapbooks, or diaries, discovered in some typically cobwebby attic in traditional horror or gothic tales. Invariably, whatever is turned up reveals some hidden truth about the past. As an archive of family life, these types of old media often laid the foundation for individual identity within the domestic or social group. However, a single photograph or diary entry could upset these secure notions, leading some to question their own sense of self. In desktop horror, a user’s social media and messaging apps play the same role. As David begins logging into his daughter’s Facebook, Tumblr and email accounts he quickly experiences a sense of disconnection between his day-to-day dealings with his daughter and how she expresses herself and interacts with others online. At one point we see just how cluttered David’s desktop has become as he attempts to join the dots of Margot’s digital presence. Files such as “School Suspects”, “Odd Details”, “Margot’s timeline” and “Things that don’t add up” vie for space along with screenshots, documents, and contact lists. The mess of the screen reflects just how confusing the puzzle of Margot’s disappearance is. When, towards the end of the film, David believes his daughter has been murdered he sets out to commemorate her on a memorial webpage. As we watch him drag and drop video files onto the site, we once again are confronted by the volume of personal media that builds over a lifetime. What’s more, the intention to distribute this material online expresses how our personal archives have come to exist in a shared space, a social archive that accumulates and circulates in unexpected ways. In our absence, these digital traces become our ghosts.
The title of the film, despite its simplicity, hints at a number of possible meanings. The obvious one is the search for a missing person. Just as easily, it could refer to the father’s search for his daughter’s identity, trying to separate appearances from the secrets she kept. There is also another meaning to searching within the context of the film. It is the way in which the digital world and online presence has turned us all into researchers, investigating the world around us via search engines, links, scrolling, organizing, and cut-and-pasting. We, the audience, spend much of the movie looking at computer and phone screens belonging to the dad. We feel like we are searching and sorting information at the same time as he is. And because we are familiar with some versions of the social media apps, streaming services, and photo pages that appear on screen we are comfortable navigating this world. This effect can be even more noticeable for viewers watching the film on their computer at home rather than at the cinema.
Audiences savvy with browsing and filtering online content may, as it turns out, become aware of a hidden subplot within the film. Given that webpages and news sites were created especially by the filmmakers, additional content was needed to fill up the space. Amid the article headlines, news bulletins, and sidebars, a secondary plotline develops involving an alien invasion. Despite its origin as an elaborate joke, the alien subplot also adds to the feeling that the digital space is overflowing with personal and global stories, waiting to be sifted and sorted through.
The glut of information in desktop horror treats the online world as a disembodied archive, a haunted space. Everyone in the film uses this archive for their own ends: Margot looks for a sense of connection after the loss of her mother, Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to cover up her son’s involvement in Margot’s disappearance, and finally by David as he pieces together the threads of this deception. In true gothic fashion, this archive configures the past as a place of buried secrets. By having us, the audience, looking over David’s shoulder the film puts us in the role of researcher, scanning headlines, compiling lists, and opening files. In the digital realm, we are all archivists now: gathering material, curating our lives, and always searching…