Written by Hayle Chen.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.
**Content Warning: Graphic Content**
Envision this: You’re gazing into a black void. There’s haphazard electronic humming and stark white letters emblazoned across a pitch-dark background. Then—the unnerving crack of the void, the screen, as a sound akin to a distressed heart monitor pitching higher assaults your ears. There might be a chill running down your spine, goosebumps riddling your skin—but instead of turning away or powering off your laptop, you settle back, nestling closer to your blankets to await the disturbance. What are you doing? You’re watching the disconcerting masterpiece that is Black Mirror. And this, my friends, is techno-paranoia at its finest.
Techno-paranoia. The word itself sounds like a new-fangled device, so the initial query may be: What is it? Depicted in a sinister way, it’s the modern cause of all things that go bump in the night, the fear that our very own creations and technological dependencies can lead to our ultimate demise lest we return to the Dark Ages themselves. In a more objective description, it’s a highly contemporary fear, the looming dread and uncertainty that results from centuries of scientific discovery and industrialization.
And because we exist amidst the everyday hum of machinery, there’s something particularly biting about this concept. There’s an authentic unease that accompanies the idea that the societal fear of technology could have the power to cause the masses to run amok—that technology will be the downfall of all that we hold dear. As a result, it’s precisely this atmosphere that the hit TV series Black Mirror strives to create.
Since its genesis in 2011, the British sci-fi anthology created by Charlie Brooker, has been praised by viewers and Rotten Tomato-ers alike for its acute insight into the technologically advanced era we of the 21st century reside in. Currently an explosive five-season series, each individual narrative serves as a unique social commentary on the addiction we have to our devices as society as a whole becomes increasingly reliant upon them. Yet, while Black Mirror may be intriguing and revelation-inducing with its impressive visuals and on the nose themes, it’s also disturbing, overtly graphic, and oftentimes downright nauseating.
Which lends the question… why do we watch it? What makes us view cautionary tale after cautionary tale only to lie awake in our beds in the dead of the night, unable to sleep, fearful of the very creations that surround us? The answer: catharsis.
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The purification of the emotions by vicarious experience, esp. through the drama,” the concept of catharsis is one that wholly applies to the show’s rapt audience. This desire to purge emotions, to experience the very horrors that we believe, in the recesses of our mind, could occur is what makes each episode of the show so alluring and somehow subsequently relieving.
As a result, if you’ve ever watched Black Mirror in any semblance of an order, you’ll fully understand the concept of purging your fears through vicarious experiences. Vividly remembering the horror that commenced the series, “The National Anthem” serves as one of the most acutely memorable openings in cinematic history. Forever dubbed PigGate (a nod to the Watergate scandal and actual rumors of a prime minister doing the same godforsaken act), the episode follows the premise of a current UK prime minister who must take action to save an abducted member of the royal family. Simultaneously attempting to keep the news out of the public eye, the entire situation perhaps seems par for the course for a TV show national leader, yet there remains a harrowing catch in Prime Minister Callow’s case. He can only receive the princess’s whereabouts and ensure her safety by fulfilling the twisted request of the abductor: having sexual intercourse with a pig, live-streamed for the entire nation to see.
Abhorrent and physically sickening to watch, the episode highlights the power digital media has on the masses in the most perverse manner. And by extension, it also taps into something intrinsically deeper—to the disgust and revulsion we feel at the thought of such an unspeakable act, and how we somehow choose to watch anyway.
Yet, the query still remains: is this catharsis even real? How is it that watching something disturbing allows us to purge and liberate ourselves of the very fears themselves? Season Two’s “White Bear” may be the ultimate answer. Debatably the most unsettling episode to date, the 42-minute narrative follows a woman, Victoria, who awakens with amnesia to a TV screen displaying a stark unknown symbol. With all signs indicating her to be a suicide survivor, our protagonist along with her fragmented memories of what seems to be her husband and daughter, walks into a chilling world outside.
What’s off? Well, while she shouts for help with increasing distress in an initially deserted suburban neighborhood, laughing onlookers are filming her. All the while masked individuals are trying to kill her. The cause: the transmitter at White Bear that’s brainwashing its citizens. Journeying to turn it off, Victoria is undoubtedly regarded as a victim of this tragic situation. As a result, no one expects (spoilers ahead!) what ultimately is revealed at the end: Victoria is a high profile criminal whose memories are wiped each day so that she can be put in the same simulation as retribution. The filming onlookers? Visitors of the White Bear Justice Park who gleefully pay to participate in punishing her.
Intensely disturbing and wholly compelling, there’s nothing pleasant or appealing about the episode as you watch it, but somehow while heightening your discomfort, the multi-faceted narrative expels your paranoia by actually verbalizing it. And this ability to “face our fears” without ever truly experiencing them is what, at its core, is so captivating and cathartic about Black Mirror.
So, though Charlie Brooker may be a mastermind in his own right, Black Mirror’s efficacy lies in the experiences of the viewer as well, slyly tapping into the potent unease and fear we experience each time we genuinely contemplate the role of technology in our lives. Which in full begs the question: when we turn off our devices at the end of the night and are faced with own thoughts, is the paranoia justified? Or are we deluded, desiring some faux catharsis, simply subject to the ever shifting whims of what is ultimately, just a shiny black mirror.