“Urban Gothic” – No Signal

David | Sep 29, 2009 min read

Screenwriter John August has an interesting little post on cell phones in the movies. It includes a great little montage of movie clips showing phones not working, getting smashed, etc. Why on earth do I care?

Brian Keene has this very problem in Urban Gothic. In an era where it seems everyone has a cell phone, how does a writer deal with it?

By my count, there are six teenagers in Keene’s book, each of whom has their own cell phone. They get trapped in an abandoned (haunted?) house that’s in a bad neighborhood, but it’s a suburb of Camden, New Jersey. Not exactly in the middle of nowhere. It’s actually well covered by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. Yes, I checked, but not as any sort of petty criticism of Keene.

I think he does a good job of dealing with this problem. But first, I really want to understand why it’s a problem?

For a horror writer, the problem is one of salvation. If you have a cell phone, then you’re never really cut off from the rest of the world. The underlying assumption seems to be, that at any given moment, if things are too rough, the character in trouble can always just call for help. Is the problem unique to cell phones? I don’t think so. To me, the problem is more fundamental, often summed up as ‘if you show a gun in act one, it better get used by act three’. If you show a character using a cell phone early on, then when the shit hits the fan, they better pull that cell phone out again and start dialing.

Keene has this problem. The story opens with his characters using their cell phones as teens today would (or close enough). The reader knows these teens all have cell phones. How does Keene deal with it? He does a few things. First, he makes the neighborhood they’re in so bad, that by the time these kids go to make their first call for help, we believe that even if they reach the police, they’re not likely to come. Second, he uses the ’no signal’ / ‘weak signal’ approach. And even though, as I said earlier, these kids are in a suburb of Camden, NJ, they are trapped in this insanely old house in the middle of the projects. It’s an overused tactic, but it does still work - at least I bought it. The house is old enough. The cannibal clan who lives there has taken the time to modify the house into a relatively complex labyrinth, complete with spiked pits and movable walls. Maybe they did also insulate the walls or do something to jam cell phone signals. Making or buying a cell phone jamming device is not beyond the capability of some of the cannibal characters. Third, he treats some of the phones as secondary victims, often ‘dying’ with or before their owner.

So Keene uses multiple tactics to tackle the cell phone question, and I think that’s what makes it work for this book. It’s not just ‘oh, btw - cell phones don’t work here’. It’s that they don’t work, they’re fragile and get knocked off with their owners, and ‘oh, btw - even if they did work, you’re in the shittiest part of town, so bad that even the cops won’t go there after dark’.

But, is that the only solution? Can this be treated like the ‘gun’ problem? If the reader never sees the cell phone, does that remove the need to use it or address it? In Keene’s book, it wouldn’t likely be enough. I think anyone who’s not been living in a box the last ten years would expect that, in a group of 6 teenagers, at least one of them has a cell phone. At least.

In his post, John August poses the solution of ‘Don’t write movies in which characters would call for help.’ That’s very difficult in the context of horror, because it almost always involves making at least one character helpless at some point (brash generalization, but bear with me). But, would it also be possible to create a character who wouldn’t have a cell phone and have it be believable? That, to me, would be an interesting challenge - to create a believable character who does not own or cannot access a cell phone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hung up on cell phones or the ’no signal’ thing. The interest is more in terms of how much does a reader assume about our characters, and how much can we manipulate those assumptions. If I have an old man as my main character, and never show him using a cell phone - when he’s in dire jeopardy and needs help, does the reader call foul if I don’t have him try a cell phone? What about a backwoods survivalist? A farmer? A twenty-something who has spent the last 5 or so years travelling the world and working on a fishing boat?

Update: According to “Did You Know 4.0”, 93% of US adults have cell phones (see 2:35). Makes it hard to develop a believable character who would not have a cell phone.

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