Modern Unknowns Part II: The Dark Web
There was a critical point in the mass adoption of the Internet where computers became less scary. It used to be that the general public ignorance surrounding Information Technology allowed for writers and creators of entertainment media to fill in the gaps with magic, but now that we are firmly in the age of Internet 2.0—with our Google and smartphones and personal websites—it is only with a great deal of irony that a TV show or film can get away with the haunted computer or ghost hacker scenario. What was once a cultural blind spot has become familiar, and the Internet just isn’t mysterious anymore.
This is problem for horror. Instead of a dark place of ignorance, the Internet has become a tool that we carry around in our pockets. It has become a trope of the genre, in fact, to disconnect protagonists so that the mystery of whatever encounters they have remains such, at least in places of paranormal activity. Storytellers need to artificially create shadowy corners for our nightmares to breed. Or, at least they did until we got the second Internet.
That's right: there is another Internet; a darker Internet; an Internet that has once again sparked the imaginations of horror practitioners. The Deep Web or Dark Web, depending on your taste in nomenclature (I prefer the latter), is a part of the information superhighway that you can’t find on maps. In order to access it you need to use a special software, called Tor, because the websites aren’t indexed by your average browser. While not evil in and of itself, promising the utmost privacy and anonymity to users, its reputation is one of a place for hackers and hitmen, drug trades and human trafficking, BitCoin and even the rumoured live snuff film. Instead of .com domains, places on the Dark Web use the suffix .onion. Chances are, you (like me) only know a little bit about it.
The Dark Web is rich and full of mystery, which is why the best modern horror is using it to deepen contemporary stories. The two best examples of this new trend in terror are Marisha Pessl's haunting 2013 novel Night Film, and the delightfully spooky Tanis podcast from Pacific Northwest Stories. Both of these media take the form of investigation horror, and each leans heavily on the occult nature of the Dark Web.
In Night Film, investigative journalist Scott McGrath embarks on a twisted journey to expose a legendary horror director named Stanislas Cordova. A famous recluse, Cordova has been linked to a number of deaths, including that of his own daughter, and McGrath sets out to find the mysterious auteur and expose him for reasons linked to revenge (Cordova ruined McGrath’s marriage and career when Scott last attempted to expose him).
Pessl’s great accomplishment with Night Film is her ability to build a massive amount of tension and fear without evoking the paranormal. Instead, she uses the occult to build a world that is alien yet familiar to the reader. Secret societies and underground film screenings make you question the world around McGrath in his search for Cordova, but nothing quite does this like how the author handles the Internet.
When McGrath takes his search to the Dark Web, the book switches to black pages. Reading them—presented as screen caps of hidden web pages that Scott visits—therefore has a weird physical sensation. With all of her real world action printed black on white, Pessl manages to make the Dark Web seem shadowy simply by virtue of framing it as shadow-like. The pages are literally dark, and that makes them feel hidden, as if they are in fact underneath the rest of the novel’s text.
Tanis uses the Dark Web in a similar fashion. One of the characters on the Lovecraftian radio show is a hacker who goes by the handle Meerkatnip, sometimes abbreviated to M.K. She serves a special role in the podcast’s narrative: she has the ability to navigate and understand the Dark Web, where a lot of the key information on the ancient and mysterious Tanis can be uncovered.
Just like Night Film, Tanis uses the Dark Web as a place filled with powerful occulted information, but rather than illustrating that by oppressing the audience through the application of darkness, the podcast shows that the horror-net is special through Meerkatnip. M.K. is a modern day dark sorceress. She is capable of IT miracles, especially when compared to the show’s other characters, and she is hyper-aware of certain types of creepypasta-ish spooky Internet lore. The connection is clear: by associating the most enlightened and useful character in a horror story to the dark web, an author implies that the places you can find on via Tor contain arcane knowledge.
Time may inevitably shed the light of common knowledge onto the Deep Dark Web, taking away its mysteries and therefore its power to birth fear. Already you can find news reporting online about Dark Web fueled misdeeds and, in a way, every horror story that uses a Tor browser as a spellbook depletes our collective reserve of ignorance on the topic. One day, everything we don't know now will be overused, cliche and familiar to the point of comfort. But for now the Dark Web is a blessing because popular ignorance is a border, beyond which there are monsters.