At the center of a once-bustling metropolis, the city streets are now gray and empty. People have stopped turning up to work, and the shops are deserted as a global pandemic forces everyone indoors to shield them from an invisible threat. Strange new technologies promise to keep us connected, but the devices themselves are vulnerable to attack from nefarious, unseen forces. And as mental health deteriorates through paranoia and chronic loneliness, people are disappearing off the face of the Earth entirely.
I'm not describing the events of 2020. This is the plot of Pulse, a cult classic J-horror movie about a ghostly invasion via internet-connected home computers.
Filmed at the height of the J-horror boom kickstarted by Hideo Nakata's Ring (1998), Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film was a visceral take on the ghost story that, in 2001, proved far scarier than the cheap shocks of other horror flicks. It follows an ensemble of everyday citizens who, one by one, begin to receive strange transmissions from their computers. “Would you like to meet a ghost?”, one unlucky soul is propositioned. It’s soon revealed that the afterlife has become overrun, forcing the dead to return to the world of the living.
Their motivations are never revealed, but the presence of these horrifying entities inspires those who come into contact to take their own lives spontaneously, leaving behind only a grim, shadowy stain where their corpses should lie. As the masterwork of one of Japan’s great horror filmmakers, Pulse remains timelessly eerie — thanks in part to one of the most terrifying ghost encounters in the history of cinema. But as a nuanced exploration of technophobia, social isolation and psychological trauma, Pulse feels more relevant now, two decades on from its initial release, than ever before.
Shot in cavernous tower blocks and warehouses in washed-out greys and blues, Pulse looks almost monochromatic as it observes a lonely world succumbing to a strange, unstoppable fate. With discordant strings adding a Hitchcockian sense of tension, the film builds a deep sense of foreboding as the anguished spirits of the netherworld emerge from the shadows of dark corridors. Few of the film’s core characters get the chance to even meet one another before they meet their demise.
Pulse takes every measure to magnify the isolation of each makeshift protagonist by keeping them all largely divided. And it is this bleak and unsettling premise — mirroring real-life anxieties in Y2K Japan — that provides the real horror that endures to this day.
Ring had terrorized viewers by convincing them their own television could kill them, but Pulse went one step further by capitalizing on fears of the vast, unknowable technology of the internet, just as it became prominent in day-to-day life for the first time. In 2020, the idea of the internet being used as a conduit for an otherworldly invasion might sound daft. But the techno-anxiety themes of Pulse mirror the contemporary fears of today much more effectively than you might think.
We live in an age where advertisers target us based on our web browser histories, where the Russian government interfered in US elections, and where "Chinese spyware" apparently records us via our smartphones. The concept of being contacted by another realm against your will via your home computer, then, doesn't sound so impossible after all. So when Pulse’s computer users find their screens filled with unsolicited webcam streams of lonely apartment-dwellers committing suicide, it feels less like some dated science fiction concept than a lockdown Zoom call gone wrong.
Back in 2001, though, there was another layer to this concept. In turn-of-the-century Japan there were growing concerns that large sections of the population were becoming isolated due to internet addiction. The phenomenon, known as "hikikomori,” refers to acute social withdrawal, and as recently as 2019, the BBC reported that 541,000 people in Japan (roughly 1.57% of the total population) were willingly living in such isolation. It feels like prescient subject matter today, as countries across the world force their populations inside to shelter from an invisible, airborne virus for the second time in a year, but the idea becomes even more unnerving when hikikomori is understood in the context of another Japanese phenomenon.
"Kodokushi", or "lonely death," refers to a trend of people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for long periods of time. In one widely-publicized incident in 2000, the corpse of an elderly man was discovered in his apartment three years after he had died, having been consumed in part by flies and maggots. To this day, lonely death-focused cleaning services exist in Japan for the specific purpose of emptying the homes of those who have passed away unnoticed, with some employees cleaning up to 300 rooms per year.
With this disturbing imagery as the backdrop to a horror movie about mass, unexplained disappearances in a plagued society, Pulse turns an unwelcome screw. The shadowy stains left behind in the apartments of the numerous "missing persons" in the film's world suddenly feel a lot more unnerving. It is never truly revealed what happens to these people in the film — but it is made clear by the invading spirits’ pained cries for help that there is no salvation waiting on the other side.
In this year of mass isolationism and diminished community, the events of Pulse, and the concepts of hikikomori and kodokushi, feel palpable. As an analogy for the dangers of depression and withdrawal, the film remains incredibly powerful.
With mass unemployment and economic struggle a genuine fear for much of America in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, depression is a greater threat to society than ever before. In May this year, The Washington Post reported a "mental health crisis" in America, with a federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress reporting a rise of over 1,000 percent in April compared with figures from 2019. But the real fear, as explored in Pulse, is that this illness or curse could be unstoppable. As one character in the film plainly states after a friend unexpectedly hangs himself: "He never said anything, so how could we have done something?".
Fortunately for those of us living in the real world, ghosts don't exist (fingers crossed), and psychological traumas and illnesses are treatable. But the true horror of Pulse is the idea that eternal loneliness is our ultimate fate — a fate worse than death in itself. "People don't really connect, you know. We're all totally separate", goes the film's central quote. And in a day and age where we fear personal details being leaked by video call apps and where internet trolls lay in wait on social media websites, real-world separation from friends and family is a scary possibility.
So if you're seeking cheap thrills this Halloween, by all means, chuck a bedsheet over your head and barge into your neighbor's apartment screaming "boo!". But if you really want to chill them to their bones, invite them over to watch Pulse. Because in 2020, it's just about the realest ghost movie out there.
Pulse is streaming for free on Tubi and available to rent on Amazon.