David Cronenberg is often cited as one of the pioneers of the body horror genre, with special emphasis on the brilliance of his 1983 magnum opus Videodrome. However, the legacy of Videodrome extends far beyond the confines of the horror genre since the horrors it predicted have become key elements of the reality we have embraced in the 21st century.
More than anything else, Videodrome is a reflection on the pernicious machinations of mass media, post-humanism and the dizzying influence of technology on the rapidly changing frameworks of modernity. It anticipates the visceral clash between the virtual and real, presented through the story of a media executive who chances upon a bizarre mind-control broadcast.
Cronenberg insisted that Videodrome is more of a philosophical meditation than a horror flick: “They talk about me as the inventor of body horror. But I’ve never thought of it as being horrific,” he said. “Of course, you’re being a showman, and if you’re making a low-budget horror film—there were a lot of those around at the time—how do you get yourself noticed?”
Adding: “Certainly I was in the world, and not an abstractionist. I was trying to make movies and continue to make movies. But there’s the philosophical underpinning for all of it. If neurology is reality, that’s an incredible theme—how to structure a narrative that will discuss that? Immediately you’re into changing the body to change the reality, and that’s what led me to all of those things like Videodrome.”
Although many of Cronenberg’s films have tackled these subjects, very few of them have reached the artistic heights of Videodrome. According to the director, the investigations of media and society in the film were inspired by the teachings of one of his professors at the prestigious University of Toronto when Cronenberg was a student there.
That professor was none other than the brilliant Marshall McLuhan, an intellectual whose penetrating understanding of the operations of mass media in the 20th century have been surpassed by the overwhelmingly amplified reality of the 21st. Although Cronenberg regretted not taking a course taught by McLuhan, the ideas of the “communications guru” haunted him while he was making Videodrome.
In The Medium is the Message, McLuhan wrote: “Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of information.” That’s exactly what Videodrome shows us, a society where constant sources of information have resulted in the steady destabilisation of the collective psyche.
These themes are more relevant now than ever before, with the rise of dangerously manipulative social media platforms which have blatantly tried to sway public opinion through algorithmic manipulations. Both McLuhan and Cronenberg anticipated such a world in various degrees, with the former commenting on the totality of such a structure.
“The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics,” McLuhan said. “If the operations are needed, the inevitability of infecting the whole system during the operation has to be considered.”
However, McLuhan did have hope for a societal shift and claimed that the only figure who can save us from ourselves is the artist: “No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies. Today we have begun to sense that art may be able to provide such immunity… The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs.”
For all intents and purposes, Cronenberg is that artist/messiah whose emergence McLuhan’s prophecy was inviting. Through Videodrome, Cronenberg managed to construct a commentary on modern society so vast and deep that it is virtually impossible to tell the film was made almost 40 years ago.