[page 89] Is terror sublime? In 1826, Ann Radcliffe, in “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” claimed that “[t]error expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” In several episodes, Black Mirror plays with terror, dropping us into spaces that work on some of our deepest worries and fears, trying to scare us in horror and science fiction-movie mode. I’ve taught three of these episodes in composition and literature courses as a way to get students thinking and writing: “Be Right Back,” “Playtest,” and “Metalhead.” These episodes work as stand-alone short stories, which is how I teach them. We look at both form and content: how does a short story function internally, and what elements of its form and content create a response in the viewer? For each episode, I have my students do several things, generally in groups or pairs: create a list of themes; create a set of specific questions about the content and/or form, things about each story that seem unclear or that they didn’t fully understand; and create a list of possible writing topics based on the first two prompts (these can be questions or statements).
All three of these episodes attempt to engage with fear in two ways: through the lightness and fun of exhilaration, of not knowing what’s going to happen, sending your heart racing; and through the heavier, more grounded philosophical and ethical quandaries each story presents. In each one, we’re dropped into the middle of an already-happening story/plot, and it’s up to us to discern the outside information that we’re not given, an important skill for students to learn. “Be Right Back” (Season Two, Episode One) gives us the most exposition and the fewest plot questions, and I often start the semester with this one. In this episode, a woman, Martha, loses her partner, Ash, in a sudden accident and is given the opportunity to retrieve him, so to speak, using a new technology. By gathering all of the deceased’s online information (primarily through his social media posts, though later also through his emails and phone messages), the system creates a version of Ash that can learn and respond to Martha in real time, first via email, then through texting and phone conversations, and finally as [page 90] a full-on physical clone of the original Ash. Martha at first is horrified by the very prospect of the enterprise and vehemently rejects it; when she learns she’s pregnant, however, her grief overtakes her and she tries it out, growing more and more dependent and tied to this new Ash, who seems oh-so-real (until he doesn’t, and she relegates him to the attic). The episode seems to be a straightforward exploration of the far reaches of where our technology can take us, when it takes a turn and plays with fear in a more old-fashioned way, in an old-fashioned house that essentially lets us know what’s coming. When the new Ash is generating in a bathtub upstairs while Martha waits downstairs, and when she begins to hear the creak of the stairs as he descends, we’re shifted into a different kind of story, and there is some true tension and a rattling of nerves in this scene as we wait for the still-unknown new Ash. With students, we can engage with the form of the story, as well as with the content: How did we get to a classic horror story when we started out in a parable about technology and social media? Is this an effective technique? Were you scared, and why or why not? Are the premise and actualization of the plot ethical?
On the opposite end of the storytelling-style spectrum is “Metalhead” (Season Four, Episode Five), where we are given, in a classic science fiction model, almost no information outside the parameters of the story we see. We open onto a devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape with three characters on a literal mission, though even that we aren’t told much of until the very last scene. Our characters drive across an empty landscape in stark, gorgeous black and white, headed to a warehouse where they hope to find …something. In the dark, vast, and silent warehouse, we discover fear in the form a robotic creature that appears dog-like, a fierce, unrelenting, nearly unbeatable machine intent on killing any human it finds. The episode dispenses with the two male characters in the first few minutes, leaving Bella completely alone as we follow her in her attempts to outrun the “dog.” Suffice to say, the story does not end well for Bella, or, we can presume, the rest of humankind; the dogs are legion, and the destruction of one means nothing at all in the larger scheme of things. For me, this is the strongest of the three pieces, and I think it has the most to teach about developing plot and character when you have very little background or details about the world in which a story exists. The episode is extremely compelling – the tone and style (the colors, the cinematography, [page 91] the sound design, the smooth, fast-paced editing) coupled with the humanity of the main character (nearly everything that we know about Bella is from the expressions on her face and the actions of her body) allow you to fall into the story even without any background exposition, an element of storytelling that students almost universally deeply desire. That missing information is then precisely what we talk about in the classroom; we can create and answer numerous questions about our present day lives and what exactly it is that we’re attempting to accomplish with our technology. Because “Metalhead” is presented in the tradition of post-apocalyptic science fiction, we also engage with literary and film history (the episode draws deeply on earlier film history and my students immediately saw the connections to The Terminator movies, for example). We consider the ways the genre has changed over time and place: the robot dogs in this video have a real-life counterpart in the present-day world (even if only in prototype) and the technology, as in all the other episodes, is grounded in twenty-first century life.
“Playtest” (Season Three, Episode Two), with its focus on gaming, blends super high-tech elements with the traditional horror mode of the haunted house, attempting to give a real thrill of terror at the unknown while also, as always in Black Mirror, asking us to consider what our technology really means. As in “Be Right Back,” there is a great deal of exposition, leaving the students freer to engage with the ethical questions posed; this episode is also the most purely “fun” in the sense of terror, making it an excellent text for discussing the genre of horror in its present and past iterations in literature and film. A young man, Cooper, is traveling the world as he runs from his family problems; when his credit card number is stolen in London, leaving him without any money, he finds temporary work through a – you guessed it – job-finding app. The job brings him to a remote outpost where he is welcomed to the headquarters of a major gaming company known for its horror games. The premise is simple: he’s being paid to test their newest virtual reality gaming technology. After being implanted with a micro-computer that will attempt to read his mind and determine what he is truly afraid of, Cooper begins to play small games, ending up finally in the main set-piece, a haunted house, where the goal is to spend the night without quitting. Like any good horror-movie hero, Cooper jokes and laughs and plays off his nervousness [page 92] with good humor, until things get “real.” The game gets stronger and better as it progresses, starting with shadows and spiders and classic haunted-house tropes, working its way into Cooper’s psychology to create the true terror that sees him leave the house and re-enter the world (we think). There are several false endings, eventually circling us back to the initial moment of micro-computer implant and hookup to the game system, where we learn that Cooper’s experience hasn’t been quite what we thought it was. With students, I’ve focused discussions and writing prompts with this episode on close reading (genre, character development) and contextual reading (virtual reality in gaming is growing at an incredibly rapid speed: What will it look like, ultimately? How good will it get? How dangerous might it be?).
In addition to the prompts regarding context, story, ethics, etc., I also frequently have students do a bit of creative writing by means of rewriting or adding to the script, and have had a lot of success with these techniques. I will sometimes ask them to continue or start the story: because short stories give us only limited information, they leave us plenty of room to decide the before or after. This gives students who want to know more a space to breathe, as it allows them to fill out what they often perceive as incomplete or inconclusive. I also ask them to rewrite portions of an episode, or create new characters: inserting themselves into the script allows them to contemplate what is and is not happening inside the story, and since I also ask them to justify their creative choices, they do need to get inside the actual text. This also allows them the pleasure of changing elements in a story with which they aren’t happy. The goal of all these exercises is to move students toward critical analysis both in and outside any story, having a little fun in the form of terror along the way.
· Abad-Santos, Alex. “‘Playtest’ Is Black Mirror's Sinister Look at How We Treat Life like a Video Game.” Vox, Vox, 21 Oct. 2016, www.vox.com/culture/2016/10/21/13322892/black-mirror-season-3-playtest-recap.
· Bishop, Bryan. “Black Mirror's Metalhead Suggests Technological Disruption Is Unavoidable (and Terminal).” The Verge, The Verge, 5 Jan. 2018,
www.theverge.com/2018/1/5/16853982/black-mirror-metalhead-season-4-maxine-peake-boston-robotics-robot-dog. [page 93]
· Jeffery, Morgan. “'Black Mirror': 'Be Right Back' Review.” Digital Spy, 19 Jan. 2016, www.digitalspy.com/tv/black-mirror/news/a457935/black-mirror-series-two-be-right-back-review-creepy-and-moving/.
· Mullane, Alex. “Black Mirror Review: 'Playtest' Is Exhilarating Horror.” Digital Spy, 23 Oct. 2016, www.digitalspy.com/tv/black-mirror/review/a811667/black-mirror-season-3-review-playtest-is-so-visceral-its-almost-impossible-to-watch/.
· “New SpotMini From Robot Maker Boston Dynamics." YouTube, 10 Dec. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v.
· Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” New Monthly Magazine volume 16, no. 1 (1826), pp. 145-152.
· Sims, David. “Black Mirror: 'Metalhead' Is a Short, Stylish Survival Thriller.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 31 Dec. 2017,
· Sims, David. “Black Mirror's 'Playtest' Brings Fear to Life.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Oct. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/10/black-mirror-playtest-review-season-three-netflix/504893/.