It’s easy, perhaps even cliché, to say the internet can be a horror show. But while opening the web might not be the same as sitting down to watch a slasher flick, author Grady Hendrix does think recent movies Searching, in which internet commenters cruelly speculate on the fate of a missing girl, are a powerful reflection of our current anxieties about technology.

“There’s this idea that things are on the internet to be solved, or things are on the internet to be opined about,” the horror writer says in Episode 330 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And I feel like that really induces a kind of callousness. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s like ‘internet bad,’ but I do think that’s a behavior that media—television, radio, internet—has really catalyzed.”

Other films such as Tragedy Girls or The Den take things a step further, depicting worlds in which the internet financially rewards murder. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley says that’s uncomfortably close to the way that the internet currently incentivizes outrage.

“If you post anything that’s not angry it’s not going to go viral, and if you post something that’s angry it’s much more likely to go viral, and so the internet becomes this sort of supervillain anger-amplification machine,” he says. “And people are pumping out stories that are going to provoke people, and piss them off, and get them riled up, as part of their business plan.”

Of course most internet behavior is driven not by profit but by simple attention-seeking, a theme explored in recent films such as Ingrid Goes West and Like Me. Science fiction author Anthony Ha admits to feeling the siren song of internet validation. “I’ve been guilty of this, absolutely,” he says. “There’s this feeling that, ‘The world needs to hear my opinion about this.’ This feeling of, ‘Can we be silent about this? Let me be the millionth person to explain why this thing is bad.’”

But not all movies are so dark. Writer Sara Lynn Michener enjoys films like A Simple Favor and The Circle, which offer a more nuanced view of technology.

“We’re treated, as a society, like we’re held captive and enslaved by this technology, that we’re being brainwashed by engineers to think a certain way, and I think some of that’s true,” she says, “but what doesn’t get discussed often enough is that there’s actually a fair amount of variability in terms of how you as an individual choose to use it, and respond to it, and there’s a lot out there that’s very positive.”

Listen to the complete interview with Grady Hendrix, Anthony Ha, and Sara Lynn Michener in Episode 330 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Grady Hendrix on Pulse:

Pulse was the first movie that really tried to capture the emotion of the internet. Not just ‘this is a scary place with scary things in it,’ but this feeling of isolation. It’s a Japanese movie by Kiyoshi Kurosawa from 2001, and it’s about an epidemic of suicides, where people seem to become very isolated and withdrawn, and get obsessed with these websites that are just showing people killing themselves—other isolated, withdrawn people. And then ghosts of the deceased, sort of these nodes of loneliness, start to seep into the real world. It’s very artsy, but it’s really, really unnerving, and really one of the great horror movies of the 2000s.”

Sara Lynn Michener on Silicon Valley:

“When I moved out here, I was in a startup where you lived and worked in the same environment—we all lived in a house together. So you never felt like you were clocked out, even when you were clocked out. Our CEO was 21, and he was like, ‘Oh, we’re all going to go to a club and take ecstasy.’ I had been there for two weeks, and I was like, ‘There’s no way that I want to go have a new drug that I’ve never had before with brand-new co-workers who I both live and work with.’ So I said no, and people treated me like, ‘Oh my god, what’s wrong with Sara?’ … There was totally this sense of, ‘Well, Sara isn’t really part of the group.’”

Grady Hendrix on movie reviews:

“A lot of critics don’t have the context to review these movies, and so they’re trying to do their best, and they know they’re out of their depth, and that makes them irritable, because they’d rather feel in their wheelhouse and safe when they’re reviewing something, so they don’t feel dumb. The other part of it is, a lot of film critics feel a sense that the internet is their enemy. It’s reducing your pay, it’s reducing your prestige, and it’s spreading your job around to a bunch of knuckleheads who don’t know what they’re doing, who just happen to have an online account somewhere. And so you do kind of sit down to watch these movies with a bit of a chip on your shoulder.”

Anthony Ha on hate mobs:

“There’s this weird aggregating effect with the internet. In a small town, everyone can decide that they hate you and show up at your door with pitchforks, but you have to be really mad to drive someone out of town. Or if you want to write an angry letter to the newspaper, there’s a certain amount of effort required to express displeasure. But the internet really creates this thing where even if you’re not that mad at somebody, if you’re just like, ‘This is stupid’—if a thousand people say ‘this is stupid,’ individually that seems like a perfectly normal and justifiable thing to say, but then when you multiply it across the entire internet, it becomes really tough.”

More Great WIRED Stories

  • Hungry for even more deep dives on your next favorite topic? Sign up for our daily newsletter