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Disconnected Nostalgia: The Lost Art of Being Out of Touch in Film and TV


I was born in 1970.
I cherish those ‘end-of-the-analog’ years of my life before the microchip revolution took hold in full force. I usually find myself thinking about ‘back then’ with amusement- typically related to the way we managed things then compared to now (“remember how we used to have to…”). And as an avid fan of movies and tv shows from the 60’s and 70’s, I view the technology of the time with a mix of nostalgia, awe, and wonder. Aside from the sub-genre of Sci-Fi horror, horror movie plots have historically relied on the technology available at the time, and as a result, these stories can seem less plausible when viewed through a modern lens.

Back ‘in the day,’ as they say, connecting with someone meant being within shouting distance or reaching them via a trusty landline telephone — with the occasional walkie-talkie making a guest appearance for on-the-spot communication. In that time, you were either there to pick up the ringing phone or you simply weren’t. And prior to the cassette tape answering machine, if no one was around to scribble down a message in your absence, it was as if your call never happened. Back then, we accepted that when we were out of touch, we were completely out of touch.

The Horror Movie
Many horror movies relied on having one or more characters find themselves isolated, tapping into a universally relatable fear — that of being utterly helpless.

Telephones frequently took center stage in horror movies, becoming characters in their own right. In the era before the internet, webcams, and GPS tracking, the unassuming telephone was a foolproof way to invade someone’s personal space. The abrupt ring of a telephone was a common tactic to disrupt a peaceful atmosphere. And who can overlook the suspenseful moment when our heroine discovers the line has gone dead, along with any hope of getting help? Young people today will never experience the frantic and repeated tapping of that little lever on the phone base in a desperate attempt to reconnect with the outside world.

Tracing the Call
In the ’70s, caller ID was a far cry from what we have today, limited to the trusty *69, which returned a call to the last person who dialed your number- and this feature only came into play after the birth of touch-tone telephones. Strangely, I can’t recall seeing this used in movies or TV shows to unveil a mysterious caller’s identity. Instead, our luckless characters always found themselves in situations where they needed to trace the call. The process involved having the police monitor the line, but the catch was keeping the call active for a nail-biting two minutes. Any self-respecting villain knew this limitation, resulting in tense scenes as our heroine struggled to keep the conversation going.

As it turns out, this was pure Hollywood fabrication. Barring the days when phone operators manned physical switchboards, calls could, in fact, be traced instantly.

But modern technology can ruin more than just the plot of a horror movie.
The storylines of so many sitcoms and comedy movies relied on a simple misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up if only the characters could get in touch with each other in real-time.

Mobile phones have significantly influenced the way modern storylines are written. Isolating a character now often hinges on one of three scenarios: the character’s phone is lost or broken, the battery is drained, or a signal is frustratingly out of reach. However, as technology advances with cellular-connected watches and other innovations waiting in the wings, storytellers will undoubtedly have to conjure up even more creative ways to keep their characters disconnected.

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