Day 1 of Calloween Movie Month
Content warnings: suicide and self harm, sex and sex work, violence against women (sexual and otherwise), stalking, misogyny, unreality.
Everything below this will contain both movie spoilers and free discussion of all topics above. You've been warned.
You know how people joke about Americans pronouncing horror movie like 'whore movie'?
We have one that's both!
Cam (2018) is about a young woman named Alice (also known by her camgirl alias Lola) seeking success in the realm of online sex work. She seems to start doing well for a while when suddenly 'she' starts streaming even when she's not online. Spooky!
This film was released in 2018, but considering the conversations around sex work (particularly onlyfans or more safe for work "twitch thots"... gross.) as well as A.I. generated content and online algorithms. It's more interesting to seek my teeth into now than I could imagine it would've been if I was old enough to watch this in 2018.
Going into this I was worried the horror in this story would be an attempt to play off the demonization of sexwork that was and is so very common in the mainstream. After all, party clowns don't get fired from their other jobs, but sex workers do. Not to mention, horror's relationship with female sexuality as well as both women and sexuality in general is generally pretty toxic.
I was pleasantly surprised coming out of it to learn it has nothing to do with a paper thin message about how awful and exploitative sex work is, but a multifaceted psychological horror story about a woman trying to have control over her image and hide from the watchful eye of the content creator panopticon.
The intro to the movie shocked me. What starts out as what I imagine is a pretty average cam show, the girl talking to her viewers and teasing what's to come (get it?) while not so subtly asking for tips. Though she says a line that stuck with me for the double-entendre, she tells her chatters that she hasn't done her makeup today because she (paraphrased) "stabbed herself in the eye like a hundred times trying to do her mascara." Her chat laughs. Interesting.
It quickly turns into what seems like pretty brutal harassment as a chatter comes in and tells her to hurt herself. Initially she bans him, but he comes back and keeps egging her on. She one-ups her harasser by pulling out a knife and holding it directly to her throat. Her chat is split between people trying to help her or dissuade her from hurting herself and others cheering and tipping for the apparent snuff film in the making.
And then she kills herself! The end.
Not quite. It was all fake. She sits back up and pulls off prop skin with fake blood smeared all over it. Seemingly, this was also planned days in advance, as it becomes apparent that a frequent flyer "Tinkerboy", or Arnold, set up an account to pretend to be this mystery troll.
Strangely, everyone's reaction to this as the film plays out is extremely nonchalant. Another of her "whales" even praises her for it later, and her younger brother remarks on how cool it is.
This isn't exactly how it would go in real life, of course. I personally think it would become at least a small scale controversy. I have an example, actually. Prominent internet personality and indie sex worker Belle Delphine simulated a kidnapping and rape scene for a photoset on her public Twitter, with zero trigger warnings.
Regardless of your opinions on consensual-non-consent as a kink or Delphine as a person, this caused a pretty major uproar. Most could probably assume this was fake, but even so, seeing a graphic roleplay scene of the abduction and assault of a young woman with zero warnings was still disturbing for understandable reasons.
I wanted to bring this up because I think it's interesting, but not because I think the movie is bad for having it's character react this way. It gave me a very uneasy feeling and pushed the knowledge of how normalized it is to sexualize the violence women face. People in her chat wanted to help her, but that's the only pushback we see against this being just... a part of a horny livesteam you want to jack off to. Even from her own flesh and blood. I think it was very purposeful and a great tone setter for the movie as a whole.
Through out the movie, her mental health devolves as she has control of her identity ripped away by forces she doesn't understand as well as coming to learn she's being stalked.
This is a very real thing that happens to sex workers on and offline. Well, okay, the demon clone livestream isn't real obviously. But it's a simulacra of what does happen IRL. Sex workers have to deal with other sites and random users taking the things they put behind a paywall or only to exist in a specific site or environment with little to no help from the sites who take a good chunk of revenue from these thieves' actions just as much as rule abiding customers. They also have to deal with stalking, harassment, viewers who don't understand boundaries, people who feel entitled and people who just don't understand while acting like they do.
And when they are being violated in all these various forms, the police are no help. There's a very striking scene about halfway through the movie where Alive tries to contact the authorities about what's happening, assuming some kind of identity theft. One cop completely leaves without a care and the other loses all interest when she tells her she doesn't accept cash for sexual favors. This isn't too dissimilar from how sex workers seeking justice are treated now or how they've been treated in the past. One of the officers on his way out even tells her that she should already expects this, since it's the internet after all, before leaving her just as stumped as she was before.
What the movie explains without saying directly is essentially an A.I. generated camgirl that the in universe camming site forms from her streams without her consent. Even other cam sites have constant Lola livestreams as well. This is something that becomes increasingly more likely as greedy companies set their sights on A.I. written scripts and A.I. actors for movies. Companies like PornHub and Onlyfans already do everything in their power to own the images and videos and workers on their sites. Not to mention, deepfake porn is already a thing, and has been for years. Why pay a sexworker when you can put the face of any pop star or actress or coworker or friend's relative you desire on any video or image that appeals to you? Why pay a girl who needs to sleep and eat and work when you can pay into the upkeep of a perfect virtual porn puppet who's attentive to all your needs until you die or the servers do?
After finding out the top streamer on the entire site is a seemingly similar case to hers (although, this woman can't fight back against it as she's already dead. Which again, calls to mind studios attempting to deepfake long dead actors for their movies instead of hiring different ones.) As well as another horrifyingly violent fake suicide and her and this forever porn-ready version of a dead woman stream in her house and show viewers images of her underaged brother, she decides to put a stop to this. This called to mind doxxing and gossip sites that purposefully stalk their targets for laughs, but I'm not sure that was as intentional. I thought it was worth mentioning though.
The ending of the movie is ultimately a happy and empowering one, even if it requires some pain and sacrifice for Alice to achieve.
She faces off against the fake Lola, playing a game of "monkey see monkey do". She bashes her nose on the table in front of her. Lola can simulate killing herself and being covered in her own blood, since Alice has faked as much on stream, but she can't emulate the image of her broken nose or her crying face. The viewers praise Alice for going so intense as the fake Lola glitches her way through her final moments. She wins her password back in the game and deletes the account.
And finally, in the most pleasant surprise of the whole thing, she starts a new account under a new name, Evebot.
She resurrects from her live ego death as a new woman entirely, even telling her mother if a fake Eve shows up that she'll just do it again. And again. And again. As many times as she has to. Because despite the pain and anxiety this causes her, she genuinely likes it. It makes her happy. She likes interacting with the viewers that are kind to her. She deserves to have control over her life, her image, her money, and her body. And she's taking it back with a confident smile, looking like nothing can ever faze her again.
Day 1 of Calloween Movie Month