Black Mirror and the New Premature Burial by Michael Schutz

Black Mirror made a hardcore fan out of me by the second episode. What I love most about Black Mirror is that it doesn’t transport us centuries into the future. The episodes don’t show starships cruising at lightspeed through alien landscapes. Faces and landscapes are familiar. Most importantly—and frightening—is that the technology is familiar, too. The writers and directors play off tech that’s currently in use or in development and fast-forward us five, ten, maybe twenty years. And now four seasons in, we’ve seen an oft-repeated theme of trapped consciousness.

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In my favorite episode, “White Christmas,” the trapped consciousness isn’t a twist. Jon Hamm’s character talks about his work right up front, so we can discuss this without egregious spoilers. The technology in this episode is Alexa 4.0. Sure our current devices run aspects of our household: lighting, music, voice-activated Googling. Have you seen that smart-house in Mr. Robot? Black Mirror takes us a few steps further, skipping the tired trope of artificial intelligence. Why implement AI when we can have actual intelligence? Copy your own consciousness and transplant it into a little device (it’s an “egg” in “White Christmas”.) There’s a little version of you inside there, keeping your environment just the way you want it: climate, calendar, cooking. Everything there for you how and when you need it.

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A great idea except that the copy of consciousness, for all intents and purposes IS you. And from its perspective, you wake up one day in a blank landscape. You’re trapped inside this little white room, and the almighty voice of the programmer, your new God, informs you that you’re not you. You’re a copy, and your job for all eternity is to keep the heat at seventy degrees and that smooth jazz at volume level five. If you woke up tomorrow morning to that scenario, you’d probably do what the character in the episode does: Yell out a big old screw you. But you’re not a person. You have no rights. You have no control. And the programmer sets a timer and lets you sit for thirty days in that white room without sleep, without television or devices, with no food or drink since you need no sustenance. Nothing for thirty days. 720 hours of nothing. Until the voice of God finally speaks again. Elapsed time out there in the real world? Thirty seconds. He can give you an entire year of nothing, ten years of nothing!

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Or you can sit at your control panel and preheat that oven to 450 when the “real” you arrives home at 5:30. You can adjust the mood lighting for the real you when she brings dates home. You can set daily reminders so the real you can pick up prescriptions at Walgreens. The choice is all yours. You can sit for a near eternity and lose your mind with boredom and silence, without the succor of sleep or basic pleasures of drink or food, or you can be a good little drone and do this job.

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Versions of this hell play out in several unique episodes, and all the subtleties and vagaries are brilliant. But the unimaginable torture is the same. You wake up and find yourself in an endless loop, or endless pain, or endless boredom. You’re told that you’re not you. And sometimes it’s you yourself who sentenced this on you. You’re a copy. A clone. Your destiny is to serve or suffer. For eternity. Alone.

The genius of this topic is that it’s an update on a very old fear: the premature burial. Edgar Allan Poe himself suffered from the terror of being buried alive. He wasn’t alone. Do a quick Google search of the Goldberg machine-like contraptions people invented so that if they woke in a coffin they could pull a cord and ring a bell. Up through the early Twentieth Century, that was a legitimate fear. When a guy died, he didn’t get a trip to the coroner, maybe an autopsy, and certainly an embalming. His body was put in a box and buried.

In the modern era, this fear has been portrayed with torture or hostage premises. Ryan Reynolds starred in 2010’s Buried. Quentin Tarantino directed a two-part CSI episode about being buried alive, which will make you open your windows or take a walk afterward to relieve the stress.

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Through the lens of Black Mirror, this age-old fear has evolved beyond the literal. It’s no less terrifying. In fact, the technological equivalent is a thousand times more horrible because you won’t die of thirst or suffocation as you tear off your fingernails scratching at the coffin lid. Premature burial may be a gruesome fate, but as a victim of trapped consciousness you will simply live on and on and on and on…

So stay dark my friends, and stay in your own head.

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Michael Schutz

Michael Schutz was born and raised in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, where the macabre tales of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King kept him warm at night. He’s seen way too many horror movies to be healthy and blogs and podcasts about them on Darkness Dwells. Watch for his new novel, Edging, from Burning Willow Press in spring 2017. He is the author of the novel Blood Vengeance and the novella Uninoch. His short fiction has been featured most recently in Dark Moon Digest, Sanitarium, and the anthologies Beasts: Revelations, Beyond the Nightlight, and Cranial Leakage: Tales from the Grinning Skull. He lives with his three naughty cat-children in northern California.