Guest contributor: Gena Radcliffe has wanted to do nothing else but write her entire life (other than brief stints at wanting to be a teacher, and, implausibly, a lawyer). She is one half of Kill by Kill, a podcast featured at The A.V. Club, and a writer for Alcohollywood. Raised in Jersey Devil country, she currently lives in Brooklyn. No, not that neighborhood. Nope, not that one either. Follow her @porcelain72 and https://genaradcliffe.com/
Born into Generation X, I’m supposed to be nostalgic for when children could leave their houses at dawn and not return until dusk, when they could ride in the front seat without seatbelts, and when they didn’t need smartphones. That last one is egregious fake sentimentality, because no one thinks it was better when you were stuck somewhere, and had to make collect calls to your parents, giving the name as “Momcomepickmeupfromschool” so they got your message before having to accept the charges.
In addition to convenience, smartphones also significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the ability to anonymously harass someone. I was a teenager when prank calling was still a thing, and I don’t miss it any more than having to extricate myself from the cord after a long, pacing phone conversation. While most prank calls were just annoying, sometimes they were weird, gross, and scary.
It’s the anonymity that makes it work—before *69 and caller ID you had no idea who was calling, and, more importantly, no idea where they were. They could have been on the other side of the country, or looking in your window. They could have been dialling randomly, or known exactly who they were talking to.
Scream and He Knows You’re Alone are iconic for generating terror via prank call, but neither is as effective as 1974’s Black Christmas. Though Black Christmas features death by both unicorn statue and dry-cleaning bag, where it really digs in are the phone calls that the killer makes to the sorority house he’s stalking. A direct line from Hell, they’re a grotesque cacophony of giggling, animal noises, sexual threats, and a voice babbling and screaming about “Billy” and “Agnes.” It’s never explained who Billy and Agnes are (as opposed to the very weird 2006 remake, which explains it in a bizarre subplot that’s like if John Waters had written a slasher movie), but the calls are disturbing.
All we know in the original is that this person has been calling the sorority house regularly. With a local police force too incompetent or too indifferent to help, the young female residents are forced to just deal with it. The caller doesn’t even let up during the holidays, and there’s something deeply unsettling about colorful twinkle lights juxtaposed with someone saying “Let me lick your pretty piggy c*nt.” When one sorority sister, Barb (Margot Kidder), has had enough and tells off the caller, the act sets off a chain of horrific events that ends in murder (several of them, in fact).
Thankfully, most obscene phone calls don’t result in murder, but the recipients of such pranks are still left feeling scared and violated. I know because I was one.
Watching Black Christmas reminds me of being 12 and harassed by a series of taunting, profane calls – more than a dozen times in one night. He knew my name. I could hear boyish giggling in the background, and I suspected it was someone from my school. Prank calls were trendy in my boring little town, but they tended to fall into the annoying but innocuous “is your refrigerator running?” kind. Beyond the foul language, these felt uncomfortably personal, as if the caller wanted to know specifically how I would react to it.
He kept calling, and I kept picking up. I had to; I was home alone, and the one time I didn’t answer it would be my mother, and she’s come home in a fury wondering why she couldn’t get a hold of me. I answered, and after asking who it was resulted in nothing but more giggling and profanity, I hung up. Lying that I knew who they were did nothing. Eventually I just hung up almost immediately after answering. The hour grew late, the heavy breather either got bored or tired, and the calls stopped.
For the next few days, I eyed the phone warily, like it might hiss at me if I got too close. I’d jump a bit when it rang, and made excuses to get out of answering it. The fear passed in a week or two, and then one night the phone rang again. My mother answered.
“It’s for you,” she said, holding the phone out.
I didn’t have a lot of friends, certainly not the kind who would call me for any other reason than to ask for homework. Heart thrumming, I took the phone. “Hello?”
More filth, in the same voice, calling me by name. I burst into tears and shoved the phone at my mother, who looked baffled. She shouted at the caller, demanding to know who they were. They hung up, and there were no further calls.
Somehow, she managed to find out who it was. It turned out to be boys my age, but not from school. The culprits were friends of a boy I had been “dating,” inasmuch as we hung out at the local skating rink. The boy’s mother insisted that his friends had stolen my number and he had no idea what had happened, while my mother was certain he was in on it (He probably was. Boys are mean in a dumb and aggressive way at that age. Either way, we didn’t see each other again).
Despite knowing who was responsible, it took me a long time to become comfortable answering the phone again, particularly if I wasn’t expecting a call. Caller ID became available when I was in high school, then *69, but the real blessing was being able to just let an answering machine screen your calls. Most obscene callers aren’t interested in leaving a message.
In Black Christmas, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her housemates don’t have those options. They either have to keep answering, or let it go; it’s a standoff over who will break first – the girls or the caller. Even after the presumed killer is dead and Jess is alone in the house, though, the calls don’t end. As Black Christmas comes to a close, Jess doesn’t answer, but letting the phone just ring is somehow worse. As the camera pulls out and the credits start to roll, the ringing of the phone sounds even more relentless and threatening: answer me…or else
For more on Black Christmas, check out Ashley Maniw’s piece on the film and “the horror of being female in a patriarchal society.”