Visual Cult Magazine is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Pulse is one of the more ambitious films that use the paranoia of the internet as a weapon of terror. There’d been a number of films prior that attempted to find the scariness of this relatively new technology. The Net tapped into fears of losing identity and The Matrix dabbled more in the engagement of a simulacrum online world.
Within the narrative of Pulse, there’s a different sort of questioning of technology being posed. The internet was regarded as an information superhighway, connecting people all over the world. What if it connected to more than just people? What if ghosts could be reached? And what if they never left our minds?
The Forbidden Room
The film is split into two stories and begins with the suicide of Taguchi. Prior to his death, his co-workers had noticed how aloof and distracted he appeared in a conversation. Upon his demise via noose, co-worker Kudo Michi (Kumiko Asō) and her pals investigate what could’ve led to this event.
What they find is a series of photographs of Taguchi staring at a computer monitor and a mysterious phone call from someone saying “Help me.” There’s also the appearance of a black stain on the wall of Taguchi’s apartment as well as a door to what is referred to by a note as “The Forbidden Room.”
Intrigued by this, Toshio Yabe decides to enter that room to find out just what’s so forbidden. He encounters a ghost but won’t speak much about his experience. He only grows more depressed and notes having seen something horrible. It isn’t long before other co-workers take a peak and soon transform into black stains.
The threat appears to be a virus of witnessing that which cannot be unseen. But how do you avoid becoming infected? It’s an element that feels highly relatable for the era when the internet was more like the wild west of content for all things gross, explicit, and even illegal.
In order to prevent others from witnessing the forbidden, that which cannot be unseen, someone has to look at it first to confirm the dangers. But what if that first witness becomes so damaged by the experience that their warnings may not be enough? Will you heed the warning of the forbidden room or will curiosity get the better of you?
High-Tech Dead Research
The second story follows the university student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) who is mysteriously guided to spooky websites. He is shown images of people in dark rooms that are acting strange. The images continue to haunt him. When attempting to investigate further by trying to save or print the website, he finds he cannot do so.
We also follow the student Harue (Koyuki) who becomes exposed to videos of people killing themselves. During this haunting experience, she also witnesses a video of herself looking at the computer. She is now watching that which desires to be watched. She remarks during this viewing that she’s not alone and later kills herself.
There’s some commentary in there about how people can lose themselves within the online world. Before such a mystery can take hold, a more threat comes about. The vanishings increase and there’s a full-scale invasion of our world by that of the dead. The ghastly hauntings and chilling deaths spread like a plague across the globe.
There’s a thrilling dash across Tokyo as Ryosuke and Michi meet amid the chaos. They watch as people kill themselves and grow increasingly nihilistic when exposed to visions from the spiritual realm. They are powerless to stop the threat as they turn into ash and embrace hopelessness, finding happiness as the world crumbles.
The Tech Bug
While much of Pulse was very much ahead of its time, there are some aspects that echo the techno-paranoia that preceded it. One film that comes to mind is The Lawnmower Man and how it handles a certain ascension that comes with exploring the virtually unknown. On the surface, it may not seem to hold a lot of family resemblance with the notable aspects of virtuality and intelligence.
But it’s the ending of The Lawnmower Man where the reflection becomes most visible. Throughout the film, the tragic antagonist Jobe speaks of how his transcendence would be signaled by the ringing of every phone on the planet. Sure enough, by the final scene, every phone rings.
This is a common endpoint for many technological terror pictures, extending to the likes of such modern horror as Truth or Dare and Rings. Pulse becomes all the more intriguing for letting this apocalypse via tech flourish on screen before the credits roll. It’s more fascinating in this picture, however, for better focus on communication.
In the same way that Jobe signals he has arrived, so too do the spirits of Pulse. It feels very akin to the fears of Y2K when computer systems would fail and the world would end. The world does end in Pulse but not because the machines fail us. We instead fail ourselves when confronted with our own mortality, bringing about an infection of finding little meaning in life itself.
The Loneliness of the Online World
Perhaps the most poignant part of the picture is the commentary on loneliness and happiness that comes with tech obsessions. The early days of the 2000s were when the online culture was beginning to flourish. Online video games became far more abundant and the coming of World of Warcraft led to an entire generation devoting many hours a day to this virtual world.
Being online has the odd nature of feeling alone and not alone at the same time. In one sense, yes, you’re just sitting at your computer and not interacting with the world around you. In another sense, you’re among a large community of people all over the world. You’re connected to so many people and resources. Perhaps more than you bargained for.
The internet is treated within Pulse like a Pandora’s Box. It brings great joy but also great suffering. More importantly, there’s no way to close it. We can put up all the warning signs of the forbidden and try to shut ourselves off from tech as much as we want. It’s a fruitless effort to fight back against the inevitable.
The Social Media Relation
Pulse debuted about two years before the debut of the social media website MySpace and four years before the more prolific Facebook. While it would take many years later to establish the mindset of social media, the film has held up well when viewed through this lens. While the mystique of online space has grown more crowded, the interpersonal nature still remains a troubling element.
The social media cynic would probably find some catharsis within the ultimate resolution of the picture. A world that grew increasingly reliant on technology is ultimately done in by it. Yet there’s more to such a picture than just breaking every laptop and smashing every computer monitor.
Of course, such a prospect would seem nearly impossible today. We rely on the internet for everything: paying bills, shopping, working, and communicating with friends and family. You are using it right now to read this article. And yet we also continue to speak of the dangers of being online within the social media era.
There’s no shortage of opinion pieces and documentaries on the subject of social media addiction and radicalization. Spend enough time on Facebook and you’ll believe some conspiracy prompted by a popular theorist. Spend enough time on Twitter and you may find yourself addicted to reading headlines that boil your blood.
In that same vein, Pulse posits that if you spend enough time obsessing over ghosts, you may just become one. Why spend all that time investigating the mysterious dead when you could become one yourself and not be alone anymore? It’s such a chilling thought that feels as relatable today as it did in 2001.
A Lesser American Version
As with a lot of Japanese horror during the 2000s, Pulse also received an American remake. The 2006 American version of Pulse was more spectacle than emotional and more cliche than compelling. Perhaps the worst aspect is how this version spells out its messaging in a hokey voice-over epilogue with the following dialogue:
“We can never go back. The cities are theirs. Our lives are different now. What was meant to connect us to one another instead connected us to forces that we could have never imagined. The world we knew is gone, but the will to live never dies. Not for us, and not for them.”
The film went onto some even less engaging direct-to-video sequels. Pulse 2: Afterlife (2008) focused far too much on the mechanics of ghosts coming out of computers. Pulse 3 (2008) makes the huge misstep of continuing the story in the aftermath and finding a final solution to the paranormal problem.
There’s a major absence in these pictures of everything that made Pulse work. It feels less like a commentary on our reliance on technology that can change the soul and more about how to fight the online spirits. It also doesn’t help that these films came out around the more action-packed techno terror of Stay Alive (2006) and Untraceable (2008).
From The Ashes
Considering how dated films about technology can become over time, it’s surprising how poignant Pulse remains. It touches on a desire to learn more about our world and how much curiosity may just be our undoing. It stands a bit taller than just being yet another “technology is bad” narrative that populates the tech-centered horrors and thrillers.
Going back to the social media angle, there’s been many recommendations that people should get off social media apps if they can’t handle them. Despite how hard it can be to distance yourself from such a connected world, that may be true for some people who are easily addicted to dopamine hits and simpler to misguide towards some radicalization. Perhaps it’s true for our own mortality.
We don’t like to think about death because it’s a scary thought. We don’t know what lies on the other side of this reality when we pass and trying to comprehend just what it may be is maddening. We want answers and the internet may provide them. Whether we can handle what we find is a difficult question and Pulse portrays just how unprepared we are mentally and as a society to explore the darker questions of our existence.