The futuristic thriller has been known to shake viewers to their cores in strange, horrifying and unexpected ways, and Black Mirror's fourth season, which debuts on Netflix on Dec. 29, is no exception. Despite the fact that the sci-fi anthology, which explores a brand new standalone story in each of its episodes, never fails to trouble audiences in some way throughout every narrative it explores, it doesn't always fall into a genuine horror genre. Though, some episodes are more traditionally terrifying than others. So, is Season 4 of Black Mirror scary, or can even horror-adverse viewers enjoy the newest installment of episodes? Spoilers for Season 4!
Well, let's just say that regardless of whether the show offers stereotypical jump-scares or slasher-esque violence, it's going to keep you on the edge of your seat. One of the greatest things about Black Mirror is that it rarely delivers a traditional scare. Viewers aren't awaiting the appearance of a ghost or a run-of-the-mill home invader — those stories have been done before, letting people assume for the most part that they generally know what to expect. With Black Mirror, you have no idea what you're in for. It's not supernatural — the fear is rooted in our own world, and stems from things we see in every day life. It's not fear as we've grown accustomed to experiencing through film and television — it's more like a general sense of dread and unease that settles over you like a thick blanket in a drafty room, but offers none of the comfort.
The fear that audiences experience, particularly this season, is amplified even more by the fact that each episode is so starkly different from the last. Once you learn the rules of one futuristic society, the hour ends and you're plopped in an entirely new one. Common strains and call-backs to previous episodes sometimes exist, but for the most part they act more as Easter eggs than genuine clues or confirmations. Regardless of those instances, viewers are thrown headfirst into the deep end of the pool with each new opening line. The cinematography also differs from episode to episode — one Season 4 episode, "Metalhead," is even shot completely in black and white, utilizing slow motion and muffled audio to throw viewers into an entirely new experience than the relatively straightforwardly shot episode ("Hang The DJ") they just departed.
Creator Charlie Brooker says the night-and-day differences in each episode are purposeful — he doesn't want people to settle in to one particular aspect. "In Series 4, there’s a huge variety of stories, and tone and genre and aesthetic, they all look very different. This season is very ambitious and broader," he told Deadline. "Series 3 gave us the confidence to take on new things and show Black Mirror could mean other things, meant that we didn’t just have to be nihilistic and bleak. It can be thought-compelling in different genres and moods, more surprising even though the DNA is the same."
In this sense, Season 4 of Black Mirror is terrifying — there's truly nothing you can do to prepare yourself for each completely unique twist and turn; you can't even count on the assumption that you'll know what the next episode will look like at its most basic level. Some viewers will be hiding their heads in their hands, reluctant to look directly at what's waiting for them on their screens, but it's not because a serial killer might pop out in a split second with a knife — jump-scares are used sparingly here. Black Mirror, it seems, instead wants you to get a good, long look at the realities of its horrors. Rather, viewers will be shielding themselves from a long, gruesome shot of an episode's hero enduring pure physical torture. They'll be peering between their fingers as they find out if a deep, computerized dive into a person's memory will finally reveal a decades-old murder to an unsuspecting investigator. They'll be tensing up behind the refuge of a pillow as they wait to see if a human being's consciousness is about to be erased from a hard drive forever on the whim of a stranger.
Though Black Mirror tends to test the waters of pure terror without becoming a full-fledged hour of horror, there isn't any shortage of violence this season. If you're squeamish, "Metalhead" has some pretty violent moments, though they aren't constant throughout the episode, and there's the added bonus of a black-and-white aesthetic that doesn't linger long on any blood or gore. "Crocodile," another of the more intense episodes, boasts a higher body count by its end credits than many other Black Mirror installments, and focuses a lot on genuine person-on-person violence, something that isn't always expected from Black Mirror, given its focus on technological plights. "Black Museum," one of the twistiest and interesting episodes of the new season, gets most of its violence out of the way in its first third, but showcases a man obsessed with feeling pain, even if it's self-inflicted, making it particularly grisly in parts.
There are definitely some standout episodes throughout the series that aren't necessarily created to instill fear, as Brooker noted, despite Black Mirror's dips into violent storylines. Last season's "San Junipero" episode caused an intense commotion when it even ventured into downright heartwarming territory, though its premise was still pretty unsettling — and those episodes are where Black Mirror shines unexpectedly. But really, the essence of Black Mirror is suggested in its name — it forces us to take a long look at ourselves as a society and ask ourselves, however disbelievingly, could this disturbing reality actually be ours somewhere down the road? It's rarely preachy, but always thought-provoking. It showcases disturbing technology that we're not yet familiar with, but that still somehow doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility, making it all the more resonant.
Fans of the classic horror genre won't be disappointed by this new season. There's no shortage of suspense, of tension, and of moments that'll make them scream out loud at characters to run — take it from my own experience. But if you're not a horror buff, still tune in. Black Mirror is nowhere near the same as catching a viewing of Insidious or The Amityville Horror. It's thrilling and worrisome, but also incredibly smart and outrageous in the best possible way.