David Prior: The Empty Man (2020) | trailer screengrab
The Empty Man (2020) | trailer screengrab

Horror Film ‘The Empty Man’ Unmasks Internet Age Nihilism

David Prior’s 2020 horror film The Empty Man taps into a form of nihilism that might be taking over the world via social media.

The Empty Man
David Prior
20th Century Studios
23 October 2020 (US)

Writer-director David Prior’s adaptation of Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Ray’s comic series, The Empty Man, was never aimed at a mass audience. It’s not a Marvel property. It’s ephemeral, and rather than giving the viewer resolution, it purposefully obscures its message. The audacious choice to open with a 20-minute prologue unrelated to the plot is downright Kubrickian. Prior’s The Empty Man is filled with textual references only an English major could love (Jacques Derrida High School, Friedrich Nietzsche quotations, and the title of a Flannery O’Connor story scrawled on a chalkboard are but a few examples). Prior’s courageous artistic vision alienated critics, and The Empty Man joins good company among horror films as a unique and insightful work of art that the narrow critics were simply wrong about. The Empty Man opened in October 2020 to negative reviews and a subsequently poor box office performance.

Added to The Empty Man‘s ambitious ambiguity, it is also a victim of circumstance. Its few studio champions were lost in the chaos of the Fox/Disney acquisition, and its production was rushed as a result. Then The Empty Man was shuffled off to the box office when the pandemic kept audiences away, dooming the film to the unearned status of “flop”. The world wasn’t ready for Prior’s The Empty Man in 2020, but maybe it is now.

When The Empty Man crept onto streaming services, word-of-mouth quickly redeemed the film, and it found a growing and enthusiastic audience. It is perhaps a textbook case of a film overcoming a difficult start to attain cult status since Richard Kelly‘s 2001 sci-fi mystery, Donnie Darko. As a cult film, The Empty man works perfectly, offering the viewer something to de-code, a puzzle to solve, and a message to interpret. The film beckons viewers to think about the encroachment of nihilism into all aspects of modern life.

Detectives, Cults, and Cosmic Horror

(Warning: spoilers)

Structured as a detective story, The Empty Man follows tragic former cop James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) as he seeks answers about the disappearance of Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova), daughter of family friend Nora Quail (Marin Ireland). Lasombra discovers the existence of a secretive organization called The Pontifex Institute, which turns out to be a cult seeking to bring about the return of an ancient deity, the Empty Man, a nihilistic and Lovecraftian entity of absolute cosmic horror: the negation of all things that make up our assumed reality.

Cult status is undoubtedly the most appropriate outcome for a film such as The Empty Man, but it’s also a shame. Perhaps because of its enigmatic opaqueness and its openness to interpretation, the film lends itself to various responses from hospitable viewers. The film offers a supple lens without a clear “message” or argument. The questions it raises are ideal thought-experiments from which one can think about the world as it falls apart around us. We are, after all, losing ground to any number of death-cults bent on tearing modernity apart, are we not?

The Empty Man has two sources of power: its reflection on the attractiveness of nihilism and its shocking and effective twist ending, when we discover that Lasombra isn’t real but a tulpa conjured from the collective imagination of the Pontifex cultists, designed to provide a link to the consciousness of the Empty Man. These elements, working in tandem, serve as powerful metaphors for modern life.

Meaninglessness, Hope, and Nihilism

We aren’t that special. The pandemic and financial crises of this decade have shaken our collective faith in a range of institutions, public and private. All the somewhat stable foundations have crumbled beneath our feet, and people are rattled, to say the least. The mass exodus from the job market is, in part, a result of the realization that much of our labor holds no meaning. We work mainly to make other people rich.

However, we’re not the first generation of people to discover that life is meaningless. We’ve simply lost the ability to live with this fact. Even the Holy Bible devotes an entire book to this sad reality. Ecclesiastes opens with the refrain, “Meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless,” and it sustains that bleak note throughout. A foundational text for existentialist thought, the Book participates in a long, difficult conversation about meaning and existence that cascades through time, reaching a peak of sorts with several French writers in the middle of the 20th century. Western philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, among others, notably spent their careers exploring the human condition from this perspective. The results are not always dismal. Camus, for example, argues that a world devoid of pre-set meaning liberates individuals to create meaning themselves. This is a hopeful response to meaninglessness.

Another possible response is nihilism, the belief that meaning is unattainable and that existence is, in the end, pointless. This is the position of the Empty Man cult, and it’s a belief they celebrate and hold sacred. One of the more chilling elements of The Empty Man is how compelling it makes the Pontifex belief system. At times it seems not only logical but also almost right. One of The Empty Man’s great achievements is it shows how we, as a society, have largely abandoned hopeful responses to problems of existence.

The Pontifex belief system carries weight due to the outstanding performance of the always excellent Stephen Root. Root (best known for mumbling about his red stapler in Mike Judge‘s 1999 comedy, Office Space) here plays cult leader and spokesperson Arthur Parsons. In his brief scene, with chilling enthusiasm, he lays out the nihilistic mysticism of Pontifex for Lasombra.

However, there is another reason for the attractiveness of Pontifex’s nihilism: it disturbingly meshes with contemporary values that we accept without question. Indeed, Parsons’ vision of nihilism is, on the surface, seductively liberating – even inspiring. He opens by comforting the broken people around him, saying, “there is nothing you have lost. More than that, there is no such thing as loss.” This sentiment could be construed as hopeful for a world of wounded people.

Parsons follows this with a claim that largely resonates with a democratic, pluralistic society, suggesting “there is no struggle because there are no distinctions. To say that you are wrong or I am right is to divide us. Therefore, we deny that there is such a thing as right and wrong.” This argument has seductive power for conservatives (who are sometimes overly concerned about “division” in society) and liberals, who often impulsively avoid judgments of value. The Pontifex message has a clear foothold in the world as we know it.

Parsons ends his speech with the natural conclusion of these broadly palpable values, saying, “There is only the great, binding nothingness of things.” With a savvy rhetorical performance, Root’s Parsons appeals to our society’s mainstream political values and aims them toward the nihilism of his doomsday cult. As if to drive home the fact that The Empty Man is about a creeping nihilism that threatens modern society, Parsons directly cites Friedrich Nietzsche, dissecting the implications of his famous aphorism “If you stare into an abyss, it also stares into you,” for Lasombra. Parsons tries to rescue the phrase from the banality of becoming a “refrigerator magnet slogan” and beckons Lasombra to consider its implications.

Soon after, Lasombra sneaks into the deep levels of the group’s compound and discovers a group of cultists staring in deep meditation at a black poster on the wall, clicking sounds emerging from their still mouths as they speak in the Empty Man’s alien tongue. In the background, on a recorded loop, the Pontifex mantra repeats: “Nothing exists. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it. Knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others. Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.”

Nothing is real, and individuals don’t exist. This is the total of the Pontifex gospel, and, to be frank, it sounds a lot like public figures from technology industries such as Elon Musk and others, yuckstering about the likelihood we might be “living in a simulation”. Adding to the simulation hypothesis is a general cultural disregard for truth claims of all sorts. The nihilism of Pontifex’s dreams has much in common with our actual world.

Have We Become Tulpas?

The most terrifying thing about The Empty Man‘s story is that nihilism eventually wins the day. It turns out that Lasombra, the film’s protagonist and our representative in the narrative, isn’t real, much to his surprise, confirming the Pontifex Institute’s nihilistic mantra. We discover that he is a tulpa, a thought-form brought to life by the imagination and will of the group, to serve as a living antenna connecting them to the consciousness of the Empty Man – he is an “empty man” himself. Just as Pontifex claims, Lasombra doesn’t exist as an individual, and all his thoughts emerge from somewhere outside of him; he is merely a vessel through which ideas and experiences flow. In short, he only exists to pour the Empty Man’s nihilism into the world’s consciousness. 

A scene in The Empty Man asks us to “apply” Lasombra’s lack of authentic personhood to our world, and it has to do with technology, specifically social media. As Lasombra’s investigation unravels and leads him to his bleak discovery, he kidnaps a young cult member, Garrett (Robert Aramayo), to obtain information. The kidnapping is violent and occurs on a busy street in broad daylight. Once Garrett is secured in the car, Lasombra looks around and sees many bystanders, but they are immersed in their cell phones and seemingly unaware that anything has happened. The lack of awareness of and concern for Garrett is creepy and sharply recalls the similarly disengaged motions of cultists throughout the film. Whether they believe it or not, the people absorbed in their technology behave as if nothing exists. It’s a passing moment in The Empty Man but pointedly emphasized.

The scene brings to mind the state of our authentic personhood as we increasingly engage with one another via social media interactions. Various platforms are designed to make us believe that we’re using them as a form of “sharing” with others, and therefore connecting with others. Supposedly, they are neutral communication spaces in which we share thoughts that originate in our heads. But many believe that our shared social media experience is but a simulation. The algorithms of platforms like Facebook and Twitter do not serve their users, they create their users. When we log on, we trade our selfhood for avatars in the virtual public square. The arguments and ideas we espouse decreasingly originate from within ourselves and become the algorithm itself instead.

Let’s try a brief thought experiment in conclusion. Recall the Pontifex mantra: “Nothing exists. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it. Knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others. Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.” Now apply that idea to your behavior on Twitter. Think about your many frustrating interactions with strangers. Think about the ways you may have frustrated others. Are we not making nonsensical clicking sounds as we stare into a backlit abyss?

The Empty Man, initially ignored by critics and audiences, is having its day, and that’s partly because it is attuned to something bleak and nihilistic about the direction of our society. An old saying states, “if a service is free, then you are the product.” Our social media seems to transform us into empty carriers of a signal from seemingly nowhere. Could it make us believe that nothing is real and nothing matters?