Hey there! Come on in. Close the door behind you. Welcome to my horror corner. I know it looks a little eerie, a little dark, but that’s why we’re here, right? To poke around the void together for a while, whether that’s books, movies, games, TTRPGs, or podcasts. You’re going to have to forgive the noise, I’m afraid. Worse, actually, because that’s what we’re talking about today. The background thrum of existential dread that you can normally ignore has been working hard on catchy, captivating, and devastating content. Don’t let it fool you into thinking it’s comedy; this is art in its painful, wonderful, horrifying glory.
That’s right, we’re talking about Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special Inside.
Content Warning for the special: For those who haven’t watched it yet, brace yourselves. You’re going to get a full view of several mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and mentions of suicide/suicidal ideation.
If you’ve been a fan of Bo or you’ve followed the progression of his work over the years, Inside is a clear summit to this hike through the nature of art and artists in the digital age. From the early days of “Art is Dead” in Words, Words, Words and getting louder throughout Make Happy, he’s been dragging us to the mirror as viewers, as content consumers, as content creators, and demanding we take a good, hard look at ourselves, at the society we’ve created and that’s created us, at the people we ask to entertain us. Sure, he makes us laugh, but at what cost? What does it cost the creators trying to give us an authentic experience? What does it cost us to be part of the audience?
On the surface, Inside is a travelogue of the quarantine we’ve been living in for the last year-plus courtesy of COVID. It starts hopeful enough, something to do to pass the time while stuck inside, moving through the stages of quarantine we’ve known all too well. Isolating, FaceTiming, sexting, anything to connect leading into manic self-improvement, depression, and coming to terms with the new reality. The quarantine isn’t just COVID, though: it’s also the isolation brought on by constant “connection” through the internet. We’re accessible all of the time, receiving and transmitting all of the time, buying and selling attention and things to try and pass the time. “A little bit of everything all of the time” adds up, creeping in and leaving a mental and emotional debt that we don’t really know how to repay and, more painful yet, that we can’t ever really escape.
“White Woman’s Instagram” is a great example. Down to the aspect ratio it’s shown in, we see these fragments from the lens and media of Insta. Everything is superficial, artificial: a life staged for the internet. Until the part where this caricature breaks down and talks to their mother. The walls pull away, and we finally get to see the full picture and not just what’s been posed for the internet. It’s a moment of humanity and vulnerability that, however fleetingly, breaks through the idealized image. Soon enough, the internet persona has to return, to reassert itself in order to maintain its existence, its performance for everyone else.
And that’s why Inside is not a comedy. There are comedic elements artfully used throughout a carefully curated performance piece, but it is, at its heart, capturing and examining the existential horror of the internet age. Every aspect, from the songs themselves, to the lighting, to the settings, and even the breakdowns between scenes, is designed to reflect the mental spaces we put ourselves in as constant producers and consumers. It’s brilliant, and gutting. And if you need time to process afterwards, feel free to join me. I’ll be in my horror corner. All of the time.