App-Only Horror Movie “Haunting Melissa” Challenges Traditional Storytelling

Haunting Melissa” wants to challenge the boundaries of filmmaking by putting a ghost in your (iOS) machine. Created by Neal Edelstein, producer of “The Ring” and “Mulholland Drive,” and Hooked Digital Media, the app-only horror film’s aim is to create a visceral reaction in viewers as soon as they see a push notification for a new chapter on their screen.

About a young woman plagued by mysterious noises and apparitions after her mother dies, “Haunting Melissa” delivers episodes of different lengths on a sporadic schedule. Some chapters are just a minute long, while others are 20 minutes. Viewers never know when they will get a push notification to download a new segment, mirroring the uncertainty faced by the movie’s protagonist.

As a horror movie fan, I was unsure at first if “Haunting Melissa” would be able to recreate the delightfully creeped-out feeling I get when in a darkened theater. But watching the chapters in the dark with headphones on and my face a few inches away from a small screen reminded me of reading ghost stories while sitting alone in my house late at night, a feeling Edelstein says was deliberate.

“You’re holding a window in your hand and for me, it influenced me to tell a story, but you have to change the way the story is told. You have to think about it from other perspectives. Yes, it’s linear, but it’s not a movie in an app. It’s not going to be Netflix or something of that nature,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to jam it into an app and have it digested in one story. I wanted to structure the story differently and challenge technology and challenge how people consume content.”

To keep viewers hooked on “Haunting Melissa” even though there isn’t a regular schedule, the creators developed technology to allow them to add dynamic story elements to each chapter. In other words, if viewers re-watch a chapter, they see or hear different things that add new layers to the narrative and help set the atmosphere of the ghost story.

Another challenge was how to create a mood for viewers watching the film alone on their iPad or iPhone. Edelstein and his team focused on sound, testing for iOS devices and outputting for stereo instead of 5.1 surround-sound systems. “Haunting Melissa” is like a technologically updated “The Blair Witch Project” in that it derives much of its atmosphere from the POVs of characters filming or using video chat on their own mobile devices. Edelstein says he was inspired by the 1999 film, as well as “Lake Mungo,” another horror mockumentary.

“We had to work to set the tone and suck people in. For me, there was the question of emotional connectivity,” says Edelstein. “When people put headphones on and sit in a dark corner, are they going to be frightened?”

Hooked Media Digital will continue to produce app-only films, providing financing for filmmakers, says Edelstein. The company is developing freemium revenue models that will allow them to avoid in-app advertising. Viewers can see chapter 2 for free if they share it on Facebook and a season pass is $6.99. While Edelstein says a horror film was the ideal format to experiment with dynamic storytelling elements, he’s looking forward to working with filmmakers in different genres to see how far the app-only format can be taken and has deals with household names in the works.

“We want to empower creative filmmakers to use these devices and this technology. We will help them with that and financing,” says Edelstein. “I think it’s an interesting time in Hollywood because not as many films are getting made, but people are looking for different opportunities. We’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of that.”