Idris Elba's Luther has come up against his fair share of tech-literate villains over the course of his BBC series – remember vigilante killer Tom Marwood in season three, who kidnapped a convicted paedophile and set up an online poll to decide his fate?
But the detective's first feature-length venture Luther: The Fallen Sun, released on Netflix last week, has handed him his most insidiously savvy foe yet: David Robey (Andy Serkis), a billionaire who uses an army of hackers to unearth people's darkest secrets, weaponise them through blackmail, and recruit for himself an army of unwilling accomplices. Luther, chucked into prison for his unorthodox (read: illegal) methods, needs to break out and team up with DCI Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo) to get to Robey before he enacts his master plan.
That master plan, you ask: a "Red Bunker", in which Robey’s kidnapped victims are tortured and killed on an internet livestream, allowing eager online viewers to vote for the method of their demise. Although screenwriter and series creator Neil Cross has been upfront about the fact Luther's world isn’t exactly grounded – he's called it "not really a crime drama so much as a monster-of-the-week story" – Robey’s "Red Bunker" is actually a reference to the infamous urban legend of the Red Room. Does it have any basis in truth, though?
What is a Red Room? And are they real?
Well, no – but it's not entirely straightforward. It isn't difficult to find claims, though many of them are second or even third-hand in nature, of people stumbling across Red Rooms on the dark web. The dark web, the part of the internet that doesn't show up on search engines and can only be accessed using special software, is reportedly filled with illegal activity, after all.
Descriptions of these Red Rooms are nearly identical to how they're depicted in Luther: The Fallen Sun – viewers pay to watch a livestream of a person being tortured or killed, with some sort of chatroom function to allow them to interact with the torturer. Talk of Red Rooms first surfaced online in the early 2010s. Really, they represent nothing more than a digital evolution of the snuff-film panic of the '80s and '90s – videotapes of real murders circulated purely for profit.
And, just like snuff films, they're a complete fabrication. There is no material evidence of a single Red Room having been successfully set up. They're not even feasible as of now – the technical limitations of the dark web mean any sort of streaming is flat-out impossible. In that sense, Luther: The Fallen Sun isn't all that unrealistic, since Robey would presumably have the wealth and resources needed to find a plausible workaround.
Where does the name Red Room come from?
Although the concept of the Red Room does share some similarities with David Cronenberg's 1983 horror Videodrome, which features at its centre an illegal satellite stream of sexualised torture, the name can actually be traced back to a somewhat unrelated Japanese urban legend from the late 1990s. The Red Room curse tells of a paranormal computer virus that plagues users until they're driven to suicide. Their bodies are found in their bedrooms, the walls splattered with blood – hence, the Red Room.
Could a Red Room ever exist?
Every supposed Red Room that's surfaced online has turned out either to be a hoax or a phishing scam. One from 2015, documented by journalist Eileen Ormbsy, turned up on 4Chan and Reddit with the claim that a number of ISIS fighters had been captured and would be tortured to death on a livestream. The site "crashed" and, instead of being shown live, the videos were uploaded to a site. They were quite obviously faked. Some viewers still swore otherwise.
What's truly frightening about the Red Room urban legend is that, practical limitations aside, it isn't all that implausible. Multiple individuals have been arrested and charged with selling videos of abuse and violence on the dark web (in most cases, directed at children). There are documented cases, too, of violent crimes broadcast on streaming sites such as Facebook Live, though never with the forethought and organisation that a Red Room would entail. That's exactly why the Red Room makes for such an effective threat in Luther: The Fallen Sun – it's close enough to reality to expose humanity's darkest impulses.
Luther: The Fallen Sun is available to stream on Netflix now.
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