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Found Footage: The Changing Face of Fear on Film

You may find, after watching an unhealthy amount of horror movies end to end, that you get used to them. What once felt genuinely unsettling becomes familiar, maybe even comforting in a sense; you’ve got expectations for what the ghosts are going to look like, how long a shot will be held to signify that Something Is About to Happen, who’s going to get eliminated first. Maybe you even have guesses about what the order will be based on the established “rules” of the genre as you’ve come to understand them.

By necessity, then, horror must constantly shift around our expectations, bending and breaking the rules we eventually come to know too well. The horror movie rules we are most familiar with, even if we tend not to consciously think about them, are the basics of moviemaking: how people tend to be framed in a certain way, how cutting between close-ups of people talking tends to mean they’re talking to each other. And nothing quite upends those rules like a “found footage” movie, which unfolds as if it’s filmed by a character right in the center of the action. Technically, the format is broad enough to include other genres like comedy and action, but it’s most commonly associated with horror and so, too, with horror’s ongoing search for new ways to frighten us.

A (VERY INCOMPLETE) LIST OF FOUND FOOTAGE HORROR:

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

CREEP

V/H/S

THE VISIT

THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN

The idea of fiction as supposedly “found” materials dates back a long time, including to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Movie-wise, it dates back to at least the 1980s (and maybe even further if we count the mockumentary), although The Blair Witch Project from 1999 is generally thought of as popularizing the idea to the point where it would regularly show up in movie theaters. But the format didn’t really take off until the late 2000s, through the further proliferation of inexpensive filming equipment. And once it did, the concept continued to spread, to things like YouTube videos and to films designed around a cell phone POV.

In a genre that already tends to be made on the cheap, found footage provides a further reason for horror movies to hire unknown actors and not spend so much on the lighting: the perception of reality, the you-are-there sense that this really happened (several found footage movies have even been marketed as such, and the Italian authorities once notably mistook one as such). By making the camera an active participant in the narrative rather than a passive observer, found footage movies create a fear of what might be lurking just out of view. 

(VERY INCOMPLETE) FOUND FOOTAGE HORROR CONT’D:

GRAVE ENCOUNTERS

REC

LAKE MUNGO

THE SACRAMENT

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

Building on this, then, is the movie depicted entirely through a computer screen, telling a story through webcam footage, social media searches, and the files on a hard drive. Though a little more involved than traditional found footage, they’re similarly adaptable and relatively quick to churn out; the movie Host was released a matter of months into the COVID-19 pandemic and used it as part of the story, taking place over the course of a Zoom call where some friends conduct a séance that (surprise!) does not end particularly well for them.

Computer screen films do not, admittedly, have all that long of a shelf life, as any significant update to a social media home page can transform one into a conspicuous period piece. 2014’s Unfriended seems a little quaint for so heavily featuring teens sending Facebook messages and making group calls over Skype, but their themes remain—the object of fear for Unfriended is the eerie anonymity of a blank user picture and a generic username, upon which the audience might reasonably project anything. It’s like the mask of a killer, except without the certainty of a human shape behind it. 

COMPUTER SCREEN MOVIES:

UNFRIENDED

OPEN WINDOWS

HOST

SEARCHING

SPREE

 

In Unfriended, the characters are facing the camera head-on, talking into it the way we might talk to someone we know. The familiarity of the situation fosters empathy and understanding, a feeling that we “know” these people even if we are still technically the same passive observers in a regular, traditionally-filmed horror movie (even though they’re all kind of annoying). The ghost presents information the participants do not want the others to know, things that supposedly died with the victim and thus literalizing the idea that whatever is posted online can never really go away entirely. In this, such films function as the latest evolution of stories about our anxieties surrounding the march of technology, like turn-of-the-century Japanese films Pulse and The Ring (both of which were remade, to varying degrees of success, for Hollywood); in those movies, the growing complexity of mass communication and image capture expands into territory we are unprepared for, beyond the world of the living.

 

And the tension isn’t always supernatural in nature. Like found footage in general, the screen movie format extends to other concepts and even other genres; the standalone sequel Unfriended: Dark Web involves a gang of malicious hackers who attack the main characters through (somewhat) technologically plausible methods, while 2018’s Searching is a mystery-thriller starring John Cho as a man looking for his lost daughter. Various sitcoms have even adopted the format for special episodes or one-off revivals in Mythic Quest, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock.

NON-HORROR FOUND FOOTAGE:

CHRONICLE

TROLLHUNTER

DISTRICT 9

CLOVERFIELD

END OF WATCH

 

Of course, no twist on horror stays fresh forever. Within months of The Blair Witch Project’s release in 1999, parodies were rampant across multiple formats (the Los Angeles branch of the International Animated Film Association gave an award that year to one such spoof, The Scooby-Doo Project). The 2018 Korean movie Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum melds traditional found footage with computer screen filmmaking, focusing on a livestream where ghost-hunting YouTubers explore an abandoned mental asylum with cameras mounted to their chests for POV and facial capture.

Where horror is concerned, we are always barreling toward the next thing, whether it’s a new combination of pre-existing parts like Gonjiam or something that feels truly fresh, like the advent of found footage in general. And in the end, the only sure thing is the question of what turn the genre may take next.

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