The “found footage” style that Ringu and The Blair Witch Project helped to launch has become a popular method for making cost-effective horror-suspense. Today, chances are good that if a horror film isn’t a found footage movie in the vein of Paranormal Activity (2007), it’s a demon/ghost story like Sinister (2012) using home movies found in the attic as a central stylistic device.
Technology in these films is more than just a stylistic device though. It becomes a central metaphor.
Technology has the power to reveal things that are present – say, in a haunted house or a spooky forest – that we cannot see on our own.
This connection between technology and a lurking, menacing piece of the recent past seems to be reinforced from film to film.
Video captured on a cellphone provides a glimpse of the monster just before it strikes. But when the college student hired to clean the house finds the phone in a cupboard and watches the video, she can’t see anything when she looks out the window of a darkened house. That’s a made up example, but it sounds familiar, right?
A group of ghost hunters hired to clear a house in the mountains can only see what their camera set up can see – a nightly spectral terror that stalks the hallways every night at three a.m.
That’s a real example, and it’s the same logic at work: the monster is always there. The ghost lives in the house, which means we walk around more or less oblivious to this constant supernatural threat.
It makes sense for a horror film to use a camera as the tool of revelation. After all, we’re watching a movie. But there seems to be a deeper question available in this marriage of horror and technology.
Why is it that the persistence of the recent past (which is what ghosts are) becomes bound up with technology? Why does the ghost character in Ringu live on through a video cassette and phone calls?
What exactly is the logic at work in The Blair Witch Project where we feel that we are standing in the forest where those people encounter…something? Where we are ankle deep in fallen leaves on a winter day, scanning the forest and seeing nothing…but if we watch the footage found on a camcorder we expect to pierce the veil and catch a glimpse of that thing we’ve been unable to see?
Home video is intuitively associated with the recent past and with personal history. Invented as a sort of replacement for the photo album, hand held cameras are understood to be devices to record our intimate moments with family and friends. Home video is a way to keep hold of the moments of our lives and so, as a technology, it is conceptually tied to the recent past.
Taking the innocent, domestic home movie and re-contextualizing it as a location of horror makes sense. You could say that filmmakers have merely chosen to use home video as a trope for domesticity and normalcy. If horror movies want us to believe in monsters under the bed, then maybe the found footage style is simply using home video as a stand-in for that proverbial bed. Maybe the video is a metaphor for home, for that which is taken for granted as a safe space. Re-imagining that space as haunted is what horror movies have always done.
As much truth as there certainly is to that argument, there seems to be more to it. We can’t overlook the consistent choice of depicting the camcorder or the Smartphone camera as a conduit for evil in ways that make the camera less a stand-in for the home and more of a liminal space. And what is recorded there is a kind of sub-strata to visible reality.
There is, in every found footage film, an essential implication that an alternate reality exists – and it’s all around us all the time. The camera connects us to that second world, either by providing evidence of an invisible world intersecting with our own or by actually letting the invisible world enter our primary world, as in the case of Ringu and so many others since.
The idea of a second world or a paranormal plane is not new. An increasing reliance on technology as “a way of life,” however, is relatively new.
Writing about the found-footage technique in Variety, Owen Glieberman argues that the upsurge in this cinematic approach is explained by the “omnipresence of technology, coupled with our increasing compulsion to document every aspect of our lives.”
Since the camcorder hit the market, we have been moving further and further along the track toward a moment where people now create Snapchat videos at a party, send the videos to other people at the party, and spend their time in a meta-interaction watching a video together of a party that isn’t even over yet.
Horror films seem to be dealing with this trend arguably with more directness than any other genre.
What we are encountering in these horror films is a romance narrative wherein the characters and objects of the story take on exaggerated meaning, trending always toward metaphor. The home video footage is a few steps up the sliding scale toward exaggeration but it is connected to real habits and real ways of constructing knowledge.
Once we enter a habitual space that features on overlay of the virtual immediately onto the real, we have complicated our relationship to knowledge and to reality itself.
In “Mimesis of Media: Found Footage Cinema and the Horror of the Real” scholar Neil McRobert points out that these horror movies tropes are doing some deep work and making a comment on how such texts mirror the fraught process of creating knowledge or engaging with “the real” when we are simultaneously confronted with competing realities.
McRobert connects today’s found-footage horror films to Gothic literature in that each genre plays on a thematic “exploitation of epistemological and ontological terror.” (What does it feel like to not know what is real and what is illusion? What if we can’t know?)
He argues that, like Gothic writing, the tropes of contemporary horror films are “concerned with the violation of reality by the unreal, and detail the protagonist’s attempt to sift through layers of dream, psychosis and dubious history in search of an uncorrupted perspective.”
As we watch movies within movies via the found-footage device, we come face to face with the question of where the bottom might be.
Interesting questions follow once we recognize that these horror films are not only using found footage as a cheap and practical way to scare us by playing on the familiar and building crafty excuses to use digital cameras.
If we see the technology as also playing a thematic role in these films and functioning as a surprisingly consistent metaphor across these movies, we can start asking about the logic of the metaphor.
The possible answers to these questions all seem plausible and interesting, but there is another question behind the initial question that is, perhaps, even more intriguing.
What is the cultural and intellectual framework that allows this metaphor to make sense in the first place? What is the conceptual superstructure of our time that not only drives horror filmmakers to key in on the same use of technology-as-revelation-of-the-supernatural but that also leads the audience to recognize some truth (or at least some relatable fear/terror) in this trope?
In 1970 Michel Foucault formulated the idea of that every age of mankind has its own way of making sense of the world, its own way of thinking. Each age has its own episteme. Foucault’s idea is remarkably elegant and ambitious in The Order of Things.
On a much smaller scale it is helpful here in trying to articulate some understanding of the nature of the questions being posed about found footage and video-fixated horror films.
If there is a cultural framework that provides all of us with a certain set of logics so that we some connections make sense to us and others do not, we can ask what elements of our cultural framework are being evoked in the consistent use of the home video metaphor in horror films since 1998.
What strains of our cultural discourse are mirrored when technology is depicted as a location for the supernatural? What notional objects or structures of thought seem to resonate with the imagining of the camcorder and the Smartphone camera as the conduit into a second life?
When I posed these questions to friends, the replies were that maybe the Smartphone and the personal camera have become an essential, conflated reference, a sort of foundational representation of our sense of “the real.” So, when we look for a metaphor for our sense of reality, we naturally choose the phone and the personal camera as the objective correlative.
Critics have commented on the found-footage phenomenon in ways that agree with these ideas. A call for papers listed at the University of Pennsylvania from Jackson Cooper observes that “It is noteworthy that the rise of dependence on technology in America has lead to a new self-awareness in the sub genre with films such as Diary of the Dead and Unfriended.”
The principle message of the home video metaphor in horror films, to me, seems to be that our sense of reality is compromised by technology. There is a problematic epistemology at work here, a suggestion that our relationship to “the real” is actively hampered by our relationship to personal media.
Our reliance on technology makes it hard for us to know what counts as real knowledge. Is it possible to have an epistemology of doubt? If epistemology is, in effect, an active definition of a culture’s relationship to knowledge, is it possible that an epistemology can be constructed to address the schism between the virtual and the real?
(Is this part of the explanation for the sudden denial of scientific fact in Western culture? Have we entered an episteme that not only allows for primary doubts about the nature of knowledge but in fact forces us to begin to account for a schismatic epistemological experience – one where at least half our lives are lived virtually, in a space where “real” and “fake” are comparable notions?)
We are wrong to assume that we occupy a foundational reality because, truth be told, we live divided lives. We have one foot in the actual world of jobs, bills and kids soccer games, and one foot in the virtual world of our phones, computers and TVs.
What we are seeing when a horror movie uses found footage to show us a monster is a comment on our inability to decipher between what is virtual and what is “real.” We are living, part time at least, in a fantasy world. The things we find there are not fully human. Instead, as movies like Paranormal Activity suggest, we find monsters there, or ghosts, intangible echoes of reality. And it seems possible that we are growing closer to them, becoming ghosts.