It’s hard to ignore horror movies, particularly around October, but nowadays there aren’t classic franchises in theaters we’ve all heard of, like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. There have been only two large horror franchises in the past decade: Saw and Paranormal Activity. Saw is very much a progression of the natural trends of the horror genre and isn’t that appealing to a mainstream audience, but Paranormal Activity is widely known by most and is completely different then most horror before it. It’s what’s called a “found footage” movie, or a movie that is compiled from “discovered footage” supposedly recorded by our protagonists. It’s a relatively new format and one completely different from most horror. Why is it that this format emerged and why is it so popular? Looking at the society we live in today, it’s clear that found footage emerged to compete with the “hyper-realism” of events like 9/11 and the amateur, but still authentic, internet videos we’ve become used to.
To understand why trends in horror occur, one must look at the society in which they were created to see what fears the people had. In the 1950s we were still reflecting on World War II and the use of the atomic bomb. We in America were terrified of the destructive power we had harnessed and feared the potential of science because of it. Thus the science fiction monster movies were born. Through miracles of science some creature would be created, unearthed, or mutated into some giant monster that would destroy a few cities before we could stop it. At the same time the McCarthy trials were going on and the country was in the midst of the Red Scare. While this fear of outsiders is epitomized in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it can also be seen in any alien invasion film like The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds (Wilson).
The 1960s were a time of rapidly changing values due to sexual, social, and drug liberation. We began to fear ourselves, uncertain of where the future would lead us and the War in Vietnam only added to the pressure. We saw films like Psycho, which was shockingly violent for the time, that showed us that the kind Mama’s boy Norman Bates was actually an insane killer. Night of the Living Dead is a film thats had many interpretations but it’s radically new story in a way reflects many of the tensions at the time by cooping up a variety of people (including a black man) inside a house with a deadly alien force trying to get in (Wilson). Sound like quite the metaphor of America to me.
If we flash forward to the 1990s we see that our culture’s fascination with serial killers reaching a climax through films like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. The ‘90s were unusual in that there was (relatively) little going on in the world for us to be afraid of. The economy was sound and we weren’t wrapped up in a big war since the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course social issues were still there, but they were extensions of previous issues so there was little new to make horror out of. Thus we saw a rise in high concept horror and meta-horror, which played on the horror genre itself to get a reaction out of us. While there were successful entries like scream, the increasing pandering toward the teenage audience left horror dull and lifeless.
In the 2000s horror got its punch back, coinciding with one incredibly horrific event. 9/11 made everyone in America essentially wake up and realize that any day the world could come to an end. Horror films since then have struggled to have the impact that a real life horror like that had. It’s tried to do this in several ways, one being found footage, which can recreate “realism” unlike any horror film and in a film like Cloverfield or Chronicle can even play on our society’s memories of that day. Playing off a more broad feeling of “the end of the world,” zombie films like 28 Days Later exploded in popularity(Wilson). Another way horror tried to be more effective is through increased violence. Filmmakers felt they needed greater violence to make an impact and they succeeded, sparking a debate that only recently has died down.
The other landmark event that occurred in the ‘00s was the popularization of the internet and more relevantly, Youtube. The debut of Youtube in 2005 has had an obvious effect on the current generation. Now you can find clips of anything and everything. From crazy stunts, to “hauntings,” to actual murder. Thanks to the internet our generation has seen it all. However, due to the spread of information, everyone has seen the same things and this has given us a weird fascination with finding rare things in the corners of the internet that nobody has heard about. Creepypastas and other internet urban legends are a manifestation of this, punishing digital explorers the same way classic legends abuse those who venture into the woods.
Found footage as a genre has its origins in documentary filmmaking, as that is the format it’s trying to mimic. Some of the earliest found footage movies stirred up major controversy because they created situations that one couldn’t get with a normal documentary. The most notable early found footage movie was Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which had many people convinced it was real. An Italian film about documentary crew who go to the amazon to research cannibal tribes before getting eaten themselves, Cannibal Holocaust was banned in over 50 countries. After an article in a magazine accused the movie of being a “snuff film” where the actors actually died, Ruggero Deodato, the director, was forced to appear in Italian court with the actors to prove that they weren’t in fact dead and explain how he pulled off certain effects. Every found footage film since then has to varying extents tried to mimic the realism that Cannibal Holocaust pulled off a little too well (Jensen).
Found footage remained relatively unused until in 1999 when a small independent film called The Blair Witch Project was released by Artisan pictures to an unsuspecting public. One of the first movies to be marketed using the internet, the Blair Witch website featured fake interviews and police reports, playing off the aforementioned internet exploration to attract audiences. People were still convinced that it was real walking out of the theaters, despite actors being listed in the credits (Jensen). Found footage became widely used in independent film after this, but nothing ever hit the mainstream the same way that Blair Witch did, until 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Unlike Blair Witch there were no false claims that Paranormal Activity was a real movie outside of the typical confusion from misinformed people, however Paranormal Activity did bring massive success to found footage and was one of the first rental hits at a new service called Redbox. The ability for mass distribution through the internet and services like Netflix and Redbox has allowed for the flood of independent movies inspired by Paranormal Activity to get attention from audiences and keep the genre going.
Found footage films are unique by definition, defying standard cinematic conventions for the sake of realism. How close they are to real life or to a “real” documentary actually varies, as most documentaries are usually more carefully shot and edited then the typical found footage movie (Frappier). There are more similarities to home videos and youtube vlogs then actual documentaries, by nature of us following the protagonists around be they running or not. We’re so used to seeing amateurly shot videos thanks to these formats that we now interpret that as “real” over essentially anything else, making the way most found footage films are shot actually more effective.
We have a growing obsession with movies being “real.” This can be seen through many trends in culture but mostly in our media, which strives for immersion in order to be effective. One of the most popular comedy franchises of the past decade was Jack-ass, which had not plot or story, but was rather just footage of guys doing stupid stunts. The audience can find it funnier than the average comedy because we “know” it’s real.
In action movies there’s been the rise of “Chaos Cinema” where the film tries to disorient and over-stimulate the audience to get them excited. In a film like Transformers the action scenes are characterized by an overactive soundtrack, quick cuts and angles that limit your point of view. While one might think that limiting point-of-view would be counter-intuitive to film, our tolerance to online videos where we can’t see everything allows us to accept that we can’t understand what’s going on. I’d also argue that we’re increasingly becoming literate in amateur video, allowing us to interpret what’s going on in more chaotically shot movies better.
There are almost no movies that come out these days without some form of CGI to them. This is partially because CGI and special effects in general are heavily emphasized in society. With superhero movies you’ll hear about how good the CGI was, or at least you’ll hear how bad it was if it was poor quality. Cinema has become more of a spectacle as of late and that’s partially because we like things to look good and realistic. There are nominees to the Best Picture category of The Academy Awards almost every year solely because a film’s effects were really good.
Reality TV, while its rise can be traced to several other influences, is as effective as it is because it feels “real.” The characters on the show are supposedly real people and since it’s shot poorly, we believe it. There are several shows like The Office and Modern Family that try to mimic this, creating a documentary-like feel to their show that’s never actually acknowledged by the characters, but makes us feel like the show is more real nonetheless.
Another extension of Reality TV is the “Ghost-hunting show” which has become extremely popular over the past couple years. It’s a safer, but even more realistic form of the found footage movie, where the viewer can genuinely believe in what they see because so little happens in the shows. The use of handheld cameras to capture the small little unexplainable events feels real and intrigues us. Our own struggle with mortality post-9/11 has lead to a fascination with the afterlife and by extension ghosts.
By limiting our perspective as a viewer to just the camera/main character, instead of the omniscient third person camera, we become completely immersed in the events unfolding. Cinema has been trying to achieve this immersion since its inception and is now succeeding thanks to the proliferation of point-of-view shots, tracking shots that follow the character, and a closely related technique of what’s called “Shaky-cam” or using handheld cameras to film simple dialogue or action scenes so it feels (again) more like a documentary (Frappier).
Found footage horror is extremely appealing to both studios and independent filmmakers. The Blair Witch Project was made for about $500,000-$700,000 and grossed $248 million. Paranormal Activity was purchased by Paramount Pictures for $350,000 and made $193 million (Jensen). Studios have always used horror movies as big money makers, but found footage allows for even less cost with similar or greater returns. Since Paranormal Activity there have been releases of found footage movies every year, with varying degrees of success, but few bombs. Like most trends in movies, the studios will milk it until it dies.
Before the studio fixed up the film, Blair Witch only cost around $20,000 to $25,000 to make and Paranormal Activity only cost around $15,000 even with re-shoots. They were both small independent films that were then picked up by studios and made enormous amounts of money. The idea of using so little to get so much is incredibly appealing to independent filmmakers and so the flood of found footage films were born. With the advent of digital technologies, not only can anyone make a found footage movie, but the premise is more logical. In a world where everyone has a phone or camera for taking pictures and news shows use whatever footage people have shot, it makes sense now for found footage movies to exist over even two decades ago when this technology was a lot more expensive and uncommon (Frappier).
Computers and smartphones have put our entire world behind a screen. All of our interactions with friends, our jobs, our bank accounts, our calendar, and even the world around us are in the context of a screen. So for us to be frightened by something behind that screen, like an average horror movie, is challenging. It can be done, but it won’t have that punch because we all know it isn’t real. Jaws wouldn’t scare people into never going swimming if it came out today, and the story of a few kids in the woods being chased by a ghost would never either. That is until you make that screen one with the audience, so they’re not watching a bunch of characters like a god, they are one of the characters. That’s what found footage has to offer if done right and why people are so enamoured with it. It allows us an experience beyond the screen, despite being nothing more than the same shadows of reality any movie is.
Found footage is a format that has limits, butcan be done incredibly well. It’s become quite popular in recent years and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It’s cheap to produce and makes high profits for studios, it’s an immersive and realistic form of cinema, and it’s both an expression of our fears and a way to stimulate us properly in modern society. While audiences may get sick of it, there will occasionally come along a movie like Chronicle that will breath life into the genre. However, I believe that the real innovations will come in the very medium that helped create this sub-genre: online video. Video series like Marble Hornets are sure to terrify people in new and interesting ways, but engaging us more by being hidden in the depths of Youtube, which forces us to seek out the horror and, ultimately, reap what we sow.
Frappier, Rob. “Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?”Screen Rant. Screen Rant LLC, 2012. Web. 1 May 2014.
Jensen, Thor. “Found Footage Film History.” UGO.com. IGN Entertainment, 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014.
Tudor, Andrew. “WHY HORROR? THE PECULIAR PLEASURES OF A POPULAR GENRE.” (n.d.): n. pag. Kapti College Database. Routledge, 17 Aug. 2010. Web. 1 May 2014.
Wilson, Karina. “Horror Film History.” Horror Film History. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.