I love horror movies. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the fear I feel as Laurie Strode hides in her closet while Michael Myers chops the door to bits; or as Andy pushes Chucky into the fireplace, preparing to end their “friendship” one final time. My friends tend to think I’m slightly nuts for this interest, but it’s always made sense to me. What could be more enthralling than scenes of terror?
As a philosopher of film, though, I long to examine this love more substantively. What is it that makes horror movies interesting cinematically, or philosophically? Can I ground this personal interest in my professional one? Philosophers and film theorists have talked about horror movies over the years, and what often takes centre stage is the very notion of wanting to be afraid – why would anyone have a desire to feel fear at all, let alone when they watch movies?
Though this question is interesting, I want to focus on something more narrow, namely: the genre of found footage horror movies. Though immensely popular, found footage doesn’t get enough attention in academic or philosophical research. And that’s a shame since found footage is an extremely unique genre.
One common claim about fiction film-viewing is that we engage in make-believe while watching fiction films. We pretend that what we’re watching is real, that we’re seeing real events and people. I pretend, when I’m watching Lord of the Rings, that I’m watching Frodo, that his quest is a genuine quest, that Samwise is his loyal companion. Indeed, though philosophers have presented substantive theories about pretence, this seems to be the kind of view film-viewers generally accept. We talk about Laurie Strode in Halloween after the film, wondering how she’ll cope with the death of her friends, and – during the film – we feel emotions for her – e.g., fear as she’s trapped in the closet, sympathy when her friends die. We treat the images on the screen as though they’re images of real people and a real town called “Haddonfield”.
Of course, this much doesn’t suffice in explaining our film-viewing experience. After all, we are in fact looking at a screen. And this means we encounter these questions: is the screen a part of our pretence, or is it absent? Am I pretending that I’m seeing Samwise and Frodo up close? Is Laurie Strode there in 3-D? Or do I acknowledge the screen and pretend that I’m seeing images of these characters? I think the latter happens, and this is in line with philosopher George Wilson – he claims that we pretend we’re seeing recorded images of fictional characters, events, and places. So it’s like we’re watching a documentary of the fictional world – I pretend that I have access to a nonfiction film that is showing me the events of Haddonfield on Halloween.
What this means is that, when it comes to ordinary fiction films, we imagine that the content we see on the screen is a part of the fiction, but we typically don’t imagine that the recording of that content is a part of the fiction. When Laurie is in the closet, trapped by Michael Myers, we can easily imagine that she is stuck in the corner, that she is screaming and shaking, that she is in severe danger, that he is ripping the closet door to pieces; and we can engage various emotions – hoping that she does escape, detesting Michael, longing for her to figure out some way to fight him. But the moment we ask ourselves “how are we seeing this footage of Laurie? Who’s responsible for filming this scene?” we must disengage our imagination – stepping outside of the fiction, outside of the game in which we pretend Laurie exists, and saying: “John Carpenter is doing this.” In other words, we start attending to the fact that we’re watching a fiction film.
This brings me to the first claim I want to make about found footage movies, namely: this separation – between imagining that the content is real and paying attention to the recording – doesn’t exist.
What differentiates found footage movies from other genres is precisely that we can answer the question “who recorded this footage?” in the former; and we can do so within the game of make-believe we play. We don’t need to attend to the fact that we’re watching a fiction film when we ask whose hand is responsible for the film we’re watching. Instead, this answer is the one we’re given: the characters are responsible for it. Heather is filming the events in Blair Witch; Becca and Tyler are filming the events in The Visit; Aaron and Josef are filming the events in Creep.
Not only do we know that the content of the shots is provided by the characters: we know that we’re viewing that content as they film it, in the order in which they film it. Nearly every found footage film arranges the footage via a piecemeal, chronological structure. We experience the events as the characters experience them, in the order in which they experience them. Each scene tends to end abruptly because – for one reason or another – the character has stopped filming those events. And a new scene begins because – for one reason or another – the character has resumed filming.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as all this. We might know who’s filming the footage, and we might be able to imagine that we’re seeing that footage as the characters see it. But we also need to ask this question: how are we seeing the footage at all? Who made this recording available for distribution? Unless (1) the characters survive and give the footage to some authority; or (2) the characters are live streaming the footage, there must be someone else responsible for the act of “showing”, for displaying the events to audiences.
Importantly, many found footage movies provide such an explanation. As we start The Blair Witch Project, for instance, we read: “a year later their [the characters’] footage was found.” In American Horror Story: Roanoke, we’re told that we’re watching a documentary for the first half of the film and that the remainder of the show is “assembled found footage”. In The Den, we immediately occupy the perspective of Elizabeth’s computer camera. Indeed, in movies like these ones – where we have explanations for how we’re seeing the footage – we can mistakenly believe that the movies are documented realities. This happened with many viewers of The Blair Witch Project. And this mistake shows that there isn’t much that remains outside of the pretence with these films: we can’t even see what we’re watching as a fiction film.
Not all found footage movies provide this explanation, though. The Visit, for instance, begins with Becca and Tyler’s mom talking to the camera, which we find out is in Becca’s hands; next, we follow Becca to the train station with her brother, where – we’re told – they’re going to visit their grandparents. And from here on out, we see the footage that Becca films or footage that comes from cameras she hides in her grandparents’ house. Though we know who’s filming the footage, we’re never told how we’re seeing any of it. Did Becca make a documentary and post it online? Is she live streaming it? Did Becca and Tyler give the footage to authorities? Without answers to these questions, we seemingly have to say something similar to what we say with movies like Halloween, namely: “The recording is being shown to us by M. Night Shyamalan, not anyone in the fiction.”
This isn’t necessarily a problem for found footage movies. It just means that some found footage movies do allow for an end to our imagination – a point at which we step outside of the fiction and admit that we are watching something constructed, made up, organised for us by people that exist in the real world. And even in these cases, found footage allows our imagination more range – we can pretend that the content we see as well as the recording of that content are both a part of the fiction, when we can only do the former in typical fiction films.
Another point I want to make stems from the first: in found footage we share the characters’ perspectives in an especially substantive way.
Let’s think, again, about Halloween. This film is so ground-breaking (given its time period) because it utilises point-of-view editing. In fact, that’s how (chillingly) the movie starts. We look through Michael’s eyes, the camera taking the place of his actual, (fictional) physical position. We see precisely what he sees as he looks through the windows of his house, enters the house, walks up the stairs, and sees his sister brushing her hair in front of her dresser. We see her as Michael sees her – and we therefore share his perceptual state as well as his more general psychological state (understanding how his sister can appear to him as a target of his cruelty).
There are, though, only a few instances of this technique in Halloween. Most of the shots are objective shots, shots in which we have an outside perspective of the characters – e.g., we see Laurie in the closet and we see Michael outside of that closet; we see Laurie’s friend, Lynda, as she stands by the phone, and we see Michael (dressed in her boyfriend’s ghost costume) as he strides towards her. In these cases, we don’t share the visual perspectives of any characters; we look at them rather than with them and thus have perceptual – and emotional – distance from them. Most horror movies have at least some objective shots like this.
This separation vanishes in found footage, though. In some found footage movies, almost every bit of our viewpoint is the characters’ – in Blair Witch, we can only see what one of the characters sees as they walk through the woods holding a camera. In Creep, we share either Josef’s or Aaron’s perspectives, watching Josef sleep as Aaron does, moving into the bathroom with Aaron as he calls Josef’s sister for help. In these found footage films, (nearly) every single bit of what we see and hear is shared with the characters.
Movies like The Visit are a little more complicated simply because we do often have a more objective viewpoint of Becca’s and Tyler’s grandparents’ house, via the cameras Becca has planted in their rooms. And there are quite a few movies that combine subjective and objective positions, so that our viewing experience is a bit more fluctuating. This objectivity can reach an extreme, as it does in Paranormal Activity, where the vast majority of what we see is from wall-mounted, security-style footage.
Even in these cases of more “objective” found footage, the viewpoint we have isn’t objective in the same way it is in other fiction films, for one main reason: we still see and hear footage that is just as available to the characters as it is to us. We see the night-time footage that Katie and Micah watch in Paranormal Activity – staring with them as they notice Katie’s odd subconscious behaviour as she stands over a sleeping Micah. Because, as I stated earlier, the characters are the ones responsible for the footage itself, they necessarily have access to the content found within it. And so, though we might not share their actual perceptual experiences via their handheld cameras, we do share their perceptual experiences by seeing and hearing what they can and often do see and hear.
I also think that – by sharing characters’ point-of-views in this way – we end up sharing their emotional states more intimately than we can in other fiction films. While I can’t spell this claim out in full here, I think it holds for at least one emotion: terror.
Given that we see footage recorded by the characters, and given that we tend to share their perceptual experiences of that footage, we don’t have the kind of reassurance – on the characters’ behalf – that other fiction films provide us with, namely: reassurance that they are safe from the villains. And this absence makes our experience more terrifying.
Let’s go back to my favourite non-found-footage horror movie: Halloween. Because we have objective shots of Michael in the film, we can often know that Laurie is out of danger. We can know this even when she doesn’t. When Michael breaks into the elderly couple’s house to steal their knife, when he is with Lynda and her boyfriend, when he is walking down the street with trick-or-treaters: when each of these events occurs, we know that Laurie is momentarily safe. In The Shining, when Wendy escapes the hotel with Danny, we know that she has successfully escaped: that her husband is stuck, freezing to death, in the maze.
The reason we have this reassurance in horror movies is that we share the perspective of someone other than the characters – we see footage of Jack freezing in the maze; we see footage of Lynda’s boyfriend being killed by Michael; we see footage of Michael as he enters the elderly woman’s kitchen. It’s precisely because we do not merely have the subjective experience of the characters – and it’s precisely because we have access to a recording they do not provide for us – that we can know when things are happening to the antagonists when the protagonists don’t.
This reassurance is largely absent in found footage. When the characters walk through their fictional worlds, cameras in hand, we share that limited experience. And so if they don’t know where the killer or monster is, neither do we. In Creep, when Josef goes missing (after Aaron drugs him and watches him pass out in the living room), we walk with Aaron as he tries to find him, moving slowly down the stairs to see where Josef might have disappeared to. When Becca and Tyler are underneath their grandparents’ house, playing hide-and-seek, we watch – with them – a figure move swiftly to Tyler’s side. We listen, with them, as they hear another presence under the house, playing the game unexpectedly with them. And we turn and bolt with them, crawling, as they attempt to escape their grandmother who has suddenly emerged. They don’t know if they will successfully escape her grasp; and, because we can’t see anything they don’t, neither do we. In Blair Witch, we have no real sense of where the monster is – or when it will come – simply because we move with the friends, into and out of the tent, across the woods, each day, step by step, uncovering whatever they uncover.
All of this is to say: if we can only see and hear what the characters see and hear, then we – quite literally – must fear for their safety when they do. What they don’t know, we don’t know. What they don’t view, we don’t view. And whenever that includes the whereabouts of the villain, terror follows.
So found footage is interesting. It’s unique. I think this means that we need to pay more attention to this genre, as philosophers, critics, theorists – and just generally as movie-goers. It’s fun to watch a horror scene that looks like it’s actually happening; it’s fun to see characters behaving in the kinds of ways we would; it’s fun to not know what’s just around the corner, beyond the camera’s view. I think most horror fans don’t need me to convince them of these facts. What I do think might need more convincing, and what I have tried to spell out here, is that watching a found footage movie is an important, emotionally engaging, imagination-bending experience. And this should be reason enough to talk about it, even for those who don’t find fear fun.