Thursday Rethink: Halloween Horror: In Defense of Found-Footage Horror


Although most critics and moviegoers seem to hate found-footage horror films, few movies have been as financially successful or so radically broken the form of popular filmmaking as found-footage films. Count me as a defender of this oft-lambasted genre. For one, the genre is genuinely innovative, both economically, narratively, and formally, reshaping the way we fund, make, and tell horror stories. Two, when done correctly, found-footage has an unnerving capacity to scare.

Found-footage horror understands the psychology of watching a movie.

At its best, found-footage horror weaponizes the movie frame. First, by having characters within the film operate the camera, the subgenre erases the perceived distance between the viewer and the character. Many films might try too hard to exact verisimilitude through shaggy performances that mimic the unrefined rhythms of “real” people, but this is a misunderstanding of the inherent strengths of the found-footage approach. It is the form itself—the mere fact of the characters filming their own story that subconsciously works on the viewer, doubling-down on the suspension of disbelief that is already inherent in the act of watching a movie—that creates authenticity.

Found-footage horror also controls the frame and restricts the release of tension allowed by conventional editing. While many people often criticize the technique for being overly shaky and imprecise, in fact, the camera in found-footage horror is meticulous. Films such as in the Paranormal Activity series use every corner of the frame to build dread, refusing to cut so as to force us to search over the frame and find something that scares us. It is almost perverse in how it uses our imagination against us and plays with our anticipation (almost desire) for terror in order to release tension.

Found footage also doesn’t allow us to escape scares once they begin to occur on screen. If the characters are in the midst of a terrifying moment, the viewer is tied to their perspectives, and thus forced to endure whatever torment they are suffering. In a conventional horror film, the director can cut away to relieve the terror and proceed to build into another moment. This means that found-footage horror films often lack a nuanced pace, but it also means that the intensity of the scare is often more pronounced than in other horror films.

Found-footage horror makes viewers uncomfortable.

I believe that this intensity leads a lot of people to disengage with many found-footage horror films in an effort to save themselves from fear. If the film gets too scary, you disengage, as the intensity is unpleasant and it’s a lot easier to ignore the reality of what’s happening on screen than to sit with that discomfort and allow the fear to bend your brain as it will.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that it’s likely that found-footage horror (like a lot of horror in general) simply does not work for many viewers, but I also believe that our peculiarly-modern closed-mindedness, hunger to attack anything as fake, and inability to comprehend experiences outside of our biographical purview lead a lot of people to dismiss found-footage horror movies from the get-go.

You have to be open-minded to even approach a horror film (let alone a found-footage horror film) because you have to want to be scared, to be taken out of your comfort zone to experience emotions that are unpleasant, even horrifying. We live in a culture that does not favour open-mindedness and instead rewards feelings of superiority, so of course, people will be hostile towards a film style that wants to put you at a disadvantage, to feel inferior to the terror visited upon you by the filmmakers.

Accusations of disbelief are beside-the-point. A person continuing to film their experiences even as a supernatural being chases them down is no less realistic than a man wearing a mechanical supersuit that allows him to fly and deflect nuclear bombs. The only difference here is that the horror film asks you to make yourself vulnerable, while the superhero film rewards your power fantasies.

Found-footage horror trusts the viewer.

Perhaps what I admire most about found-footage horror is its earnestness. Found footage horror movies trust the viewer’s willingness to engage with the material presented. It believes in the psychological power of filmmaking and the simple desire to engage with outlandish material in an effort to feel something genuine. It’s not every modern film genre that approaches viewers with open arms, asking nothing but attention during its runtime. So despite the fact that found-footage horror taps into our modern world with its reliance on cellphones, camcorders, and video chat, there is something old-fashioned in its dedication to make-believe.

There’s also a generational element in my admiration of the subgenre. Just as Gen Xers admire the teen slashers they grew up with, I have a special fondness for this mode of filmmaking that grew popular on the shoulders of myself and others like me. My generation is one consumed by modern technology and the constant desire to record and broadcast our every moment. It’s not that other generations have not equally embraced the modern world of social networks, video blogging, and livecasting, but the relationship is instinctual on our part and learned for people who are older. It’s not hard for my generation to comprehend that people film things they should not, crossing a hurdle that’s a real sticking point for so many older viewers of found-footage horror—you need only have Snapchat or Instagram to realize that the impulse to record your experiences crosses all boundaries of taste and timeliness. It’s a short step from recording a fight in the street to filming an actual murder, even if you’re the victim.

Tastes will change. The next generation has already eclipsed my generation’s ability to fuse our identity with our online selves and it’s likely their mode of horror films will take the approach of found-footage horror much further, perhaps making Snapchat horror films that tap directly into the cellphones of the people in the audience at the multiplex, fusing their online identity with the characters in the film in a way that found-footage only dreams of. Found-footage horror presents itself as reality, but it trusts our imagination to bridge the gap between real and fake. It’s possible that new technology will not trust our brains to be so willingly fooled and circumvent them entirely.

At some point in the near future, found-footage will look quaint to moviegoers. Its novelty is already fading and in 20 years time, it will likely seem as hokey or artificial as teen slasher films from the eighties. But just as there is worth in those slasher films, there is worth in found-footage horror. It plays on the imagination and trusts the viewer in ways few modern films do.

It’s a method of simple storytelling that taps into our modern way of perceiving the world around us while simultaneously admonishing us to lose the cynicism and embrace the terror. You might not appreciate the look of grainy handycam footage of a dark house in the middle of the night, but I believe its purity is something to be admired—even celebrated. There is worth in this subgenre, if only people approach it with open minds.