The Future of Found Footage

by thethreepennyguignol

The found footage genre is always one that has appealed to me so much as a horror fan. There’s an immediacy to it, a purported direct access to this moment and this person and this fear, that appeals to me: The Blair Witch Project is still up there with my favorite movies of all time, but the finest examples of the genre span everything from Ghostwatch to Grave Encounters to to Cloverfield to Baghead to Paranormal Activity to The Visit with dozens upon dozens of movies in between. It’s a genre that attempts to capture something that’s closer to reality than most horror films, and something about that, about the slow picking apart of the real world into some nightmare vision determined to keep me up at night in cold sweats, works.

But yeah, there’s no arguing with the fact that the found footage genre hasn’t always laid claim to the finest movies horror has to offer. In fact, for many people, found footage has become a shorthand for garbage horror, made by people with no budget because no-one was silly enough to give them any.

Found footage, when it first came to mainstream critical and commercial attention with The Blair Witch Project, was one of those notions that seemed to flip the idea of what horror could be upside down. As I outlined above, it took this thing that was so wrapped up in reality and in documentary, the home movie, and used our intimate familiarity with it to seriously fuck with us. But, as with all great new ideas, what started out as the most subversive way to make a horror movie turned into the most eye-rollingly obvious one, the tropes overused, the shakycam more carsick than gut-wrenching. I certainly wouldn’t debate someone who claimed that, despite the notable successes of found footage, it’s a desperately overused trope at this point. Steven Soderbergh is releasing a found footage movie, for goodness sake. If that isn’t an indicator that the genre has moved firmly into the mainstream, I don’t know what is.

So where does the genre go from now? Frankly, found footage horror cinema is pretty much as well-explored as it’s ever going to be. Occasionally, the odd new idea is wheezed out of the concept – such as with 2014’s Unfriended – but we’ve seen it all now. We’re hip to the trends, we’re ready for the scares. The genre has been so fully absorbed by cinema that it’s come to feel as removed from reality as regular horror movies do. So what steps up to replace it? Where does found footage go next?

Well, I think that the genre has moved from the big screen to the small one – and no, I’m not talking about television (despite that bizarre season of American Horror Story, but I digress). The best found footage lives on the internet now.

Bear with me here. One of the things that makes found footage so good, in it’s best forms, is the ambiguity of it, the implication that this could really have happened somehow. What better way to push that to it’s logical extreme than to take it out of formality of sitting down in a movie theater, and push it somewhere more intimate?

Some of my favourites pieces of horror in the last year or so have come from the internet: creepypastas have always been a thing, but these are something else entirely. Take Petcops, for example: a series of videos released over the last year or so apparently depicting a Let’s-Play-esque narrative where an unknown player finds an apparently sinister alternate plane in a supposed abandoned PS1 game. The videos are being uploaded to Youtube (the saga still ongoing): a platform which is now used for everything from film criticism to people posting videos of the food they ate in a day to those who sit in front of camera and just talk. The apparent candidness of the platform is one of the things that the most successful Youtubers use to their advantage, as a selling point, and using that sincerity to couch your horror in is an inspired idea. The slow drip of these videos leave plenty of room for speculation about their meaning and their eventual outcome, and these become part of the thrill of it too. Getting to debate, in real time, with other people the nature of this story and what it could mean is half the fun. Get scared shitless by someone using the format that we’re used to seeing real life delivered in to paint a chilling horror narrative is the other half.

And it’s not just on Youtube. Over on Twitter, Adam Ellis, a cartoonist, has been peeling away the layers on a ghost allegedly haunting his apartment for months now. The story is perfectly told, drip-fed to lull you into this false sense of security using that familiar format of Twitter threads through which people might usually discuss what they had for breakfast or their take on the latest political scandal. Again, Ellis taps into the reality that we’re used to receiving from that platform and couches the horror in that uncomfortable familiarity.

This is the future of found footage. When horror can spring out on us when we’re scrolling through our Twitter feeds or dicking around on Youtube, instead of just when we sit down in a cinema or in front of the TV to check out controlled hour-and-a-half doses of it – that’s when it’s at it’s most unsettling. Using social media, a tool which has been used more successfully than perhaps any other to bring people’s real lives to each other, as a subversive way to deliver horror, is the natural next step for the genre. Having your scares jump out at you around corners in your real life is the kind of compellingly chilling notion that I just can’t say no to. And I can’t wait to see what comes out of it next.

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