Thursday, June 18, 2020
June 18, 2020: American Horror Stories: Found Footage Films and Realism
[On June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock premiered his new film Psycho in New York. So to celebrate that anniversary, this week I’ll contextualize Psycho and other horror films, leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on your own spooky story studying!]
On the longstanding appeal, and the limits, of faux-realism.
In this very early post on Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), I noted how interestingly Irving’s book foreshadows (in form, although clearly not in genre or tone) early 21st century found footage texts such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Mark Danielewksi’s House of Leaves (2000). There are obviously just universal and longstanding appeals of such works, among which I would include the possibility that we are encountering something genuine (always a challenge to find anywhere, including in creative art), the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction (and the resulting discomfort, in the most provocative sense of the term, that such blurring produces), and the undeniable thrill of following along in the processes of making and finding such texts (ie, of putting ourselves in the shoes of both those who filmed and those who “found” Blair Witch’s footage, of both House’s creators and its initial readers, and so on).
If found footage has been an artistic element for centuries, though, it has nonetheless reached new levels of popularity and ubiquity in recent years. In film alone we have seen found footage monster movies, found footage superhero films, found footage alien invasion dramas, and, most consistently and most relevantly for this week’s series, the exploding genre of found footage horror films. The latter category includes, to name only a fraction of the entrants (and only some of those that have thus far spawned sequels), the Paranormal Activity series, the [Rec] series, the Grave Encounters series, and the Last Exorcism series. Each of those series fits into a different sub-genre or niche within the horror genre, but all rely on the same found footage trope, and thus all to my mind tap into some of those same aforementioned appeals. (With, perhaps, the added bonus of being able to yell at stupid horror movie characters whom we can imagine are actual people.)
When it’s done well, as I would argue it most definitely was in Blair Witch, found footage undoubtedly and potently taps into all those appealing qualities. But I think it has a significant limitation, and not just that it’s become far too frequently used (and certainly not the blurring of fact and fiction, for which I’m entirely on board). To me, the central problem with found footage works of art is that they too often tend, by design, to eschew artistic choices and complexity—after all, their amateur filmmaker characters likely weren’t concerned with such artistic elements (especially not once the crap starting hitting the fan), and so their actual filmmakers often seem not to be either. But while we might well look to works of art for the kinds of appealing elements that found footage features, we also look to them to be artistic, to be carefully and effectively designed as something more than—or at least something other than—the reality with which we’re surrounded. Great found footage works, that is, help us escape into their artistic alternate reality—they don’t simply remind us of our own.
Last horror story studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other horror films or stories you’d highlight for the weekend post?