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An Alternate History of Horror XIX: Inspired By Actual Events

By Ryan Fleming.

Going viral - The Blair Witch Project. It could only have been made in the early Internet period.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

Interactive media like video games allowed horror fans for the first time to experience that feeling of fear directly rather than vicariously through the characters. There were methods, however, by which that same subjectivity of experience can be done in non-interactive media. One of those became very popular in film, specifically for horror films, in the first decades of the twenty-first Century. Those films were presented as though it consisted of film or video recordings made by the characters in the story, presumably later recovered by whoever presented the film: found footage.


For a time between the 2000s and 2010s, found footage became the horror film craze of the day. Much like slasher films, sequels to slasher films, postmodern slasher films, and remakes of slasher films before them, at the height of the found footage boom it felt almost as though every other horror film released was made using the technique. Despite there being plenty of commercially or critically successful entries, along with usage by big name filmmakers, that glut created a stagnation.


Commonly thought of as a very recent technique, there are examples of what became found footage going back decades. Even in other media like literature there exists the epistolary novel, of which Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is a major example. These could be described as “found documents”. Radio also made use of such verisimilitude with the infamous Orson Welles The War of the Worlds production in 1938 presenting its first half as though it was a series of real news bulletins about a Martian invasion, allegedly inciting panic in some listeners that the events were actually taking place.

If it's in the New York Times, it must be true.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There was also the 1949 Ghost Hunt episode of the radio anthology Suspense, which was presented as a real radio broadcast by a (fictional) disc jockey spending a night in a haunted house for a dare. Substitute the DJ for a film crew and the setup sounds like any number of paint-by-numbers found footage films from the 2010s. Why, then, did it take so long for the technique to catch on in film? It can perhaps be said that it required technology to progress to the point where it was conceivable for everyone to film everything with relative ease for it to become believable. Then there is also the feature that one of the first major examples of the technique was nothing to be emulated.


Italian cinema was no stranger to exploitation films in 1980, the year Cannibal Holocaust was released. Why, then, was that particular film the subject of great controversy that led to the director, Ruggero Deodato, being charged with multiple murders? The violence depicted within the film, most of which occurs as part of a film within the film of footage by an American film crew who disappeared in the Amazon, was of such realism that many accusations were levelled that it was a snuff film. The director had to get several actors whose characters were killed in the film to appear on Italian television and he had to explain in court how certain special effects were achieved. The notion that the actors were dead was exacerbated by the fact that their contracts specified that they could not appear in any media for one year after its release. This was done to give the impression that the footage was genuinely recovered from a lost expedition. There were, however, genuine animal killings in the film that resulted in several of the crew receiving suspended sentences. The portrayal of violence in Cannibal Holocaust was inspired by media coverage of the ongoing Years of Lead turmoil in contemporary Italy. This notion of tuning in to violence on the daily news has precedence in other countries too. Both George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) had parallels drawn to the violence of the Vietnam War that was a regular news item in the contemporary US. Romero’s film made use of fictitious black-and-white news footage throughout; Hooper’s was marketed as a “true story”.

A scene from Cannibal Holocaust, which resulted in director Ruggero Deodato being charged with murder. No actors were killed in the making of the film, although a lot of animals were.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It is perhaps not outside the realms of possibility that either of those seminal horror films may go all the way and be done as lost footage. Without the same controversies that Cannibal Holocaust later saw, might they prove the viability of it as a film technique several decades before it was historically?


Television had actually been making use of pseudo-documentaries in depicting fictional or fictionalised events. From the 1960s onwards, Peter Watkins has combined dramatic in documentary elements in his films, a style he originated at the BBC with Culloden (1964). As with Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was inspired in part by coverage of the Vietnam War, only Watkins went further by portraying the events of his film as though it was entirely footage from documentarians, film crews, and reporters – at the Battle of Culloden that ended the Jacobite rising of 1745.


The style was influential enough that two years later, Hugh Leonard would write Insurrection (1966) for Telefís Éireann, using a similar technique to document the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Watkins would reuse the technique himself multiple times starting with The War Game for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand. It looked at life in the United Kingdom following a nuclear war, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature but was banned by the BBC for being too horrifying. He would turn the technique to film in Gladiators (1969), a science fiction film, and Punishment Park (1971), a dystopia. These are docudramas at heart, lacking the appeal and giddy thrill that would come later. That would come to the BBC in 1992 with Ghostwatch, a Halloween special presented as though it was a live broadcast. It even went so far as to feature light entertainment stars like Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, and Craig Charles as themselves to create a sense of realism. Despite airing as part of the Screen One drama strand, the BBC was flooded with calls from frightened viewers. They included Parkinson’s mother, who had to be assured that no, her son had not been possessed by an evil spirit.

"No, Mrs Parkinson. Your son hasn't been possessed by an evil spirit. At least, not recently."

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The controversy that Ghostwatch generated was whipped up, exaggerated, and outright misrepresented by the tabloids, of course. That controversy was nothing compared to what would be generated when the technique founds its way to American shores in 1995. That year, London-based producer Ray Santilli released footage that he claimed showed an autopsy on the body of an extraterrestrial recovered from the alleged 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico. The short, grainy footage found its way onto a television special from Fox, hosted by Jonathan Frakes and titled Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction (1995). Opinion was divided on the authenticity, between the makers of the special who concluded that the footage was a fraud, and the Fox executives, who didn’t care.


Fraud or not, the attention it generated may have led to something more in line with later found footage. Alien Abduction: Incident on Lake County (1998) aired on UPN, purporting to be actual footage of a Montana family abducted by aliens on Thanksgiving the year prior.


It was, in fact, actually a remake of an earlier found footage film, The McPherson Tape (1989), from Dean Alioto, who also directed the later UPN version. Though containing interstitials from ‘experts’ giving their opinions on the footage, it is far closer to a found footage horror film than the autopsy footage. Such found footage or pseudo-documentary works might have remained the purview of television, were it not for the technique first successfully being applied to a horror film in 1999.


The Blair Witch Project (1999) brought together a few of the disparate elements that had marked some earlier titles mentioned: it was marketed as a true story, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the IMDb pages of the main actors (who used their own names) at the time of the release listed them as “missing, presumed dead”, akin to Cannibal Holocaust; and the film’s authenticity was even backed up by a documentary aired on the SciFi Channel as Curse of the Blair Witch, which presented the film’s backstory as though it was a real legend, this being the era of Alien Autopsy.


The Blair Witch Project was a massive success, becoming one of the most profitable horror films ever, based on its box office to budget ratio; it’s important to keep that in mind. However, it did not immediately usher in a boom in found footage horror films in the United States. There were some, such as My Little Eye (2002) from the United Kingdom, which took its format from reality television like Big Brother. That era was also the one though in which Japanese horror films increased in popularity in the United States, and though on their last legs, the slasher film was still a thing... before they just started remaking them all.


Once is pure happenstance: had there been other successful found footage films in the wake of Blair Witch, they might have been the dominant horror subgenre of the 2000s. Blair Witch had in fact been preceded as a found footage horror by The Last Broadcast (1998), which had much less of a buzz around it and was worse received. That second instance would only come years later in 2007. That year saw Paranormal Activity produced on a meagre budget of $15,000. A successful run at film festivals saw Paramount pick it up for a wide release in 2009, a run that ended on a global gross of $194 million. Based on return on investment, it is perhaps the most profitable film ever made. It ushered in a film series that has seen seven sequels released up to 2021. It even saw the seemingly impossible feat of a Japanese rip-off of an American horror film in the shape of Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night. A new ending was actually shot for Paramount’s wide release of the film.


Had the original ending of the film been retained, it would have made the plots of the sequels impossible. Not that this likely would have convinced anyone not to make sequels, but it might have had to go down a more episodic route continually building lore that from the fifth entry onwards was only reconcilable by introducing time travel. People always talk about Jason Voorhees going into space, but few talk the same way about Paranormal Activity exploring time and relative ghost dimensions in space for some reason.


Once is happenstance, twice can be coincidence, but the third time would prove it undeniable. That third time would be Cloverfield (2008). Unlike either Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, which were supernatural horror, Cloverfield was instead a found footage monster film. Instead of our protagonists being scientists or military trying to stop a gigantic monster, they were those nameless people usually trampled in seconds by King Kong or Godzilla. With camera phones now very much a thing by 2008, of course all those people would be filiming the foot coming down on top of them. That was the mentality with which the found footage look was adopted. Though produced on a budget many times greater than either of the earlier independent productions, Cloverfield was still a success.


It was helped by one of the earliest and most pervasive viral marketing campaigns on the Internet, evolving what the makers of Blair Witch had done earlier. Found footage was no longer something to be left to the indies and picked up by major studios; now the major studios could do it themselves.


Cloverfield also begat a franchise, but unlike Paranormal Activity, the found footage conceit was abandoned starting with the first sequel: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Subsequent films were of an anthology nature, and indeed the scripts to both sequels started out as wholly unrelated spec scripts without the Cloverfield name affixed. Without Cloverfield, or if Cloverfield had not been made in the found footage style, those sorts of films might have remained wholly the purview of independent productions for a time longer.


There are even examples of such from countries outside the US around the same time as Cloverfield and during the latter boom in Hollywood found footage horrors. REC (2007) was made in Spain and presented as though filmed by a local Barcelona television crew for a documentary. It stands as one of the best found footage horror films and horror films in general ever made. It was so successful it even received an American remake the next year as Quarantine (2008).


Both REC and Quarantine were followed by sequels, though only the first of the three sequels to RECREC 2 (2009) – retained the found footage aspect. There was also Lake Mungo (2008), presented entirely as a finished documentary, made in Australia; much like The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), another American independent production. The technique had not been wholly wedded to horror either: District 9 (2009), mixed found footage in the form of interviews, news, and surveillance footage in with its dramatic presentation of an alternate history science fiction action film. It made the career of its writer/director Neil Bomkamp and even a nomination for Best Picture from the notoriously genre-averse Academy Awards. Trollhunter (2010), from Norway, was a dark fantasy monster film again showing the technique was not restricted to just being used for cheap scares. That was also shown in the teen comedy genre with Project X (2012), which came at the height of Hollywood’s obsession with making horror films using the technique.


Films that made use of the conceit wholesale, or films outside the horror genre, using found footage may have received more notice in a world where large budget, studio found footage had not become a proven concept with Cloverfield. However, proven concept it was, and despite works by a few big names or otherwise meritorious efforts, it quickly became a very hokey gimmick. The mercenary motive, and with Hollywood it’s always the mercenary motive, was that they were cheaper to make, and therefore needed to make less to become profitable.


There were still a few diamonds in the rough to be discovered after the Hollywood boom in found footage began. However, these were usually a combination of: a production made outside the US, with a big name director attached to the project, or choosing to lean entirely into the gimmick. For the first of these: The Borderlands (2013), was a UK production that went largely unnoticed in its original release, but received plenty of praise for being a very rare character-driven found footage film.


As to big names, maybe the first truly big name to direct a found footage film was George A Romero. The director of Night of the Living Dead essentially rebooted his own work in Diary of the Dead (2008), which was intended to scale back the scope of his zombie features after Land of the Dead (2005). He spoke of “emerging media” taking the series back to the low-budget origins of the original, which perhaps speaks to the idea that he could have adopted the style far earlier had the notion occurred. Romero would later be joined by Barry Levinson, of Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Rain Man (1988) fame. Levinson’s effort showed the impact of a viral outbreak on a Maryland town by cobbling together footage from dozens of sources, with opening text explaining it had been confiscated by the US government.


Actor, comedian, and director Bobcat Goldthwait would contribute Willow Creek (2013), to date his only horror film, about a couple filming a documentary on Bigfoot in Northern California. After the critical failures of The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), M Night Shyamalan borrowed millions of dollars against his home and made The Visit (2015) independently. After being turned down by every major studio, it was eventually released by Universal Pictures and was successful enough both critically and commercially that it served as a revival for Shyamalan’s faltering career.


What these efforts from big names all have in common is that they were all produced, and in some cases distributed, independently. Meanwhile, Hollywood continued to churn out its own found footage horror films with decreasing effort. At first the conceit was kept that the characters would mostly be documentarians or the like, as with The Last Exorcism (2010), but soon they were being edited like any other film with even nondiegetic music being added.


It was becoming a gimmick: gimmicks like footage recovered from a lost Apollo moon landing mission in Apollo 18 (2011). In that particular instance, the filmmakers really should be brought to account for wasting such a concept. Gimmicks like in Unfriended (2014), which saw a haunted Skype chats where none of the protagonists ever think about closing their MacBooks as a solution. That might have been an unintended commentary on younger people and technology, but likely not. Such mentality does seem to be behind the likes of As Above, So Below (2014), The Pyramid (2014), and The Gallows (2015); where the only reason the characters keep filming is because “everyone films everything these days, don’t they?”


Hollywood’s obsession with the concept would come full circle with Blair Witch (2016), the second sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Second sequel as the original was quickly followed by Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), which did not use the found footage style, was almost universally reviled, and whose events were ignored by the later sequel. Critics did think the 2016 effort was an improvement. Just.


Hollywood’s obsession with found footage fizzled out around that time, but there was no total disappearance for the technique. Just like there will likely be no complete disappearance of superhero films if the wheels ever fall off that billion-dollar wagon. Found footage has been kept alive in independent films. Where it never went away, it should be added.


Prominent independent found footage horrors during the Hollywood heyday include Grave Encounters (2011), done as an episode of a paranormal reality television series, only stuff actually happens. WNUF Halloween Special (2013) used the conceit of a recording of a local television network’s Halloween special, complete with parody commercials. There was also The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), another rare character-driven found footage horror. The V/H/S series began in 2012 combining found footage and anthology films with each segment being written and directed by a different team, linked by a frame narrative of people filming themselves finding the footage. Sequels to V/H/S after V/H/S/2 (2013) and V/H/S: Viral (2014), were made and released by the horror focused streaming service Shudder, with subsequent sequels each based around the idea that they all took place in some year during the 1980s or 1990s and filmed accordingly. Shudder also exclusively released sequels to Hell House LLC (2015), another independent found footage film that was originally released on theirs and other on-demand streaming services. Found footage is as likely as appealing to services like Shudder, as well as aspiring filmmakers, for the same reasons it appealed to major Hollywood studios: it was cheaper and, in some respects, easier than making a traditional film.


In some respects, the current state of found footage horror can almost be considered an example of a timeline correcting itself. Hollywood becomes obsessed with them after 2008 but that petered out after less than a decade. Before, during, and after that there were far more inventive examples to be found from independent productions. Had Hollywood not released a glut of increasingly uninspired examples during the 2008-2016 period, it’s likely that period would have seen the independent productions attract more notice, deservedly so in many cases.


Found footage can be sneered at as a hackneyed technique to elicit cheap thrills at the expense of needing actual filmmaking expertise to induce fear effectively, even from horror fans. However, many of the examples thought of by such critics are from the cookie cutter assembly line of works produced by Hollywood during their boom period in producing found footage horror films. There are many examples which show that the technique can be used effectively and inventively and provides unique narrative possibilities and can provide opportunity to younger filmmakers without the resources to produce a traditional film.


That sneering preceded another trend in modern horror films, the notion of “elevated” horror. Put simply, it means a horror film that is of such high quality that people who don’t like horror films can’t deny that quality. The same distinction used to be seen where any critically acclaimed, grounded horror film would be labelled as a thriller despite all the trappings and intent of a horror film. It is this asinine concept and other trends in modern horror films that will inform our final article in this series, but first we have a brief revisit to the world of publishing in the next article.


There is also a degree of sneering over the term of found footage versus faux documentary. There are those that believe that the former is distinct from the latter, so that the works of, for example, Peter Watkins, are not categorised the same as the likes of Paranormal Activity. This probably goes back to those who like something used in horror films needing to use separate terminology for it.


There is something wonderful in the notion, however, that the year 2018 gave us Unfriended: Dark Web, an underwhelming horror sequel set entirely on a Skype chat, and The Other Side of the Wind, a reconstruction of the final film by Orson Welles, and both are examples of found footage.




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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.


There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).

SFP has an anthology of ghost (and similar) stories, Ghost Written.





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