The Rise of Found-Footage Horror


This week’s Paranormal Activity 4 continues the story of an extended American family whose members own a lot of surveillance cameras, camcorders, smart phones, baby monitors, webcams, Talkboys, and other consumer electronic devices with which they record the haunting of their nice suburban tract homes by a terrifying demonic entity.

The original Paranormal Activity, from 2007, owes its remarkable naturalism to the improvisation and chemistry of its stars, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, and to its presentation as “found footage” shot by the couple with a Sony camera. Four of these films might seem like overkill, but it makes sense. All that most audiences want is an immersive sensory experience, and once you get old and your bones ache, it takes actual force of will to suspend all your accumulated disbelief. And good horror films—like, actually scary ones—are outnumbered five to one on Netflix by two-star hack jobs: “Scream Blacula Scream: Our best guess for Chris—1.5 stars.”

Naturalism, then, is hard to achieve. The lazy method—hiring Jay Leno to play himself doing monologue jokes during a channel-flipping montage—hasn’t worked since, say, Wag the Dog. Done well, the Fake Found-Footage Frame (henceforth F4) is still as effective as when it was novel, and Paranormal Activity is one of the scariest films of the past decade.

Try to imagine a standard Hollywood horror film in which one of the big scares consists of a long silence followed by a door creaking shut. That is some Nickelodeon Goosebumps shit right there, son.

But it works in Paranormal Activity—and, to a lesser extent, in V/H/S and Sinister and the others—because the static camera and bland everyday look puts you right there in the room. Your identification with the characters is almost inevitable, because, in effect, you are one of them. Compare that to something like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, with its artfully composed shots, stylized dialogue, heavy color palette, and general atmosphere of premeditated weirdness—the sum effect of that film is practically the opposite of Paranormal Activity, alienating the audience from the characters and the setting.

Completely excising things like style and technique and artistry can draw the viewer closer to the story, a particularly effective approach in horror films, for which the desired emotional response is visceral. And irony? Nothing kills the immediacy of a horror film faster than a script littered with smirky references for seen-it-all film nerds. Filmmakers, ask yourselves: Will a particular reference make Harry Knowles and Kevin Smith turn and nod their tall Dumbledore hats at each other in a professorial manner? If the answer is yes, your movie is probably not scary.

At this point, even the most pioneering elements of film grammar have been fully absorbed into the culture. The same angles, shots, and principles of editing that inform The Godfather are present in Walker, Texas Ranger, commercials for term life insurance, and the training videos they show new employees at Wendy’s. As a result, viewers take a special stance toward traditionally constructed films. There’s a low-level cognizance of the experience, the awareness that “it’s only a movie.” That voice is ignorable while watching effective films, but careless directors, bad acting, cheesy CG, clumsy editing, the presence of Kevin James, or any one of a 1,000 lapses can raise it to a conscious level.

By contrast, homemade YouTube videos of cute puppies and trampoline accidents evoke a completely different response: At a certain cognitive level, you are the person behind the camera. It’s a first-person experience. Paranormal Activity and other F4 films leverage this unconscious posture in order to elicit fear. Shaky camera work, passive auto-focus, and low-grade video artifacts practically characterize the past decade’s genre cinema. See Cloverfield (2008), The Devil Inside (2012), [REC] (2007), V/H/S (2012), The Last Exorcism (2010), plus many lesser films of the “Best Guess for Chris: One Star” variety on Netflix.

The action-drama End of Watch and the teen comedy Project X are rare exceptions, deploying the F4 for non-horror purposes. But it’s difficult to think of many established genres in which camcorders aren’t totally inharmonious. Period-costume dramas are out of the question—”I say, Disraeli, what’s up with the camcorder?” An F4 shot by Lloyd Dobler holding a boombox in one hand and pointing a camera at Diane’s window with the other would be creepy in a “help me get this chair into my van” kind of way. Rom-coms most definitely need the distance of traditional third-person visual narrative.

The business of making a fictional movie look like the Zapruder film is a remarkably delicate balancing act. Plot-advancing contrivances and forced dialogue stand out. So do appearances by recognizable character actors, like Chris Mulkey’s four seconds of screen time in Cloverfield, right before Lizzy Caplan explodes. “Hey, I saw that guy on Friday Night Lights,” says the audience, and under the sudden, unexpected weight of the Dillon Panthers, disbelief comes tumbling right the hell out of the open air and smashes its head on the trampoline frame. 

F4 films also carry the burden of explaining the constant presence of the camera: “We have to document this monster attack,” or “My security system has surveillance cameras all over the house. And microphones, for some reason.” It’s a necessary sliver of excuse for suspending the narrative conventions of film in favor of a character with a diegetic camera, and it has become kind of a convention, like the title card informing us that the subjects of the following film have never been found and are presumed dead.

Adopting a “found document,” first-person stance goes way back. Both Frankenstein and the original Blacula, Dracula, were written as first-person frames consisting of excerpts from letters and journals—narrative formats with which the tubercular, bedridden readers of the era were already familiar. For them, these layers of voyeurism and Peeping Tomism likely added to the frisson of horror and sexy, sexy danger evoked, respectively, by Shelley and Stoker.

But for all the emotional immediacy, a first-person cameraman/narrator is also an inherently delimiting and story-circumscribing device. Like the first-person narrator in written fiction, she’s privy only to the circumstances in the immediate vicinity, reliant upon expositional angels to descend into the frame and tell her about the greater world outside. The Paranormal Activity movies have no metaphysical ambitions beyond the interior of a suburban home, and at the end of the day, for all its apocalyptic, Manhattan-obliterating scale, Cloverfield really is just a story about a bunch of trust fund douchebags having a bad night.