Featured image by Image Entertainment and RLJ Entertainment
*A note on the italicized material: This blog follows a tight narrative on a variety of aspects of the Psychological Horror genre and the Horror Community. As a method of keeping with a narrative, I include brief bites of creative writing, a sort of short story that bleeds in to the next post, beginning with the ending of the first post on this site. Consider it our metaphorical journey through these dark works, to accompany the literal one.
We run. It’s all we can do to avoid damnation at the behest of the beast that follows. The tangle of forest is particular heavy here and light is waning. The camera is shaking, catching glimpses of whatever is on our heels. We have to stop eventually, but you notice light just ahead, and run for it, when-
I feel it necessary to forewarn readers of this blog that this post will not be a standard review, so much as a look at how one subgenre of horror, the found footage genre, has unintentionally revitalized another subgenre, that being psychological horror.
It is obvious that this will not be a comprehensive look at the topic, as tomes have been written about less. Instead, I seek to simply explain the basis of found footage’s effect on psychological horror and psychological horror found new life through it. To achieve this, we will look at two of the best examples or recent psychological horror/found footage films, being Digging Up the Marrow (2014) and The Houses October Built (2014).
Memoirs of the Damned: Defining Found Footage Films
Art advances with technology. The same sentiment could be used in regards to the average person’s ability to create a higher quality of art as modern technology finds its way into the hands of the proletariat masses.
Filmmaking has obviously followed suit.
Using the aforementioned variables, we can utilize an equation that involves the advancement of the handheld camera, independent filmmakers and low budgets, which equals an enduring staple of the horror genre.
Found footage films are, in essence, movies that have been filmed with a handheld camera with the idea that actors in the film, are not actually actors, but are just people (usually making a documentary) who find themselves in a horrific situation.
Even after finding themselves in these horrific situations, they continue filming. I would argue that this is because it is their final bastion of humanity in dire situations; a thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately for those characters, the reason for the title “found footage”, is due to the fact that the footage taken from the handheld cameras has usually been “found” and put together by someone else, with the implication being that the “documentary crew” has perished during the filming.
Putting things in Perspective: The Psychology of Found Footage
In found footage films, we are forced into the first-person perspective, literally experiencing what the characters are experiencing, from their point of view.
In my first post regarding the role of abnormal psychology and atmosphere in psychological horror, I discussed the importance of setting a tone and exploring the deeper levels of human conscience. A found footage film exceeds in this by way of forcing the viewer to share the terror of the characters.
We walk in their shoes.
Safe Scares and Haunted Houses: The Houses October Built
By Image Entertainment and RLJ Entertainment
To restate a thesis put forth in my original blog post, we as human beings, enjoy being afraid. To some extent, this may or may not be due to the activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with fear, or it may be something else.
Either way, we like it. This idea, which is still a matter of debate within academic circles as well as within the horror community, is the main topic of the 2014 film The Houses October Built.
Essentially, the film follows a small group of friends who decide to make a documentary about the scariest haunted houses in the United States. Over the course of their Halloween-laden exploits, they realize they are being followed by a group of individuals who run an underground circuit of haunted houses that involve extreme scares (i.e. Haunted Houses that can result in death).
By taking a staple of every Halloween (haunted houses) and placing several average individuals in extreme situations, the writers have taken us and placed us in those situations. We can relate to the escapades of this group of twenty-somethings and going to a haunted house. We can relate to going out for a night on the town.
Filmmakers and Actors discuss the Found Footage genre and how we connect with the story
They are us. The story, in this sense, becomes borderline “uncanny valley” and we forced to experience true terror as the lines between the fiction on the screen and the reality of our lives become momentarily blurred.
Hiding in the Dark: Digging Up the Marrow
Artwork by Alex Pardee
Another major element I discussed in my first post was the idea of hiding the other. An instant classic of the genre, Digging Up the Marrow follows the concept almost exclusively and digs deeper into the “uncanny valley” theme involved with atmosphere.
In the opening of the film, we are introduced to Adam Green, playing himself, beginning a documentary about a supposed underground society of deformed people and “monsters”. Being a prolific figure within the horror community, he feels that this would be an interesting topic to document and begins his investigation.
We are entrenched, fairly quickly, in a story that we are never quite sure is totally fiction, as all of the characters who appear in the film are real figures within the horror community, playing themselves, including horror legends Kane Hodder and Mick Garris. The lines here are blurred heavily throughout, which is aided by veteran character actor Ray Wise, who appears as the disturbed retired police detective who introduces Green to the supposed existence of this underground society.
Digging Up the Marrow plays on the idea that we fear the unknown (i.e. The Other). Green remains skeptical throughout, but we are never quite sure. There is a feeling of ominous dread hanging heavily over the film.
As I said, we never know where the monsters might be. In the caves, outside your window, on your doorstep. What was that sound?
Documenting the Macabre: A final thought on Psychological Horror and Camcorders
Many have denounced the found footage genre. If you search found footage on Google and I can almost guarantee you will be within a stone’s throw of some third-rate writer lambasting the genre as nothing more than an overused trope within the horror genre. We will look at this in a moment.
Hacks will be hacks.
I chose to look at the genre from a more analytical point of view. The two films that I placed under the scalpel in this post are only two of many great found footage films and only of the horror genre. J.J. Abrams found huge success and global acclaim with 2008’s Cloverfield; a kaiju film akin to Godzilla.
However, the subgenre has revitalized psychological horror, which seems to be making a strong (and well-received) comeback. Recently, with the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), though not a found footage film, can certainly be traced back to the recent revival of the psychological horror genre.
While it remains difficult to pinpoint the precise moment this started to occur, it was most likely sometime just after 2007. From my standpoint, I would make the argument that Cloverfield revitalized found footage, which in turn revitalized the found footage horror/psychological horror genre. Films like Rec. (2007) and V/H/S (2012) paid homage to the Blair Witch Project (1999) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and the cycle continues.
Found Footage and The Community at Large
Criticism throughout the community, however, has remained quite heavy. Even horror-blog juggernaut Bloody-Disgusting, while giving found footage films a chance, cannot help but enter the theater with a certain level of bias towards the films, which included The Houses October Built.
It was Brad Miska of Bloody-Disgusting who wrote:
“Let’s nip this in the bud right now: people are tired of found footage. The subgenre is watered down, and it’s been abused…maybe even raped. Shooting in this style is a cheap way to make a movie that fits nicely into the low budget horror model.”
Though in the next sentence following this, Miska claims to be on the side of Found Footage, I cannot help but feel that my initial belief is upheld in that cynical undertones are apparent.
And it’s not just the horror community that holds that same cynical underbite with their words, and some go even further. The Huffington Post of all news-organizations published a lengthy article literally titled “An End to Found Footage Films- Please!”. Third-rater Marshall Fine began his lambaste-laden article with this epitaph of damnation:
“I’m declaring a moratorium on the “found footage” mock documentary.
And, while we’re at it, how about the same thing for movies shot to look like they’re hand-held documentaries, even when they’re just fiction films?”
You’re declaring? Ah yes, now that I have the judgement of the enlightened, I can move on to better things, like riding a penny farthing while listening to NPR or reading Barthes by the candle light and drinking red wine….
Trust me folks, if you want an opinion on horror, look elsewhere, and judging by this man’s bibliography, you’d have a better shot at finding some sanity (and less narcissism) in the mind of Alex Jones.
Recall the motif here: hacks will be hacks.
Thankfully, Fangoria, the last bastion and originator of horror news magazines published an excellent article on the Found Footage genre. Fangoria shares my own opinion, that Found Footage was the swift kick-in-the-ass that the Horror genre required. And unlike Mr. NPR, they wrote, at length, not from the heart but from empirical status:
“As of this writing, the light on found footage is beginning to fade, with many of the subgenre offerings becoming limited to franchise or direct-to-VOD films. Yet as with the slasher film before it, history repeats itself far too often in the film business, and one can assume we haven’t seen the last of it. And if found footage comes back with a vengeance in the future, you may want to consider approaching it with curiosity rather than condemnation, as it just may bring inspiration to a genre that desperately needs it once more.”
However, there is still one point of view more that was greater still.
Due the premises of popular found footage films, many of them have been stereotyped. Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic, brilliantly comments on the issues of the genre and critical response. As always Mr. Walker appears as the voice of reason, pleading that it works when it works, as with any other genre, be it romance or horror.
I can only hope that the trend of intelligent horror remains on the rise, but with the eminent arrival and pushback of pseudo-intelligent horror films, such as the unfortunate remake of Jacob’s Ladder (1990), a film that is arguably the epitome of psychological horror, which seems intent to become the bane of the horror genre. The remake is supposed to hit theaters this year.
Yes, I too am nervous.
But this topic will be covered in-depth two posts down the road. As for next week, I take on the issues of the horror genre today, as well as why they exist in such heavy numbers.
All we can do, much like the characters of a found footage film, is navigate the circumstances life has given us and hope the best.
A Gateway to the Community:
Bloody-Disgusting, the premiere blog for all things horror
Fangoria, the original and most widely respected magazine for the horror community since 1979!
Nostalgia Critic, a brilliant film reviewer, comedian and entertainer who has covered everything from The Wicker Man to Frozen, as well as many issues within the film industry
You grip the camera in your hand, tighter and tighter. The forest has become jungle-like, thicker and harder to navigate, but the light is just ahead, the light of a coming dawn. Our hearts pounding, we break through brush only to find we’ve once again jumped off a precipice, as when we left the room so long ago. We plunge down, falling and falling-