Virtual Horror: Social Media, Found Footage, and Unfriended

Last month, The Feminist’s Guide to Horror took you into the world of body horror where films focus on the human form as a bloody, suffering spectacle—this month we’re taking a turn into the realm of Found Footage horror, which is all about the power of suggestion. Found Footage horror is the land of amateur documentarians in pursuit of a supernatural mystery. It privileges local narratives and urban legends told from the first-person perspective of those who are most invested in discovering the truth behind these phenomena.

 

Found footage movies often go something like this: skeptical young people decide to explore some kind of supernatural phenomenon (either an urban legend, or some paranormal activity they themselves are experiencing) and plan to document their efforts through the use of a video camera so that their discoveries can be compiled and shared with the world. Something goes awry, and all we have left to explain what happened to them is found in the reel of footage they leave behind. There are variations on this theme, but typically these films thrive on the conversion–and often possession–of the skeptical characters as their investigative efforts lead down a rabbit hole deeper and darker than they ever imagined.

 

Classic found footage: The Blair Witch Project

Classic found footage: The Blair Witch Project

 

Found Footage Forms

 

Though told from a first person perspective (or perspectives, if more than one character captures footage), our experience of the film is mediated through technology: we are self-consciously watching a film-within-a-film for the duration of the movie. In this way, found footage is unapologetically meta. These films rely on the fact that people are familiar with not only horror tropes, but the various devices used in horror cinematography. For example, as an experienced horror viewer, when I see a close-up shot of someone’s face directly followed by a camera pan to the left or right, I’m expecting there to be some sort of jump scare when the camera pans back to the actor’s face. Just  the expectation of that jump scare—a ghost in the corner moving swiftly towards the screen, a movement in a mirror, a sudden “bang” —is enough to keep me on the edge of my seat. In this way, much of the suspense of found footage films comes from the viewer having certain generic expectations about horror cinematography and then waiting in anticipation of seeing how those expectations play out.

 

So many places for a demon to appear!: Paranormal Activity 2

So many places for a demon to appear!: Paranormal Activity 2

 

In that way, horror aficionados are ideal viewers for films like the Paranormal Activity series because though the writer and  director sets up these kind of jump scares in all the of the ways one can (plenty of mirrors, corners, furniture where people can pop out of, etc.), they deliver that scare such a small percentage of the time that you’re on the edge of your seat the entire movie.

 

Because of this, watching found footage films in the theater with a bunch of other people enhances the experience. I always try to see a new found footage film on opening weekend because I love the camaraderie that builds in the audience as we are collectively “faked-out” and respond to the intensifying suspense with increasing verbality; the premature screams of other viewers can cause me to jump even when the movie does not create that effect. As the small child approaches the closed closet door rattling on its hinges, reaching out his hand to reveal what’s inside, you better believe I’m mumbling “Don’t open the door, don’t open the door” under my breath.

 

Is Found Footage Connected to Other Genres?

Some trace found footage films’ narrative strategies back to the epistolary novel, where the plot is relayed through a series of correspondence or diary entries. Typically, the constraints of the “film-within-a-film” form forces the narrative to unfold chronologically as the camera-operator follows the rest of the group. Flashbacks are all but unavailable unless they occur though a verbal narration of past events by a character on screen. However, as begin to see in films like the Paranormal Activity series or, most recently in Unfriended, the ability for flashback can be recuperated if that flashback is achieved through use of another technological means (i.e., someone taping someone else while they are watching surveillance footage of the ghost’s nightly activities.)

 

 

Found footage horror is also connected to the documentary film form. Often the premise of the film is an investigative enterprise and filmmakers strive for a high degree of verisimilitude. For example, the actors in The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity used their real names as their character’s names. Often, the filmmakers will attempt to mimic the amateur filmographer, as is done in the sci-fi found footage thriller Cloverfield (Robert Ebert apparently called this style,  “shaky-cam”— Paranormal Activity mostly gets around this problem by having characters place cameras on tripods).These kind of cinematic choices serve as a kind of Barthesian “reality effect”, letting us know that we should believe the film takes place in the real world. One of the most impressive feats of a found footage movie is when it does not break its frame: every sound and picture is completely organic and can be derived from the scene itself (i.e., there are no shots taken outside of the perspective of the in-film camera operator).

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Almost all of the found footage films that have been widely popularized deal with supernatural subjects, mainly ghosts or demons. Perhaps some of the scary appeal of these films comes from the possibility of seeing unbelievable things in a form that is completely bound to reality: if the ghost shows up, embodied, on camera, it’s harder to dispute. If the filmmakers achieve verisimilitude in their film-making, they build credibility, so that when the audience sees something bizarre on their film, it seems more real.

 

In the most successful movies of this genre, the film patiently allows viewers to be confronted with weird sounds and movements without clue-ing them in on their source. The climax of the movie is usually quite an intense—though often still suggestive—encounter with the entity that may include a few moments of bizzarity or violence, but this is typically not sustained. Fear is primarily created and sustained by the power of suggestion.

 

Because the genre depends more on narrative creativity and convincing special effects than makeup, gore, and post-production effects, these films often cost a fraction of a typical  Hollywood budget to produce, making it an accessible genre for amateur filmmakers. (Notable examples are The Blair Witch Project  which was made for an estimated $60,000 and  Paranormal Activity which was made for about $15,000.)

 

Unfriended as Social Media Horror

 

When I went to see Paranormal Activity 4, I was impressed by how the filmmakers managed to shoot the film through a video chat between a teenager and her boyfriend with occasional help from an Xbox Kinect, and another camera. The people at Paranormal Activity know what’s up: they were able to angle the main character and her laptop in ways that set up scares and their use of the Xbox and Macbooks for surveillance didn’t break the frame for me.

 

 

After that film, I was just itching for someone to push that concept the to the next level, and Unfriended, released widely last weekend,  did not disappoint.

 

The real art of the film is its form (the plot itself can be summarized surprisingly accurately by this Knife Party song). The film focuses on a group of teenagers on the one-year anniversary of the death of their “friend” Laura Barnes, who committed suicide after being horrifically cyberbullied  following the release of a humiliating video of her at a party. The group of teenagers gear up for what seems like a fairly normal group chat on Skype. Their easy camaraderie is interrupted by the presence of an unwanted, unknown interloper in their Skype conversation.

 

This film makes an important contribution to the found footage genre because it represents an attempt to contend with the ways that we are also now, in part, virtual selves. The identities that we cultivate online, our loose personage constructed from our search histories, is the consciousness that this film engages. It is entirely mediated through virtual reality. For the entire film we are bound to the laptop screen of one of the teenagers, Blaire.

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Unfriended solved the problem of how to handle flashbacks in the found footage narrative. As the film opens, we see that  Blaire is watching youtube videos (we watch them with her) of Laura’s suicide (apparently taped on a crappy cell phone camera and uploaded), and then begin to watch what we would see later in full: the infamous video that eventually caused Laura’s suicide. By being able to use social media platforms like YouTube, or features like Facebook’s photo-albums, Blaire can show us the past while effortlessly keeping the film firmly rooted in the present.

 

As Blaire’s keystrokes lead us through the landscape of her iOS system we learn about her and as the plot heats up, we see her try to mediate between various entities—herself, her boyfriend, her friends, the ghost in the machine—through technological means. The negotiation between the virtual self and actual self is a key component of the film. As the movie progresses, Blaire and her friends’ physical bodies are punished for the sins of their virtual selves (a fitting reverse: the humiliating state of Laura’s physical body was ephemeral until it became virtualized in the form of the viral video).

 

The filmmakers also smartly make use of the technical foibles of social media platforms to create suspense. Using the annoying noise that Skype makes when it’s trying to recapture a lost call,  we never know when the video screen will flash on and the noise we hear in the background will also yield to a violent, graphic image. That device itself was really effective in creating and maintaining suspense.

 

Impressively, the film almost never breaks its frame.This made it even more disappointing when the frame did break, which happened in two ways a handful of times throughout the film. Occasionally, Blaire would minimize the Skype conversation to look something up and the volume of her friends who were still talking  would fade out without us seeing her adjust the volume on her laptop. This seems like a minor break to me, meant to refocus our attention on reading the important correspondence occurring on screen. The second and more egregious break occurred when a deep bass note began to play under the more suspenseful scenes. This use of bass note is a time-honored technique in horror; however, in a film that is so delightfully well-wrought in every other way, the presence of a sound that is unaccounted for within the iOS system, seems out of place and highly noticeable.

 

 

Throughout the course of film we learn much about the questionable behavior of this group of teenagers including their use of illegal drugs, drinking habits, cavalier sexual encounters, and lies, but those moral infractions (if you can call them that) are not why the teenagers are possessed and then punished in the film: they are punished as revenge for the way that they bullied one of their peers.

 

Other possession narratives often leave the audience feeling immune from the possibility of the events in the film ever happening to them: for example,“Well, this could never happen to me because I don’t play with Ouija boards,” or “If I found a creepy box like that, I wouldn’t make the mistake of opening”. Unfriended does not leave viewers this same kind of escape because so many of us are terrible internet citizens. The kind of mean-spirited trolling that led to Laura Barnes’ fictional death in the movie actually leads to death in real life. Even if the ghost in Unfriended is a fantasy, the premise for the haunting is all too real.

 

I’ve purposely focused this review on the structure of the film because I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who are going to see the movie this weekend. Ultimately, this is one of the first horror movies that tries to engage with the way that we are becoming virtual selves and negotiate the way that our virtual actions have consequences in the actual world. This is an important direction for film, and it’s exciting to see horror filmmakers leading the way.

 

Found Footage Watchlist:

  • Cannibal Holocaust (1980): Often considered the “original” found footage film, a film crew is found dead in the Amazon, and the only evidence of their discoveries are captured on film…
  • The Blair Witch Project (1999): Three student filmmakers disappear after investigating the legend of the Blair Witch…
  • Paranormal Activity (2007): A couple start to hear noises in their house and set up a camera to investigate…(I’d also recommend Paranormal Activity 4, if Social Media horror is of interest to you)
  • V/H/S (2012): A group of guys run into a stash of found footage way creepier than they bargained for…
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