When I first saw the title ‘Found Footage Horror Films’, I wasn’t sure what to think. Was it out-takes or removed scenes from known horror films? There could be a book on such a subject. Nope. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book focuses on the likes of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999) where the border between knowing something is fiction and ‘real’ is breached. Indeed, this Australian writer cites the 1992 BBC show ‘Ghostwatch’ as an example of this where real presenters portrayed a ‘real’ spooky event as real.
As she comments, no one expected the BBC to break such a trust to its viewers and such was the reaction, they haven’t done it since. Which brings me to the hidden trust you have between maker and viewer. We like to know what we are getting, even subconsciously, so we know how to act, which tells a lot about the human psyche. In this digital age, the borderline between real and fake is ever finer. Look at the recent batch of films, even outside of our genre, and even ‘normal’ looking scenes have had digital enhancement added. Fortunately, such ‘is it real’ tricks are only done every few decades…or you would think.
Heller-Nicholas cites a lot of early examples. Probably the most infamous was Orson Welles’ 1938 radio production of ‘War Of The Worlds’ where many American listeners failing to hear the beginning really thought the Martians had landed and reacted or panicked accordingly. A good thing that hasn’t happened today or with the number of guns Stateside, we’d have an even more dangerous situation. Although an example, I doubt if Welles intended such a reaction it did put his name on the map and demonstrated how easy it was to fool (other words are available) people’s perceptions and fears. With our world now looking ever more like a Science Fiction reality, would we be that surprised if aliens landed tomorrow?
If anything, this book is a demonstration of how some if not many people can be easily convinced something is true because it appears on radio or television. I’m not sure if I should call it a gullibility factor because if something is close enough to the truth, then its only a small step to accepting is as a truth. We’ve done a few April Fools ourselves at SFC that no one questioned in the slightest because it seemed reasonable.
Anyway, Heller-Nicholas provides a history of the various films and reactions and I was surprised how easy I found her to read. Although I’ve never seen ‘The Blair Witch Project’ or ‘Paranormal Activity’ (2006) – I did try that one and got quickly bored and gave up, I do understand how they work. Where ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was concerned, I saw it as the producers way to make a cheap horror film with the cast doing the actual filming. The fact that it then made a massive lot of money isn’t that abnormal with cheap horror films as people like to watch them to get a measure of controlled scared. There’s an entire history of that happening after all. They also addressed the problem of explaining where the production crew was when it was made. We’ve seen plenty of stills over the years from both sides of the camera that breaks the reality up a bit. Those of my generation remember the beach scene from ‘From Here To Eternity’ where actors Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr were alone snogging on the beach as the water swept up to them and the photo showing the thirty odd crew doing the filming. I couldn’t find the photo I saw in ‘The Movie’ multi-part book from the 1980s, but the photo here shows the difference. When you watch a film, you don’t really think about such things. With films like ‘The Blair Witch Project’ caught the people who didn’t know that filming themselves, brought the price right down, and just because it was reported that the material was found after three people went missing, you do along with it.
While reading I did wonder about any films that Heller-Nicholas might have missed, especially as she also included some SF films in the mix. The few of these I’ve seen barely have a story wrapped around it so maybe it’s my own writer sensibilities get in the way of accepting them. When you don’t show a story as a story, it can be easy for some people to be drawn in as they are when they watch journalist news footage and join the dots of the event. When it’s a bigger event, it is possible to sustain it much longer.
‘Found Footage Horror Films’ has to be seen as the definitive volume on this subject and if you want to know about such films and there are a lot of them, which did surprise me, then you will sorely want to add this book to your collection.
(pub: McFarland. 236 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £32.50 (UK), $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-7077-8)