A History of Horror #7: Found Footage

One of the more interesting recent innovations of horror cinema has come in the form of the found footage movie. This subgenre of film consists of a director using a handheld camera held (usually) by one of the characters to assist in the illusion that the work is a genuine document discovered and redistributed for audiences. It's a sort-of faux documentary, with the events covered in the film remaining completely fictional while the cast and crew present is as a factual work. Although this technique can be applied to any genre, it's main use is within horror as a way to enhance the scare factor by implying the horrific events depicted are real.

An early variant of found footage can be found in the epistolary form of literature; a technique writers would use whereby their novels would be presented as a series of letters or diary entries. Books such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) used letters as a framing device for the story, allowing a sense of genuinity to be held through the words on the page. Later on, Bram Stoker would adopt this form for his famous vampire novel, Dracula, in which he would also use documents and newspaper accounts to move the story. By the end of Dracula, the epistolary format is slowly dropped and instead becomes a "mass of typewriting" by one of the characters' notes.

By the time the film industry had started booming, the visual epistolary form was still left untouched. No filmmaker had even thought of trying to adapt it. Early works touched on this by creating films that were claimed to be based on true stories but were in fact complete fabrications. The 1922 documentary Nanook of the North was criticised for staging many events as reality in a deceiving way but this would later be used as an intentional parody such as how the Coen Brothers present Fargo (1996) as being based on a true story.

But actually using the camera as a way to frame the characters' experiences wasn't used until the 1980s and would not even be popularised until the late '90s. In 1980, Italian director Ruggero Deodato released Cannibal Holocaust. The film told the story of a documentary film crew that went missing in the Amazon while filming a local tribe. A rescue team recovered the crew's film footage and it later aired as a full documentary. To add to the realism of this film, Deodato cast unknown actors who had all signed contracts preventing them from making public appearances for a year following the film's release and their "supposed" deaths.

Ten days after the film's premiere in Milan, Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity. Due to the events depicted onscreen being so realistic, it was believed that Cannibal Holocaust was actually a snuff film, and so the charges against Deodato were amended to include murder. Due to the actors contracts, it was difficult to prove that the director had not killed them, however four of them were eventually contacted and interviewed for a television show. Certain key special effect scenes also had to be explained by Deodato to prove his innocence, and once all of this was presented to the courts, the charges against him were dropped.

Found footage movies since then were few and far between until Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) were released. Lake County was a TV film released as a home video recorded during a family thanksgiving gathering. Over the course of 90 minutes, the film documented the McPherson family as they were terrorised and eventually abducted by extraterrestrials. This film confused viewers who tuned in believing it to be real; a similar ordeal to both Deodato's film and the infamous Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio drama.

Although Incident in Lake County was another key early adopter of the found footage subgenre, The Blair Witch Project was the biggest pioneer of this format and would go on to influence many horror movies of the following years. The film follows three student filmmakers as they hike throughout the Maryland to film a documentary about the local Blair Witch legend before ultimately going missing. Much of the dialogue was improvised to add to the realism, however due to its widespread release and bigger budget, the film was much less convincing for viewers. It was still a critical and commercial success, raking in $248.6 million ($366.2 million adjusted for inflation) on a $60k budget, however it did not gain the same legacy Cannibal Holocaust and Incident in Lake County received.

Due to Blair Witch's success, found footage films became an immensely popular format for horror films in the 2000's. Horror films such as The Collingswood StoryIncident at Loch NessThe Zombie DiariesThe Poughkeepsie Tapes and Home Movie all used found footage in some form and were large contributors towards its popularity. Some movies were even successful enough to become franchises, like 2007's Paranormal Activity and REC which both went on to spawn multiple sequels.

Although the technique was handy for young filmmakers on a low budget, it was also adopted by elite filmmakers; George A. Romero used it for his Living Dead reboot, Diary of the Dead, whereas the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield combined found footage with the kaiju genre to create a high-profile monster horror movie. While Romero's movie was not that successful, Cloverfield held a lasting legacy that allowed a shared universe of monster horror movies to be crafted around it.

Even now, in 2017, found footage is a commonly used practice for cheap horror movies. Dozens of new films are released each year, and despite the poor box office numbers and critic scores, it has not swayed many budding filmmakers away from releasing them. To give credit where it's due, the practice can be a good way for horror filmmakers to develop their skills with filmmaking while on a tight budget. There may not be much of a market for these films anymore, but its contribution to the film industry should not go unnoticed.


  1. Although horror is by far my favourite genre when it comes to film, I can't say that I'm so clued up on its history! I am learning something new with every post in your A History of Horror series however and I totally love that!

    I'm always a bit dubious about watching a found footage horror for the first time as the majority I have previously seen have turned out to be fails of the spectacular kind! That having been said, I'll give any horror a good go.

    Natasha | @ofthesaintsUK

    1. Incident in Lake County is a really interesting one that fewer people would have heard of. Plus, it pre-dates Blair Witch by a year.


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