Fact or Fiction: Found Footage Horror

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Featured Indie Horror Indie Horror Creation Scary Movies and Series

What is Found Footage Horror?

If you’re newer to the horror community, then you may not be aware of the found footage style that makes up a widely celebrated part of the genre. That being said…

Relatability and Morbid Fascination

The dark, savage aspects of human nature have a certain allure that cannot easily be disregarded. We’re more likely to see characters who are awkward, trashy, creepy, oblivious, or skeptical throughout the movie—the found footage style has been known to explore those traits more fully since it needs to feel like candid camera footage. As a culture, we tend to have a fascination for things that we can identify with and many people find reality entertainment more relatable—while others find them to be like a trainwreck they can’t stop watching.

Fact or Fiction?

When The Blair Witch Project premiered in 1999, the world witnessed what could reasonably be believed to be real footage of three student filmmakers. These students would go on to disappear while filming their investigative documentary; their footage, as revealed by the movie, was later found by a third party and published for the world to see. The documentary-style film allowed the audience to see through the eyes of the protagonists. We were able to step into their shoes, with a growing sense of trepidation, as they dove into the gruesome legends woven into the history of Burkittsville, Maryland (Derry 228).

Indie Horror Creation

There are only really a handful of found-footage films that directly benefited from the cult following The Blair Witch Project developed at the turn of the century. Regardless, the horror genre branched out into the of found-footage and made it feasible for indie filmmakers to put themselves out there with a low film budget and then expect a larger profit margin in return. Since the mockumentary style of The Blair Witch Project required nothing more than handheld cameras, or more recently, a GoPro. The technology was no longer a barrier. There was a preference of unknown faces that were hired for talent because it would leave the audience with a more authentic quality of film. The promised result was an otherwise cheaply produced finished product with no over-the-top special effects. This style lent directly to the perceived authenticity of the events that would occur within the confines of the film (Derry 229).

Growing Popularity of Reality Horror

The rising popularity in this “reality” horror soon caused the film budgets of these types of movies to rise significantly and the profit margin to subsequently decrease—but why is that? Because, when you think about it, if a found footage film is properly executed they can be an indie filmmaker’s dream. Then again, there also has to be the consideration that most indie horror filmmakers would love to have their film be the next Blair Witch Project. Most just aren’t naive enough to believe that their film will achieve that level of notoriety. Even a movie such as Cloverfield (2008), arguably one of the highest budgeted movies in the style can showcase archetypal lo-fi aesthetic (Kring-Schreifels), but then they blow their budget on special effects. Explosions, enormous alien monsters, and entire buildings being knocked over certainly didn’t help them to cut costs. If their featured talent hadn’t done a wonderful job at performing their roll, it would have been a lot less convincing (although, let’s be real, none of us thought it was real—unlike many with The Blair Witch).

Convincing Storytelling

Thankfully, it’s no longer the believability factor, as much as it is the feel of authenticity and the purity of the scares or creepy story they tell. So, it’s now far less important that these films are regarded as found footage, if we’re distinguishing films being true to the style. If we’re looking for a true found footage film, we must consider movies that fully utilize a diegetic camera, which means that both the camera and if applicable, the person behind it are part of the story. Since the diegetic camera in found footage films is acknowledged by the characters, it can be considered a prop of the fictional world (Turner 8).

Whether we are witnessing the events of the film through security footage, or we’re experiencing the events as a camera-wielding character or part of a film crew, we’re left with room for interesting developments. Even though I won’t deny that security footage style is a diegetic camera, it does have the drawback of removing the closeness we’ve obtained with the character behind the character. When we’re seeing through the camera being held by one of the characters, it feels like we’re literally seeing through their eyes.

The Eyes of Narration

Going back to the previous example of Cloverfield we rarely see the character behind the camera and the longer we go without acknowledging that character, the more closely we get pulled into the him. When he’s nosey, we’re also inclined to be curious of what’s going on—likewise when he’s in a situation where he’s afraid for his life, the audience feels uneasy and fearful. I feel like this not only happens because we’ve identified as the character behind the camera, but because if that character dies, then we’re unaware of where the story will take us next. Typically, someone else is conveniently around to pick up the camera in order to continue to film. We’ve been allowed to suspend our disbelief just long enough to identify as the person behind the camera (Turner 4).

Anything that allows the viewer to more closely relate to the film or the characters within tends to provide a more interesting viewing experience. Whether it’s considered a diegetic camera film, a found footage film, or a “reality” horror film, if “the viewer cannot maintain distance between the events of the story and their own viewing,” then they cannot help but becoming part of the story (Turner 8).

The Beginning of Found Footage Horror

The Blair Witch Project isn’t considered the first found footage horror ever created—that honor is regularly attributed to Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) regardless of whether it was deserved or not. After watching Cannibal Holocaust I started to wonder why it was declared as being found footage at all—sure it utilized the technique for the recovered documentary crew’s film, but there was also a significant part of the movie that is noticeably shot with an objective camera. I submit to you that if we’re going to consider Cannibal Holocaust a found footage film, that we also consider Hellraiser: Revelations (2011) a found footage film.

Reality Entertainment

In many ways, shows like “The Real World” and “Cops” were more of an influence on the initial popularity of a movie like The Blair Witch Project than its found footage predecessors (Kring-Schreifels). Like the reality television trend that people were already enjoying, The Blair Witch Project blended fact and fiction; which appealed to the landscape of entertainment of the time and has helped it continue on as the benchmark for all indie horror creators. So despite the fact that The Blair Witch Project isn’t considered the first of its kind, it still held a unique draw for younger generations of adults who were already immersed in the trend of reality television.

YouTube and Access to the Internet

Just six years after the film’s inception, the world saw the arrival of YouTube which made it even easier to blur the lines between fact and fiction; it’s been noted by those involved in the film, that their successful marketing tactics slipped through a narrow window of an audience that was on the brink of overly accessible information. That, in today’s world, someone looking for more information on Heather Donahue, the female lead, would be able to find with no uncertainty that she was in fact, an actress who had not gone missing at all (Kring-Schreifels). Still, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez drew on the most important aspect of creating horror by heightening tension and fear; they accomplished this by way of primarily composing the movie as POV shots which limit what the audience sees and creates feelings of anxiety (Turner 16).

Acceptance of New Styles

The Blair Witch Project took a simple and otherwise unprofound concept and made something that rocked the entire genre of horror (Derry 229). Rather than spur a new series of films, however, it signaled the beginning of almost a full decade with no overly notable films in the style (Derry 230). Hill explains that “horror nostalgia emerges precisely when new generations of audiences have embraced more recent developments in horror,” which leads to a sort of conservation of horror as it was when they first found their love of the genre (Hill 101). So when found footage films were making their way into the genre, children of the eighties were clinging to their late-era slashers like Scream and the newly emerging torture porn of Hostel and Saw. There was also an overwhelming boom of paranormal and supernatural horror films that were created in the 2000s.

Unrepeatable Success

Fans of the horror genre are known to form an emotional attachment to the version of a film they see first, regardless of which one is considered the better film. As a result, those who saw The Blair Witch Project during their youth are more likely to prefer the original to the remake Blair Witch of 2016 (Hill 101). It was clear that a remake of The Blair Witch Project would not be as successful as the original; not only because the guerrilla-style marketing campaign couldn’t be replicated, but a remake would hold less appeal for those who enjoyed the original film (Hill 102). Over twenty years since its premiere and there are still people who look back at The Blair Witch Project wanting answers. Of course, this isn’t because they still believe (if they ever did) that it was a true documentary, but because the movie left them with questions—namely, what does the Blair Witch actually look like?

There is no denying that what The Blair Witch Project accomplished was phenomenal. From the boots-on-the-ground marketing campaign to the missing person posters designed to boost the level of authenticity of the film, the filmmakers utilized tactics that could never again be repeated. The nostalgia for a time since passed contributed to the success of The Blair Witch Project and in essence has contributed to the success of many of the found footage films that have come since.

Works Cited

Hills, Matt. “Horror Reception/Audiences.” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, 2017, pp. 90–108.

Kring-schreifels, Jake. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ at 20: Why It Can’t Be Replicated. 30 July 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/07/30/movies/blair-witch-project-1999.html.

The Horrific Truth of Folklore in Nazi Germany

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Horror. It’s the balm that helps to relieve the chronically stressed—but we often forget exactly where the concept of horror began. Horror stories are spun from the fabric of the past, present, and future just like all other literary genres. The Holocaust is one such example of historical horror. The Jewish lottery of birth was arguably the greatest cause for fear within this period in history. Antisemitism and the “Big Lie,” that ran rampant within Nazi Germany is where real-life horror began within the twentieth century.

The Holocaust is what most people think of when the topic of World War II arises. That’s not surprising, since most of the war effort focused on ending Hitler’s atrocities and freeing survivors of concentration camps. By contrast, the political environment through which Nazi ideology was spread is not considered as often. Now you may be wondering, what does Word War II, Nazi Propaganda, and folklore have to do with horror? Well, read on friends.

The Horror of Hate Spun from Propaganda

The Nazi Party established Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment in March of 1933; Joseph Goebbels was then appointed as Minister of Propaganda and he began to execute Hitler’s vision shortly thereafter. German culture was reshaped through the rewriting of folklore and films; one such film, Jud Süss (1940) was rewritten from the British film made in (1934). The original Jud Süss was adapted from the historical novel of the same name. The original story tells of a Jewish man in the 1700s who helped his people by rising to power; inevitably, his enemies destroyed him. Unlike the propaganda film, the original message was pro-acceptance, with narrative on how meaningless racial distinctions actually are.

The British adaptation is of course more true to the original text than the following Nazi propaganda film, wherein Süss is portrayed as a monstrous villain who ends up sexually assaulting a young Aryan woman while torturing her fiance. The original script, which was revised by Goebbels to, “serve the politics of the state,” brought to life the most notorious and vile anti-Semitic film of the entire regime. As a representative of the most foul anti-Semitic propaganda, the German film Jud Süss has been censored from the general public since 1945, only being made available to scholars and historians.

Censorship and the Removal of External Influence

When reshaping the entire body of a culture’s literature, it makes sense to start with the foundation of a culture’s sense of self—that meant starting with the folk tales, the stories that German peasants most closely identified with. The ensuing power struggle came well before the beginning of the attempted extermination of the Jewish people. The National Socialist (Nazi) Party’s recognition of German Folklore as an “excellent means to educate young and old in the spirit of the new Weltanschauung,” that led to the changing of history. The Weltanschauung, or worldview and philosophical view of life, left no room for new culture or ideals that might challenge the progression of a “pure” master race. The new censorship policy affected “every author, artist, composer, publisher, bookseller, librarian, researcher, and teacher, as well as the general public.” New values and policies would obligate them to uphold these devastating principles (Kamenetsky 1977:168).

The National Socialist German Student’s’ Association which gathered together amongst German University students were some of Goebbels’s’ first allies in this censorship program, beginning in the early Nazi movement of the late 1920s. Middle-class, secular student youths were deeply anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalistic, and after the First World War, they became intensely vocal. Their opposition to the Weimar Republic drove them directly into the National Socialist Party, which provided them a safe community of like-minded politically discontent and hostile peers. On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Office for Press and Propaganda asserted that they would be taking, “action against the un-German Spirit.” Thus, the Weltanschauung brought, “seemingly spontaneous book-burning ceremonies,” to the public in the early 1930s, as well as, “radical cleansing,” throughout all of the country’s libraries of, “undesirable and so-called ‘decadent’ literature,” (Kamenetsky 1977:168).

The Book Burning at The Bebelplatz in Berlin, Germany (May 10, 1933)
The Book Burning at The Bebelplatz in Berlin, Germany (May 10, 1933)

The Book Burning at the Bebelplats

May 10, 1933, sadly marks the most famous book burning in history. In order to have German society mirror Nazi ideologies, they needed to get rid of any “un-German” intellectual influence. Goebbels attempted to instill those influences within the artistic community and culture. Thus the purge of all cultural organizations whether Jewish or otherwise foreign began.

The Voice of the Peasant

During this time of extreme propaganda, there were new editions of Grimm’s Kinder und Hausmärchen printed, and upon their release, they re-emphasized the importance of a return to the ancient cultures and life of the peasant. It is also said that this endorsed the idea of the peasant being the, “pillar of the state,” and Hitler’s public aversion to decadent city lifestyles, despite his private indulgence in such frivolities he wanted to deny the German people as a means of control. Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel comes to mind when considering this conflicting stance—as a tale where a family is stricken with famine, so much so that the evil stepmother is able to coerce the father into leaving their two children in the woods on their own to starve before being able to find their way back home.

The tenacity of these peasant youths is an image that would have been welcome in Hitler’s Germany, one where they overcome the evil witch, which could have been easily replaced with the image of an “evil Jew,” who was there to consume them, albeit not literally. Hitler was even quoted in 1933 saying, “we know from history that our Volk can exist without cities, yet it is impossible to conceive that it could exist without the peasant!” (Kamenetsky 1977:169)

Upon reflection of this kind of statement, as well as the transformation of, “the innocent folktale … into an ideological weapon,” it is clear that, while Hitler’s assertion of the importance of the peasant, he truly intended to drive most of the German people into poverty while the Nazi Party reaped the benefits. Furthermore, he aimed to brainwash his people, starting with the youngest generation through the tales they would be told in their childhood. “A closer examination of the National Socialist guidelines for educators, librarians, and youth leaders, throws light upon the folktale’s role and function in the Party’s indoctrination program for children and young people.” (Kamenetsky 1977:170)

Rewriting an Entire Culture’s Folklore

Re-education was conducted under the guise of bringing the collective mind of the country and to the nostalgic version of their nation’s past. It was a presumed appeal to the best of times, that is to say Hitler’s idealized version of the best of times. Kamenetsky further states that the purity of German Folklore was of utmost importance to the Aryan agenda and that they made tremendous efforts to isolate and aggrandize traditional German Folklore. As a result, it was the Ministry’s attempt to keep these stories from being muddled and decayed by international influence which meant it, “needed a thorough cleansing process to restore it to its original form and meaning,” (Kamenetsky 1977:172). Professor Strobel, a notable figure in Nazi re-education, made an emphasis on removing any “alien,” elements out and can be quoted as having written the following in 1937:

“The aim of folklore is and remains to give an unfalsified representation of that which is true to the Volk. However, a precondition for such a representation is an understanding of the Weltanschauung which is based upon the principle of the blood and on the right faith in distinguishing that which belongs to our race from that which is alien to it.”

Kamenetsky, 1972:226

Strobel believed it was the folklorist’s responsibility to remove any of these foreign elements that somehow sneaked their way into Nordic-Germanic myths, customs, and rituals in order to propagate folklore that would have been as “purely as possible related to ‘the ancestors,’” (Kamenetsky 1972:226). In this respect, not only did the Reich manipulate folklore to suit their needs, but in effect, they also manipulated history to reflect their own Aryan agendas and policies. Truly, they needed to instigate an image of instability for mixed folklore if they didn’t want anything to taint the otherwise noble and superior race they wished to establish. “If we want to walk safely into the future … then [we] will have to walk upon the firm soil of our folklore,” (Kamenetsky 1972:223).

It is true too, however, that the history of Germany was rife with anti-Semitism even before the beginnings of World War II. Martin Luther’s essay, “Von den Juden und ihren Lügen,” is one of the earliest anti-Semitic sentiments in literature, which dates back to the mid-1500s. This essay featured quotes such as, “into the fire, into the fire with the synagogues! Into the stables with the Jews! … let one drive all … Jews to hard labor … No indulgence, no sympathy for the Jews!” So, as you can see anti-Semitism being propagated through folklore was hardly the first instance of literary hatred for the Jewish people and it’s far from the last, but it was possibly the most damaging of all.

And if that’s not truly horrific, then I don’t know what is.

Works Cited

“Big lie.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

“Fortress Europe.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://login.proxy.library.uaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/brewermod/fortress_europe/0?institutionId=5478. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

“Jew Suss.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://login.proxy.library.uaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/brewermod/jew_suss/0?institutionId=5478. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

Kamenetsky, Christa. “Folktale and Ideology in the Third Reich.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 90, no. 356, Apr. 1977, pp. 168–178., DOI:10.2307/539697.

Kamenetsky, Christa. “Folklore as a Political Tool in Nazi Germany.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 85, no. 337, July 1972, pp. 221–235., DOI:10.2307/539497.

Mieder, Wolfgang. “Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 95, no. 378, Oct. 1982, pp. 435–464., DOI:10.2307/540750.

“Nuremberg Rally.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://login.proxy.library.uaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/brewermod/nuremberg_rally/0?institutionId=5478. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020

Book Burning. (n.d.). Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/book-burning. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021