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The Evolution Of Found Footage

By Kristie Felice   March 15, 2024

It was 1999. Students in my sixth-grade class were passing around a flyer with a website link. The link had evidence of three people who had gone missing in Maryland and had never been found. Their footage, however, was discovered instead. 

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The Blair Witch Project revolutionized the state of found footage within horror. It is a unique horror subgenre that is actually a film technique that enhances the film experience by making the viewer feel like a part of the narrative, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. It intends to make you wonder, is this real? Going back to 1999, I wasn’t the only person asking that question about what Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez created. But now in 2024, does found footage still have a leg to stand on when it comes to what makes found footage what it is? 

There have been discussions on whether this special subgenre is dead. Viewers were drawn to the “reality” or the authenticity of found footage in films like Paranormal Activity. The intimacy and closeness that you’d experience were unlike anything else out there. Seeing the people in these films live like you do, and using the same tools as you do, made them relatable. 

Technology, social media, and the world itself are constantly evolving. Because the basis of found footage is the use of cameras and connecting with the viewer, it also has to evolve. Looking back to The Blair With Project which used Hi8 cameras and the fact that we didn’t have the instant debunking tool that the internet is nowadays, and more recent films such as Host (2020) that used laptops in a Zoom call format, we can clearly see just how this subgenre is a true reflection of the times we live in. 

 

Before we can understand exactly where this subgenre could go, let’s go back to the beginning. Often when we think about the beginning of found footage in horror, The Blair Witch Project is credited as the first. While this film altered the subgenre into what it is now, it was not the pioneer.

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Where It Started

Taking it back to 1980, Ruggero Deodato made a film called Cannibal Holocaust. Cannibal Holocaust was marketed as footage that was found in the Amazon forest about a group of people who went missing while shooting a documentary. This film appeared to be so believable, that the director was charged with murder until he had his actors come in to be interviewed by Italian police to prove that they were alive. At one point, the footage was seized for obscenity and accused of being a snuff film. 

Cannibal Holocaust was filmed from two different perspectives. The first is that of a professor traveling to the Amazon forest to find out what happened to the film crew. Only when he mingles with the tribe does he piece together what happened to them when he discovers various film reels? The second perspective is what the actual found footage reels reveal. To ensure his film would be received as something that could be real, Deodato ensured that the actors would not have any public appearances- which is a tactic that The Blair Witch creators would also utilize. Even though this film has been banned in some countries and found its way on the Video Nasties List, it is known to be the first found footage horror film. [Note: there is a film titled, The Connection (1961) that used a similar film style but, said not to be true found footage. Feel free to check this film and decide for yourself!]

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Where It’s Been

From the documentary style of Cannibal Hololcaust to hand-held camera POVs, the found footage genre has gone through various progressions over the years. There were some movies made after Cannibal Holocaust that don’t quite fit the found footage subgenre that we’ve come to know but are still worth mentioning. Ghostwatch (1992) is about a BBC team that investigates a reported poltergeist within a London home live on television Halloween night. If you’ve never seen this movie and wonder why it sounds so familiar, it’s very similar to the synopsis for the upcoming film Late Night with the Devil which will hit theaters later this month. Ghostwatch is filmed with more of a pseudo-documentary approach. So is the film, The Last Broadcast (1998), which is about a film crew that goes out into the forest in search of the mythical 'Jersey Devil'. But it was The Blair Witch Project that turned this subgenre up on its head.

The marketing surrounding The Blair Witch Project made up most of its popularity. But when you analyze the film, you can see what made this so unique. You have these three young college students just trying to make a film together. Their conversations were authentic and raw. We all know the iconic scene when Heather holds the camera up to her face, snot on the edge of her nose, leaving a message behind for her parents. It was this realism that had everyone in a chokehold in 1999. 

Fast forward to the 2000s. With films like Noroi (2005) and The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), found footage has done its best to flow with the changing times. In Cloverfield (2008), the main character is showing viewers his POV of a monster attack with a compact handheld camera while navigating the streets of New York City. This film, like that of The Blair Witch Project, answers the question, What would I do? You’re able to easily put yourself in the shoes of the people on the screen. The following year, Paranormal Activity (the first of many) was released, truly setting this subgenre ablaze. There were a plethora found footage films to follow but none to hit the success that Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project achieved. Paranormal Activity utilized the handheld camera and security cameras inside the house to try to figure out if the house of a normal suburban couple, might be haunted. Paranormal Activity did something unique by adding security footage, including something as mundane as the main characters sleeping in their beds. I mean, wouldn’t we all want to know what happens in our homes when we are asleep?
 

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Where It’s Going

There have been some notable found footage releases since Paranormal Activity such as Lake Mungo (2009) and Grave Encounters (2011). Then we have films like Unfriended (2014) where we start to see a shift. This entire film was from the perspective of a laptop. Though more of a crime thriller, the movie Searching (2018), also capitalized on this change in how we consume our media with web browsers and calling features directly from the laptop. As I mentioned earlier, found footage’s foundation is rooted in how we view the story and it reflects us as the viewers. 

Operating with the idea of evolving with technological advances, I can see how found footage could stand the test of time. Take Deadstream (2022) for example. Our main character is an influencer who is live-streaming inside a haunted house. You see the live chat on the screen, he is wearing a GoPro, and he often switches to using his phone as well. All of the things that are relevant to how we consume media are reflected in this film. While it’s a good example of what is possible for this genre, it does lack the realistic element that was such a prominent part of earlier found footage films. Nowadays, these films don’t feel as real. 

Until, Skinamarink (2022). No matter how you feel about this film, I believe it captures that same anxiety and authenticity of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. It’s said to be a type of found footage called analog horror. Many of the articles I’ve read call it “experimental”. It uses many of the same elements you’d find in found footage such as shaky camera work, odd camera angles, and grainy footage. The plot is about two young children who wake up in the middle of the night and realize the doors and windows of their house are gone and their father is missing. Skinamarink is what evolution looks like for the found footage genre. Did we need to see the actual Blair Witch? No, but the idea of it is what scared us most. And that’s what Skinamarink does. It turns our minds against us.

Found footage is one of the most unique subgenres within horror and I believe it’s here to stay. We can see that over the past 30 years, it has continued to expand and evolve alongside us. It’s because of the way these films reflect our ever-changing world and tap into our fears that can make them successful. As long as filmmakers stay grounded in what makes found footage work so well (intimacy, authenticity, and relatability), this subgenre will continue to thrive for years to come.
 

Kelly, R. (2022, August 18). What is found footage?. CinePunked. https://cinepunked.com/2022/08/12/what-is-found-footage/

Bordwell, D. (n.d.). Return to Paranormalcy. Observations on film art. https://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/11/13/return-to-paranormalcy/

Guthrie, L. (2024, January 8). The found-footage horror that was so gruesome the director was charged with murder. Collider. https://collider.com/cannibal-holocaust-director-arrested/

Rappaport, K., & Editor, E. (2023, February 9). Skinamarink sparks fear with experimental found footage style. North by Northwestern. https://northbynorthwestern.com/skinamarink-evokes-childhood-fears-with-experimental-found-footage-style/

The Rise and Fall of Found Footage Films. (n.d.). The Monthly Film Festival. https://tmff.net/the-rise-and-fall-of-found-footage-films/

Kristie of In Love with Horror.jpg

Kristie (she/her) is the co-host of In Love with Horror's YouTube channel and podcast where she and her husband, AJ discuss horror movies, games, and books. Their mission is to connect others to their love for horror, bring awareness to Black horror media, and build a community all about horror. Her favorite horror movies are Hellraiser and Jurassic Park.

@nlovewithhorror (X) @inlovewithhorror (IG)

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