One of my favorite lines in all of horror cinema comes from The Blair Witch Project(1999). Josh (Joshua Leonard) gazes through a video camera view-finder at Heather (Heather Donohue) and trenchantly notes that the picture isn’t “quite reality.”
He’s right, of course. And that’s part of the reasons we love movies so much. For ninety minutes or two hours, the camera becomes our eyes, and what we see through that camera isn’t quite reality. It’s heightened reality. It’s manipulated reality. It’s shaped and edited reality.
Given how crucially important film grammar is in constructing an effective horror film, in crafting a sense of escalating unease and terror, it’s only natural, perhaps, that the camera itself has become an important player and topic of debate within the texts of many popular horror films.
Thanks in part to technological improvements, the portable home video camera became affordable and lightweight in the mid-1980s. Accordingly, a revolution in home movies began, and very shortly, this trend “trickled down” into horror movie narratives. Videographers or amateur movie makers started out by appearing in the “victim pool” of mid-1980s horror films (April Fool’s Day , Friday the 13th VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan ), but more than that the camera soon became a player itself in the longstanding social argument about the value of horror as a genre.
ConsiderHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989), and the notorious scene in which Otis (Tom Towles) and Henry (Michael Rooker) go out “hunting” and kill a randomly-selected suburban family. They record the horrific murder and rape spree on their camcorder and later — while drinking a few beers — kick back and watch their blood-thirsty escapades. Otis even rewinds the tape, thoroughly entertained: “I want to see it again.”
The issue here is quite simply this: do we, as human beings, actually revel in the suffering of other people? Does the video camera actually transform another person’s suffering into our entertainment? This isn’t just a horror movie question, either. This is a real life question. Consider how often the grotesque footage of Saddam Hussein’s dead, bloody sons was replayed on cable television. Or think how often the terror of the 9/11 attacks on the WTC were rerun in the days following the horrific event. Do we, by watching recorded events, become complicit in a news event? That’s certainly the territory of such films as Ringu (1998) and The Ring (2002).
A similar was developed in Flatliners (1990). There, a yuppie doctor-in-training, Joe Hurley (William Baldwin) secretly filmed all of his sexual conquests, and then watched and relived them later. He had taken a liberty with his “lovers” and would have to pay for that moral trespass. His actions had consequences. The video camera could be used to commit a crime, an invasion of personal space and privacy.
In the aforementioned Blair Witch Project (1999), the video-camera, as Josh notes, functions as a shield, distancing the viewer from unpleasant reality. Josh notes that the camera offers a “filtered reality” in which one can “pretend everything isn’t quite the way it is.”
In other words, the act of perceiving reality through a camera lens distances oneself from the objects and situations perceived. In a non-horror setting, this was actually the subtext for the final episode of the popular sitcom Seinfeld in 1998. Jerry and his friends watched a crime being conducted (a car-jacking) through a video camera, but did not intervene to actually stop the crime as it was occurring. The apparently-passive act of gazing through the camera enabled George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry to see themselves as being somehow apart from reality, and apart from community, even from the law itself. There was no need to help the victim of a crime. They were merely…watching, as they would a TV show.
With the heyday of found footage films upon us (including [REC], Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Apollo 18 and the like) we as viewers are asked again and again to reckon with the role of the camera in our lives, and in horrific scenarios.
But where The Blair Witch Project asks us to assemble a sense of order out of grainy pixelized images that didn’t make sense in a conventional fashion and didn’t reveal anything about the looming threat (the Blair Witch), these later examples of the form strive more for certainty than uncertainty. The Demon in Paranormal Activity (2009), for example, presents for a full-frame close-up at the end of the film, just so the audience gets its money’s worth out of a “creature feature.” This (dumb…) ending belies the fact that more people own cameras now than at any time in human history, and nobody has ever, anywhere, recorded footage of a demon. Films like Paranormal Activity don’t use the camera to reveal how our eyes can lie, only to assure that audience expectations are met.
The camera can also be a social good in the horror film. It can be a tool of investigation and observation (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Poltergeist), but more often the point of many horror films is that you can’t really hide from terror behind the eye-piece. The camera may be a filter, but, in the final analysis, it’s a filter that doesn’t protect you. Beyond the camera lens, life is happening in all its unpredictable, horrific, and sometimes wondrous forms.
The greatest terror associated with the video camera is that it could be all that survives a terrible event, a witness to death, and to your very end. Years later, your footage might be found…
The video camera and videographer appear in (but are not limited to) such films as: Dead of Winter (1985), April Fool’s Day (1986), Slaughter High (1986), Cellar Dweller (1988), Friday the 13th VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1989), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989), Flatliners (1990), Mr. Frost (1990), Puppet Master 2 (1991), Basket Case 3: Progeny (1992), Prom Night IV: Deliver us From Evil(1992), Man’s Best Friend (1993) Brainscan (1994),Scream (1996), Anaconda (1997), Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Scream 2 (1997), Ringu(1998), The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Rage: Carrie 2(1999), The Descent (2006), [REC](2007) Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2008), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), Apollo 18 (2011).