Gothic Textures in Found Footage Horror Film

Posted by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on December 07, 2014 in Guest Blog tagged with , , , , ,

“The Gothic”, Philip Brophy once wrote, “is attracted to decay like maggots to a corpse”. Having released a book earlier this year on found footage horror film, there’s a romance to Brophy’s quote that I can’t resist applying to the spectacular deterioration of the video image in this popular subgenre. The aesthetics of digital decay are so integral to this category that they have become a key element of its visual signature.


This category runs the budget gamut, but whether it is authentically amateur or a big studio attempt at replicating amateur filmmaking aesthetics, there is something about the very textures of found footage horror that assumes technology is incapable of capturing that which its diegetic filmmakers are trying to document. Whether it be the blockbuster hits like The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), or one of their many imitators, found footage horror is marked by these qualities as much as its diegetic hand-held camerawork or surveillance feeds. What fascinates me is that the quality of this visual decay holds its own distinct, ghostly allure. The narrative conceit that dominates the bulk of these films – that, as the name suggests, the footage has been “found” – recalls what Leslie Fiedler once observed was the Gothic’s fascination with “the pastness of the past,” governed by a “sense of something lapsed or outlived or irremediably changed.”

Laura U. Marks has championed the notion of haptic visuality, privileging video art over more mainstream manifestations of low-quality video such as the pixilated blurring effects that appear on alleged criminals’ faces on reality TV. These, she argues, do not seek to create the same tactile sensations as works by the video artists she investigates. But even placing the implied highbrow/lowbrow distinction here aside, there is a big difference between found footage horror and its relationship to material sensation than there is to something like COPS. In found footage horror, sensory experience in large part relies on these video aesthetics themselves.

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Films like The Poughkeepsie Tapes (John Erick Dowdle, 2007) and Evil Things (Dominic Perez, 2009) may not be particularly well known, but in many ways they typify the potential the subgenere grants low-budget and emerging filmmakers. In both of these examples, the visual decay that holds the affective clout of each movie has been obviously done in post-production, seeking to replicate video deterioration. Along with more popular subgeneric entries such as Blair Witch or Grave Encounters (The Vicious Brothers, 2011), this contrived digital decay renders the protagonists themselves ghostly. Digital distortion implies a temporal lag between the creation of the footage and our seeing it – there has been time for it to age, to decay, to decompose. This grants the experiences that the footage has sought to “document” abstract and almost ethereal, while the protagonists themselves are pixilated and deformed, bestowed with the curiously monstrous quality of the returned dead.  Found footage horror films such as these rely on this ghost-making distortion aesthetic for thematic purposes, typifying Marks’ observation that the “haptic image…indicates figures and then backs away from representing them fully”. She continues, “Rather than making the object fully available to view, haptic cinema puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative construction”.


Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 2.55.11 pmAs I have argued elsewhere, this haptic quality of found footage horror visual aesthetics peaks in the remarkable YouTube series Marble Hornets. Made for very little money by a group of three young filmmakers from Alabama, Marble Hornets is in large part responsible for launching the Slender Man ‘creepy pasta’ that has crept into the broader public consciousness in sometimes disturbing ways. Marble Hornets is in no way simplistic: visually and thematically complex, it shows just how sophisticated and meaningful found footage horror can be. Like the popular Paranormal Activity films, Marble Hornets is predicated on fundamental link between hyper-vigilance and an intrinsic mistrust of technology. But the real power of Marble Hornets lies in its mistrust of language – paralyzed by paranoia, its protagonists are notoriously incapable of discussing even with each other the terrifying supernatural forces that plague them. Beautiful, disturbing and conceptually sophisticated, Marble Hornets uses the digital gothic textures of the “pastness of the past” to encapsulate Marks’ observation that “the more our world is rendered forth in visual images, the more things are left unexpressed”


Brophy, Philip. “Arashi Ga Oka (Onimaru): The Sound of the World Turned Inside Out” Japanese Horror Cinema. Jay McRoy (ed). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 150-160.

Fiedler, Lesley. “The Substitution of Terror for Love” The Gothick Novel. Victor Sage (ed.). London: Macmillan, 1990. 130-139.

Marks, Laura U. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

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