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Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film

Barry Keith Grant

Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 6, Issue 2, Summer 2013,

pp. 153-175 (Article)

Published by Liverpool University Press

For additional information about this article

Access provided by UFPE-Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (1 Apr 2014 16:06 GMT)

Digital anxiety and the new verit horror
and sf film
Barry Keith Grant
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film

In verit horror and sf film, the camera exists within the diegesis, often with much of
the story unfolding in real time, as if it were there recording actual events, as in the
documentary tradition of cinema verit. This essay explores the history of this horror
and sf subgenre and speculates on the reasons for the recent cycle of such films from
around the world. In their shared stylistic approach, this cycle of genre movies depicts
the monstrous in the mundane spaces we see every day in social networking, which also
captures and disseminates globally daily atrocities beside which monster movies pale. The
realist aesthetic of these films, in combination with their fantastic and frightening elements,
reveals a postmodern anxiety about the indexical truthfulness of the image that has been
exacerbated by the ubiquity of digital technology. Our collective unease about the truth
status of visual documentation surfaces in these films, which betray the postmodern
confusion between the real and the simulacrum.

Keywords: digital effects, monster films, genre theory, horror films

In the recent cycle of what I am calling the verit horror and sf film, the camera
exists within the diegesis, often with much of the story unfolding in real time,
as if it were there recording actual not fictional events, as in the documentary
tradition of cinema verit. This camera, or cameras, may be wielded by one
of the characters, as with the television news cameraman in the Spanish film
[Rec] (Balaguer and Plaza 2007) or student filmmakers in the Norwegian
film Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren; vredal 2010), or mechanically operated, as
in the surveillance cameras of Paranormal Activity (Peli US 2009) or the
police patrol car dashboard camera of Infection (Pyun US 2005). But in both
variations, it is always diegetically motivated and acknowledged. In this article,
I want to explore the history of this horror and sf subgenre, and speculate on
the reasons for the recent cycle, not only in Hollywood movies but also evident
in films from around the world. In addition to the already mentioned [Rec],
Infection and Troll Hunter, films in this group include, among others, The
Blair Witch Project (Myrick and Snchez US 1999), George Romeros Diary of
the Dead (US 2007), the four films thus far of the Paranormal Activity series
(201012), The Devil Inside (Bell US 2012) and Chronicle (Trank US 2012).

Science Fiction Film and Television 6.2 (2013), 153175 ISSN 1754-3770(print)1754-3789(online)
Liverpool University Press doi:10.3828/sfftv.2013.13
154 Barry Keith Grant

Acknowledging the camera in Troll Hunter. Alliance DVD, 2010.

I argue that the realist aesthetic of these films, in combination with their
fantastic and frightening elements, reveal a postmodern anxiety about the
indexical truthfulness of the image that has been exacerbated by the ubiquity
of digital technology.
In these films, almost all of which have been released within the last decade,
the camera is not the invisible or effaced presence of classic narrative cinema;
rather, the presence of the camera as apparatus is frequently foregrounded. At
one point in Troll Hunter, for example, blood spatters the camera when a troll
explodes near it; and then, when Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), the cameraman,
is killed in a Troll attack, the camera lens cracks and remains that way until
another student arrives with a new lens. Yet, at the same time, verit horror
and sf films align the spectators identification more with the camera itself
than with any particular character. In Diary of the Dead, the filmmaker, Jason
Creed (Joshua Close), puts down the still-running camera and comes into the
frame to comfort someone, thus presenting the scene from a point of view
available only to the camera. Similarly, near the conclusion of [Rec], Angela
(Manuela Velasco) and Pablo (Pablo Rosso) are in the penthouse of the sealed
apartment building when a trap door to an attic bursts open. In order to see
what is up there without putting himself directly in danger, Pablo raises the
camera from his shoulder into the attic, thinking to pan clockwise 360 degrees
and then bringing the camera back down and checking the footage afterwards.
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 155

Thus at this point, again we clearly are seeing what the camera lens sees, as no
character is seeing it. As the camera pans and one of the creatures suddenly
appears out of the darkness, attacking it and destroying its light, the viewer
tends to feel threatened.
If the monsters depicted in these films range from the extraterrestrial to the
supernatural to the recognisably human, the style of the films is remarkably
consistent. In many of them the narrative is framed as if the footage was
somehow discovered after the death or disappearance of those who shot it, and
has subsequently made its way into the cinema where we are able to see it now,
prompting some to refer to these films as found footage horror. However, as I
hope my comments will show, I think the term verit more accurately describes

Beginnings of verit horror

Verit horrors antecedents arguably can be traced back to the realistic

gore effects of the Grand Guignol, which began in Paris toward the end of
the nineteenth century. Not coincidentally, the fad of spirit photography
developed during the same period. With these images, also known at the time
as evidential survival pictures, charlatans sought to convince sceptics and
bilk believers in the hereafter by showing supposed documentary evidence in
support of their claims regarding visitations by the dearly departed (Gettings
5). Both forms of popular culture used the technological means available at the
time to present horror in the most realistic manner possible, the latter perhaps
revealing a cultural tension about a relatively new medium comparable to the
one discussed here.
In the cinema, horror (unlike sf, which took longer to develop) has been a
consistently popular genre almost from the start, being the subject of many of
film pioneer Georges Mliss one-reelers at the turn of the century; but it was
Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho (US), along with Michael Powells Peeping Tom (UK),
both released in 1960, that marked a distinct shift in the genre, away from the
mannered expressionism of German silent cinema beginning with Das Cabinet
des Dr. Caligari (Weine 1920), and from the classic American horror film as
defined by Universal Studios in the 1930s, toward the more familiar everyday
world of the audience. Rather than the exoticism of a stylised Transylvania,
Psycho is set in contemporary business offices, hardware stores, used car lots
and motel rooms with gleaming porcelain bathrooms (complete with toilets).
It situates the site of horror in the quotidian world of the viewer beginning
156 Barry Keith Grant

immediately in the opening establishing shot of the Phoenix, Arizona skyline,

the camera selecting one particular window and moving towards it, seemingly
at random, penetrating the closed blind and darkness of the room as if the
horrors it will eventually reveal are an integral part of middle-class America,
repressed beneath its seemingly placid exterior. Additionally, and crucially,
both Psycho and Peeping Tom use subjective camera techniques to encourage
viewer identification with the killer, a technique that would be taken further
in the spate of slasher films of the late 1970s and 1980s initiated by the surprise
box-office success of Halloween (Carpenter US 1978).
Slasher films frequently used subjective camera techniques to put viewers
in the perspective of both the killer and the victim, and, as in Halloween,
also employed the occasional hand-held camera to convey an enhanced
sense of immediacy. These stylistic elements were largely responsible for the
ensuing debate about the moral and ideological implications of slasher films
that ranged from vilification (Roger Ebert) to valorisation in the form of
female empowerment (Carol Clover). Peeping Tom, with its periodic views
of impending horror seen through camera viewfinders and binocular lenses,
clearly anticipated the cycle of slasher movies as well as the more sustained use
of this perspective for different ends in the verit horror and sf films. But while
these films may be seen in some ways as precedents to verit horror, they are
nonetheless strikingly different in that their visual point of view, regardless of
its shifting and debatable allegiances, remains with one character or another,
however evil he or she may be, not with the camera itself.
In this regard, then, the first true verit horror film may be the infamous
Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato Italy 1980). The film is rooted in the tradition of
the Italian mondo film of the 1960s perhaps the first cycle of mockumentary
but its narrative structure places it also in the context of horror. In the
story, New York anthropologists are looking at the recovered footage made
by a documentary film crew that had disappeared on an expedition into
the Amazonian rainforest. The film-within-the-film chronicles the crews
journey into the rainforest and also into their own hearts of darkness, as their
behaviour becomes increasingly barbaric. For the film-within-the-film, Italian
director Ruggero Deodato employed a hand-held aesthetic and also scratched
the footage to give it a more authentic look. As is well known, several animals
were killed in the making of the film, their deaths captured by the camera, and
the human deaths seemed so real that some viewers mistook it for a snuff film.
In 1992, the Belgian film Man Bites Dog (Cest arriv prs de chez vous (It
Happened in Your Neighborhood); Belvaux, Bonzel and Poelvoorde), a faux
documentary about a documentary film crew making a film about a serial
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 157

killer with whom they eventually become complicit, became a cult hit. The film
consists of the supposed footage shot by a documentary film crew whose subject
is Ben (Beenoit Poelvoorde), a charming and articulate fellow who is also a
serial killer. The film is a dark joke about the impossibility of observational
filmmakers remaining impartial to and uninvolved in the profilmic events
they are recording. The film crew follows Ben, at first filming his murders in
the dispassionate fly on the wall manner of observational filmmakers, but
then becoming increasingly involved as accomplices, at various points raping
one of Bens victims and disposing of the body of another. At the end of the
film Ben is shot by an unseen assailant, as are the surviving members of the
film crew, one by one. When the cameraman is shot, the camera falls to the
ground, recording the death of the last crewmember, the sound recordist.
While these two films clearly established the conventions of verit horror,
the film that provided the primary impetus for the recent cycle was The Blair
Witch Project. Released in 1999, it was produced on an incredibly small budget
of no more than $350,000 and went on to great financial success, earning
close to $300 million worldwide. So popular it was widely parodied in such
subsequent films as The Bogus Witch Project (Kargan US 2000), The Tony Blair
Witch Project (Martinez US 2000) and The Bare Wench Project (Wynorski US
2000), Blair Witch solidified the convention of narrating through the diegetic
camera and, like Cannibal Holocaust, of explaining the film as found footage
made by filmmakers who have gone missing. As the opening titles of Blair
Witch tell us, In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the
woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later
their footage was found. The film that we see is supposedly the footage shot
by the three students, chronicling their search for the legendary Blair Witch
and their chaotic trip into the woods, where they become lost and terrified and
eventually disappear.

The verit in verit horror and sf

My term verit horror and sf refers, of course, to the specific style of

observational documentary known as cinema verit. The development of
portable 16mm cameras for military purposes during the Second World War
brought significant changes to documentary film practice as filmmakers
gained the ability to shoot with relative ease on location. By the 1960s, the
lighter weight and portability of the motion picture camera and synch-sound
equipment meant that it no longer had to be the centre of profilmic events,
158 Barry Keith Grant

but could follow events as and wherever they unfolded. A two-person crew
was all that was needed one to operate the camera, another for the sound
equipment. (And of course, with todays digital video and audio equipment,
as Ross McElwee and others have shown, excellent documentary films now
can be made by a crew of only one.) The tripod was abandoned for hand-held
mobility as an entire generation of filmmakers began to work in a mode that
Stephen Mamber has called an uncontrolled cinema. Like verit horror and
sf today, cinema verit in the 1960s was an international style, with important
work appearing roughly simultaneously in such countries as France, Canada
and the US. Such filmmakers as Jean Rouch in France (Chronique dun t
1961), Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor in Canada (Lonely Boy 1962), and
Albert and David Maysles in the US (Gimme Shelter 1970) believed that if
they acknowledged the truth of the cameras presence as well as their own,
their films would be more truthful about their production context and also
able to reveal deeper truths about the world than by merely observing it,
however intently.
Undoubtedly the most important influence on verit horror and sf has
been the work of filmmaker and media activist Peter Watkins, particularly
the distinctive approach he pioneered in his first two films, The Battle of
Culloden (UK 1964) and The War Game (UK 1965). In these films Watkins
combines pseudo-verit footage, mock interviews with authorities and people
on the street, talking-head shots of actors quoting actual passages from actual
official documents, and voice-over narration providing contextual information
to create thoroughly convincing hypothetical documentaries. In Culloden,
about the 1746 Battle of Culloden that resulted in the British armys crushing
of the Jacobite uprising and the destruction of the Highlander clan system,
a documentary news team accompanies the kings army. When the crowns
cannon fire at the rebel Highlanders, the nearby camera shakes with the
percussive impact of the explosion and the reporter covers his ears, his voice
drowned out by the sound. Im going to have to shout to make myself heard,
he shouts at the camera. The reporter and camera are avowed participants
firmly embedded, as we might say in todays jargon in the action.
The War Game is a sf documentary about a hypothetical nuclear attack
on Great Britain. It shows with all-too-convincing realism the extent of
destruction, indeed the total collapse of civilisation, if just one nuclear
bomb were to be detonated over England. The films harrowing depiction of
the complete inadequacy of civil defence plans was so disturbing to British
government officials that it was banned from television broadcast. A statement
was issued by the government broadcaster on 26 November 1965 declaring
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 159

The food riot in The War Game. The Cinema of Peter Watkins DVD box set. New Yorker Video, 2007.

that the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC, which had commis-
sioned it, to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting and that the
best compliment we can pay to Mr. Watkins film is not to show it (Gomez
456). (Ironically, The War Game went on to win the Academy Award for Best
Documentary Feature in 1966. It was not shown in full on British television
until 1985.) As documentary scholar John Corner correctly notes, The War
Game achieves its extraordinary power by showing the horrific particularity
of a nuclear strike and by placing the viewer as a verit observer of it (42).
For Corner, the concrete particularity of the films documentary-like images
shocks people into rejecting their previous abstract acquiescence regarding
nuclear policy (42). This affect is achieved in part by having the camera operator
interact with the profilmic event, as, for example, when the camera is buffeted
by the shock waves of the nuclear detonation and when the unidentified
operator is prevented from coming close to and photographing the corpses
of citizens executed during food riots, a scene concluding with a policeman
covering the lens with his hand.
160 Barry Keith Grant

The new verit horror and sf film, in which the camera and its operator are both
witness and participant, clearly reveal their indebtedness to Watkins. Cloverfield
(Abrams US 2008), for example, about a creature that appears suddenly and
attacks New York City, follows in the tradition of such classic monster movies as
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Louri US 1953) and Gojira (Honda Japan 1954),
but its narrative construction is quite different, deviating considerably from the
conventional structure of monster movies famously identified by Susan Sontag
(20910). Furthermore, rather than being constructed according to the rules of
classical narrative (third-person) cinema, the films field of vision is limited to
following the event through a camera operated by one of the main characters
for most of the time, Hud (T.J. Miller), who is attending a going-away party
for his friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David). The party is interrupted when the
apartment building trembles and the group rush to the roof, where they see a
skyscraper explode, after which they run indoors, through the apartment and
down into the streets. The destruction mounts and the partygoers disperse in
panic, five of them banding together to move through midtown Manhattan
in search of a friend who is trapped in a damaged building. As they attempt
to navigate through the destruction, the camera constantly shakes due to the
creatures rampage and Huds attempts to record it while staying alive.
The Spanish film [Rec] similarly borrows from Watkins. Like Culloden, [Rec]
is constructed as a local news report. At the beginning of the film, Angela, the
on-camera reporter, and her cameraman Pablo set out to film their evening
with the local fire department. While at the fire station, an emergency call is
received and the news team travel along with a small detachment of firefighters.
Arriving at the apartment building from where the call was placed, they find a
woman who is apparently trapped, but we soon discover along with Angela and
the others that the trapped woman is an infected and infectious zombie. The
building, with everyone in it, is then locked down by the government, and after
coming from the fire station all of the film takes place within this sealed space,
Pablo recording their attempts to stay alive as the infection spreads through
the building.
If, as Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight argue in their book Faking It:
Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality, all mock-documentary
texts contain the potential for critical reflexivity (1824), verit horror and sf
films differ markedly in that they rarely do so. Indeed, the opposite could be
argued about this cycle of films, for they exploit our psychic investment in the
power and truth status of documentary images to generate emotional affect.
Writing about Man Bites Dog and The Blair Witch Project as what he terms
horror mockumentaries, Gary Rhodes observes that
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 161

More important than character development is the fact that the films in question are
made with the intention of playing off audience assumptions about the technical quality
of documentaries The common assumption remains that lighting, camera, sound, even
editing will be different, rougher in various ways, than that of the classical Hollywood
style. Technical imperfections are understood to be part of the form, and part of what
reality on film looks like. (Rhodes 57)
Indeed, so seductive is this documentary sense of immediacy, of mobilising
what Richard Barsam has called observational documentarys sense of being
there (135), that, as I have chronicled elsewhere, Peter Jacksons mockumentary
Forgotten Silver (New Zealand 1995) briefly fooled an entire nation when it was
first broadcast on New Zealand national television. Despite its outlandish, and
often overtly absurd, rewriting of film history, which argues that a forgotten
character named Colin Mackenzie was a more important cinematic visionary
than D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles combined, Jacksons
film was accepted as truth by viewers because of its masterful manipulation of
the aesthetic codes of documentary (Grant 1922).
The documentary image has a different ontological status for spectators
than the fiction image because we understand it to have a closer indexical
relation to the real. Discussing Forgotten Silver, Vivian Sobchack points to
the fiction films intersections with documentary and its quite common
arousal (purposeful or not) of what we might call the viewers documentary
consciousness: a particular mode of embodied and ethical spectatorship
that informs and transforms the space of the irreal into the space of the real
(261). Sobchacks phenomenological understanding of how we respond to
actuality footage explains genre verit cinemas strategy of tapping into our
documentary consciousness to effectively generate fear in the spectator.

Verit genre cinema and digital technology

The Blair Witch Project also pioneered a new approach to marketing and
promotion, as it was done largely via the Internet, which at that point had been
publicly accessible for only a decade. The film, emblematically released just
as the new millennium was approaching, pointed the way for the new-media
marketing of films today, where every mainstream movie has a website. The
promotional campaign for The Blair Witch Project, as is now well known,
involved the creation of a convincing website with an extremely detailed
backstory offering a timeline of events relating to the Blair Witch and the
founding of Burkittsville. The website was rich with clickable options for
162 Barry Keith Grant

finding out more about the Blair Witch and supposedly historical figures and
events. So elaborate was this backstory and website that, as J.P. Telotte has
noted, the movie was ancillary to the website, an extension of it. The project of
The Blair Witch Project was the documentary-like creation of the world of the
backstory, to which the big-screen film was merely one of the many artefacts in
its construction. The densely detailed website used to promote The Blair Witch
Project actually did persuade many people that the film was based on truth
and history. Indeed, at the height of the films popularity and for some time
thereafter, there was a tourist invasion in Burkittsville as people came to see
the places in the film for themselves (Rob). It was the marketing campaigns
manipulation of the relatively new medium of the Internet that was in large part
responsible for generating interest in the film as well as belief in its authenticity.
Digital technology not only allowed for the creation of this dense website as
part of Blair Witchs advertising campaign, it also allowed for the documentary-
like style of the film itself. Because there is no actual reel of film involved,
digital cinematography permits the possibility of a shot lasting for hours.
This is considerably more than the approximately ten-minute maximum with
actual film, the temporal limit permitted by the size of the magazine for 35mm
cameras. In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock, with considerable technical difficulty, as
an experiment filmed Rope (US) in an apparent single shot, although it was
actually ten long takes invisibly edited together. Thirty years later, in Hal
Ashbys Bound for Glory (US 1978), about the life of folksinger Woody Guthrie,
at one point the camera cranes down to ground level at a country fair and
then, startlingly, without a cut smoothly begins to move through the crowd
as cinematographer Haskell Wexler dismounted the crane and began walking
in Hollywoods first Steadicam shot. This constituted an entirely new kind of
long take, and digital technology has allowed for a similarly astonishing leap in
the long takes possibilities, as emphatically demonstrated by, for example, the
cosmic Google Earth zoom shots in the Coen Brothers Burn After Reading (US/
UK/France 2008) and Alejandro Amenbars Agora (Spain 2010). Today, films
such as Alexandre Sukorovs Russian Ark (Russia/Germany/Japan/Canada/
Finland/Denmark 2002) can in fact consist of only one long take. Indeed, Mike
Figgiss Timecode (US 2000) is composed of four simultaneous and continuous
90-minute shots. Both of these films were made within 3 years of The Blair
Witch Project, and helped to transform the new technology of digital cinema-
tography into a style that was impossible with the older technology of film.
Now relatively mainstream films such as Alfonso Cuarons Children of Men
(US/UK 2006) feature long takes that exceed even the legendary opening shot
of Welless Touch of Evil (US 1958).
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 163

Looking for clues in [Rec]. Seville DVD, 2007.

Digital technology and cinema have converged most dramatically in

computer gaming, which has had a profound impact on the look of verit
horror and sf films. The synergy between the two entertainment forms has been
considerable at least since the inauspicious attempt to adapt Nintendos Super
Mario Bros game as a feature movie in 1993, but these overlap most frequently
in the horror genre, particularly the subgenre of survival horror. In survival
horror games, the player fights monsters with limited ammunition, energy and
means of replenishing it (Kirkland 172), often in enclosed, maze-like spaces
while searching for hidden items that will allow movement to new areas or
levels or provide various means for staying alive. This is surprisingly similar
to what transpires in the narratives of Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield, Infection
and [Rec]. At one point in [Rec], Pablo follows Angela as she frantically searches
through the apartment of the buildings manager for his keys, duplicating
exactly the kind of interactivity presented to gamers searching for weapons,
rewards or clues. As well, as viewers of verit horror, like the player of a survival
horror game, we are less powerful because our perspective is more aligned to
an impassive machine than an active character, able only to observe, not act.
The term survival horror was first widely used for the original Japanese
release of Resident Evil in 1996, although a few earlier games have retrospec-
tively been so categorised (Perron 57). But even before this, we might think
of Pac-Man, one of the first popular computer arcade games, as a precedent of
survival horror. Introduced by Midway, a manufacturer of pinball machines, in
164 Barry Keith Grant

1980, Pac-Man was in some ways like one of the many slasher films popular at
that time. In both, caricatures of characters move frantically about in enclosed
spaces trying to stay alive. Further, Pac-Man played out its narrative, which
lasted until ones avatar was killed, all in one shot. In this way, Pac-Man
also anticipated another, more recent cycle of horror film, the home invasion
movie, which perhaps not coincidentally has been flourishing at the same time
as verit horror and sf. This connection is made explicit by Michael Haneke
in his Funny Games (Austria 1997; American remake 2007), which imagines
the home invasion film as a cruel game with the spectator. At one point in
the narrative, the sadistic invaders and their victims fight for control of the
television remote, or game controller, to rewind not the television set that is
both visible and audible in the living room, but to reverse the diegetic action
of the film itself.
Computer games, of course, are interactive, and verit horror and sf
films, I argue, encourage a comparable interactivity on the part of the film
spectator. At one point in the movie version of the survival horror game Doom
(Bartkowiak UK/Czech Republic/Germany/US 2005), the film switches from
its until-that-point classical narrative style to a sustained subjective perspective
in a six-minute shot that is equivalent to that of a first-person shooter game
like its source text. However, with the exception of a few offbeat films such
as Gaspar Noes recent Enter the Void (France/Germany/Italy/Canada 2010),
this technique has been largely abandoned in the cinema as ineffective for
providing sustained audience identification with one character since Robert
Montgomerys experiment with a consistent first-person point of view in his
1947 film noir, Lady in the Lake (US). And, in fact, despite this first-person
interlude in Doom, the interactivity in verit horror and sf films derives from a
level of cognitive participation that exceeds mere character identification.
For cognitive film theorist David Bordwell, even the most conventional
of classic narrative films, as he says, call forth activities on the part of the
spectator. For illusion to work, states Bordwell, the spectator must meet the
art work at least half way, constantly engaged in hypothesis-checking about
the narratives construction (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 8). In the case of
genre films, this type of interactivity is heightened. As Thomas Schatz argues,
genre narratives establish a symbolic arena of action in which a specific social
conflict is violently enacted within a familiar locale according to a prescribed
system of rules and behavioral codes (27). Because genre movies operate
within a circuit of textual conventions and spectator expectations, these rules
and codes apply not only to the characters within the conventionalised worlds
of genre films, but also to the audiences watching them, who are trained by
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 165

the protocols of the genre system. But beyond this, verit horror and sf films
encourage or construct a spectatorial position that requires an intensely active
engagement with the image.
This heightened involvement constitutes nothing less than a Bazinian
respect for the real. As Andr Bazin noted, the reality produced by the cinema
at will and which it organizes is the reality of the world of which we are part
and of which the film receives a mold at once spatial and temporal (13). One
of the hallmarks of the realist style is thus the sense that space extends beyond
the frame of the image. For Leo Braudy, the open film, as he calls it, draws
us outward, revealing a world beyond the frame at any one point (48). Many
critics have noted that The Blair Witch Project, for example, demonstrates a
keen understanding of off-screen space. Scott Dixon McDowell writes that
I can think of no other film that prompts the viewer to anxiously search the
periphery of the screen for a glimpse of something that simply is not there
(141). Other verit horror and sf films similarly offer only partial glimpses of
their monsters, as the cameras view is obscured by poor focus, movement
or darkness and by diegetic camera operators trying to capture events that
happen too quickly for them to react. Even the surveillance cameras of
Paranormal Activity do not show much of what they unblinkingly capture. In
that films penultimate overnight sequence, for example, nothing out of the
ordinary happens until a large shadow can be seen moving across the bedroom
door, indicating, without explicitly showing, a presence that grabs Katie (Katie
Featherston) by the leg and pulls her out of the room.
For Bordwell, the most obvious way that classical cinema creates its illusion
of reality is through the representation of spatial depth in the image (52). This
illusion is achieved in verit horror and sf films most forcefully by the camera
tracking through space in real time whether moving through the dangerous
rubble of midtown (Cloverfield), an abandoned dormitory and hospital (Diary
of the Dead), a winding country lane (Infection) or the nooks and crannies of
a locked-down apartment building ([REC]). These films also create the illusion
of special depth in other ways. In [REC], for instance, when the light on the
camera is damaged, Pablo is forced to use a night-vision lens. This makes it
more difficult for viewers to discern what is happening, and so we must look
more intently into the depth of the image, trying to penetrate it in order to be
forewarned of whatever danger may be out there. Thus the effectiveness of the
shot toward the end of the film, showing Angela suddenly being pulled away
from the camera into the murky depths of the unknown.
Infection works in a similar manner, exploiting the images illusion of depth
and unfolding the traversal of space in real time by being restricted to one
166 Barry Keith Grant

90-minute tracking shot that moves down a back country road. The entire film
consists of footage supposedly taken by a dashboard camera in a police cruiser,
accompanied by the recorded radio conversation between the driver at first
a police officer and later a teenage girl trying to escape from the people taken
over by the aliens and a police dispatcher back in town. In the course of the
narrative, the patrol car turns off the highway and goes down a winding lane
in the woods in the darkness of night, turns around, drives almost all the
way back, turns around and goes down to the end again and returns to the
entrance once more. This repetition, also invoking the repeated movement of
an avatar as a player explores computer gamespace, unfolds in one long take
illuminated only by the headlights and searchlight of the patrol car, forcing us
to continually watch where we are heading, on guard for what may lay ahead,
monitoring the twists and turns of the image and, by extension, of the plot as
In Paranormal Activity, we are positioned as spectators who must intently
study the image from a fixed camera position, looking for evidence of said
spectral activity anywhere and everywhere on the screen. The narrative is
presented from the perspective of mounted stationary security surveillance
cameras in the suburban San Diego home of Katie and Micah (Micah Sloat),
or from camcorder footage Micah has recorded. Katie believes she is being
haunted, and Micah becomes obsessed with attempting to capture possible
paranormal events on camera. The majority of the video footage from the
security camera is taken from the same position in the couples bedroom at
night while they are asleep. Near the end of the film, as mentioned, we see Katie
suddenly dragged out of her bed by an invisible force, and she is then found
by Micah with a large bite mark on her back. There is the suggestion that she
is possessed, and the film concludes with her killing Micah all presented
through the security camera footage. Each night we are placed in the same
spectatorial position, this repetition with possible difference setting us up for
the final frisson.
Comparably, Paranormal Activity 3 (Joost and Shulman US 2011) exploits a
lateral visual attention through its reliance on the insistently repeated pan shot.
The plot, a prequel to the first two films, is set 18 years earlier. In 1988, a young
Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Brown) live with their mother, Julie
(Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith).
Kristi begins interacting with an invisible friend named Toby. Dennis notices
that since Kristis friend appeared, strange things have been happening in the
house. Conveniently, Dennis is self-employed as a maker of wedding videos, and
has the equipment and skill to mount a video camera on the base of a rotating
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 167

The long and winding road in Invasion. Maple DVD, 2007.

electric fan. So his footage constantly pans left and right and back again, from
the kitchen to the living room, with a hutch in-between acting almost as a
curtain momentarily delaying the sight of each room in turn. Occasionally
an inexplicable event is caught by the camera, like a blanket seeming to cloak
a figure and then collapsing on the floor, yet most of the discussion between
the child Katie and her invisible friend Toby might possibly be explained as
the overactive imagination of a child. Then, late in the film, after countless
swings of the camera in which nothing happens, suddenly at one point when
the camera pans left to the living room, we hear a crashing noise, and when the
camera mechanically returns again to the kitchen, everything in it is now on
the ceiling. As viewers, we know something is coming, but not exactly what or
when. The horrific effect depends upon real-time duration and repetition as
do computer games.

The horror in verit horror

As the examples from the Paranormal Activity films demonstrate, the most
frightening moments in verit horror and sf films prompt the viewers investi-
gative gaze with the promise of some sort of narrative knowledge usually by
revealing the monster; but, encouraging the spectators active gaze, the films
then capitalise on this curiosity by showing something frightening. We might
168 Barry Keith Grant

Realist style in Paranormal Activity. Paramount Home Entertainment DVD, 2007.

say that these verit horror and sf films exploit what documentary theorist
Bill Nichols in his book Representing Reality calls epistephilia: the desire and
pleasure in knowledge of the world which, in the case of cinema, of course is
visual (76, 17880). Verit horror and sf films promise a diegetic display of their
monsters, deliberately withheld, thus arousing the epistephilic drive of the
spectator; but soon upon encouraging such a response, the films then treat it
as a vulnerability, as the camera, and by extension, the spectator, is threatened
or attacked.
To encourage the spectators epistephilic desire, verit horror and sf films
tend to diegetically emphasise the importance of the visual documentation we
are seeing as evidence of truth. Brian De Palmas 2007 Iraqi war film Redacted
(US/Canada) is constructed as a combination of Arab news broadcasts, video
depositions, surveillance camera footage, Skype conversations, a documentary
by two French filmmakers and camcorder footage supposedly shot by Corporal
Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), an aspiring film student who was rejected by the
University of Southern California film school. Salazar explains to his fellow
soldiers his motivation for filming them with his digital camera as a wish
to document the truth of whats really happening there. Salazars desire for
documenting the truth likewise motivates many of the camera operators in
verit horror and sf. In Cloverfield, Hud finds a moral mission once hes given
the camera by Jasons brother, Rob. At first Hud treats the camera immaturely,
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 169

using it to voyeuristically film the bodies of attractive women and, like Ross
McElwee in Shermans March (McElwee US 1986), as a way of meeting them.
But as events develop, he embraces his role as documenter of the monsters
attack because, as Rob says, People are going to want to know how it all went
down. In Diary of the Dead, Jason similarly argues that because he has the
equipment it is his duty to record the truth about the zombie attacks in the
absence of the mainstream media and upload his footage on the Internet so
that others might learn how to survive. The student filmmakers of Troll Hunter
feel a similar moral duty to let people know about the government conspiracy
of silence regarding the existence of trolls. As one of them says while they
doggedly pursue Hans (Otto Jespersen), the eponymous hunter, Do you think
Michael Moore gave up after the first attempt? At the end they reaffirm the
importance of their film by stating that Hans is a national hero, yet hitherto
[REC] attains its truth claims by having the narrative events recorded by a
professional news team, as does Infection by having the footage recorded by
the unblinking, impartial camera of a police cruiser. In The Devil Inside, the
documentary filmmaker Michael (Ionut Grama), accompanying a woman
named Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) who goes to Rome to arrange an
unsanctioned exorcism for her mother, emphasises the importance of his
footage as visual evidence of demonic possession that will shake the indifference
of church bureaucracy. A title at the beginning tells us that the Vatican does
not endorse the film and that it was made without its cooperation. Since this
claim is likely true, in effect it works to suggest that the film itself must be true
because it has been disavowed on good papal authority! Characters in all of
these films, like Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis)
in Natural Born Killers (Stone US 1994), accord the camera itself the status of
reliable witness.
From a cynical perspective, we might dismiss the cycle of verit horror and
sf films as merely a way for filmmakers to make movies very cheaply. After
all, both genres have wide and devoted fan bases that constitute elaborate
subcultures, thus historically serving as viable career entry points for many
novice filmmakers, and the inexpensive requirements of shooting in a verit
style only make the approach more appealing. As Rhodes observed, simulating
the look of a documentary is less expensive and thus more accessible to
low-budget filmmakers than, say, shooting a fictional project more aligned
with the classical Hollywood style (53). Yet the noteworthy success of verit
horror and sf films at the box office cannot be ignored. The Blair Witch Project
and Paranormal Activity are two of the most financially successful films not
170 Barry Keith Grant

just within the genre but in all of film history. Both had sufficient traction to
generate sequels the latter, at four films and counting, threatening to become
a staple horror franchise rivalled today only by the Saw series (200410).
Paranormal Activity 3 broke several financial records upon its release, and just
a few months later The Devil Inside was achieving similar success at the box
office. [REC]s international appeal prompted an American remake, Quarantine
(Dowdle US 2008), which duplicated the original almost shot for shot, and a
sequel (Pogue US 2011), with a third instalment in the works.
Why, we might ask, has this style become so popular, especially in genre
cinema, at this point in time? When, in Redacted, Salazar explains that the
camera always captures the truth, another soldier immediately replies that no,
it always lies: the divergent views expressed in the dialogue here explicitly and
succinctly capture the postmodern tension regarding the truth status of visual
documentation. I want to suggest that it is this tension that fuels the verit cycle
of horror and sf, that these films are symptomatic of our postmodern sensibility
that, in the digital age, places the ontological status of every image in doubt.
Put another way, verit horror and sf films express a postmodern vacillation
between our simultaneous faith in and fear of the truth claims of documentary
images today contradictory views only exacerbated by the seamless ease
with which, since Gary Sinises legs were digitally removed in Forrest Gump
(Zemeckis US 1994), we all are aware of the unlimited possibilities regarding
the manipulation of digital images.
The impulse to ground horror and sf in actuality has a long lineage, from
the epistolary prose style of Mary Shelleys Frankenstein (1818) to the faux oral
histories in Max Brookss World War Z (2006). Orson Welless now infamous
radio adaptation of H.G. Wellss War of the Worlds, broadcast on Halloween
night, 1939 referenced specifically in Diary of the Dead follows in the same
tradition (a tradition which Wells himself helped develop in books such as
The Shape of Things to Come in 1936). The show was constructed as a series
of radio announcements, on-the-spot reportage and faux interviews with
scientists contextualised as interruptions in regularly scheduled dance music
(Rhodes 50). Two years later, in his first feature film, Citizen Kane (US 1941),
Welles applied the same documentary approach to the opening News on the
March sequence, an astonishingly accurate simulation of an instalment of
Louis de Rochemonts then widely exhibited March of Time newsreel. More
recently, the notorious Faces of Death (Schwartz US 1978), presented in the
form of a mondo documentary, contained a combination of invented material
and actuality footage, and was at first widely accepted as entirely real by many
viewers. But the prevalence of the verit approach in recent horror and sf
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 171

Images of 9/11 in Cloverfield. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2008.

cinema suggests that the style itself is now widely regarded as at once familiar
and frightening. The monsters of verit horror and sf films exist in physical
environments that are common public spaces, looking like footage we might
take on our cell phones or our own digital cameras and share on the Internet.
It is in these spaces that characters and cameras alike move, avoiding the
monsters, in narratives of survival.
As television news broadcasters like CNN increasingly incorporate viewer
emails, tweets and cell-phone videos into their reports, and also use Skype in
place of studio interviews, the traditional and seemingly clear (but imaginary)
distinction between the objectivity of the news and subjectivity of social
networking are becoming indistinguishable. Cloverfield explicitly evokes this
blurring of boundaries between documentary and fiction in its evocation of the
news coverage of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City,
especially in the scenes that occur during the creatures initial attack. When
Hud and his camera witness the exploding building, a massive cloud of smoke
and debris shoots towards him and the rest of the crowd; they subsequently
run away, first toward the camera and then scattering into shops and alleyways
as everyone, including Hud, seeks cover. These events and their representation
display a striking resemblance to the 9/11 images of the towers collapsing
images that were easily accessible as cell phone videos posted on websites such
as YouTube, and also aired repeatedly on television news reports at the time of
172 Barry Keith Grant

the event until they were ingrained in the collective consciousness. Cloverfields
advertising image showed a decapitated Statue of Liberty in the foreground, the
citys smoking skyline behind another image strikingly similar to some of the
more famous images of 9/11.
It is no coincidence that at roughly the same time as verit horror was
developing in the 1990s with Man Bites Dog and The Blair Witch Project,
television witnessed the rapid rise of so-called reality television, beginning
with Cops on the Fox Network in 1989. The ambiguous status between the real
and the fictional found in reality television, which now, in one form or another,
dominates network programming in North America, has generated the new
and growing trend of paranormal reality television with shows such as Living
with the Dead (US 2002), Its Supernatural (US 2007), Celebrity Ghost Stories
(US 2008) and Long Island Medium (US 201112). Yet even before these newer
shows, reality television was often organised like a survival horror game that
is, as a narrative in which participants are serially eliminated from the island,
stage, handyman workshop or kitchen.


Films such as Forgotten Silver have taught viewers to distrust the veracity
of the visual, to be wary of what Jean Baudrillard (appositely in the present
context) has called the evil demon of images, even as our documentary
consciousness is reflexively engaged by them. Already in 1957, BBC television
fooled viewers with its broadcast of the imaginary spaghetti-tree harvest in
Italy, as a decade later, did Jim McBrides David Holzmans Diary (US 1967),
a perfect parody of observational cinema about an aspiring observational
documentary filmmaker who is struggling to make a film about his own
empty life. Since then, the accumulated effect of such films as Christopher
Guests series of mockumentaries, beginning with This Is Spinal Tap (US 1984),
have further undermined the security of our documentary consciousness.
In the case of Sacha Baron Cohens Borat (US 2006) and Brno (US 2009),
it is impossible to distinguish the fictional from the factual. Significantly,
contemporary verit filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Marcel Ophuls and
Nick Broomfield employ the approach as much to question as to defend the
truth of the events they capture.
Our collective unease about the truth status of visual documentation has
surfaced in numerous films of the last two decades. These include The Truman
Show (Weir US 1998), about a nice fellow who is unaware that he is living in
Digital anxiety and the new verit horror and sf film 173

a constructed reality television show broadcast 24-hours-a-day to billions of

people across the globe; and Wag the Dog (Levinson US 1997), in which a false
war is staged for the cameras, showing that news from the front lines may be
as manufactured as any Hollywood film for political ends. In sf, films such
as the Wachowskis The Matrix (US/Australia), David Cronenbergs eXistenZ
(Canada), and The Thirteenth Floor (Rusnak Germany/US), all released in
1999, the same year as The Blair Witch Project, are premised on the confusion
between the real and virtual worlds. More recently, films such as Surrogates
(Mostow US 2009), Gamer (Taylor and Neveldine US 2009) and Stay Alive (Bell
US 2006), in which a group of smug video gamers are killed in the real world
the way they died in a new killer video game, reveal similar fears about the
postmodern confusion between the real and the simulacrum.
Verit horror and sf films constitute but one recent example of how genre
films, as many critics have argued, are mythic narratives that help members
of a culture work out existential dilemmas and conflicts of the real world in
formulaic fashion. In their shared stylistic approach, this cycle of genre movies
depicts the monstrous in mundane spaces, the spaces we see every day in social
networking, but which also captures and disseminates globally daily atrocities
beside which monster movies pale. Even the apocalypse is now represented
with the prosaic style of the digital: in Danish director Lars von Triers
Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany 2011), nominally a work of sf,
the end of the world is presented as nothing more than family melodrama with
an observational style featuring hand-held camera and long takes. Over half a
century ago Siegfried Kracauer wrote that What films reflect are not so much
explicit credos as psychological dispositions those deep layers of collective
mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness
(67). Verit horror and sf movies reveal the same disposition at work in the age
of global communications, its implications as far reaching as its appearance is
widespread geographically. As Baudrillard presciently observed, It is precisely
when it appears most truthful, most faithful and most in conformity to reality
that the image is most diabolical (13) a point that verit horror and sf have
taken literally.


This article is indebted to the work of Matthew Raimondo, whose MA thesis for
the Graduate Program in Film and Video at York University, Toronto, Canada,
focused on this same cycle of films. In dialogue regarding his work some of
174 Barry Keith Grant

our ideas have become hopelessly intertwined, and I would be unconscionably

remiss not to acknowledge him here.

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