Introduction: Tracing Horror’s Archival Preoccupation

Lauren Gilmore

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. A handful of film students disappear in the woods and all we know about what happened to them is contained on recovered recordings. Or maybe you remember the one about a single mother searching for an antidote for the omen passed to her son from a cursed VHS. If not, then you’ve certainly heard about the father in the suburbs who installs security cameras, hoping to put his family’s fears to rest but ends up producing documentation of the inexplicable.

Across horror’s various subgenres and formal media, interactions with found artifacts are everywhere. The famous examples referenced above (The Blair Witch Project, 1999; Paranormal Activity, 2007; The Ring, 2002) point to the explosion of memorable manifestations in this direction in the past two decades. From traditional found footage to conventional films where unearthing material plays a pivotal role in the development of the story to new media explorations of complexly embodied online expression, horror is preoccupied with the archival.

As this special issue reveals, this impulse begins in the genre’s very roots and continues through to cutting-edge narrative technologies. While the ‘found footage’ label that organizes this issue is a broad umbrella, the essays found here center on some common tensions: between authenticity and fabrication, intentional formal experimentation and an improvised aesthetic, narrative closure and the plotless nature of ‘reality.’ Even through this wide swath of books, movies, video games, and digital phenomenon, there is a sense that the topic—like the form—remains inexhaustible, inviting more and more rigorous study in exchange for richer and richer insights into our constantly mutating media landscape and its in/ability to contain what plagues us.

The issue is arranged chronologically by the primary sources under discussion in each piece. As such, Kevin Cooney starts us off with weird fiction and the history of the clippings bureau, examining the ways newspaper clippings function to shape racialized panic in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (1928). From here, Callie Ingram takes us forward in time to Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing Mouth Children (2018). Ingram approaches the text with a lens informed by critical archival theory in order to understand the novel’s critique of institutional record-keeping.

Building from these meditations on textual archival horror, our collection moves to a historical, international context, as Elizabeth Tussey analyzes Abel Gance’s World War I commentary in J’accuse (1919) alongside its reboot released in 1938, establishing Gance as a progenitor of later found footage films. Reese Goodall likewise examines French cinema, turning our attention to the TV program, Les Documents Interdits (1989-1991, 2010). For Goodall, the collection of short films reflects a confrontation with French national history.

Next, Shellie McMurdo considers the connection between found footage and questions of cultural memory, examining the relative exclusion of the horror genre from the National Film Registry’s archival preservation efforts. McMurdo suggests that we might understand viewing practices of found footage as indexical markers of technological progress, providing those engaged with the genre a means of interacting with an archival past outside of institutional film history. Ellen Boyd’s essay moves this archival consideration in a slightly different direction, offering a unique reading of the websites for films like The Blair Witch Project and The Collingswood Story (2002) that shifts focus from marketing value to their role as digital indexes of memory. Following this, Amira Shokr provides an analysis of Lake Mungo (2008) that demonstrates how these temporal theories are played out within cinema itself. As Shokr highlights, Lake Mungo presents the existential encounter with captured history as a means of disrupting notions of linear, controllable time. In addition to chronicling technological progression, Kevin J. Wetmore’s piece addressing The WNUF Halloween Special (2013) reminds us that the found footage form can also be used to probe nostalgia, to displace the contemporary viewer to an imagined version of the past capable of revealing layers of retrospective clarity onto complex sociological phenomena.

By foregrounding its means of construction, found footage can operate as a unique avenue for subverting and manipulating taken-for-granted versions of reality. Our next four essays address this potential from a variety of multidisciplinary fields and generic intersections. First, Darren Gray looks at The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) through a lens informed by disability studies, suggesting that we can understand the movie as an exercise in the disruption of the status quo, as the expected demarcations between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ are inverted. Isaiah Frost Rivera takes up two mockumentary films—Savageland (2015) and Butterfly Kisses (2018)—wherein the innovative presentation of supernatural folklore facilitates its transgressive power against conventional narrative modes and repressive settler colonial nation-states. In an adjacent vein, Kari Sawden approaches As Above So Below (2014) and The Pyramid (2014) as explorations of the fraught interactions between institutional and experiential knowledge. And then Dawn Keetley identifies a surprising connection between Eliott Goldner’s 2013 found-footage film, The Borderlands, and Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022), arguing that both films employ a specific kind of found footage – the embodied camera – to critique the pervasiveness of a depersonalized practice of media spectacle, surely one of the most taken-for-granted ‘realities’ of the twenty-first century.

Ever since The Blair Witch Project’s memorable marketing campaign exploited the emergent space of the Internet to sell its authenticity, found footage has been deeply embedded with up and coming narrative technologies, consistently pushing the boundaries of cinema. Our next three essays, taking up movies released in the past two years, reflect the form’s often playful approach to New Media. Directing us to the horror/comedy space, Thomas Britt argues that The Curse of Professor Zardonicus (2022) should be considered a useful case study for understanding found footage’s engagement with publicity and authentication. As Britt observes, Professor Zardonicus envelops processes of dissemination into the plot of the film itself. Heather Roberts keeps us with horror/comedy, reading Deadstream (2022) as a satirization of the ways social media platforms incentivize influencers to create increasingly outrageous content. For Roberts, the campy vlog is a site for poignant social commentary regarding online life and the (in)separability of content and creators. Devin McGrath-Conwell also takes up Deadstream, placing the film in conversation with Host (2020) and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022). In this company, Deadstream resonates with the isolation inherent to what McGrath-Conwell identifies as a discrete subgenre within the found footage framework.

Alongside found footage film’s internal engagement with New Media, we have also encountered illuminating artifacts entirely outside the purview of cinema. We are thrilled to include an interview, conducted by Justin Wigard, with the creators of The Devil in New Jersey (2022), the first found footage horror tabletop role-playing game (TTPRG). Britta R. Moline maps the diffuse ecosystem of ‘unfiction’ and creepypasta swirling around What Happened to Crow 64? (2020), a collection of YouTube videos exploring a fictional video game. Moline invites us to contextualize narrative artifacts within complex, interactive environments. Lastly, Adam Daniel establishes the interactive film video game, Immortality (2022), as a unique intervention within found footage, probing the game’s reconfiguration of the role of spectatorship.

As this diverse collection of essays suggests, found footage is a particularly apt modality not only for confronting the past, but also keeping astream of the present. Moreover, the works discussed in these pages compel us to acknowledge the imaginative world-making inherent to any archival undertaking. Producing an artifact for posterity requires a faith in the people-to-come: the readers, watchers, and researchers who may give our lives more meaning than we are currently able. Horror’s archival preoccupation, then—hard-won, held blood-stained against our chests—is a belief in the future.


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