‘If you are watching this tape…’: Found Footage Horror as Archival Record

Shellie McMurdo

‘In recent years, “the archive” as both a concept and an object has been undergoing a transformation’ (Baron 102)

In 1989, the National Film Registry (NFR) was established in the United States. Since then, twenty-five American films have been selected each year for archival preservation by the registry board on account of them being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”[1] At the time of writing, 850 films[2] have been admitted to the NFR in line with these criteria. Using a loose genre typology, and keeping in mind that what constitutes “horror” is entirely subjective, I would argue that twenty-seven of these 850 films could be described as belonging to the horror genre. However, the large majority of these are comedy/horror or sci fi/horror hybrids, films with debatable generic homes such as Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), and a number of films over ninety years old. There are only seven films we could situate as solidly part of the genre with no caveats. These are Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960); Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968); The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973); Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976); Halloween (John Carpenter, 1980), and Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984). It would seem that horror films being included within the NFR has a great deal to do with the presence of a director considered to be an “auteur” and more broadly, we could also note the scarcity of non-male directors throughout the list as a whole. Most significant for this article though, is that this data suggests there are currently no horror films released after 1984 that are considered fit for preservation by the NFR’s standards. Of course, the NFR is just one officially recognised list and there are many others where the horror genre may fare better. In addition, there are various “unofficial” lists, archives, and websites dedicated to the preservation of popular culture objects which do include the genre enthusiastically.

Debates circulate, however, around the processes of selection which are necessitated in any form of archiving. This article follows Jaime Baron’s proposal that—particularly in light of increased availability of filmmaking equipment—we should question ‘the nature of “archival documents” and their historical and social value as well as […] their preservation’ (102). The seven horror films included in the NFR and deemed to be ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ are also widely perceived as golden standards of the genre, and while critically acclaimed releases such as these are canonised and preserved it must be asked how many films, cycles, and trends, will eventually be lost to time. As Janet Staiger argues, within these processes of selection there are inescapable “politics of inclusion and exclusion. Some films are moved to the centre of attention; others, to the margins” (8).

I found myself engaged with these ‘politics of inclusion and exclusion’ recently, in the process of researching and writing Blood on the Lens: Trauma and Anxiety in American Found Footage Horror Cinema (2022). Although many of the films I analysed were well known, I became obsessed with finding and watching lesser-known titles and making room for them in the book. I felt a certain responsibility to pull these films from relative obscurity, to document them, and thought of my filmography as an unofficial archive of the subgenre. This article considers the relationship between found footage horror—a subgenre that is enthralled with the act of documenting and the archival—and the practice of archiving. Observing Robert Burgoyne’s incisive comment that in every film ever made there remains “the archival trace of the moment of its shooting” (228), I will argue that found footage horror–a subgenre obsessively fixated on how we experience reality at the time of production–is both an ideal lens through which to track our changing relationship with technology and the world, and something of a living cinematic archive in itself. 

The contemporaneity of found footage horror

Found footage horror has evolved in varied different ways since its inception. The handheld “shaky cam” aesthetic the subgenre became known for in the late 1990s through such films as Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, 1993) and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) soon became just one of many styles under the found footage horror banner as it developed. Newer recording technologies such as CCTV, Go Pros, dashcams, laptop screens, and various social media apps have since been enthusiastically adopted by found footage horror creators. Additionally, emerging reality aesthetics such as reality television and user generated content websites sparked shifts in not only the subgenre’s form, but its themes too. As found footage horror is a format that emphasises a playful relationship with the “real,” the attention creators pay to the ways that audiences experience the world contemporaneously is vital in maintaining a connection with these viewers in their current cultural moment, and also a key part of the subgenre’s longevity as a discernible horror cycle.

Whereas films such as It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014) and The Void (Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie, 2016) endeavour to create an indeterminate and ambiguous time period setting through the use of anachronistic or obsolete technology, found footage horror films emphasise their temporality through engaging with a form of hypermediacy, a ‘style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium’ (Bolter and Grusin 272). If a narrative unfolds on a particular form of social media, for example, it will operate within the functionality and limitations of that media at the time of the film’s production. This can be seen in Host (Rob Savage, 2020), the run time of which mimics the time limit of free Zoom video calls. Certain found footage horror films will underline the time in which they are set through particular technology-based aesthetics. Although this is often recreated digitally, as can be seen with the recent V/H/S/94 (Various, 2021) and V/H/S/99 (Various, 2022) entries, other narratives are filmed using period appropriate cameras, as is the case with The Devil’s Doorway (Aislinn Clarke, 2018), which utilised 16mm film to underline its 1960s setting. It is unusual (but becoming more common) for a found footage horror film to be set decades in the past though, and more often than not the subgenre is characterised by its connection to a film’s immediate release context. The suggestion is that the events we witness are taking place in real-time, in our reality.

It could be argued that the contemporaneity of the subgenre means that its films will date faster than non-found footage horror films of the same vintage. The aesthetic of Facebook in Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014) for example, looks noticeably different from how the website looks in the early 2020s, and the subgenre’s experimentation with new technologies such as Microsoft Kinect in Paranormal Activity 4 (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, 2012) and smart glasses within JeruZalem (Doran Paz and Yoav Paz, 2015), ties these films definitively to a certain point in time when these technologies were brand new. This may give rise to assertions that these films have little long-term relevance. However, I contend that this synchronicity with their time of production allows us to use these films to peer into the past, and observe society’s relationship with reality, technology, and media at specific points in history. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, for example, rightly notes that the denouement of The Last Horror Movie (Julian Richards, 2003), wherein serial killer Max explains that he has possibly followed us home from the video store where we rented the tape he has recorded his murders over, is somewhat undercut by the fact that, by the time of the film’s release, VHS had been overtaken by DVD and digital downloads and was becoming obsolete. However, Heller-Nicholas’s claim that this “renders [the film] as little more than a historical curio” (199) is perhaps an overstatement. The Last Horror Movie effectively conveys to a contemporary viewer a past ritual around—and relationship with—a media technology: the now seemingly archaic practice of renting VHS tapes. In the same way, future viewers may perhaps see our current interaction with endless windows of information on the internet and constantly refreshing comments sections on social media—as seen in films such as Spree (Eugene Kotlyarenko, 2020)—as antiquated. The technologies showcased in both found footage horror’s production and narratives offer a fixed point of reference to historical, production, and reception contexts, and this is one way we can understand the subgenre’s archival potential. 

The centrality of documentation in found footage horror

As its name suggests, found footage horror is preoccupied with finding and uncovering visual documentation. For instance, in one of the subgenre’s most well-known progenitors, Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980), Professor Harold Monroe travels halfway around the world to recover missing film reels that he hopes will illuminate the last movements of a documentary crew who disappeared in the Amazon jungle. In other narratives, footage has to be quite literally dug up, such as the tapes and film reels that form The Blair Witch Project which were, according to the paratextual documentary The Curse of The Blair Witch (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), hidden under the foundations of a hundred-year-old cabin and discovered by students from the Anthropology Department at the University of Maryland. Similarly, the VHS tape that holds Alice Palmer’s traumatic secret in Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008), is stashed in the wall of her bedroom and her mobile phone—which contains a disturbing video—is buried at the titular lake, with both sets of footage only found after her death. Other found footage horror films feature and forefront fictional collections and recorded testimonies which are presented as being objects of analysis within the narrative. For example, the VHS collection at the heart of The Poughkeepsie Tapes (John Erick Dowdle, 2007) and the retrieved footage within The Bay (Barry Levinson, 2012) are both scrutinised and pored over by experts and archivists as chronicles of horrific events.

The protagonists in found footage horror films are compelled to document, to witness, and to capture visual evidence, and a great many films within the subgenre contain moments when the camera operator turns the lens on themselves. Often these scenes will occur towards the end of narratives and act as confessionals in the face of certain death. The infamous camera scene in The Blair Witch Project, when Heather apologises for her hubris to both her and her missing companions’ parents, is perhaps one of the most enduring (and parodied) images to emerge from the subgenre, and its influence can be seen in several later entries. In The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013), for example, Jake notes that footage of the events occurring at Eden Parish needs to be seen by others, and in the last seconds of Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) characters use their camera to provide their last testimony. In this scene, Rob and Beth find shelter as sirens sound and bombs begin to fall, signalling the start of the military’s scorched earth “Hammer Down” protocol, the intention of which is to incapacitate or kill the alien that has been wreaking destruction and death in Manhattan. Rob provides the camera with his name, the time and date, and a list of the people he has lost. He addresses an imagined future viewer, noting that “if you are watching this tape, you probably know more than I do” before he turns the camera on Beth, his estranged girlfriend who he has spent the film attempting to reach and rescue. Beth tearfully hesitates, before Rob urges her to “just tell them who you are.” It is not long before their shelter is hit, and although Rob knows they will die, it is clearly imperative to him that it is known that they had also lived. Found footage horror can, then, not only be thought of as a historical record in terms of its engagement with technology, but also through its narrative centralisation of event documentation, the discovery and analysis of archival documents, and the recording of empathic, personal reflections. Both of these strands mimic the documentary nature of archives and the work that is undertaken to understand and engage with them.


Earlier in this piece, I noted my own need to archive and document the output of the found footage horror subgenre and, following Jaimie Baron, called for a reconsideration of what the term “archival document” means. Found footage horror films can function as windows into the past, and it follows that they can also function as objects of cultural memory. Although I highly doubt that many—if any—found footage horror films will ever be inducted into the National Film Registry or any other official film canons, we can, if we chose to, revisit our past through them.

David Church, in his astute account of being a horror fan, notes that a reference to Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) within Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001) acted as an “exercise in time travel” for him, sparking memories of his own “fond memories of the genre” (241). Although reliving our past experiences is possible with any film, through found footage horror we can also trace the rise and fall of various technologies and our preoccupations with these. Documenting points in time and retrieving visual evidence from obscurity are not only clear concerns of the subgenre, but they are woven into its very production. Found footage horror films deal with archival concerns, but can also be seen as archival documents themselves, and I will continue to discover, uncover, and understand what has been recorded.


[1] As stated on the Library of Congress website.

[2] This number includes documentaries, short films, newsreels and music videos in addition to feature length narratives.

Works Cited

Baron, Jaime. ‘The Archive Effect: Archive Footage as an Experience of Reception’. Projections, vol. 6, no. 1, 2012, pp. 102-120.

Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.

Burgoyne, Robert. “Memory, History and Digital Imagery in Contemporary Film.” Memory and Popular Film, edited by Paul Grainge, Manchester University Press, 2003, pp. 220-236.

Church, David. “Afterword: Memory, Genre, and Self-Narrativization; Or, Why I Should Be a More Content Horror Fan.” American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium, edited by Steffen Hantke, University of Mississippi Press, 2010, pp. 236-242.

Foucault, Michel. ‘Film and Popular Memory: An Interview with Michel Foucault.’ Radical Philosophy, vol. 11, no. 11, 1975, pp. 24-29.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. Found Footage Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality. McFarland, 2014.

McMurdo, Shellie. Blood on the Lens: Trauma and Anxiety in American Found Footage Horror Cinema.  Edinburgh University Press, 2022.

Murphy, Bernice. “‘It’s not the house that’s haunted’: Demons, Debt, and the Family in Peril Formula in Recent Horror Cinema.’ Cinematic Ghosts: Haunting and Spectrality from Silent Cinema to the Digital Era, edited by Murray Leeder, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, pp. 235-251.

Staiger, Janet. ‘The Politics of Film Canons’, Cinema Journal, vol. 24, no. 3, 1985, pp. 4-23.

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