Found Nostalgia, Satanic Panic, and Halloween Sadism, Tonight at Eleven! The WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.

A variant of the “found footage” film can be found in 2013’s WNUF Halloween Special (hereafter WNUF). The film is presented as a video recording (VHS) of a local television newscast followed by a television special about a local haunted house on Halloween night, 1987. The action is interrupted every few minutes by commercials (imitating the style of locally-produced commercials in the mid-eighties). WNUF reporter and local television personality Frank Stewart (Paul Fahrenkopf) oversees a séance at “the infamous Webber House,” where twenty years before a young man shot his family in a crime highly reminiscent of The Amityville Horror (1979). The on-camera investigation and call-in séance are carried out by Dr. Lewis Berger (Brian St. August) and his wife and partner in paranormal investigation, Claire Berger (Helenmary Ball) — clearly modeled on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren in appearance, back story and behavior — accompanied by their cat Shadow. While the “special” follows the structure of local television reporting – elements such as conversations between the in-studio newscasters and the on-site reporter, a small crowd gathered at the site that stands behind the reporter who at one point asks questions of individuals in the crowd, and highly structured interview and call-in segments — the production ultimately has technical difficulties and is disrupted by protestors. Finally, what was a carefully staged Halloween event descends into something truly horrific, all played out live in front of the cameras.

Written and directed by Chris LaMartina, WNUF is a perfect example of what Peter Turner, speaking of The Blair Witch Project (1999), describes as a “faked representation of reality by creating media products that, while not genuine, appear to tell ‘the truth’” (16). The film has been praised for capturing the eighties television experience perfectly: in addition to the “Halloween Special” itself, the VHS tape that the audience is watching also contains local commercials made by the cable company, local news, and advertisements for other programs on independent television stations. There are, however, three elements that elevate WNUF beyond mere nostalgia for Gen Xers, and these three elements are encapsulated within the found footage of the “video tape” itself. First, at various points, the VHS tape which the film is showing begins to fast forward through commercials we have seen before. It stops at random points, indicating that something or someone is controlling the tape itself. It is not the film that is being manipulated but the VHS tape. The audience is watching a tape that someone else is watching and has control over, which ties the video to the larger theme of the illusion of control in local news programming. The news anchors may speak the corny puns and serious headlines that are written for them, but the tone shifts as problems with the location shoot escalate and things go off-script. Second, hinted at in the first half of the film is the opposition both to Halloween and the “NUF Halloween Special” within the film by Fundamentalist Christians in the community, who eventually are revealed to be the ones behind the “haunting” events. Both in the language the Christian characters use, and in their actions, WNUF displays the danger caused not by Satanists, but by conservative Christians who would use violence to promote a “Satanic Panic.” While WNUF is not directly about the Satanic Panic, it clearly expresses the danger of right-wing Christian violence that its perpetrators justify in the fight against “Satan” as represented by popular culture Not only does the film thus evoke nostalgia for the medium of VHS and eighties television, but it also evokes a different nostalgia for the Satanic Panic of the eighties. Third, the film shows a clip of a local dentist warning against candy and then shows a local policeman offering to X-Ray candy in order to ensure the candy has not been tampered with. The third Gen X throwback then is Halloween Sadism, a term coined by Dr. Joel Best, a sociologist who has extensively studied the phenomenon. All of these phenomena – the control of the video occurring at both the level of the local news channel and the viewer wielding a VCR remote, the fear generated by the Satanic Panic, and the fear generated by reports of Halloween sadism are all thus intimately detailed within the experience of watching the video itself.  Since both Halloween sadism and local examples of the Satanic panic were promulgated mainly by fearmongering in the local news (see, for example, Glassner 43), the “found footage” of a local newscast melds medium to message in a manner both evocative and critical and in ways that a more straightforward narrative film would not be able to do.

WNUF divides roughly into two parts. The first third consists of the evening news with the WNUF news team, anchors Gavin Gordon (Richard Cutting) and Deborah Merritt (Leanna Chamish), dressed like a vampire and a witch, respectively; the studio is decorated for Halloween. The last two thirds consist of the actual Halloween Special – reporter Frank Stewart investigating the Webber House with a priest and the paranormal investigating couple while also conducting a call-in séance. As part of the broadcast, the film also contains 51 commercials, a total of twenty-five minutes of an eighty-one-minute movie. Interestingly, the commercials are an important part of the overall text, as they help establish the film’s location in River Hill Township, Kirk County (the state is never identified, but given the call letters, the weather, and commercials, it must be in the north, east of the Mississippi). Writer/director LaMartina has argued that the commercials are essential to the text of the film: “I’m a big fan of blatant localism and the inherent world-building that exists solely for a regional audience” (quoted in Dahl). The commercials not only establish the world in which this special was made, however, but they also frame the action in a small market in the late eighties.

Peter Turner argues that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds “worked because the broadcast authentically simulated how radio worked in an emergency” (16). LaMartina quotes a review of WNUF: “it wasn’t so much a film as it was an experience.” This is an accurate assessment. To be effective as “found footage,” if one might use that term for any media, the form, content, and structure of that media must be mimicked perfectly. The Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) were effective because the audience could not tell if they were fakes. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, found footage had become an established subgenre, and the criteria for effectiveness had changed as audiences knew what they were seeing was faked. WNUF attempts to do something new and different by adding levels of mimicry: notably, a VHS tape of a local television broadcast. Whereas most found footage horror deals with a diegetic camera, WNUF explores the idea of a diegetic videotape. The audience is clearly watching a recording of a VHS tape. The tracking lines are present in the film from the production company logos through the end of the film (there are no credits). And at various points in both the news and for some commercials, someone fast-forwards the tape.

The audience watches, but what they are watching is heavily mediated. The special itself is “live,” with all the ridiculousness of live television. LaMartina refers to this as “realistic awkwardness” (Jasper). For example, during the séance, the only people who call in do not actually participate in the way the station wants them to. One yells “Iron Maiden rules! White Lion sucks!” Another caller says that if they can contact her mother, “Tell her she was a bitch,” and the final caller screams, “This is blasphemy! You’re all going to burn in the fires of hell,” setting up the twist ending.

But despite its promised liveness, many of the sequences are prerecorded, with Frank on site cutting away from the house to his voiceover on a pre-recorded sequence, presumably while the on-site crew sets up for the next set piece. Interestingly, cutting away from the live shoot and going to commercial does not diffuse the tension but actually increases it. The audience does not know what is happening at the Webber House, and the inane local commercials add to the frustration of not seeing or engaging with the primary narrative. It is a very effective dramatic tool.

WNUF thus echoes various live television specials of the eighties, most notably the 1984 opening of the safe of the Andrea Doria on live television and, especially, Geraldo Rivera’s famous special on “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.” On April 21, 1986, the year before WNUF is set, Rivera promised to open a walled off underground vault in a hotel once owned by gangster Al Capone. During the two hour special, workmen broke into the vault while Rivera played prerecorded and vintage clips about Capone and interviewed historians, IRS agents, the medical examiner, and members of the crowd. In the vault they found dirt and some empty bottles. Rivera was critiqued for his “glib romanticism” of Capone and for his transformation of tragedy, including the possibility of finding mob victims or treasure, into playful entertainment (Murray). Frank Stewart, in WNUF, is equal parts playful and cynical, making light of both the tragic history of the Webber House and the alleged powers and experiences of the Bergers. When Claire tells him she senses an evil presence, Frank looks right in the camera and responds, “And maybe that will translate into good ratings.”

At the house, the scene shifts between set pieces that are clearly pre-arranged (Frank’s producer wearing a mask and coming at him with a chainsaw as a joke, Frank asking the Bergers about the spirits in the house, etc., going to investigate noises upstairs), interactions with the crowd and the other guests which rarely go according to plan (Frank: “May I call you Louis?” Louis: “I prefer Dr. Berger.”), and the increasingly inexplicable events that were clearly not planned. Frank and his producer obviously set up enough things to suggest the house is haunted without deliberately proving it. Frank demands that the priest, Father Joseph Matheson (Robert Long) perform an exorcism, clearly thinking it will be great for ratings. When they find themselves locked in the basement with a cameraman, the “priest” yells at him, “I am not a priest, I’m a fucking actor!” to which Frank responds, “Shut the hell up, you ungrateful shit,” before realizing they are both on the air.

The Bergers’ equipment is smashed and destroyed; their cat killed and cut up. The camera does not show it, just their reactions before cutting to commercial. People begin to disappear, and, finally, Frank admits that much of what is happening is “unplanned and unscripted.” He claims that “In the last year or so there has been a big increase in the amount of Satanic activity throughout the country, but especially in this area itself.” This is not the first mention of Satanism on the show, but it cements the larger theme of the Satanic Panic, which shapes the narrative.

During the news program that starts the film, one of the stories poses the question of whether Halloween is Satanic, a direct echo of the “Satanic Panic” of the eighties. With a graphic that asks “Is Halloween Satanic?,” accompanied by an evil looking Jack-o-Lantern, Deborah Merritt introduces reporter Donna Miles (Sabrina Taylor-Smith) who interviews Angela Harris (Kendra North), the leader of H.A.R.V.E.S.T. (the audience is never told what the acronym stands for). In a voiceover while images of trick-or-treating children play, Miles solemnly intones, “Is Halloween a special holiday for children to play make believe or is it the work of darker forces?” This moment both reflects the reality of American news programming that focuses largely on potential (if imagined) danger (see Glassner), and links to the Satanic Panic. H.A.R.V.E.S.T. seeks to eradicate everything linked to Halloween. “Halloween is Satan’s night,” Angela tells the reporter, “the night of the devil. Tonight the vortex of hell opens.” H.A.R.V.E.S.T. promises to hold an all-night prayer session and announces they will take steps to stop Halloween. “Do you understand what this holiday has done?” she asks Miles in horror. “How many people are killed in the name of Satan?”

The irony is that a number of people are killed at the Webber house during the special by members of H.A.R.V.E.S.T. When the camera is cut off, the broadcast returns to the news studio where they announce they will re-run an earlier news story about a dentist who will pay money to “buy back” Halloween candy. The film then fast-forwards through the sequence. The audience sees it in its entirety but at four times the speed. The camera is turned back on at the end of the special to reveal Frank Stewart tied up and gagged, his producer, the fake priest, and the Bergers dead around him. Angela Harris tells him, “I told you Mr. Stewart – you are the devil’s mouthpiece!” She then cuts his tongue off on camera and the feed cuts out.

The film ends with the tape switching to snow and then a second of distortion as a new recording begins, common and recognizable to anyone who recorded things off television in the eighties. The last bit on the tape is a news broadcast from five days later, the two anchors now in their regular broadcast attire. Gone is the sense of playfulness that was evident at Halloween. Instead, they sadly report that Frank Webber, the Bergers and “actor Brandon Shuler” (the first and only mention of the fake priest’s real name) are missing and police have no idea of their whereabouts. The tape then stops, the screen turns blue as the text “STOP” appears in the upper left-hand corner and the screen fades as we hear the sound of a tape being ejected.

This final moment resolves the narrative by leaving it unresolved, but it also serves as a final reminder: someone (not the audience) was watching this tape, which they have now removed. The purpose of this viewing is never made clear. It was as if the audience was watching someone else’s VHS tape while they fast forwarded through the “boring bits” but with no resolution to the narrative. As LaMartina noted, it is an experience. This, arguably, is WNUF’s greatest innovation to the found footage genre. The film is not merely “found footage” but a diegetic videotape being played for the audience. Who is controlling the tape?  Why are they showing it to us? The film never answers these questions, but in not answering them, it makes them the center of the horror. Frank Stewart vanished and a half dozen people were killed at the Webber House. Someone recorded the special (which presumably, because of its content, was never aired again), and is showing it to the audience. We know it was not the studio feed or the channel’s edit because of the commercials and the recording of the follow up story at the end. So the audience watches a home video recording of a live, local news broadcast in which horrible things happened, and we do not know, and can never know why.  Even as the plot mystery is solved – members of H.A.R.V.E.S.T. kidnapped and killed the cast and crew – the mystery of the videotape itself remains.

The third element, Halloween sadism, is also reflected in the local news story about the dentist who buys back candy. Tied with another story (also fast-forwarded through) in which Officer Bookwalter advises kids on how to stay safe for Halloween, the dentist offers to x-ray candy for free and to buy children’s candy to help prevent cavities. This seeming “filler” of a local news story actually shows the tension of Halloween as a fun yet unsafe holiday, referring to the practice of tampering with candy to harm children. Beginning in the seventies, hospitals and medical centers offered to x-ray Halloween candy for free, in order to ensure no razor blades or needles had been inserted. As with the fear-driven segment on Satanism and Halloween, yet another part of the culture of fear involved tampered candy. Yet Joel Best, who coined the term, notes, “Halloween sadism is best seen as a contemporary legend…That is, it is a story that is told as true, even though there may be little or no evidence that the events in the story ever occurred. Contemporary legends are ways we express anxiety” (Best).  As Glassner points out, Halloween sadism was not real, but a boogeyman conjured and sustained by local news (28-29).

At heart, WNUF is a paean to local television, its culture of fear, its “realistic awkwardness,” and its corny embrace of holidays. It is also a paean to eighties Halloweens, the fear of Halloween sadism and the Satanic Panic. In this case, the Satanic Panic itself turns out to be the actual source of danger. Anti-Halloween Christians kidnap or kill everyone involved with the Halloween special, which in and of itself also feels like an echo of the real Satanic Panic, in which lives were ruined and lost, but no actual Satanic conspiracies were uncovered.

Works Cited

Best, Joel. “Halloween Sadism.”, n.d.

Dahl, Dakota. “VHS Retro Riot.” Rue Morgue Magazine, October/November 2022, pp. 18-21.

Glassner, Barry. The Culture of Fear. Basic Books, 2009.

Jasper, Gavin. “The WNUF Halloween Special: The Making of the Most Fun Found Footage Horror Movie Ever.” Den of Geek, 7 Oct. 2020.

Murray, Noel. “When Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault, he turned nothing into ratings.” AV Club, 25 Oct. 2016.

Turner, Peter. Devil’s Advocates: The Blair Witch Project. Auteur, 2022.

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