Isolation in New Media Found Footage Horror: Host (2020), Deadstream (2022), and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)

Devin McGrath-Conwell

It is only fitting that as technology and the consumption of media evolves that the found footage genre would progress in turn. If flashpoints such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) codified the mainstream success of finding footage in a camera, more recent fare propels the genre squarely into contending with rapid new media developments. The ubiquity of new media, from social media platforms to the internet writ large, personal access to smartphones, and other technological advances means that society has moved far beyond the clunkiness of toting around a camcorder and developing film to document and disperse experiences. As Catherine Zimmer notes, this impacts both lived experience and personal relationships to cinematic “spectacle” because the contemporary new media landscape has been “reframed by digital technologies and the redefinition of production and consumption in a digital economy” (76). In our reality of compulsive digital documentation of everything from TikTok dance trends to photos of dinner plates and colorful cocktails on Instagram, the delineation between found footage movies and the content their audiences create is often nonexistent.

The rapid incorporation of new media into our digital livelihoods has also incurred a restructuring of socialization. The faces of family, friends, and colleagues are only ever a screen away. Yet when so much can be done without encountering another human being in person, culture edges into a realm dominated by a lack of physical connection. In turn, this opens people up to isolation and loneliness. A 2015 study referenced by the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare found that since 1985, “the number of people…who reported not having anyone with whom to discuss important matters nearly tripled” (3). That, of course, does not even contend with the intensification of social isolation provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is against this background that recent films Host (2020), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022) and Deadstream (2022) offer a distinct reckoning with the found footage genre, one that engages with the paradox of being alone together online. Tackling the aesthetic and thematic ramifications of a new media-dense world, this trio of films suggests a discrete sub-genre of contemporary found footage intimately linked to comprehending how horror changes in these new frontiers.

Each of the three films utilizes a different new media platform as its baseline. Host exists exclusively within Zoom. Deadstream sees its lead dive into a haunted livestream on a fictional site called LivVid, a Twitch stand-in. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair filters its protagonist through watched and recorded YouTube videos. The functional overlaps and divergences of each platform, and the characters’ resulting usage, position the films as a collective overview of what the sub-genre can accomplish. In Host, Zoom is a way for Haley (Haley Reed) and her friend group separated by COVID to connect and have fun. The crux of the story is them carrying out a seance gone wrong, but director Rob Savage alongside his co-screenwriters ensures a period at the top where we watch the friend group reminisce and jump at a chance to digitally reconnect. Whereas Host is about community, Deadstream positions the disgraced streamer Shawn (Joseph Winter) as a narcissist in search of an audience. His livestream of a night in a haunted house allows synchronous comments from users, but it is all about millions of people watching him so he can make money and bounce back. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair sits in the muddied center. Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun focuses on Casey (Anna Cobb), who delves into creepypasta videos to find an online community.  The videos she consumes and creates are predominantly asynchronous, meaning that any digital meeting is stopped short of live connection by incongruous time and space.

Fig. 1 – Host’s zoom platform

Altogether, the three films center on the digital connection exchange through new media. Each fixates on people turning to digital platforms to access other people not in their physical space. Loneliness and isolation factor in for the friend group in Host as well as for Casey in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Shawn may not be motivated by constructive loneliness, but his pariah situation nonetheless leads him to double down on the platform that has previously made him rich and famous. And, yes, each of these presentations falls outside of a strictly traditional sense of what found footage has been. Yet, we live in a new media world where “finding footage” can mean scrolling through a discover page or clicking play on videos fed through an algorithm. All three films replicate that experience, therefore positioning themselves as an evolution of the genre within the bounds of human technological advances. As Cecilia Sayad puts it, found footage is “symptomatic of the ways we relate to film in an era marked by easy access to both images and cameras, and by invitations to “broadcast” ourselves” (49). The films discussed in this paper recognize that there is something archaic to the idea of stumbling upon a forgotten VHS or camcorder. They are, to invoke Sayad, symptoms of an adapting found footage genre.

Each film embraces its chosen platform’s aesthetic quirks and limitations to emphasize every character’s isolated nature. Host unfurls in a Zoom call, positioning the viewer as a silent member of the friend’s Zoom room. Our access begins and ends with the bookends of the call with no prologue or epilogue outside of it. Such a viewpoint immediately supercharges the dissonance of involvement and voyeurism inherent in Zoom: all are watching while being watched no matter their level of engagement. Savage and editor Brenna Rangott take pains to maintain a look true to Zoom’s interphase. Switches between gallery mode with every friend in view and singular frames in pseudo-speaker mode guide us through the narrative. The creative team also conserves the imperfections implicit in Zoom. Most characters are washed out or underlit. Internet issues such as image lag and crackly audio crop up throughout. At one point, their seance guide Seylan (Seylan Baker) loses her internet and is booted from the call, jumpstarting the next phase of dread. Even when the friends have fun, using filters and the ability to set video backgrounds, those gimmicks transmute into loci of horror. All of Zoom’s elements/bugs add up to an aesthetic language that foregrounds how disconnected these friends are. Their communing is at the mercy of a platform with limited free minutes and reliance on powerful bandwidth. This is painfully obvious when their seance goes wrong and each must contend with threats on their own: all any of them can do is watch and wonder as the others uncover the increasingly deadly developments.

Fig. 2 – Deadstream’s LivVid interface

For Deadstream, an opening clip in the style of an over-stylized YouTube vlog gives way to the LivVid livestream, where the rest of the film carries on and co-directors Joseph and Vanessa Winter make a meal of the medium. Shawn has a professional set-up, split between a body rig, mounted cameras, his laptop, and a tablet where he can edit the stream in real time by adding effects and cutting between feeds. He repeatedly refers to the resulting stream as “cinematic,” accentuating the manicured nature of his LivVid product. He has composed a score that he plays off a tape recorder. He narrates History channel-esque packages of background on the haunted house. As opposed to Haley and her friends, Shawn’s only digital connection to other humans is through a chat function which he regularly ignores until he wants attention. Later in the film, he recognizes that his sole goal is to “build an audience.” That word, audience, reveals a great deal about both Shawn and those tuned in—this is about watching and being watched and not at all about a relationship or connection beyond an attention transaction. Troll-like comments about Shawn being a “crater face” or a “pussy” reproduce the toxic aspects of new media platforms that reward negativity with greater reach. Even when a little boy sends in a grim video about a talisman Shawn has destroyed, the boy ends the video with a peppy plea for Shawn to pay attention to him and reward his fandom. Functionally, Shawn and his viewers are exponentially isolated from one another, reduced to a barely interactive screen presence that cannot translate to aid when danger arises.

Fig. 3 – World Fair’s opening image

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair sits slightly apart from the other two films. As J.P. Telotte put it, in Host and Deadstream the limited and first-person POV means “agency is evoked only to be frustrated, creating a sense of helplessness that is psychic ground for horror” (37). Schoenbreun’s film moves beyond the new media screen as the only frame, revealing both Casey’s digitized presence and the self that exists away from the creepypasta realm. Introduced in an unsettling opening scene, Casey’s laptop on her desk provides the first frame. She moves around her room and prepares it to serve as a backdrop for her video. This underscores the falseness of the image she digitizes: it is as produced as Shawn’s livestream, albeit with a smaller budget. When Casey watches videos of other people carrying out the “world’s fair challenge,” it is clear that they too are staging personas. Creepypasta is built on the concept of users replicating a base challenge or story and using it to creep each other out and build a digital community around interest in the singular scare. Yet, no matter what Casey records in her videos, her life outside of the challenge is defined by cold weather, darkness, and not a single physical human presence. Even when she connects with the mysterious JLB online, he hides behind an anonymized profile picture and warns Casey from going further with the challenge. Casey is desperate for community, but all she can achieve through her chosen new media platform is a collection of videos with low view counts and further discomfort. Casey and JLB do meet up, and in JLB’s recounting of the meeting he even notes that “I think we both felt weird finally sitting there in front of each other.”

Even for these aesthetic divergences, the three films are unified in their deployment of the new media platforms to amplify how the given spaces highlight loneliness and isolation. The shared thematic undercurrent is one of steadily ratcheting up the ways that digital presence falls short of the physical manifestations each character requires to survive and thrive. The evil spirits in Host can move through the internet to attack each friend on Zoom, but the friends cannot do the same. When Jemma (Jemma Moore) physically moves to try and save Haley it is too late to save either of them. For Shawn, he receives aid from his audience in terms of information, but once he discovers that the stream-crasher Chrissy (Melanie Stone) is the deadliest ghost in the house, he is too far from people who could physically help him. He is on his own in ways both emotional and corporeal. Casey is, again, different in that there is no actively monstrous force hunting her down, but her deteriorating well-being clarifies that she needs someone there with her to ensure she does not succumb to her loneliness and isolation. Yet, as the entirety of the JLB recounting reveals, she is doing well by the end, but only after stepping away from the creepypasta-centric attempts at connection. For Casey, the only hope to heal was to grasp onto more tangible incarnations of modern humanity.

As is most often the case with found footage horror of any kind, these films do not point the finger at new media, suggesting that the platforms at play are the undoing of their characters. Instead, this trio embraces the aesthetic principles of new media to translate classical horror tropes and concepts into evolved found footage that directly reckons with the modern lived experience as wrapped up in our increasingly digital world. Loneliness, isolation, and the yearning for human connection are not new concepts, but their ramifications as mapped out over new media platforms is a novel wrinkle for found footage. Our cultural relationship to the artifacts of digital creation, from GIFs to vlogs, redefines how we consume and relate to found footage horror. Host, Deadstream, and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair offer an exciting and metaphysical path forward for the genre to embrace a crucial consideration of the way that loneliness and isolation are inseparable from conversations about new media and contemporary life. New media is only as connective and positive as the motivations of those creating and using it, and the worlds portrayed in these films and beyond remind us that horror abounds if we are not prepared to be more than lonely and dependent owners of a circus of screens.

 Works Cited

Lubben, James, et al. “Social Isolation Presents a Grand Challenge for Social Work.” American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, Feb. 2015.

Sayad, Cecilia. “Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing.” Cinema Journal, vol. 55, no. 2, 2016, pp. 43–66.

Telotte, J. P. “The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet.” Film Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, 2001, pp. 32–39.

Zimmer, Catherine. “Commodified Surveillance: First-Person Cameras, the Internet, and

Compulsive Documentation.” Surveillance Cinema, NYU Press, 2015, pp. 73–114.

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