Found Footage: Chronicles of Horror, Realism, and Case Studies

8 min read

Found footage can be, and has already been, applied to many genres throughout the years. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much, and on occasion, not at all. What triggered it though? How has it failed and how has it succeeded? What marketing ideas were implemented in the process? What has been the magnitude of its implications? What does the future hold for it?

I would like to focus on its application in the horror genre, specifically the ones that caused a certain confusion. With the intention to inform, and to entertain, I dug up some clues that shed light on the aforementioned questions. Before I sink my teeth into it though, I’ll start with the most basic question: What is Found Footage?

Found Footage is a film subgenre where, partially or in its totality, the events that are shown to us have been recorded by the actors themselves, and have allegedly been found, collected, and put together afterwards. In the horror genre, that serves the purpose of realism—what the viewer sees on the TV or big screen has “actually” happened. In this case, whoever is watching bites their nails thinking about the poor souls who have “documented” the last moments of their lives(?).

How did it all begin?

The Unintentional Beginning

Sunday, October 30, 1938: Before Orson Welles becomes the filmmaker we all know, he adapts, performs, and broadcasts H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898), as a Halloween episode in his radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Presented as a news bulletin, it managed, for a brief period of time, to cause mayhem. Numerous listeners believed that an alien invasion was actually happening.

Orson Welles explaining himself to reporters

The Intentional Adaptation

In the year 1989, a filmmaker finds and puts together a bunch of tapes dating back to 1983, from a little girl’s birthday party that gets disrupted when a UFO lands near their house. For many years, not too many people knew much about this film. UFO fanatics claimed that this is not a fictitious film, and that these are events shot and recorded on a family’s member home video camera. There is mythology aplenty surrounding the events to this very day, but for all intents and purposes, here are some facts…

U.F.O. Abduction (1989)

This film’s director filmmaker Dean Alioto wanted to achieve the same effect as Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938), on videotape. And he did! The UFO fans, some of them to this day, erroneously believe that the UFO landing and the alien home invasion and abduction indeed happened and that the film is the Found Footage.

The reality is far less exciting. The film was lost for years—the master tape was destroyed in a warehouse fire. In 2003, when the subgenre had not yet been created, Alioto started selling VHS copies via email, which enhanced the urban legend behind this movie. In 2018, he remastered the DVD, and digital downloads became available from the movie’s official website.

According to IMDb, in July 2012, the United States Film Board had to go public stating that U.F.O. Abduction is a fictional production made by a professional filmmaker. Not everyone is convinced though.

Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)

Before U.F.O. Abduction was restored and promoted, Dean Alioto remade the film, possibly without production issues. Going through reviews, I can only assume that its perception heavily relied on whether people were aware of the first one’s existence. And since Found Footage was not a horror subgenre yet, its viewers perceived it either as the real deal, a cheap wannabe, a hoax, or just a…different horror film. Despite the commotion and people’s lack of cinematic awareness, Dean Alioto cannot be thought of as the father of the genre.

Pioneer and Innovator

Ruggero Deodato! This Italian filmmaker took all the risks, laid the foundation, and paid the price for it. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was the instigator of this subgenre, recognized officially as one almost twenty years later. The story follows a rescue mission into the Amazon rainforest where a professor comes across a film shot by a lost documentary crew. The question is, if this was so important, and if it had such an impact on the film industry, why was it not spoken about more widely? Nowadays, we claim that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Let’s go back almost forty years…

  • Arguably, Cannibal Holocaust was the most gory film ever made.
  • It was the second and only part of the Cannibal Trilogy that truly shocked the audience as well as the authorities.
  • The film was based on an actual documentary crew that died exploring a cannibalistic tribe in Africa.
  • Upon its premiere in Milan, the court seized the film and Ruggero Deodato was arrested.
  • As the cast had signed contracts to disappear for a year after the film was shot, Deodato faced accusations of first-degree murder for “killing” the actors on screen. Eventually, the actors were contacted, they showed up in court, and Deodato’s charges were dropped.
  • Even though the actors did not die, the animals did.
  • According to numerous sources, the film was banned in 50 countries.
  • Ultimately, Deodato stated that he regrets doing this film and that he wishes he had never done it.

The Birth of a Sub-Genre

18 July 1999: Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick write and direct The Blair Witch Project, in which, three film students travel into a Maryland forest in October 1994, to make a documentary on a local urban legend called The Blair Witch. So, even though it is not the instigator of the Found Footage horror genre, and it is not original, why did this film end up popularising the genre? Some facts:

  • As per IMDb, original and character names of the principal actors were the same. Prior to the film’s release, they were listed as missing or presumed dead. This idea wildly enhanced the concept of the film being an actual Found Footage horror documentary.
  • Interviews with family members and alleged experts were not included in the film but were used successfully for marketing purposes.
  • Shot in approximately 8 days (and edited in approximately 8 months), on an estimated budget of USD 60,000 (along with $25m to market), the film grossed $248,639,099 worldwide, entering the Guinness Book of World Records.
  • The directors misled the actors, making them believe that the Blair Witch legend actually exists. The townspeople interviewed were in fact planted by the directors.
  • Many theatregoers experienced nausea due to the shaky camera movements. In some theatres in Toronto, easily nauseated patrons were asked by the ushers to be seated in the aisle seats so they don’t throw up on others.
  • The film’s impact was such that, upon its theatrical release, the hunting season in that forest was among the worst in years. The believers camped all around the forest looking for the Blair Witch—effectively scaring all wildlife away.
  • Heather Donahue’s mother received many sympathy cards from people who had watched or heard about the film. They believed that Heather was either dead or missing in the forest.

Fun fact!

There is a popular fan theory that the Blair Witch is a fabrication by Joshua and Michael; it was used as a plot device to lure Heather into the woods and murder her. If true, upon the film’s success, did the directors and producers let it slide?

From Popular to Successful

16 October 2009: 29 years after the Cannibal Holocaust, 20 years after U.F.O Abduction, and 9 years after the almost forgotten The Blair Witch Project, an almost unknown guy shows up and revives the subgenre. His name is Oren Peli. What do we know about him? Well, not much. I’ll tell you what we do know about his work though…

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Yes, I know. It wasn’t released until two years later.

  • Shot entirely at Peli’s house in just ten days, with a home digital camera, the film cost around USD 16,000. It made $193,000,000 worldwide.
  • Peli’s directorial debut made dozens of people walk out of the cinema during the test screenings as they couldn’t stomach the intensity.
  • Steven Spielberg couldn’t take it either, and had to stop watching halfway through.
  • No studio logo appears, no opening and closing credits too.
  • Upon release, there was a lot of confusion as to whether the events shown actually occurred or not.

Past, Present, and Future

Arguably, fear is one of our strongest emotions and, to a certain extent, guides the choices we make in our lives. The Found Footage type of filming has not found significant success outside the horror genre. Why is this? Possibly because the illusion of realism gets lost. With other genres, it becomes more obvious to the viewer that what transpires on screen may not be true; so why watch a documentary-style video with a nauseating, shaky camera?

Following Cannibal Holocaust, and in-between the aforementioned case studies, filmmakers from various countries tried the recipe in different genres, but kept returning to horror. Irrespective of whether the recorded “events” happened or not, below are some pseudo-documentaries that have found some critical and/or financial success.

  • Man Bites Dog (Belgium/1992)
  • The Collingswood Story (USA/2002)
  • Zero Day (USA/2003)
  • Noroi: The Curse (Japan/2005)
  • Exhibit A (UK/2007)
  • REC (Spain/2007)
  • Cloverfield (USA/2008)
  • District 9 (South Africa/2009)
  • Trollhunter (Norway/2010)
  • The Tunnel (Australia/2011)
  • V/H/S (USA/2012)
  • Project X (USA/2012)
  • Afflicted (2013/Canada)
  • Creep (2014/USA)
  • The Visit (2015/USA)

The latest—not well known but worth watching—Found Footage horror film I watched, and even spoke about with the director, was Butterfly Kisses (2018). Once again, some of the actors appear by their character names on IMDb, and the director adds extra layers and depth by jumping onboard too: he appears as a documentary filmmaker who is researching a documentary on a student project (very much like Inception). Other interesting additions were the interviews of Matt Lake and Eduardo Sanchez—author of Weird Maryland and writer/director of The Blair Witch Project respectively—deconstructing the Found Footage and urban legends.

Today, the illusion of realism seems to have disappeared. It is highly unlikely the audience will want to watch a Found Footage film and wonder if the events shown have actually happened, if the actors are portraying themselves or not. Everyone has been trained, after watching everything available. What is left of the Found Footage subgenre to explore? Can it evolve somehow? Will it stagnate? Is it dying?

References and Further Reading

[1] Found Footage Film Genre. Published on Found Footage Critic. Accessed on February 25, 2019.

[2] Found footage horror films on IMDb: Cannibal Holocaust, U.F.O. Abduction, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity. Accessed on February 22, 2019.

[3] Observations on Film Art/ Return to Paranormalcy. David Bordwell. Accessed on November 13, 2012.

[4] An interview with Butterfly Kisses director Erik Kristopher Myers, published in Cinapse on September 6, 2018. Accessed on March 5, 2019.

Images: Reproduction


About the author

Konstantinos got into TV and Film production immediately after school. He has been studying and working in this field ever since. In 2011, he won the Nostimon Imar Award (Best Greek Director Abroad) for his short film Ithaca that he wrote, edited and directed. The following year, he donated his documentary Asperger Syndrome: Myths & Reality to the National Autistic Society in the U.K. Konstantinos lives and works in the U.K. as a freelance Video Editor and Camera Operator for corporate videos, fashion shows, and documentaries. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Film at the University of Nottingham and reviewing films on his own blog.

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