VHS Found Footage and the Material Horrors of Post-Cinematic Images

Curator's Note

In many ways, the medium of video marks the displacement of cinema as the culturally dominant moving-image medium. Especially in widely available consumer formats like VHS, video can be seen as having ushered in the era of post-cinema by installing something like (but also quite different from) cinema into people’s homes.

Most conceptions of post-cinema, including Steven Shaviro’s important study of “post-cinematic affect,” tend to emphasize the role of digital media – and it is indeed in the context of the massive proliferation of computational devices and digital video platforms that the idea of the post-cinematic becomes most salient as a genuine alternative to the media regime of “cinema.” However, we should also attend to the transition to this post-cinematic situation, as well as to the ways that this transition (which even today is hardly complete, final, or determinate) is reflected in post-cinematic moving-image media. One approach might take off from the faux found-footage video that structures a film like Paranormal Activity 3.

Like other installments of the horror franchise, the film self-reflexively interrogates the more or less nonhuman agency of post-cinematic cameras (including handheld digital cameras, home surveillance cameras, laptops, and game-console cameras), through which it channels its narrative of another nonhuman agency (that of a demon) that is haunting a family. However, Paranormal Activity 3, a prequel to the other installments, breaks with the series’ contemporary focus and presents itself as a found-footage film mediated through a set of VHS cassettes.

These home-video recordings of the film series’ characters growing up as young girls in the late 1980s serve the narrative function of providing the franchise with a backstory. But the use of VHS also functions materially/medially as an exploration of the uncanny transition, by way of video, from a cinematic to a post-cinematic media regime. The alignment of videotape with a demonic agency reflects, obliquely, on the affective valences of the strange diffusion of quasi-cinematic possibilities and dispositions that came to permeate many lives in the 1980s when video technologies entered (and began to “haunt”) people’s homes. Here post-cinema itself discovers the material horror of its images as an after-image of the VHS era.


This was a very interesting post, and great to see something written on one of my favourite contemporary horror franchises! While previously watching them it had not struck me, as it did you, the affective potential for the differing apparatus used to tell the story. Your post got me to thinking how, through the production of nostalgia, perhaps the use of home-videos is productive not only of the film's narrative, but also the viewers as it potentially recalls their earliest experiences of audio-visual media. However, I cannot help but think this third film is far less effective (and affective) in creating an uneasy relationship between past and present, through its choice to tell the story of the past via video recordings. It is interesting that this film appears to be displacing the object of horror onto the video format, which is then safely contained, packaged and distributed via the medium of cinema. While, as you note, the first two films had a contemporary setting, this third installment reminds the viewers that the franchise's horror originated in a past that we have only had glimpses of, through tales unwillingly told and a charred photograph. By returning to the past in Paranormal Activity 3, the film-makers have the freedom to delight us with images of horror made classic and familiar over the years, while situating viewers more firmly within the present by way of the home video format. In other words, recalling an older format underlines the distinction between past and present, placing the viewer in the safe present, distanced from the horrors of the past and, by extension, the film. While the first two films queasily brought the past and present together, the third film lifts the veil to bring the unknown past into the safe and familiar present.

Thanks for your comment, Laura, which raises a lot of important issues. I can certainly understand your point about containing the horror through this historical (and indeed media-historical) distance that VHS introduces. My own experience of the film is a bit different, though. I'm not sure I would say that this third installment was affectively _more_ powerful than the first two, but I don't think it was any _less_ powerful either. In fact, PA3 remains my favorite in many respects, and I think this has something to do with what you say here: "through the production of nostalgia, perhaps the use of home-videos is productive not only of the film’s narrative, but also the viewers as it potentially recalls their earliest experiences of audio-visual media." There are two things I like about this: 1) the emphasis on nostalgia, which the film certainly courts -- but which, for me at least, made the affective impact all the more direct, rather than distanced. In other words, the nostalgia it invokes is not just for a certain kind of story or film (ghost stories etc. of the 1980s), but for the materiality of the medium of VHS, which evokes a very physical memory involving apparatuses, cassettes, and a particular form of watching (which includes fast-forward, rewind, pause, etc.) and the physical quality of the images. This physicality allowed the subtle horror of the film to get "under my skin" all the more effectively. 2) The other thing is the idea that home-video might be "productive of the viewers" -- which, I think, is another way of saying what I just said, namely, that my very sense of who I am is informed by the material and perceptual infrastructure of home video, and recalling this history is a way to activate, and hence disturb, a very deep sense of my own subjectivity. So rather than distancing the horror from me and the present, the home video footage works to "haunt" in two ways at once: it shows the "new media" environment to be haunted by a past, still undead, that taught us how to look in certain ways, and it correlates that historical dimension with a very personal memory which persists in the present and in my own uneasy relations to the contemporary hyperinformatic media environment.

Very beautifully put. To become a little speculative - I, and clearly you, experienced video throughout our childhood and early adulthood. I wonder what modes of pseudo-nostalgia this film, and the format, might generate for viewers of the DVD and download generation. I say pseudo-nostalgia because I would expect these viewers to be aware of the video format and I am trying to point to the possibility of nostalgia being fabricated from knowledge that is not a memory, or a memory that does not find its origin in 'the real'. Video formats have become iconic of a past that is frequently reappropriated by later generations. If this particular past taught us ways to look and thereby influences our experience of digital media, I wonder in what ways digital media has taught the current generation to look, and how this translates when they engage themselves in a past that some prefer to make their present.

Yes, you're raising a very interesting point here. I wonder, too, how such a film (and the format) either works or doesn't work (or perhaps just works in a different way) for a younger generation of viewers. I can only speculate, but I would be very interested to hear people's thoughts and experiences!

Yes, or V/H/S -- what I find interesting here is the way the anthology format allows for a more emphatically comparative approach, putting VHS and digital formats side by side. I also find it intriguing that the film uses a VHS-era frame story that, in terms of sheer media-historical chronology, cannot logically contain the digital episodes that it frames. This would perhaps more radically undermine any "containment" strategy that would distance viewers in a safe present. And again, I wonder what it does differently for viewers who grew up with home video and younger viewers raised with digital formats.

Here's another quote that I could have/should have worked into the video essay -- this one's from Caetlin Benson-Allott's _Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens_: "The spectator’s identification with the diegetic camera and cameraperson exposes her to the physical threats that menace her surrogates in these movies in a way that conventional slasher cinematography does not. However, faux footage horror movies invite their spectators to become—or rather to acknowledge that they are—part of a precarious and defenceless mechanical apparatus." (192)

I also wanted to say a word or two about the video essay itself, which derives from some work I started at the NEH workshop on "Scholarship in Sound & Image" this past June (http://sites.middlebury.edu/videoworkshop/). Originally, I had planned to do something very different here, but I was led in certain directions by the material, and then I decided to impose a few formal restrictions on myself. Above all, I decided against a voiceover, instead opting for the "epigraphic" form that some of Catherine Grant's video essays have taken (where she uses images from a film and juxtaposes them with a quote from a given thinker, often unrelated to the film in question). When I started doing this, however, I realized that what I was after was the formal quality of these images, which demand that the viewer "scan" them for relevant information (as Julia Leyda's quote highlights so nicely), and I felt that this form of regard -- very different from the "suture" theorized of classical cinema -- was of a piece with the transition to the "hyperinformatic" media environment we inhabit today, where "information overload" demands new types of attention (what N. Katherine Hayles calls "hyper attention" -- embodied in scanning, skimming, and related reading, and I would add viewing, practices). With this in mind, it felt right to push the epigraphic form to its extreme, and basically to cram "too much" text into the essay. This makes the viewer hurry to read it all (though of course digital video allows us to pause if necessary). So I felt like some interesting self-reflexive relations were established between the object and the medium of analysis. (But, of course, others will have to judge whether this is successful or just too much, as information overload tends to be...)

I think your comments about nostalgia, Laura and Shane, echo with what I (hope I) got across in my forthcoming piece. VHS can't help but frame this film differently for its different spectators.

Yes, I agree that the mediality of the thing must have radically different effects on differently situated viewers (with respect to age, surely also gender, class, ethnic background, etc.). Looking forward to your post!

Something that I found in common both with watching V/H/S and Unfriended was the cynicism generated by the films (I mention this briefly in my post). For V/H/S, I felt somewhat disengaged with the violence the protagonists were committing, and I think this has something to do with the casual practice of filming it on a video-camera, as you might film an everyday family event. For Unfriended, while the format clearly intended (from my perspective anyway) to place the viewer within the space of the film, as another participant in the Skype conversations as the cinema screen was transformed into a computer screen, I found myself viewing the events with a sort of bemused attachment one feels when reading a particularly hostile argument developing on a comments board on, say, youtube. While I don't feel in these instances the respective video and digital formats engaged me affectively as a viewer, I can think of one instance in the first Paranormal Activity film that did to a fantastic degree. It was the scene where Micah goes up into the attic with his camera and finds the burnt photograph. The camera, if I remember it correctly, goes first, creating an intensely vulnerable position for the spectator that made me shrink from the screen. If, at times, the video camera format can create a safe barrier (in my mind) as the actual camera sits between the spectator and the unfolding events, in this instance I was absolutely transported in the unknown darkness of the attic, which I think is captured perfectly by the Benson-Allott quote you mention above.

I've been thinking a lot about cameras and screens as central sites of the transformation of moving-image media from cinematic to post-cinematic forms. This contrasts with the more common focus on editing -- which clearly has become more frenetic in many cases, or more casual perhaps. I'm not suggesting that we can separate the layers of camera/screen from editing, but I think the kinds of things you're pointing to here can help us recognize larger patterns -- or maybe modes -- that are characteristic for post-cinema on a broad scale, from the "chaos cinema" of Michael Bay to the very different styles of, say, Shane Carruth or Terrence Malick to these faux found-footage films. I'm not trying to say that all of these are the same, but one thing that unites them, I think, is a transformed relation to the camera and/or screen -- one that, as I tried to suggest in the video essay here, no longer works to yoke the viewer phenomenologically in a relation of "suture" but instead invites or even forces the viewer to "scan" the frame for relevant information. This is central to the scene in Paranormal Activity you reference here (along with many similar scenes in the series, where we are forced to try to make out what's going on in the frame while tension mounts because the threat could come from anywhere in the frame). It's also central to the viewing of Unfriended, though, which asks us to constantly shift our attention (between the different windows and the various chat partners displayed next to one another on the screen, etc.), but without giving us clear cues as to what part of the frame would be most relevant for us to focus on. Seen in this way, the film clearly fails to place the viewer within the space of the film -- or at least fails to do so in the way that classical cinema understood that task and would approach it (through continuity editing etc). On the other hand, though, this dispersal of attention (or "hyper attention," in Hayles's term) corresponds so perfectly with a very familiar perceptual mode (characteristic of post-cinema, but also more generally of life under neoliberal capitalism, I think). So while some of the narrative conceits of the film felt a little juvenile to me, the way that the screen in Unfriended engaged my attention (which is hardly the same as the first-person camera in PA1) really spoke to my feelings and experiences in digital networks, and especially the way we experience "real time" in them.

These ideas about post-cinematic cameras and screens are developed further in a chapter I've written for the book that Julia Leyda and I are co-editing: _Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film_, which will be coming out soon as an open-access volume with REFRAME Books (part of the digital platform initiated by Catherine Grant at the University of Sussex). My own take, implicit in my comments above, is that there is a "discorrelation" of images from viewers' attention/perception, and that the post-cinematic camera/screen is at the heart this transformation. The opening paragraphs of my chapter sum it up: "With the shift to a digital and more broadly post-cinematic media environment, moving images have undergone what I term their “discorrelation” from human embodied subjectivities and (phenomenological, narrative, and visual) perspectives. Clearly, we still look at – and we still perceive – images that in many ways resemble those of a properly cinematic age; yet many of these images are mediated in ways that subtly (or imperceptibly) undermine the distance of perspective, i.e. the spatial or quasi-spatial distance and relation between phenomenological subjects and the objects of their perception. At the center of these transformations are a set of strangely volatile mediators: post-cinema’s screens and cameras, above all, which serve not as mere “intermediaries” that would relay images neutrally between relatively fixed subjects and objects but which act instead as transformative, transductive “mediators” of the subject-object relation itself. In other words, digital and post-cinematic media technologies do not just produce a new type of image; they establish entirely new configurations and parameters of perception and agency, placing spectators in an unprecedented relation to images and the infrastructure of their mediation. The transformation at stake here pertains to a level of being that is therefore logically prior to perception, as it concerns the establishment of a new material basis upon which images are produced and made available to perception. Accordingly, a phenomenological and post-phenomenological analysis of post-cinematic images and their mediating cameras points to a break with human perceptibility as such and to the rise of a fundamentally post-perceptual media regime. In an age of computational image production and networked distribution channels, media “contents” and our “perspectives” on them are rendered ancillary to algorithmic functions and become enmeshed in an expanded, indiscriminately articulated plenum of images that exceed capture in the form of photographic or perceptual “objects.” That is, post-cinematic images are thoroughly processual in nature, from their digital inception and delivery to their real-time processing in computational playback apparatuses; furthermore, and more importantly, this basic processuality explodes the image’s ontological status as a discrete packaged unit, and it insinuates itself – as I will argue in the following pages – into our own microtemporal processing of perceptual information, thereby unsettling the relative fixity of the perceiving human subject. Post-cinema’s cameras thus mediate a radically nonhuman ontology of the image, where these images’ discorrelation from human perceptibility signals an expansion of the field of material affect: beyond the visual or even the perceptual, the images of post-cinematic media operate and impinge upon us at what might be called a “metabolic” level."

Great post, Shane! Since this is the first post of the week, I think we need to be up front about the tension between found footage as a tradition of experimental practice and the genre of faux-found footage—primarily because some people often think I'm writing a dissertation on the latter and are disappointed to learn that I am in fact writing on the former! (Bordwell has suggested that we instead use the term "discovered footage" to avoid this confusion, but I'm not sure this helps either [cf. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/11/13/return-to-paranormalcy/].) For me, one of the central issues of found footage filmmaking is its emphasis on the way images circulate, and particularly the way in which changes in moving-image media allow for means of capture and manipulation of pre-existing images. In other words, there is an emphasis here on the foundness of the images, and indeed what it means to find footage in the first place (or search, or pirate, or rummage, etc.). The documentary nature of the image – to further distinguish between found footage films and archival films – is perhaps less important than the very fact of images and their material forms. In a sense, it's a way of negotiating an oversaturation of images and image culture – which includes home movies alongside Hollywood blockbusters, TV news, and anything else besides – and a way of critiquing or making visible the systems of image creation and distribution. The genre of faux-found footage (FFF?), as you argue here, is more about the camera, and the proliferation of apparatuses of moving-image capture, rather than of images more broadly defined. In these films, the way in which the footage is found (or discovered) is usually emphasized within the diegesis as accidental, therefore underscoring the evidentiary nature of the footage. In THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and CLOVERFIELD, as I recall, the film explains that the cameras themselves were found at the scene; in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, there is a sly title card stating Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families and local police department. (The vast amount of FFF on YouTube also surely bears mention here, and likely complicates things even further; e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RU0HypvJ2U8) The aim of this is verisimilitude within a diegesis – very important, of course, for the horror genre – and it's interesting that other, less "trustworthy" forms of image-making and circulation (e.g. news media, Paramount Pictures as entertainment machine rather than small doc production company) are in some ways suppressed in these films. This is all to say that FF and FFF are two very different things with very different aims, and I'm very curious to see what will come of placing them side by side this week. At very least it might inspire an experimental filmmaker to make a faux-found footage found footage film ... if one hasn't already been made.

Thanks for posting, Leo! Yes, I agree completely that it is very important to bear in mind the distinction between found footage as an experimental practice (with a history of its own) and the faux found footage genre that is so popular today (though I keep hearing audiences are getting tired of it...). I agree with you that the differences in the images' relations to the diegesis and to the world beyond are crucial to understanding this difference. And yes: the role of the image in FF and the centrality of the camera in FFF is very different -- and this point implies that it is not just a discursive difference between the two, but a media-centric one as well. That is, FFF pretends to have discovered its footage for purposes that, narratively speaking, are continuous with the way that Mary Shelley framed _Frankenstein_ in a series of letters from Captain Walton to his sister. But in FFF, unlike Frankenstein, it is the medium itself, as a highly variable instrument or channel, that is foregrounded. To this extent, I think we could say that the image as a material medium is also crucial to FFF (and not only FF) -- but still it functions very differently than in FF, and for reasons that have to do with the history of FF as an experimental practice, with the media contexts in which they function, and with the transformation and proliferation of cameras and other technologies for producing images. In any case, I am glad that you brought this up, and I also look forward to seeing what happens when we put these two forms in dialogue with one another. Curiously, my post generated a separate conversation, over on Facebook, that has so far centered only on this relation between found footage and faux found footage -- while here the discussion has so far focused on very different issues. I have no theory about why these two conversations formed in isolation, but I'm grateful that you're effectively pushing to integrate them. I'll try to coax some of the FB people to come over and join the conversation... In the meantime, thanks again for raising these points that we should keep in mind throughout these discussions!

It might also be worth mentioning, as I already did over on FB, that the original prompt for the theme week (to which my video essay and post here responded) spoke of "Found Footage Video Aesthetics" -- which I interpreted to include the appropriation or remediation of a found-footage aesthetic in forms that are not strictly composed of found footage. It was not until this post went online that I found out the theme week had been redescribed as "Found Footage Art," which to me (and along with the image that was chosen for the theme week -- http://bit.ly/1hmaBml -- a B&W photo of old film strips) evokes very different expectations. In the worst case, this might make it appear that my post continues to propagate the confusion between FF and FFF that you spoke of above. In the best case, though, the tension between the title + image on the one hand and those posts, like mine, that deal with what we're calling here FFF on the other might push us more to confront these issues and to think through what, if anything, this new type of film has to do with found footage as practiced in the avant-garde. Nicholas Rombes, in the roundtable discussion I cited in the video (in a conversation with Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and Steven Shaviro that originally appeared in the online journal La Furia Umana) argues that one of the things that characterizes post-cinematic productions like Paranormal Activity is precisely a mainstreaming appropriation of avant-garde techniques, thus blurring the lines between them. I'm not sure that I agree completely with this perspective (i.e. I think there are significant differences that remain, though perhaps he would also agree). But I'm not sure, more generally, about how exactly we should understand the relations between these contemporary films and the avant-garde tradition, much less how these relations line up with the cinema/post-cinema relation (if one is willing to entertain this latter difference at all).

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