Affective Horror of the Found Footage Anthology

Curator's Note

Released in 2012, V/H/S brings together two formats of the horror film: found footage and the anthology. Often, the raison d’etre of the horror film is its ability to generate affects: from tension and anxiety, to terror, nausea and disgust. In what ways do these approaches – found footage and the anthology – enhance or inhibit V/H/S’s affective capability? Through dipping in and out of short stories, the degree of immersion can be restricted. Yet, at the same time, each segment creates a mystery that promises quick resolution, providing immediate satisfaction and creating a circuitous narrative of suspense-release. The found footage element of V/H/S is two-fold: the protagonists stumble upon tapes in a house they have invaded, while this in turn is viewed through their own filming of events. Home videos draw the spectator close to the film as they inhabit the position of the film-maker entrenched in the action. While following in the footsteps of films such as Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) by questioning the ethics of horror spectatorship, this approach inevitably situates the spectator behind the camera, creating a barrier between viewer and film. Yet this distance might be interpreted as hostility and cynicism embodied by the film itself, through sexual assaults, theft and vandalism made casual by the perpetrators’ own filming. Scenes represented via hidden cameras create an awareness of the film apparatus; nevertheless, this recognition of the technology of film induces a self-consciousness that sits uncomfortably and anxiously with the viewer. Bringing together the anthology and found footage, V/H/S induces a particular mode of anxiety. As each segment is revealed, a character from the frame narrative disappears until, in the end, the camera alone picks up the sound of the final film. Through this, V/H/S exemplifies the notion that film is nothing if not an experience of an experience; that the film does not just reveal the image, but creates it. Pointing towards the agentic position of the spectator, V/H/S effectively creates the uncanny suspicion that all the horror that was viewed, exists only because it was seen.


Thanks for this post, Laura, which raises an interesting question about the relations between found footage and anthology formats, and about the affective tensions and confluences between them. As I mentioned yesterday, one of the things I found most intriguing about V/H/S was the basic logical/media-historical incoherence in the relations between the frame narrative and the framed segments. That is, the frame narrative is shot on VHS cameras and is set, as far as we can gather, sometime before the advent of digital formats, cell phones, the Internet, etc. But the segments that we see (and that the characters in the frame narrative apparently see on the VHS tapes they view in the house they've been hired to rob) are clearly from a later era; they use digital glitches, miniaturized camera-glasses, Skype, etc. A more conventional (and narratively logical) setup would use a contemporary frame story that could contain segments using older or contemporary media formats. In many ways, I find this incoherence of the film more interesting, but I'm not sure what it does to me affectively. On the one hand, it kept me revising what I thought about the relation between the found footage and the anthology format -- but this was more a kind of cognitive work that didn't really seem to go anywhere. That is, I kept thinking there would be some big reveal, in the puzzle-film style of The 6th Sense, but nothing of the sort happened. So I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about what this incoherence (again, not an unenjoyable or objectionable incoherence, in my view) does or is capable of doing with us in terms of affect?

I am a little embarrassed to admit that that anachronism completely passed me by! But of course, now you refer to it, it jumps out a mile - particularly for the segment where the young woman is conversing with her boyfriend via Skype. If I am able to defend my blind spot to any degree (!) what felt more important was that these events and conversations had been isolated and mysteriously collected in this house for reasons that are never revealed. This lack of an explanation - and indeed the anachronism, although I suppose it is always possible to convert anything back to video - gives the film and its segments a significant degree of autonomy, exemplified by the end scene, as described above. While it gives credence to Vivian Sobchack's ideas of the cinematic lived body, substantially built on by Jennifer Barker, an essential component of this theory of spectatorship and film is based on the camera and its original experience. What your comment has alerted to me is, when thinking back to the Skype segment, the diegetic camera is to an extent absent. For it to be present, we would expect to see ourselves in the small corner screen - the camera that is playing back what we are seeing on the main screen is elsewhere, on another's computer in a different location. The images, therefore, appear organically, and the video exists independently of the camera, not a product of the film but productive of it. While I originally considered the film to be expressive of a phenomenological approach to spectatorship theory, then, it in actual fact takes it to a new level - the phenomenological experience of the film object/subject that is the video/DVD/computer file. I realise I have not directly answered your question - how does this realisation that the videos exist independently of the filmed events generate affect...the discordance between how (or even if) a segment has been filmed, and how it has been viewed could be considered by some to be a clumsy 'gaffe' on behalf of the film-makers, although I consider this would be a little unfair. I think if this discord is not noted consciously by the viewer, it certainly generates a nagging uncanny sensation - similar to that feeling one gets when watching a murder mystery and sees a clue that is not immediately recognised as such. It is possibly the reason why I have returned for repeated viewings of V/H/S, in spite of not entirely being drawn into all (or even most) of the segments.

I agree with you that it would be unfair -- and maybe just wrong, in terms of assessing the impact of the film -- to dismiss the anachronism as a gaffe. It seems better to see it, as you suggest, in terms of a technique that is central to the uncanniness of the film overall. I also like what you say about the camera here. Indeed, the Skype segment pushes this transformation of the film/viewer/camera relation to a certain extreme, but I think it's there in other segments as well. In my work on this topic, I have argued that this situation, where "the video exists independently of the camera," as you put it, is in fact a central (though not always so obvious) characteristic of post-cinema, which is characterized by what I call "crazy cameras" and "discorrelated images." Sobchack's work has been central in the effort to identify these characteristics, but I find them in a break or rupture in the homologous relation that Sobchack posits between human embodiment and the body of the film/camera. (This is not meant to be a refutation of Sobchack; on the contrary, it corroborates what she says about the "dysfunctionality" of electronic media, though I tend to see this in less negative terms.) In any case, what I think you're pointing to here is the essentially post-phenomenological situation of post-cinematic media, where screens and cameras become strangely interchangeable and act in highly irrational ways.

I wanted to think about this claim -- "Scenes represented via hidden cameras create an awareness of the film apparatus; nevertheless, this recognition of the technology of film induces a self-consciousness that sits uncomfortably and anxiously with the viewer" -- in terms of the way the film could restrict our immersion even more. While there's foregrounding of the camera (in its myriad forms) apparatus in the segments, the suspense-release I think depends a lot on the invisible editing of the segments. Because this is an anthology film, each of the segments has to be narratively coherent; but what if the film acted more like a VHS mix-tape, dropping in and out of different genres, styles, forms, shooting techniques; would this make us even more uncomfortable in our spectatorship?

This is a really interesting question. Am I right to read an implicit opposition here between immersed vs. dispersed modes of engagement, attention, perception, etc.? If so, how do you think these line up with our awareness of a film's (or scene's) status as found footage? And does it make a difference if we know that it's "real" found footage or faux found footage? Maybe you're thinking in a different direction, but your comment got me thinking about these issues...

Quick reply - I would agree in finding these moments in breaks and ruptures, as I consider this is where the viewer's body often lies. It is certainly, in the case of intensely visceral horror films, the moments where the viewer is forcefully and aggressively returned to a sense of their own embodiment, generating what I call corporeal mimicry, an intensely focused mode of anxiety situtated in specific body parts. This return is of course only possible for those transcendental moments, as it were. My previous arguments regarding suspense-release narratives are dependent on this idea of immersion and anticipation of pleasure (even where this pleasure lies in unpleasure, if it promises an ending, as Cowie would state). Your idea, Anthony, would of course challenge this; however, I don't think awareness of the technology always has to disrupt immersion (I'm thinking of the mise-en-abime effect created by the television sets in Saw, where both the victim and the viewer learn their fate), or that dispersion and immersion have to be mutually exclusive. For example, Noe's Irreversible calls attention to the construction if not directly to the technology of film, yet the reverse narrative serves to de-contextualise and thereby intensify the narrative. The quick answer is, I don't know! Of course V/H/S is like the mix-tape you mention, but am I right in assuming you are meaning this style to apply within one segment, rather than across the entire film? That would certainly be wonderful to watch.

I think I'm reading that implicit opposition, yes. I have a sense that FF (whether real or faux) makes it that much more difficult to "escape." Of course, my spectatorial position might be different for those who are more used to the conventions of FF. For example, the faux-footage glitchy VHS ending of John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, from 1987, appeared when the conventions weren't as ubiquitous as they are today: Arguably, it was differently affective then.

There are two spaces to potentially get lost in with faux FF, aren't there? Either immersed into the text, sutured as it were with the diegesis, temporarily or otherwise disregarding the idea that as it is found footage it is pointing towards a past, and instead experiencing it as present; or immersed in regards to the spectatorship, still identifying as spectator but disavowing the falsity of the footage (this was certainly the case for me as a rather gullible 15 year old watching The Blair Witch Project!) I am currently unable to watch that clip but will certainly do so later, thank you for providing it.

I think I agree with what's coming out of this discussion about the complexities of immersion/dispersion and embodiment, self-reflexivity, knowledge, etc. There are certainly a lot of possible permutations, and they would seem to be highly dependent upon our own lifeworld situations and cultural contexts. Speaking of which, it seems highly relevant that films like V/H/S and (to an even greater extent) Paranormal Activity are produced in response to the aesthetics and the emotional/affective/cognitive conventions of reality TV. It would seem that reality TV (and I'm thinking of the paranormal shows that provide the model for this found footage horror) provides a very different framework and an additional layer of complexity with regard to the question of immersion. Especially the ghost hunter and similarly paranormal themed shows seem to invite an immersed type of investment, but we often regard these shows (and reality TV in general) with a high degree of skepticism and distance -- and alternate between these modes rapidly. This, I think, introduces a very different dimension to the already complex question of immersion and distance in ("non-faux") found footage.

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