by Lauren Tivy
Found Footage Horror movies occupy a unique position in the film industry for being genuinely polarizing; mixed opinions on whether they’re even good or bad, but it is ubiquitously agreed that their unusual style raises important questions as to what the boundaries and restraints of the film industry are and whether or not they should be crossed.
The Blair Witch Project comes out in 1999 with a production budget of $60,000. The film took 8 days to shoot, was completely improvised, and the camera work was almost entirely done by the three lead actors themselves. It went on to gross $246.8 million worldwide at the box office which is about 4,000 times more than it cost to produce. The films’ initial reception focused almost entirely on how real the film felt with some sending sympathy cards to the real-life mother of one of the principal actors in condolence for the character’s on-screen death. The “realness” of the film was by no mistake and was a primary focus of the film’s producers with the team using intense marketing techniques that included distributing missing posters of the film’s leads as well as airing a separate 40-minute TV documentary on the fictional myth of the Blair Witch amid the non-fiction productions on the Sci-Fi Channel.
During the filming of The Blair Witch Project, additional measures were taken by the filmmakers to ensure a presumed authenticity by not providing a script or outline to any of the actors so that they were seen reacting to the eerie events with genuine surprise. They were only given a general outline of the myth of the Blair Witch of which they were told was fully real. They were even able to interview “townspeople” of Maryland about the myth who were planted by the film’s director. Reportedly the film’s actors were also given less food as the days went on, and on three separate occasions, actually got lost in the forest they were filming in.
So why, amid a theatrical period of the fantastical, far away adventures, did this movie (so grounded in reality that, at times, it’s utterly boring) do so well? Also, what does this mean for high-budget Hollywood films that put enormous time and effort into set design, lighting, screenwriting, and special effects? Do the movie-goers long for something more seemingly authentic? Or was this a one-hit wonder that only succeeded because of its believability, something audiences surely wouldn’t fall for a second time.
Paranormal Activity is released in 2007 with a production budget of $15,000 while amassing a box office of $193.4 million worldwide. Like its cultural predecessor, it was unscripted, shot in a very short period of time, and used an inexpensive home-video camera. It was filmed in the director’s own home, bringing the horror out of the woods and into the average lives of its viewers. It terrified audiences, many who, once again, thought the footage was real because of its simple scares and the opening title sequence which read, “Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families of Micah Sloat & Katie Featherston and the San Diego Police Department”. Although it was not as widely believed as real as Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity is still regarded as one of the scariest horror films of all time for its authenticity and its relatability to the viewer. It’s easy to avoid the demon in the woods but harder to outrun the one in your home.
The Paranormal Activity franchise went on to release 6 more found footage horror movies, all following the same approximate storyline but getting progressively more and more confusing and diluted as time went on. The Found Footage genre has lived on with movies like Creep (2014), As Above, So Below (2014), and Cloverfield (2008), all relatively popular but not nearly the major cultural phenomenon as the genre once was. Instead, we’ve seen a slight adaptation of found footage which evolved with the modern internet age. Movies like Unfriended (2015), Spree (2020), Searching (2018), and Missing (2023) show the genre revitalized in a familiar yet refreshing way. These newer movies adapt the genre by having all of the action come from the protagonist’s computer or phone screen, as a response to the rise of digital video from personal cell phones or laptops.
In the end, Found Footage may have completely run its course or perhaps found a new life in screen-recording films. The gimmicks of found footage were very short lived and there weren’t many places you could go from there; nothing more exciting at least. As you may have witnessed with the SEVENTH Paranormal Activity movie, it gets old! Like really, really old. Ultimately, it didn’t take down classic Hollywood cinema but was more of a cinematic novelty. Still, found footage has a special place in the hearts of thousands of devout horror fans, marking a revolutionary time for horror at large. While the films are still very hit-or-miss, they’ll always remain as a mystery in film practice. How were these low-budget films, so realistic and lifelike that they become dull, such an innovative and major trend in the horror genre as a whole?
P.S. I adore found footage and genuinely think they’re so entertaining but also so dumb, and for the latter, I will always love them.