The Art of Writing Horror: Found Footage Done Right

By Ben Larned · September 15, 2017

Few cinematic subgenres are so maligned as found footage horror. The format allows filmmakers to get away with low production values, thus saving money; but few of them take the time to tell a story as well. Without a narrative, the style becomes annoying and ugly. The docudrama construct allows for fascinating thematic and visual exploration, though, when the story is formed to fit within the constraints. Found footage doesn’t have to be cliched and cheap. There are offerings beyond the Paranormal Activity franchise that explore visuals, structure and fear in truly unique ways – and following in their footsteps can prove the genre’s potential.

Justify your format.

One of the most frustrating aspects of these films tends to be their lack of logic. When people are in peril for their lives, it doesn’t quite make sense that they’d keep documenting their trauma. The shaky cam becomes more of an excuse rather than a unique visual style. The student filmmaker construct was invented for The Blair Witch Project, and some would argue it was tired the first time. Approaching one of these stories requires immediate suspension of disbelief; but there are ways to make the audience forget.

Found footage often ignores its origins: documentary filmmaking. It takes the “based on a true story” gimmick to new levels. A film that’s already structured after the horror occurs, rather than raw footage, can be more interesting and purposeful. Even before Blair Witch burst onto the scene, BBC’s infamous Ghostwatch mimicked a haunted house investigation gone horribly wrong – so convincing that it was banned from television.

Likewise, Lake Mungo turns the Paranormal Activity format on its head by structuring itself as a documentary, assembled by professionals after the story occurs. Noroi: The Curse pulls off a similar trick, though its conclusion is less cleanly presented. The Conspiracy acts as a documentary exploring capitalist secrets that might have been assembled (minor spoilers) by the film’s villains. There are creative approaches to the format that enhance the concept and realism, rather than limit them.

Know your eyes – point of view.

Similar to the above point, the average found footage film neglects to establish the character behind the camera. The videographer doesn’t have to be a main character, but they shouldn’t be invisible. The camera’s eye can’t be amateur, either – madcap shaking visuals are frustrating, not scary. Films like [REC] or Noroi: The Curse are easier to watch because the cameraman is an established professional, not quite a character, but not an uninvolved presence either.

REC. (2007)

Modern technology allows for more experimentation –V/H/S and its sequel have some of the most creative points of view in the genre, including zombie-mounted GoPros and cameras hidden in glasses frames. These more constant, easy-to-operate cameras also explain why the victims keep recording. The Conspiracy justifies its real-time ending through this technology to great effect. By incorporating the technology into the story, even if the connection is arbitrary, the film’s logic elevates itself.

Shoot your monsters well.

The scariest cinematic moments often involve uncanny dangers kept just out of sight – like the ever-present but vague Shape in Halloween or the titular creature in Cat People, shown only in shadow. Most of the truly frightening found footage films never show their monster at all. Keeping the monsters rooted in human appearance helps them feel more real. Paranormal Activity arguably suffered hugely because of its After Effects-enhanced ending; similarly, Grave Encounters relies too heavily on CGI and loud jump scares that undo the film’s buildup of dread.

Paranormal Activity (2008)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t show the monster at all. Some argue that Blair Witch fails because it never reveals its threat (though that’s what makes the film powerful). Ghostwatch creates subliminal terror by hiding its phantom in the background of unexpected shots, too subtle to catch on the first viewing. V/H/S 2 isn’t always scary, but the creatures’ weird inventiveness is still striking.

Cloverfield doesn’t show its monster until the end, which makes it mysterious as well as dangerous. Lake Mungo accomplishes this feat in a way that can’t be discussed in detail – a climactic image is both highly disturbing and revelatory for the plot. [REC] has it easy with high-octane zombies, but the scariest moments come from silence, with the infected staring blankly ahead before attacking – and the verite camera simply adds to the chaos.

Write characters, not crash dummies.

One of the most tired, cliched complaints about the horror genre speaks to one of its biggest issues, too: a lack of likable characters. It’s hard to write good personalities when you know they’re going to meet an awful end, but it’s necessary. How are we going to be scared for a protagonist if we don’t even care about them? This is the problem many people cited with Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity – the characters were shrill or two-dimensional, annoying even as their situations become deadly. It’s often a matter of opinion whether characters are “relatable” or not, but there are ways to safeguard oneself against this issue from the beginning. Characters aren’t just victims who stumble into these situations by accident; they have goals and personalities that drive their need to survive.

Lake Mungo is one of the most devastating examples of this – while mimicking “true haunting” style, it establishes its interviewees as actual characters suffering from grief. As the horror develops, the characters’ trauma does as well, reaching honest catharsis in the end. [REC] accomplishes this without cluttering its simple survival plot – the central newscaster is simply motivated and energetic about her task, which makes the carnage feel almost like a betrayal later on.

Cloverfield (2008)

The Conspiracy uses familiar tropes – family man, concerned citizen – to give its characters heart, but it works, and makes the ending even more shocking. The sadly-neglected Creep generates unease entirely through human behavior, whether endearing or creepy – Mark Duplass is almost solely responsible for this success. By taking the time to write honest characters who respond in believable or emotional ways, these films might actually frighten their audience.

Found footage may be dismissed because most of them aren’t worth looking into – but the format is invaluable for independent filmmakers who don’t have access to high-quality equipment. By exploring the inherent themes of the genre, and using the format to enhance the story, found footage horror can become a powerful platform. With strong characters and creative monsters, there’s terrifying life to be found in this subgenre.

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