From Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity and everything in between, there seems to be a never-ending hype for found footage films over the past twenty years. Each film dwells on the use of shaky cams, the appearance of real people and not actors, realistic lighting, and scenarios that could happen compared to actual horror films. Found footage films normally do not use a high budget and are not over the top in special effects. They rely on how realistic they need to look as if each film was truly done on a camcorder and found to present a new type of entertainment for audiences.
The Blair Witch Project
The main hype for found footage films began with the 1999 release of The Blair Witch Project. This film is a "mockumentary" (fake documentary) that encompasses the last footage of three film students who disappear after filming a documentary on an urban legend known as the Blair Witch. The mockumentary shows fake interviews, fake research, a fake urban legend, and overall a scripted film that seems to be anything but. Along with the film, a website, blairwitch.com was produced around the time the film was released that showed "facts" surrounding the case of the missing filmmakers, including missing posters and evidence.
Making a website like this was a creative decision from the film's producers to make The Blair Witch Project more believable and realistic for the viewing audience. Audiences were flabbergasted after seeing the film in 1999 because of all the fake evidence surrounding it and they were more scared of what they think actually happened more than the contents of the film itself.
Paranormal Activity played upon the same concept of The Blair Witch Project by bringing back the found footage genre to scare audiences once again. This film details a couple living in a home that they suspect is haunted. The couple installs cameras around their home to "document" what is happening to them and the footage from these documentations that are now evidence for a crime scene get shown to audiences in theaters.
At the film's conclusion, the female protagonist gets possessed and kills the male protagonist. After the murder is shown, words are presented on screen stating that the police discovered the dead body and the female's whereabouts remain unknown.
In both films, the producers make the clever decision to have the character names be the same as the actor names. By doing this, some fans get confused on what is real and what is not. When I went to see the first Paranormal Activity film in theaters with my friend, she even looked at me and asked if it was real because of how realistic the experience was for her. My simple reply was, "Yes, because they make IMDB pages for demons." Besides, a sequel came out the following year. How would it be real if a crime scene case has a sequel?
Much of the hype for Paranormal Activity came from the way they advertised the film. If you wanted to view the film, you had to request that it be shown in your city. Fortunately for the filmmakers, enough buzz got around about the film that it was shown worldwide. A good found footage film gets viewers talking about it for months after witnessing the events of the film. Both the Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity films have spawned successful sequels because of this. With the sequels made, if any fans still had beliefs the films were real rather than fiction, their beliefs slowly diminished. However, the first films will always be on the minds of the audience because of how powerful an effect each film had on the perceptions of their audiences.
The Future of Found Footage?
The hype surrounding these two found-footage films has led to several more less-believable found footage films like Cloverfield, Trollhunter, The Bay, REC, Quarantine, As Above So Below, Unfriended, etc. Some found-footage films released after the success of the two films that have been more believable are The Den, Grave Encounters, and the Last Exorcism. Found-footage has become a successful sub-genre in the overall horror genre. Much of the hype comes from its believability and the found footage genre adds a new way to scare audiences with how real each film looks.
While many horror films rely on jump scares, Asian ghosts, psycho killers, or creatures to scare their audiences, found-footage films rely on their "shaky cams" to make each scene look as if there is no script and no direction.
Directors want the audience to feel bamboozled after the credits roll as to what they just witnessed rather than knowing exactly what happened. If the audience is left to ponder on whether or not the events of Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity are fictitious, the filmmakers have done their job in the found-footage genre.
What makes found-footage movies so successful is the actual fear that stems from wondering whether horrific events have actually happened in this world. Making actual phobias like urban legends or ghosts be a part of the journey only adds to the horror of a found footage film. Seeing is believing and that is what scares the public the most: the fact that even after the film ends, the images still roll in their minds like a recurring nightmare.