The Real Reason ‘Found Footage’ is the Dominant Subgenre of the 21st Century

…And it’s not ‘The Blair Witch Project’.

6a0120a887a2d5970b0147e090921a970b-600wiFound Footage is perhaps the most divisive subgenre in the history of cinema, with vocal legions of both advocates and detractors. While an open-minded horror aficionado should be willing to give any film a chance, no matter what the presentation, a contingency has had enough; “It’s played out” some say, and, “It’s lazy filmmaking” say others. There are even those who complain that the hallmark shaky camera causes physical discomfort, from nausea to migraines.

But for all the naysayers, there are just as many enthusiastic fans extolling the virtues of their favorite subgenre. With dozens of Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members combined, Found-Footage is clearly considered compelling and important to many.

Whether you love it or hate it, there is no denying that Found Footage has made an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape, in horror more than any other genre. The surge of Found Footage films at the beginning of the 21st Century was nothing short of a movement. And the film that most people credit with starting it all is: The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999. In some Found Footage circles, The Blair Witch Project is revered, almost like the Bible, so I precede with no small trepidation that I present my thesis:

While there is no doubt that The Blair Witch Project was (and is) a successful film on many levels, not the least of which in its ability to blur the line between fiction and reality, and even though its release preceded the surge, appearing to usher in a craze, it is (at best) one of several factors that launched Found Footage into prominence.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel MyrickEduardo Sánchez

Writers: Daniel MyrickEduardo Sánchez

Stars: Heather DonahueMichael C. WilliamsJoshua Leonard |

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There’s such an incredible mystique surrounding The Blair Witch Project that it’s sometimes difficult to separate myth from reality; the biggest misconception is that it represents the very first example of a Found-Footage motion picture. Not true.

While most educated horror aficionados already know about The Last Broadcast (1998), Man Bites Dog (1993), and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), my research found an even earlier example of Found Footage: Punishment Park, released in 1971, is a pseudo-documentary presented as a film crew’s news coverage; it follows of a team of soldiers escorting a group of hippies, draft dodgers, and anti-establishment types across the desert, playing lethal version of “Capture the Flag”. Even horror academics can be excused for not knowing about this film; according to IMDB, Punishment Park has gone completely underground and is almost impossible to find.

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The fact that The Blair Witch Project isn’t the subgenre’s first shouldn’t diminish its place in history or dampen its accomplishments; clearly it achieved more than any other Found Footage film that preceded it, and that’s a definite accomplishment. The Blair Witch Project can definitely be credited with putting Found Footage on the map, and introducing the idea into our collective consciousness on a worldwide level. The “Is it real?” internet campaign was nothing sort of brilliant, a promotional technique never fully utilized in the past.  Its greatest achievement, in my opinion, is the way it inspired a younger generation of filmmakers by providing an effective and inexpensive template for making horror movies.

It’s easy to see why so many give The Blair Witch Project credit for launching Found Footage into the mainstream. For starters, the math seems to support the assertions; after crunching number on Wikipedia and IMDB (a single definitive list of Found Footage films doesn’t exist), I concluded the following: In the 10 years that preceded it, there were about 6 Found Footage films released worldwide (obviously, none achieved near the level of success or attention as The Blair Witch Project); in the 10 years following its release in 1999, more than 80 Found Footage films had been produced (and this is a conservative estimate). That proves it right? Not necessarily.

If The Blair Witch Project was the catalyst behind the Found Footage movement, then why was 2000-2002 a relatively dry spell for the subgenre? Found Footage wouldn’t begin to dominate the festival circuit until 2003, and there wasn’t another major studio Found Footage release until 2006 (Paranormal Activity). Did it just take a while for the movement to take off, or were there other factors related to the popularity of the subgenre, events that transpired before the Found Footage surge of 2003?

Found Footage and 9/11

In September, 2001, French filmmakers James Hanlon and brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet were making a documentary about New York Firefighters assigned to Battalion 1 on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan. Early on September 11th, Jules Naudet shadowed a crew sent to investigate a possible gas leak at Church and Lispenard Streets. As Jules filmed the men at work, the sound of American Airlines Flight 11 can be heard overhead; he tilts the camera just in time to see the airplane crash into World Trade Center, Tower one. Immediately, the topic of their documentary changed into something unimaginably devastating.

Impact

Jules Naudet’s famous footage of American Airlines Flight 11 hitting World Trade Center Tower 1 on 9/11.

Those of us who were glued to our television sets as unimaginable tragedy unfolded saw things—terrible things. In their rush to get as much information out as possible, news outlets were putting every bit of footage that came in on the air; some footage, in retrospect, probably caused people psychological trauma and was never aired again: Body parts, bloodied faces, and people jumping from unimaginable heights to their death.

In a few short hours, life as we knew it had transformed forever. The things we feared before 9/11 suddenly seemed to hold less sway, and even the ways we process fear changed. CBS aired the French filmmaker’s documentary 6 month later and, while powerful, the edited film was nowhere near as devastating as the raw footage we were subjected to on 9/11.

It was after 9/11 that Found Footage truly took its place as a powerhouse in horror; it was suddenly an extremely fitting medium for our transformed society. Staged horror with the usual omniscient perspective now seemed artificial and flippant. How can a slasher compare with the new horrors of our present reality? Suspense, music, and scare tactics paled compared to the footage filmed and aired during the attacks of 9/11.

With The Blair Witch Project still relatively fresh in popular culture, the template it provided became a nearly ideal way of tapping into post-9/11 anxieties. As opposed to mockumentaries that are, at least to some degree, polished, The Blair Witch Project was presented as rough and unedited, exactly as they were found—just like the footage that aired on 9/11. The shaky camera, the limited perspective, and even poor sound and lighting became reminiscent of horrors much greater than any CGI monster or ghost.

Just as Hanlon and the Naudets began their film as a story about Firemen before capturing the most infamous attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor, most Found Footage movies start off being about one thing before suddenly shifting into something altogether terrifying: A vacation that becomes a fight for survival, a campout that becomes a murder-fest, or family films that catch supernatural activities are just a few examples. Even films that start of on a supernatural pretext, the hunt for ghosts or a fabled witch, for example, become something else when the filmmakers become participants in the story—and usually victims.

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Cloverfield (2008), more than any other Found Footage film, is a direct reimagining of the events of 9/11. Like Hanlon and the Naudets, Hud never planned on documenting the destruction of Manhattan; he was just filming a party, getting interviews for his buddy Rob as a memento before he moved to Japan. And just as Jules was in the right place at the right time to record the hit on Tower 1, Hud gets his first glimpse of destruction over a friend’s shoulder. And in an instant, life as everyone knows it has changed forever.

Conclusion

The effect 9/11 had on the landscape of horror cinema goes beyond boosting the popularity of Found Footage—just as the appeal of Found Footage goes beyond its connection to 9/11. Another factor in the surge that began in 2003 has to do with the increased availability of cameras and film editing software, essential components that weren’t readily available to the masses in 1999; advances in technology combined with inexpensive options could put a camera in just about anybody’s hands. Imagine how much more footage there would have been on 9/11 had video cameras already been married to cell phones.

The number of Found Footage films produced has increased steadily since 2003, and 2014 is on track to be the most prolific year yet for the subgenre. Since it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime, we can assume that Found Footage will continue to be a popular medium in horror for a long time to come.

My purpose here was never to bash or devalue The Blair Witch Project, only to put its influence on the Found Footage subgenre into a wider historical perspective. In a later article, I plan to examine the link between 9/11 and our 21st Century obsession with Zombies and the Zombie Apocalypse. After that, I’ll take a look at 9/11 and virus horror. From there, who knows…

What do you think about a connection between 9/11 and Found Footage? Let me know in the Comments section.

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2 Comments on this post.

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  • Evan A. Baker
    9 December 2014 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Great observations!

    The found footage boom is definitely the result of a lot of factors converging, and no one movie can be given full credit. The numbers you give on the frequency of found footage movies in the years immediately following Blair Witch kind of surprised me, but, looking back, I realize that found footage horror really didn’t take off in a big way until later.

    I think there’s another factor that you didn’t really touch on, one that relates to 9/11 but might have happened without it. A big part of the post-9/11 American psyche was a return to the distrust – even fear – of our own government which had accompanied the Viet Nam War, a period which also saw a big increase in the significance of televised news and the role of documentary filmmaking in American culture. When the mainstream media is giving us reasons to be fearful of those in power, many people’s response is to do their own investigating, put their own information out there.

    And what else was becoming an increasingly important aspect of American culture around the time of and in the years following 9/11? The internet (which, of course, already entered into this story in terms of Blair Witch’s successful marketing). Along with the increased availability of decent prosumer cameras and editing software, people were gaining the ability to post videos – even feature length movies.

    The internet has changed the way that we associate with journalism. It has given everybody the opportunity to put their ideas, their experiences, and their perspectives out there. And for anyone with a camera (and, with changes in phone technology, more and more that means EVERYONE) can now capture real-life events and share them with the world. These days, the rough-hewn look of found footage cinema is consistent with the kinds of images we see almost every day of our lives, on YouTube, on Facebook, and on the web pages of major news agencies.

    Found footage may pre-date the world wide web, but I’m not sure it would have become nearly so prominent a narrative form without the web.

  • Josh Millican
    9 December 2014 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Great points, Evan! I think I should have mention “technology” in a broad sense, which includes the internet, instead of merely mentioning economical cameras & software. When I discuss the link between 9/11 and Zombies, I will go into the distrust of Government in a big way; the modern subgenre is based (almost exclusively) on the fragility of society and distrust of authority, so it’s understandable how The Zombi Apocalypse became such a prominent motif. I might have to bring you on as co-author of my future book!

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