To conclude the Cult Conversations series, we have two essays this week. Today, Miranda Ruth Larsen writes about found footage sub-genre that is increasingly being labelled as ‘desktop horror.’ On Thursday, we have Keith McDonald on the enduring transmedia impact of H.P Lovecraft.
I hope readers have enjoyed the many interviews and exchanges we have been publishing for the past three months or so. It has been quite the ride, and I sincerely would like to thank all the scholars who contributed and taught me so much about horror, exploitation, the Gothic, and cult cinema in general. Thanks to each and everyone of you.
In the meantime, if you’ve enjoyed the series, and would like to contribute to a sequel later in 2019, please send an email to: email@example.com.
——- William Proctor
Desktop Horror and Captive Cinema
Miranda Ruth Larsen
Found footage remains one of the more derided permutations of horror cinema. A consistent point of debate, cinema studies and horror fandom alike often judge any new iteration against two benchmark entries in the subgenre: The Blair Witch Project (Myrick and Sanchez, 1999) and Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2007). Both films were considered at the time of their release as simultaneously gimmicky and revolutionary. This is unsurprising given that “horror as a genre is often the first site to interrogate evolving technologies, both within the narrative and through the formal properties of the medium within which it exists” (Daniel 2017, 2).
We must remember that horror is one of the most effective sites utilizing cinema’s power of offscreen space; “the frame, in horror, invites considerations about both the harboring of monsters off-screen and the dangers lurking in the dark corners of a delimited visual field” (Sayad 2016, 48). This often works unconsciously, but the horror film’s potentiality for scares encourages viewers to regularly ponder borders and their depth: what can’t we see and will we see it? For example, the scene pictured below from a ‘conventional’ horror film, The Conjuring (Wan, 2013), is so effective because we have been led by aural cues and Carolyn’s gaze in two shot-reverse-shot sequences to think something is likely coming up the stairs from the basement offscreen. Instead, ghostly hands emerge from the darkness behind Carolyn, along with the creepy whisper “Hey, wanna play hide and clap?”
In the same vein, found footage — even at its worst — makes explicit reference to the terrifying potentiality of the frame through the very conceit of existing as found footage. Inarguably, “with the found footage horror film, the interpenetration of reality and fiction that was traditionally discussed in terms of allegory or topical references has found a new locus: the film’s form” (Sayad 2016, 43). This article will consider one of found footage’s (contended) iterations: the desktop horror film, alternatively referred to as screenlife/social media horror. Rather than view desktop horror as a gimmick (as has been said too often of the subgenre as a whole), I argue that this permutation is in step with two previous trends of found footage: shaky-cam and fixed-cam.
The oft-derided shaky-cam aesthetics of many found footage films brings the terror of the cinematic frame to the forefront, placing the camera in the hands of a character. The name harkens to, of course, terrified people running from something and making the frame unstable. The camera is usually wielded by a few people documenting something; it becomes, essentially, a surrogate for our own field of vision, the clear limitation of our cinematic senses. Many films make explicit reference to the technical capacity of cameras, batteries, and lights in the midst of the unfolding terror. We cannot forget that the cinema screen is the screen of a physical object within the diegesis; we are constantly reminded through dialogue and the actual treatment of the frame. Shaky-cam often concludes with a contrasting eerie stillness reinforcing the camera as an object with limited gaze; the infamous ending of The Blair With Project makes this clear. We don’t get to see what’s happening to Heather as she suddenly becomes silent, because the dropped camera is pointed towards Mike facing the corner — doubling of our own blindness as viewers.
Complimenting this are the aesthetics of fixed-cam found footage films. These films lean towards surveillance camera setups, CCTV footage, or more ‘professional’ mounted cameras throughout the diegesis. The main marker here is the ubiquitous timestamp within the frame, reminding us that we are engaged in a particular mode of watching. In these types of films, much of the content “is composed of static surveillance-style footage designed to prompt the spectator to search the frame for any presence of the supernatural entity” (Daniel 2017, 56). Paranormal Activity largely capitalizes on this, with the routine documentation of Katie and Micah sleeping setting the rhythm of the film. The obsessively identical setup for the camera each night, engineered by Micah, allows viewers to become familiar with the appearance of the couple’s bedroom. The mise-en-scene here is crucial, leading to simple actions like a hallway light turning on and off becoming major events. We are frequently indoctrinated with characters soliloquizing about angles, adjusting sharpness, and trying to capture particular elements of a room. One of the most impactful moments of Paranormal Activity 3 (Joost and Schulman 2011), set in 1988, is when Dennis rigs a camera to slowly pan back and forth between the kitchen and living room by mounting the device on the base of an electric fan. This harnesses a particularly familiar motion — the slow oscillation of a fan — and coaxes our gaze to search, in dread, every newly revealed bit of the frame. The pan takes about 17 seconds to complete, with the buildup occasionally leading to some chilling scenes (see below).
Whether shaky or still, these framing techniques often employ night-vision, another tool for guiding the audience’s focus. Flattening out the usual palette of colors to something tinged green or blue not only adds a sheen of documentary authenticity, but makes every object within the frame charged with potential. When an Xbox Kinect light grid system reveals something otherworldly in the room in Paranormal Activity 4 (Joost and Schulman 2012), we are reminded that a multitude of cameras exist within our own living rooms. At the same time, we are reminded that a multitude of entities may also exist there as well
Desktop horror films, then, highlight the best component of found footage; a hyper-attention to frames and borders. The cameras available to us on a daily basis, including our computers and phones, provide familiar frames of attention. Their layering within the screen mirrors our own technological engagement in daily life. Unfriended’s release in 2014 hyped up the focus on surveillance technology (usually found in steady-cam found footage) and the penchant for the screen as embodied perspective (usually found in shaky-cam found footage) by the focus on Blaire’s desktop. In an early reaction to the film for The Verge, Emily Yoshida notes that:
“The frame remains locked off to the exact area of the desktop; we never see a face bigger than one-sixteenth of the screen. ‘Cuts’ are made by whatever Blaire chooses to bring up on the screen, whether its Facebook Messenger (where Laura communicates with her directly) or a paranormal forum explaining the phenomenon of the dead coming back to possess people via social media (helpfully scrolled through at a comfortable reading pace for us by Blaire while her friends argue in the background). Otherwise, we are never explicitly forced to look at anything; like the first forays into VR filmmaking, the filmmaker (in this case Russian director Levan Gabriadze, in his US feature debut) can only suggest where the eye should go via composition.”
The premise and execution were done so well that most reflections about the film omit that the last scene takes place outside of the desktop and with a diegetically inconsistent viewpoint. In other words, the technological feat of Unfriended eclipsed the adherence to the conceit and the actual details of the narrative. This becomes clear, four years later, with the release of Searching (Chaganty 2018).
The iTunes landing page for Searching begins with the comment: “Taking the ingenious, entirely-on-a-computer-screen technique of the Unfriended horror movies a little bit further, Searching spins a tense, tightly constructed missing-person mystery out of mouse clicks and switching windows.” Billed horror in some circles and a thriller in others, Searching’s box office success may explain the pinning of this particular iTunes review. Disregarding the quibbles about what genre Searching is, the important thing here is that Unfriended is referenced as a benchmark of cinematic technique, and that Searching is somehow expanding that technique. Unfriended unfolds in real time, giving us Blaire’s desktop. Searching, on the other hand, takes place over days and jumps between multiple computers, cell phones, spycams, and television footage. In many ways, Searching is more like older found footage films; it rings of a documentary aesthetic, a true crime tale without the post-incident talking heads. It is not, as Yoshida points out, the same as how Unfriended “actually looks like our lives, for better or worse” (Yoshida 2015). In many ways, the switching between screens in Searching offers the audience visual respite; in relying on uneventful shots (like iPhone call screens), it tells rather than shows. I would disagree, then, with the iTunes review featured so prominently on Searching’s splash page; while an effective film, Searching actually does little to expand what Unfriended accomplished in terms of the desktop.
Desktop horror films not only ask us to police the borders of the frame like conventional found footage, but to scan the dearth of information contained within the desktop view for clues and abnormalities. We infer characterization from the speed of mouse clicks, the hesitation of entering text, and the way the desktop itself is organized. In Searching, when Dave is looking at Margot’s Facebook page, a trending item on the sidebar is the name Laura Barnes — the vengeful teenager behind all the chaos in Unfriended. This suggests that Unfriended and Searching take place in the same cinematic universe. Similarly, brief attention is given to a photo where Margot sits by herself eating lunch while another group of teenagers poses for the camera. The Facebook post containing the photo tags everyone — all, except Margot, are named after characters from M. Night Shyamalan films. Critics may want to nudge Searching away from the horror label, but the intertextual linkages are there for the attentive viewer.
An earlier entry in desktop horror, The Den (Donohue 2013), was overlooked (likely for reasons of distribution). Found footage horror has always struggled with claims of innovation, and constructing the genealogy of particular techniques is a challenge. It becomes easier, in both academia and mainstream circles, to essentialize and give the credit to a particular film that is widely referenced.
The Den also delves into uncomfortably reflexive territory, as the protagonist of the film is a graduate student researching a particular online portal, the titular Den, which operates with some similarity to Chatroulette. The film utilizes other screens besides the desktop, particularly cop car cameras and phones, but the time spent viewing Elizabeth’s desktop as she navigates the Den makes up the bulk of the film. We’re offered glimpses into different corners of the internet, a wide range of content that is too similar to our own daily forays online. Like Unfriended, there’s plenty of text and imagery here to sort through — impossible to complete in one viewing. In the end, Elizabeth ends up a victim because people “are watching everything.”
Ultimately, desktop horror offers a cinematic experience that many already enjoy in found footage films. We are, for the duration of the film, captive. This fact is emphasized by the treatment of frames and borders, the awareness of the camera’s technological capabilities, and the need for a hyper-attentive, searching gaze. As Sayad contends, “the found footage horror film offers also more radical ways of decentering our gaze and expanding the frame” (Sayad 2016, 64). I would argue that carefully constructed found footage accomplishes this sensory state better than many narrative horror films, because of the collapsing boundaries between the diegesis and reality.
I’d like to end on a question, something I haven’t completely parsed out for myself. Is there an optimal screening situation for desktop horror based on form? I’m not asking in order to privilege a particular mode of spectatorship, believe it or not. Lofty accounts of theater-based cinematic consumption are exaggerated in many cases, where they “often treat this unidirectional attention as if it is affectively overwhelming: spectators are assumed to be more serious, contemplative, and immersed by virtue of the fact that their eyes are ‘glued’ to the screen” (Svensson and Hassoun 2016, 172). In many cases, home viewing is an easier option for controlling the environment; on a recent visit to the US, I found myself routinely distracted by other moviegoers talking and looking at their phones during a film.
I watched both Unfriended and Searching in theaters, and found the amplification of the desktop’s size personally captivating. The immense scale of the desktop in this screening space is undoubtedly impressive. However, for someone else, this could have been ridiculously boring. Conversely, Unfriended: The Dark Web wasn’t theatrically released in Japan, so I watched it on a laptop at home. There’s something impressive about this option as well, an unsettling friction at the boundaries. Yet for someone else, it could be different. Perhaps the optimal screening environment depends on our own personal engagement with screens themselves.
My hope is that with the success of films like Unfriended and Searching, desktop horror will become another avenue for independent filmmakers and those working with small budgets to make some truly terrifying content. Our screens aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so we might as well realize their potential as windows we may not want to look through.
Daniel, Adam J. “Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality.” 2017. Doctoral Thesis: Western Sydney University.
Sayad, Cecilia. “Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing.” 2016. Cinema Journal. Vol 55, No. 2.
Svensson, Alexander and Dan Hassoun. “‘Scream into your phone’: Second Screen Horror and Controlled Interactivity.” 2016. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies. Vol 13, Issue 1.
Yoshida, Emily. “Unfriended is the First Film to Accurately Capture Our Digital Lives.” 2015. The Verge.
Miranda Ruth Larsen is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo in the Information, Technology, and Society in Asia program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Bunkyo Gakuin University. She previously earned a Master’s degree in Cinema & Media Studies from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. She is the author of “Fandom and Otaku” in A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies. Her found footage horror film tally currently stands at 140, with an aim to hit 150 by the end of 2018.