If the Abyss Stares Into a Camera, the Camera Stares Back: On Found Footage Horror and Structural Film

An analog video camera is mounted to an oscillating standing fan and left unattended to capture whatever may come across its path. Rotating at its own steady rate between the voluminous kitchen and living room of a deep suburban track home, a girl sits quietly at the dining table doing her homework. The footage reveals a sheet ghost has appeared behind her, but the moment she turns sensing that something strange is present, the sheet collapses as if nothing were ever inside. The camera continues to move away from this chilling scene.

The mythology of cinema becoming commercialized places The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1897) as the archetypal ancestor. Like the scene from Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) described above, a camera is placed at a fixed location to capture whatever it happens to capture as a train arrives at the station. It is thanks to the invention of the Cinématographe camera that the Lumière brothers were allowed to make this landmark short film. The mythology and marketing of this one-minute short is people were so afraid of the train pummeling directly toward the screen that they ran in terror. While the validity of this claim has often been challenged, it is the legacy of both the film and the Cinématographe.

Structural film is a movement that began in the 1960s that focuses on the physical components of filmmaking, with more importance placed on the tools than the content. In other words, a particular way to use the camera or to manipulate the film stock would define a Structural film rather than any sort of typical narrative idea. While neither The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat nor Paranormal Activity 3 are a part of the Structural film movement, they both function in a similar manner of focusing on the camera as the vital component of the art. In 1897 this was to bring audiences an education of what a film camera and projected image even were. In 2011, while the camera exists in a fictional narrative space, one is required to understand its existence and function in order to grasp the scene.

Since language must always be as confusing as possible, the essential relationship between these films and the Structural movement is one of artistic Formalism rather than Structuralism. Formalism focuses on the construction of the work itself, what one might call the grammar of the art. Structuralism is invested in contexts such as culture and history. So, ironically, Formalism is about the structure of the art, making it more aligned with the Structural movement. Structuralism, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Structural film. Again, confusing, but not needless for moving forward in this essay.

The lasting reputation of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat as a thrill ride scaring viewers out of their seats gives this humble, maybe even boring, little film the distinguished honor of being the first found footage horror movie. Over a century later, Paranormal Activity 3 would return to this same approach to frighten audiences, showing that cinematic horror not only begins with Formalism but remains indebted to it, perhaps even with these strategies at its core. Is there a reason the vast majority of found footage-style films are in the horror genre? Is it because audiences can be easily convinced that the real world is naturally full of horrors, so of course any camera actually filming reality (even when used as a fictional device) will capture something nefarious? If so, the reason is context and undermines any explanation rooted in Formalism.

But what if it is the explicit gaze of the camera as a tool that is horrific? That is the proposition of Peeping Tom (1960), in which the killer uses a camera with a blade protruding from it to capture the fear of his victims as they are murdered. Alongside its peer from the same year, Psycho, which also forced the audience to see through a maniac’s eyes (no diegetic camera though), is the one-two punch that creates the killer POV trope now essential in slashers. In Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992), author Carol J. Clover calls this the assaultive gaze, forcing the audience to identify with the killer and voyeur. On one hand, this lessens the fright of the scene by encouraging the viewer to desire the violence and violation. But on an existential level, it is even more horrific to have such dark impulses forced upon oneself. No matter the interpretation, what cannot be ignored is that the effect comes from the camera’s eye and the audience’s eye merging as one with no sense of omniscient viewing. In instances of killer POV, this is the camera as the maniac’s eye as one’s own eye. In found footage horror this is the diegetic camera and the viewer’s eye as one. Or in the rare case as in Peeping Tom, all of the above. Going even further with this merging, the titular maniac of The Watcher (2000) has a killer POV which is depicted as low-resolution digital camera footage. Given the character’s inclination to secretly photograph his victims in advance of any violence, one easily assumes that this low-res digital aesthetic is an indication that the maniac is using a camera through which the audience now sees. But roughly halfway through the film, this unique killer POV is juxtaposed with an omniscient view of the maniac, revealing that he is not using a camera at all. His own assaultive gaze is naturally camera-like.

It would be a bold stretch to call the works of the Structural film movement a part of the horror genre. Yet, if there is any credence to the claim that, essentially, the camera is a cursed object, then Structural films should have some meaningful relationship to terror. The most well-known film from the movement is Empire (1965), due to being co-directed by Andy Warhol. Running about eight hours, this film is a single shot of the Empire State Building. It’s hard to imagine anyone being able to literally sit and watch this entire film uninterrupted. Many will, of course, dismiss this immediately as boring at best, and perhaps even pointless. Like any film though, spoilers are meaningless and the actual experience is what matters. Empire captures what the human eye cannot. It captures time. All people know that time surrounds everything. It is a force of existence like gravity, and one always has some sense of it passing, yet the only immediately knowable aspect of time is an eternal now. One cannot easily witness the passing of even eight hours of time and its effects on the Empire State Building. But the camera can. Yet, even what the camera sees, projected onto a screen, an audience can barely ingest. In other words, the powerful experience of Empire is the difficulty of seeing it. In Ten Skies (2004), James Benning set up a camera ten different times, each facing a detail of, yes, the sky. The camera was not placed with a cinematographic intention of capturing beauty, just the intention of using a camera to film for a set length of time, and then stringing together the results, whatever they may be. The length of these segments is easily digestible compared to Empire. The results are similar though: the vague images leave the audience mostly at one with their own thoughts. The passing of time is witnessed less than one witnesses one’s own internal mechanisms. And, in a way, the naysayers of Structural film are proven right. The world is tedium. Any experience outside of that is thanks to the human mind projecting something onto the world, a projection called “an experience.” The human eye is through the veil of understanding; the camera’s eye understands nothing and thus can capture the endless expanse that is time and capture the tragic tedium of never-ending nature. Much like how Clover asserts an existential horror to the killer POV, the camera POV of Structural film captures the terror of the existential void. Is this just a fancy way of stretching Structural film into horror? Hold that thought for a moment while something seemingly very different is brought to the table.

Found footage horror is a sort of Formalist art due to its inseparability from the camera: not just as a tool for creation, but as a character through which the experience of the narrative occurs. But another notable Formalist strategy is the almanac style of film, through which editing tools become the thrust of narrative. Moby Dick (1851) was written during the golden era of almanacs, in particular the time of the Old Farmer’s Almanac (1793-Present). Historian Milly McCarthy describes the publication as a series of questions: “Today’s audience does not know what to make of the colonial almanac because most people, historians included, have never really known how to talk about it. Was it a calendar? A collection of essays? A rudimentary calculator? A political commentator? A timepiece? A local directory? A diary? Uh-huh. It was all that and more.” Humorously, she also asserts that the Old Farmer’s Almanac is lesser than Moby Dick: “It simply does not belong in the same category as Moby Dick. As literature, the humble annual could never measure up” ~ despite Moby Dick being a direct result of the popularity of almanacs. Most only know the simple story buried within Moby Dick, of Captain Ahab being a monomaniac in search of the white whale. Yet this story is just a small portion of the book, broken up among chapters that swing wildly from erotic poetry about squeezing whale blubber to almost textbook lessons about nautical life. Moby Dick may not be the first narrative to be assembled in such a manner, but its historical relationship to the almanac makes it the quintessential one.

It is rare for movies to fully embrace the almanac narrative approach, by which tone and meaning are defined largely in the editing and sequencing of vastly different segments not intended to be a collection of short films. Both True Stories (1986) and Gummo (1997) use the almanac style to paint portraits of small towns. These films are assemblies of song performances, educational shorts, dialogues, monologues, found footage moments, and even some segments that feel like Structural film in which a static camera just observes. Ultimately, nearly all films owe a little bit to the almanac though. Any movie with a flashback or a training montage has a whisper of almanac. Nearly every porn and martial arts film is essentially a simple almanac going back and forth from a narrative to demonstrations of physical prowess. Miami Connection (1987) is an upbeat example of the martial arts film going even deeper into an almanac format. There is an ongoing narrative, broken up by fights, and entire song performances, and the story pauses at moments to deliver philosophical monologues and educational displays of how martial arts work. This almanac style, while indebted to Formalism like found footage, is not rooted in horror. For some reason, the editing tools are not quite as cursed as the camera’s eye. But it is the combination of these two Formalist strategies, of the camera and of the edit, which brings to the forefront Structural film’s firm place in horror. A combination that is inherent to a recently emerged sub-genre called liminal horror.

First popularized via the Creepypasta phenomena of “Backrooms” (circa 2019), liminal horror is focused on the existential dread of places outside of time and a sense of endlessness and inescapability. The “Backrooms” films exist as numerous short videos (most notably Kane Parsons’ “The Backrooms [Found footage]” [2022]) spread through social media, usually depicting never-ending sequences of office spaces and hallways, often without windows to an outside world, and nearly never having any sort of interior design like chairs or desks. Occasionally, cryptid or shadow figures appear to add a moment of immediate threat or violence, but it is the cosmic dread evoked through a sprawling depiction of wage slave spaces that unifies the “Backrooms” clips. At this point, there is no “Backrooms” feature (although A24 is reported as developing one), but We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), Enys Men (2022), The Outwaters (2022), and Skinamarink (2022), all embody this new artistic movement into liminal horror. In these four examples, the endlessness of time and the void of existence are depicted through techniques similar to Structural film, to evoke a sense of an inescapable forever. Enys Men integrates long static shots of a radio, of flowers, of a home, edited almanac style among bits of narrative that by the end appears to be occurring not only at separate points in time but also in a blurring of these times. The result is something akin to haunting, measured ghost stories such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Much like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Enys Men and all these liminal horrors intentionally avoid giving enough information for a specific interpretation, relying instead on the combination of tedium and vague narrative impressions to create unease and hopelessness in the audience. Skinamarink is surprisingly both the most indulgent in these seemingly anti-audience techniques and the most surrounded by buzz in the genre community. The majority of its 100-minute runtime is just static shots of dimly lit walls with whispers of sound nearby. Big moments in the film include things like a toilet disappearing. For a film that feels and looks just like a Structural patience tester, it is impressive how much Skinamarink has risen into genre notoriety.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and The Outwaters both take a found footage approach to the sub-genre. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair uses the lens of a computer chat to peek in on a teen’s lonely life playing a formless online role-playing game. The found footage approach is so static here that it teeters into Structural film territory. In The Outwaters, the most lively and violent of these liminal features, the found footage camera carried by the protagonist eventually seems to be something he doesn’t even realize he is still carrying. Having lost his mind in some sort of alternate dimension of time-folded desert, the camera is now just strapped to his hand, carried without attempt at cinematography as in the earlier “sane” portion of the movie. Again, a twist on the Structural film rules. All these films interweave segments of nothingness with narrative using distinct editing that, while not full-blown almanac style, relies on the effects of the technique to add to both senses of space and confusion. Here in liminal horror over a century of Formalist techniques come together in a new way of pushing audiences into terror. Where The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat was a brief thrill ride, liminal horror pulls one into lengthy dread, but both rely on the same core Formalism of the camera’s eye and the viewer’s eye becoming one.

It is to be seen what A24, or anyone, does with expanding the “Backrooms” viral videos into features, but for the moment, these shorts are the most popular form of liminal horror. What is unique about them is their basis in 1st person POV video games. The audience’s view is not unlike a game of Doom (1993), just without anything happening. Generated in the computer, “Backrooms” shorts go beyond compressing the camera eye and the audience eye. There is, in a sense, no camera at all. There is only a screen. It may be that this evolution is the real key to unlocking the horror of cinematic seeing. The key to removing tedium from the Structural necessity of experiencing the camera’s curse is the removal of the camera, thus collapsing the curse of true seeing and the human eye together, no middle man. Call me Cinématographe.

Author

  • Brian Miller

    Brian is the founder of the Deathbomb Arc record label and writes film essays at various sites under the guise Neon Zen.

    https://medium.com/@deathbombarc_66606 dbombarc@gmail.com Miller Brian