The Visit (2015), directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is one of the best of the “found footage” / mockumentary horror films that have proliferated in popular cinema in recent years (including Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, to be released October 22).
Shyamalan is, regardless of the general banality of many of his films, a supreme stylist, and The Visit is a controlled, superbly manipulative – and genuinely creepy – faux-doco horror film.
Like The Blair Witch Project (1999) before it – the ur-film of digital mockumentary horror – The Visit is presented as the footage of an amateur filmmaker, fifteen year old Becca (Olivia De Jonge).
Becca and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) visit their grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) for a week, and Becca films the experience from start to finish. They’ve never met their grandparents, so the visit is partly so they can get to know them. But the visit also marks a first act of reconciliation of their mother (Kathryn Hahn) and her parents, whom she hasn’t seen for fifteen years.
Becca shoots several key moments of the visit, including interviews with her grandparents, in an attempt to find forgiveness and solace for her estranged mother (or, as Becca aptly terms it using popular narrative theory, the “elixir”).
The footage authentically evokes the voice of Becca, though, of course, as in the work of all good storytellers, this “authenticity” is channelled through the skill and professionalism of the creative presence behind it. That is, Shyamalan, a veteran of Hollywood with eight films as director since The Sixth Sense made him famous in 1999. This “documentary” footage, though it strains to appear otherwise, is considerably more sophisticated than what we might expect of a fifteen year old.
One of the strengths of Shyamalan’s approach (and it is a strength of the “found footage” film at large) is its naturalisation of the cinematic frame. The Visit effectively does this by drawing attention to the frame, rather than trying to hide it. It appears as though there’s a reason for the presence of these images, without us having to “suspend our disbelief” and ignore the cinematic apparatus as we do when we experience conventional narrative films.
Found footage horror films generally fall into two categories. Some, like Paranormal Activity (2007), depict the relationship between media and the supernatural; that which can not ordinarily be seen, detected or recorded is seen, detected or recorded by a technological medium. Eugene Thacker refers to these as “Dark Media” in his eponymous essay.
Some, like The Visit, feature an unspeakable (but human) crime that is “accidentally” captured, a legacy going back to films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Ruggero Deodato’s controversial Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
And then there are the horror films in which a character locates or uses media that have some kind of spectral, phantasmatic effect or aura – Poltergeist (1982), Ringu (1998) or the recent Sinister (2012), for example.
All of these films, The Visit included, are part of a greater cultural and historical tradition that has often linked media – especially new forms of media – to the supernatural and the horrific.
The genre of spirit photography, for example, as Friedrich Kittler shows in his magisterial work of media history, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986), emerged almost concurrently with photography itself.
Thus it is no surprise that several popular horror films have looked at the horrific relationship between media and the human body.
Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), for example, focuses on the relationship between television and serial killing. The film’s charismatic killer, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), following his “execution” by electric chair, converts himself into a stream of electricity and proceeds to terrorise American families, appearing within their TV sets and emerging into their living rooms to continue his murder spree.
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) offers a more psychologically nuanced discussion of the effects of televisual media on the human body, as Max Renn (James Woods) is blasted with “cathode tube” rays that cause sado-sexual hallucinations and eventually grotesque corporeal mutations.
Michael Crichton’s Looker (1981), Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and, more recently, The Mothman Prophecies (2002), are others amongst myriad films that directly engage with the latent horror of media.
The prevalence of this theme in horror films, perhaps, says something about the “miraculous” nature of media in the first place.
Media extend the human body through space and time, acting prosthetically, as Paul Virilio, the canniest prophet of the internet age, has argued in several works. My body is able to appear (and exert control) elsewhere and later courtesy of media technologies.
Virilio was influenced by 1960s Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, famous for coining the phrases “the medium is the message” and “the global village.” Given their mutual fascination with the human body and its extensions via media, it is perhaps worth noting that both emerged from a Catholic background.
Why the current popularity of found footage films? There are probably several reasons for this. The availability and accessibility of digital film technology is certainly a factor, along with the facility of crafting a film to appear uncrafted. Though films like Paranormal Activity, Unfriended(2014) and The Visit are hardly “low budget,” they’re certainly not Avatar (2009) or Inception (2010).
But I would suggest that it is also the product of the growth and proliferation of media technologies (often through hyper-accelerated planned obsolescence), including “new media,” coupled with a growing interest in and intuition of the intimate connection between media and death.
As an extension of life through time and space, media simultaneously gesture towards not-being, towards death. This is analogous to the double logic of prostheses, as discussed by Mark Seltzer in Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (1998). The mechanical arm may extend the amputee’s reach, but it is also an indice of her lack of reach.
One of the major functions (and attractions) of media, Marcel O’Gorman points out in Necromedia (2015), is to stave off death. Writing, photography and audio recording are able to capture traces of the human body (voice, image, thoughts) that negate the here and now of life.
I am able to exist after I am no longer – at least my image, words and voice are. This exemplifies the kind of pharmacological function of media in cushioning us against death, against not-being. It is, though, at best – as horror film makers love to point out – a palliative medicine.
Death will come. My body will de-materialise, even if my trace lives on in these words, (already not) here and now.