Horror, documents and the new epistolary

The greatest mark of the advance of technology is the increase in the number and kind of documents that it creates. Life – modern life particularly – is lived through and in these documents: others’ lives, and our own, are mediated through a web of new media, each offering its own freedoms and limitations. These developments are worked at throughout recent horror fiction, as any way that the way that life is lived and seen will be. In what ways has this impacted upon the genre, and the ways that it has allowed horror films to create new forms of horror? How are our lives are lived through these documents, and what importance those documents can take?

What exactly horror is, where it comes from, why it does what it does and what that means is a question probably as old as the genre itself; a genre which in turn is probably as old as culture. In some sense, it is simply a genre marked by certain kinds of structures and consensuses. But more importantly it is identifiable primarily as affect. The reason that horror functions and is applied so widely is that it is simply that which provokes a certain emotional state – that emotional state being an intensely negative one, what the OED defines as “A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful.” Horror fiction is distinct from, for example, natural horrors, in that it is experienced for leisure, despite the negative effects of the phenomenon in the moment of its apprehension.  It is this meaning of horror fiction – art which aims to produce such an emotional response – that I wish to work with in this essay, though by no means ignoring the historical progression and continuities of the certain types of work that fits within that description.

The epistolary novel in contemporary art perhaps has far more to do with documentary and found footage than the history of its own form; its history more that of the objet trouvé than the tradition of, for example, Samuel Richardson.* For this reason, it is just as useful to consider this form in relation to other compilatory forms; the found footage film, for example, or the remix or mash-up. The found footage film, in recent years, has taken two intertwined definitions, both of which are useful for this essay. First, chronologically, a found footage film is one in which pieces of old and previously disparate are edited together to create a new piece of work, related but importantly different from archive footage, and which recalls the physical bulk of film from which the word ‘footage’ comes. Secondly, and more recently, it refers to films which though scripted and acted pertain to be or look like films taken of and from the events that the film aims to dramatise – these are usually, though by no means exclusively, horror films.

In 1992, the BBC screened Ghostwatch, a mockumentary ‘hosted’ by Michael Parkinson, which purported to be a real investigation of events in a suburban home. Parkinson began the programme by speaking to camera, saying “No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows, yet for the past ten months this house has been the focus of an astonishing barrage of supernatural activity.” This programme, which both spoofed and worked with news reports that came before it, caused uproar at its time of airing, and as a result has not been aired since. The horror at least in part appears to come from its verisimilitude; despite having a ‘written by’ credit, and a full cast list, many believed the events on screen to be true. Authors pretending that their epistolary work is true is, of course, not new – and has been taking place since the beginning of the genre, and may be in part responsible for its creation – but the ways that television and film can realise this kind of apparent truthfulness are much greater.

The potential of this kind of genre to be used in horror films has since been realised, and continues to be developed up to the present day. Perhaps the first to do this with great success – and certainly the piece most significantly placed in the public imagination – is The Blair Witch Project (1999). The film begins with a title card which reads:

In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary called “The Blair Witch Project”.

A year later their footage was found.

The film pertains to be that footage. The makers of the film also compiled The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier that claimed to include a number of documents centred around the premise of the film. The film’s advertising campaign included posters, one of which appeared as a missing persons advert, and another which – despite featuring a list of cast members – nonetheless features the text above (see Appendix A and B). What’s more, the film is real in some sense, since the actors were not directed as such, and were often left to their own devices in the woods.

By presenting the footage as real, and a document of true events, filmmakers are able to increase the horror of their work by giving it a keen and savage sense of verisimilitude. Just as the footage that makes up The Blair Witch Project is ostensibly found after the event, directors have found novel ways of allowing the footage that makes up the film to be explained by the events within it, and many of them critique the forms that they employ. So, for example, the REC films (and its English-language remake, Quarantine) follow a TV crew into an infected building, and demonstrate the ways that TV crews can both illuminate events and hinder their being responded to; films such as Grave Encounters use the form of Ghostwatch, and follow a fictional programme about the paranormal, and ask questions about the ways that this form (which has also had a concurrent surge in popularity) both desire and rely upon not finding actual paranormal behaviour; The Last Exorcism shows the ways that film crews can intrude upon lives and make them worse, but may also be able to investigate abuse that may not have gone recognised; the Paranormal Activity films show the ways that the internalisation of a surveillance-centred culture can form its own kind of paranoia and uncertainty; Diary of the Dead and The Zombie Diaries each show the effects of people’s compulsive need to film, and the ways that may get in the way of actually living (and, in these cases, staying alive). The season has become so established that films such as Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and The Hills Run Red have been able to admiringly pastiche the genre; Behind the Mask follows a film crew as they film a character who seeks to become a villain from a slasher film, and The Hills Run Red shows a character attempting to make his own horror film, using the characters as his cast.

The rise of this kind of film is undebatable – in the past five years there has been a remarkable increase in the making and success of films of this genre. This has, I believe, been the result of two factors: the first of which being that successes have led to further successes, after producers have noticed that there is an audience appeal in this kind of genre per se; the second that this genre reflects certain trends in the world and society outside of the film, which account for both its emergence and its success. These two facts are absolutely interlinked.

There is no question that the audience watching these films are now more filmed themselves than any audience before; a combination of both surveillance culture and the proliferation of consumer cameras mean that to be photographed has become commonplace. However, it has still not become normal: that is to say, under the glare of a camera lens one still feels the kinds of petrifying distress that Barthes located in Camera Lucida:

This disturbance [the feeling of seeing oneself in a photograph] is ultimately one of ownership. Law has expressed it in its way: to whom does the photograph belong? Is landscape itself only a kind of loan made by the owner of the terrain? Countless cases, apparently, have expressed this uncertainty in a society for which being was based on having. Photography transformed subject into object, and even, one might say, into a museum object: in order to take the first portraits (around 1840) the subject had to assume long poses under a glass roof in bright sunlight; to become an object made one suffer as much as a surgical operation; then a device was invented, a kind of prosthesis invisible to the lens, which supported and maintained the body in its passage to immobility: this headrest was the pedestal of the statue I would become, the corset of my imaginary essence.

The kind of procedure described here – that of having a portrait taken – does sound akin to a horror film, but the process of objectification that one must force oneself to undergo both by the camera and by oneself remains absolutely true, even if that objectification is not accompanied by a practically necessary stasis. To be fixed under the gaze of the camera actually becomes more terrifying as it becomes more normalised, its constant reproduction (along with other modes of confrontation of the self, such as social networking) forcing a near-continual apprehension of self-as-other, and subject-as-object, an affect which is both ripe for horror, and in some ways horror itself.

The intrusion of the photographic upon domestic life is a long and historical process, but it has never been any more felt than it is now. As Susan Sontag writes, “Cameras go with family life. According to a sociological study done in France, most households have a camera, but a household with children is twice as likely to have at least one camera as a household in which there are no children.” The camera is as much a necessary part of having a family that it has almost become a part of the family itself, a link tying the people united under that linguistic and genealogical shorthand together, and so its simultaneous sense of familiarity and danger is in close proximity to the modern household. It is this that Paranormal Activity plays upon, depicting the horror of demonic possession, within the household and through the camera that has been allowed entry to it. As can be seen in Appendix C, much of the effect of this film comes from the simple colouring of domestic spaces with the possibility of supernatural events, rather than the depiction of them; this shot, which lasts a long time on camera, largely consists of both the child and the dog reacting to a force unacknowledged by the camera. This sense of watching is echoed, through the camera, in the viewer (which, as can be seen in this shot, forms a neatly tripartite set of viewers), and so the act of surveillance becomes inextricably intertwined with the act of creating that which one is supposed to be discovering.

If documents, and ways of documenting, effect and may even be the way that we live our lives, then the disruption of those documents as takes place in the epistolary horror derive their effect through the disruption to the very ways that we live. Thus, while the epistolary or document-led horror form adds verisimilitude to the work, it also adds truth to it, in that the horror may derive from the destruction or unsettling of the very ways that we relate to the world. It is from this fact that this newly popular form has derived its commercial success and its artistic attraction; it is in this way, too, that it may offer a form of critique that is truly and successfully radical.

*    *    *

(This essay was written for a university course. The below originally appeared in the second paragraph, but is less relevant in this context.)

*    *    *

In Reality Hunger, David Shields writes “I see every art as importantly documentary. Everything is always already invented; we merely articulate and arrange. The forms of art that makes art’s status as document the most explicit give me real delight.” This quotation, as well as Shield’s book more generally, are uncertainly placed temporally: Shields complaint is both that the novel has run its course, has little to offer, and so we desire reality within art, but he is also concerned with picking at the traditions that have made this the case, and isolating and exploring instances that have contributed to this situation. However, it is clear that here Shields point stands within a modernist sense that the text should be roughened, and should draw attention to its own status as such. Horror has long been forced to consider itself as such as a result of external forces: more than any other genre, its defining affect and the devices by which it has been achieved have been subject to both critical and official criticism at least since the 1950s. This has meant that practitioners of this art have had to face the ways that their art corresponds to real life, and the ways that the horrors they depict have been “already invented”, though their “articulat[ion] and arrange[ment]” has been held responsible for immoral acts, both imagined and real. Similarly, despite Shield’s attempts at a universal truth, his statement is more true now than it ever was: there are many more documents, more widely available. To reverse Shield’s statement, it is also useful to think about the ways not only that art can make “art’s status as document […] explicit”, but also that it can make documents status as art, too; and explore the ways that those new documents create new art.

The epistolary novel in its traditional form of letters still exists, but is often subject to critique or destabilisation from within. Lionel Shrivers’ We Need To Talk About Kevin, for example, appears to be a conventional take on the epistolary form, in that it is letters, in which the action is played out. However, the events of the end of the novel serve to destabilise all that went before it – and so the very assumptions on which this kind of novel is based are undermined, and the validity of this kind of form implicitly questioned. By revealing at the close of the novel that the addressee of the letters within the piece – Eva’s husband – is dead, Shriver forces the sense of violent apprehension that marks the pivot of the moment of horror to occur not simply in understanding the events within the novel, but the very apparatus on which they have been portrayed. The letters – which have, up to that moment, not been visibly replied to, but nonetheless imply a response (Eva says that the husband and wife are “separated” in the first lines of the book) – unfurl into a desperate monologue, more akin to a journal. This, perhaps, is more conceivable in the contemporary world, letters now possessing a kind of nostalgia that is necessary within a novel but still cannot be shaken, but in so rapidly and violently killing the recipient of the letters within the text (and therefore in some sense attacking the reader, since they are also the referent of the repeated ‘you’s throughout the text), Shriver questions not only the way that contemporary documents, and faintly anachronistic documents like letters in the contemporary world, can convey horror; but also introduces the ways that the affinity and familiarity of a form and a kind of document can belie and amplify the horror of that which it contains. In this case, the aesthetic shaping necessary to linguistic expression, and the argumentative and rhetorical opportunities that it presents, are implicated in the creation of the horrific sense. Document not only becomes a carrier for horror, but agent of it.

Max Brooks’ World War Z is a novel that uses these expanded possibilities of the epistolary form to great, and terrifying, effect. This novel, whose subtitle is ‘An Oral History of the Zombie War’ pertains to be a series of transcriptions from people involved in what the ‘Introduction’ calls “’The Crisis,’ ‘The Dark Years,’ ‘The Walking Plague,’ as well as newer and more ‘hip’ titles such as ‘World War Z’ or ‘Z War One.’” This same introduction claims that “Although this is primarily a book of memories, it includes many of the details, technological, social, economic, and so on, found in the original Commission Report, as they are related to the stories of those voices featured in these pages. This is their book, not mine, and I have tried to maintain as invisible a presence as possible.” By mirroring both the language and presentation of numerous real official reports – most notable the 9/11 Commission Report into the events of 11th September 2001 – Brooks is able to give a realistic picture of the ways that the imagined zombie attack detailed in the book would be presented in such documents. The book contains the dull discourse of bureaucracy, such as when the reader is told that “Reconstruction funds have been slow to arrive in this part of the country, the government choosing to concentrate on the more densely populated coast” in the opening pages. This novel was written to follow on from Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide, in which Brooks ironically detailed the necessary precautions that should be taken to survive a zombie attack, again spoofing the discourse of similar, real survival guides. By relaying fantastical events through a language which is known to his readers – and which is often used euphemistically to describe real horrors – Brooks is able to give an insight into the way it will be played out in official discourse, thus bringing the verisimilitude necessary to effective horror.

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