Found-Footage Films & the Visual Rhetoric of the Legend Film
This was a paper I delivered at the annual International Society of Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) conference held in Lexington, KY in May 2013.
In “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth”, Elliott Oring (2008) proposes legend scholars need to address various rhetorical devices legend storytellers and audiences avail themselves to in performance. In many respects, Oring’s article is perhaps too essentialist and proscriptive to be useful to legend scholars themselves. What I am doing in this paper is to use Oring to develop a framework for a discussion of the legend-films, to look at the rhetorical devices film-storytellers use to convince us of the veracity of their narrative. The film text itself, rather than seeing it as a definitive artistic product, needs to be considered as a variant text; with sequels, remakes, and derivative films displaying both conservative trends within the filmmaking tradition it is self-consciously situated and dynamic variation in creating a ‘new spin’ on this tradition.
The films I am discussing here are known as “found-footage” films; a term which is used to describe both artistic installations which use archival film & video footage as a montage and to a contemporary horror movie tradition which purports to be video footage of actual quasi-legendary occurrences. This latter tradition of mockumentary film making is currently very popular with four films in the Paranormal 0Activity series (2007-2012), two Grave Encounters films (2011-2012), and a whole slew of variations on this model. Nor is this tradition limited to American filmmakers: the Spanish [REC] series (2007-2012) and the British Zombie Diaries series (2006-2011) also follow this tradition. Of course, this kind of horror movie goes at least as far back as The Blair Witch Project (1999) if not further back to Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Legendary topics explored in these films fall into two main camps: documents of the zombie apocalypse and of paranormal hauntings. Although some other variations include aliens (The Fourth Kind  & Cloverfield ), monsters (Evidence ) and demonic possession (The Devil Inside  & The Last Exorcism ). In discussing these films, my interest lies in how the film constructs its own claims to veracity; in other words, I’m looking at the films’ visual rhetoric, on how it presents its legend materials to convince us of its truth.
In Oring’s article, he divides his schemata into three parts: what he calls “Ethos” (131-138), “Logos” (138-157) and “Pathos” (157-158) [and significantly, not D’Artagnan], but which can be simplified (and made less pretentious) as the Teller, the Tale and the Affect. Each of these parts I shall be discussing in turn. While some of Oring’s discussion is less relevant to films than oral or written variants, I am adapting these ideas as relevant.
Rhetoric of the Legend-Film
Oring begins his schemata by discussing the legend teller, what Oring characterizes as “Ethos”, the “authority of the source”. For this application to popular films, the question is modified slightly to ask where is the film coming from? The mockumentary style of most of these films opts for an immediacy of experience, of raw footage caught at the point of encounter, rather than having the narrative retold after the fact or second hand. We are dealing with a form of legend-telling that is presentation of the event/experience rather than a representation of that narrative. In The Fourth Kind, recreated docudrama footage starring Milla Jovovich and Will Patton is self-consciously intercut with purported ‘documentary’ evidence, to tell this story of alien abductions.
Historical docudramas, despite their recreation of historical events, often go out of their way to demonstrate the veracity of their production by evoking the historians or other experts who advised them. Sometimes this authority goes so far as to be witnesses to the events portrayed within the film. The case of The Fourth Kind is extreme: having the actors play their roles self-consciously intercut with faux-archival footage is uncommon. Mostly the authority of these films is ascertained by being the footage of the encounter itself. It (whatever ‘it’ is) happens in front of us, as it happened to the person holding the camcorder. We experience the legend narrative almost first hand; the distance to the event is minimalized as much as it can be (Oring, 2008, pp. 133-135). The distance of the narrator to the event is key in ascertaining the veracity of the encounter. In the Paranormal Activity films, for example, the film is a construction of primary video footage of a series of hauntings. When the camera is knocked over by ‘the ghost’, we receive, as experience, that physical assault; because the camera keeps rolling (and the inclusion of that footage in the final film), we have been knocked over too. The distance between tale teller and tale is minimized as much as possible; the technological equipment (the video camera) is the only mediation between us and the encounter.
In Grave Encounters, the film opens with Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson), a reality TV producer who has the rights to the “Grave Encounters” video footage. Not only does Hartfield’s mediation of the narrative, as someone who is an expert in reality TV, authorize the showing of the footage, he fully admits that the viewers need to make up their own minds as to the veracity of the story. We are positioned as complicit with Hartfield in this narrative we are about to witness. Consider how many of these films presuppose the actual videographers deaths: Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity [all of them], Grave Encounters and even Troll Hunter all work within the rhetorical strategy that the footage was captured at great personal risk to the camera-operator. Risks which resulted in the deaths of whomever was holding the camera.
The bulk of Oring’s schemata justifiably pertain to the narrative itself; what rhetorical tools do the storyteller use to convince us that their narrative is true. Following suit, I want to look at some of the rhetorical tools filmmakers use to tell their stories. While Oring’s “Logos” is about the belief and commentary of the legend’s core, he also suggests (appropriately, I think) that these narratives are discursive; that they function to facilitate larger discussions about their accuracy than to offer essentialist acceptance or disbelief.
To begin with, these films are presented in a linear fashion; that is, the narrative progresses, prosaically, from event A to B and onwards. These films mostly avoid flashbacks, although the later Paranormal Activity films do include a few sequences out of order to connect the current film within the series. More significantly are the films’ lengthy introductions; these movies take a while to get going and are often filled with banal young people being horrid. However, as Oring noted, the extraneous details often included in legend narratives work towards grounding the story in our own worlds. These sequences within the film are therefore rhetorical strategies to link the film narrative within the lived experiences of the intended audience. These films are almost all R-rated, yet are focused on “younger” adults (late teens/early twenties). In Grave Encounters 2, the film opens with Alex’s experiences as a film student at university; presumably, this is the intended audience of the film – university-aged kids. Grave Encounters, focusing on the pilot episode of a fictional ghost-hunting show, is rooted within the cheesy posturing of actual ghost-hunting shows which, presumably, the filmmakers anticipate their audience will be familiar with. In both of these examples, the “slow build” to anything paranormal happening are to give the narrative details that Oring identified in legend-telling rhetoric.
The tone of the film is often crucial to the rhetoric of the truth claims. These films are almost always presented earnestly. The encounters chosen tend to be serious, rather than flippant – ghosts, aliens, zombies, etc. Micah, for example in Paranormal Activity, is largely incredulous to the haunting and exacerbates the events by openly challenging the presence for proof (including bringing in a Ouija board). In Paranormal Activity 3, Randy and Katie play “Bloody Mary” together and hope to meet Toby, the presence haunting this family across way too many sequels. Micah’s incredulity costs him his life, and Randy is so frightened by the encounter he quits his job and never visits again, much like the babysitter earlier in the film. Even in the almost parodic Troll Hunter, wherein fairy-tale trolls are discovered to live in the Norwegian north, the laughter in the film is of surprise and excitement, not mocking or dismissive of the discovery. The cheesy ghost-hunting show “Grave Encounters” effectively turns the tables on these frauds by encountering actual ghosts in an abandoned insane asylum. And the experience ends in all their deaths.
Oring identifies narrative framing particular to legends; he distinguishes between “words-as-words” and “words-as-worlds” (Oring, 2008, p. 140). When the narrative is explicitly told as a narrative, that is, its story-telling-ness is foregrounded, the account has less veracity than if the narrative attempts to present the world itself. Regardless of the accuracy of the account or the authority of the source material, a film’s veracity is diminished when its artifice is considered. In a docudrama, wherein actors are playing roles and sets are built (and in particular when special effects are used) there is a level of artificiality involved. When the film is presented as unmediated footage, the veracity increases. The Amityville Horror may be based on a true story (even if ultimately that story was discounted), but the 1979 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, is a representation (rather than presentation) of the narrative. To demonstrate the opposite, despite Paranormal Activity being completely fictional, it’s apparent presentation of actual occurrences – including the absence of opening or closing credits – was sufficiently persuasive for my barber to assure me the first Paranormal Activity film was a ‘true story’.
Oring suggests that the apparent lack of artistry in legend telling, supports the narrative’s truthfulness; the story’s own logic and prosaic events resists aesthetic embellishments (Oring, 2008, p. 154). Certainly in the found-footage films, the cinematography is meant to convey prosaic truthfulness, not pretty pictures. These are ugly films because the aesthetics of composition are designed to only convey visual information. “Realism”, as an aesthetic concern, is received as inauthentic; the visual element in these films is imperfect to therefore increase believability. Probably half the shots in the entire film Apartment 143 are from overhead surveillance camera angles designed to show as much of the room as possible.
/ In The Devil Within, the opening few minutes of the film does several of these moves one after the other.
First of all, the Vatican denies the legitimacy of exorcism and the evidence presented in the film. Dates are given which specifies when the events documented took place. 911 audio, with on-screen transcription, is presented which seems to be authentic. The evidence of the 911 call is supported by what is reputed to be authentic police documentation of the murder scene, presented in unemotional distanced evidentiary manner. Archival news footage of the events corroborates the police account. And finally, interview footage with Isabella Rossi, Maria’s daughter, further corroborating what happened, but offering an alternative interpretation on the events and including home video footage. Six different types of evidence are presented, each of which supports the previous one in some way. Even commentary from consulting neurologist Dr. Jeff Victoroff, apparently playing himself, suggesting that Maria’s case is one of mental illness not demonic possession works to uphold this discursive aspect to the legend-film. The Devil Within went so far to not only corroborate its own (fictional) narrative, but also, as part of that strategy, also to potentially debunk it. The first-person videography of the film counters any attempt at debunking by presenting raw footage of exorcisms; so we are either to believe the scientists who have only passingly diagnosed Maria Rossi as mentally ill or our own eyes. At the end of the film, viewers are encouraged to go to the film’s webpage (www.therossifiles.com) for more information on how the investigation is progressing, combining fake pages about the film with actual links to discussions and documentation about possession and exorcism. Alas, at the time of writing, this webpage seems to have been taken down, probably by the Vatican in a conspiracy of silence against the truth.
Finally, we come to “Pathos”, by which Oring means the rhetorical devices used to evoke certain emotions and responses from the audience. Affect is of course different from effect; the former is the intended response while the latter is the actual response; so in this case, we are looking for what the filmmaker anticipates our reaction to be by the construction of the narrative. With the inclusion of the “Rossi Files” webpage at the end of The Devil Inside, the filmmakers not only intend for the film’s audience to go to the webpage when they get home, there is also a suggestion that the audience will be scrambling for a pen and paper in the dark of the cinema. There’s also the suggestion, as it happened with me, that seeing the film on DVD, particularly a DVD watched on one’s laptop, that one will instantly go and check out that page. The inclusion of that Internet address then suggests activity post-screening, regardless of the actuality of that activity.
Of course, with all these films, the intention is to frighten us. Oring notes that legends are “more likely to be regarded as true if it conforms to the … emotional … expectations of the audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157; emphasis in original). The emotional expectation of these films is fear. Jump-scares and the build up of tension work to have this emotional affect on us. We judge the success of any of these films on whether or not it succeeds in creating those emotions; a good Paranormal Activity film is one which is scary. We can conclude from the number of films like these produced every year that they are sufficiently emotionally satisfying to warrant further production. To date, the fifth Paranormal Activity film is schedule for release in late (probably around Halloween) 2013. A second Last Exorcism film is also scheduled for a late 2013 release. But there are other expectations suggested here too.
Oring notes that these narratives must meet the “cognitive … expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); applied here reveals the logic of the film franchise. Broadening this idea out, understanding a specific “Robin Hood” story does not require previous knowledge of all the possible “Robin Hood” stories. Each legend-film must be able to stand on its own without reference to anything else. While a bifurcated audience, between those who have followed a series and those for whom this is their first encounter, is suggested, each delivering related but different rewards, these films must simultaneously stand alone and work in the series. Unlike other film franchises, where appreciation requires a full understanding of the narrative progression across several films, these films do both. This cognitive dimension to these films poses some problems for the folklorist studying these films: namely they violate their own belief traditions. Too much veracity is sacrificed for sensationalism in the films. For example, across the Paranormal Activity films, rather than simply a ghost haunting the house, Toby is a demon who can fling people spectacularly across the room. In The Devil Inside, rather than maintaining the ambivalence towards belief, the exorcism sequences feature the possessed able to crawl, spider-like, up walls and to pull out almost every possession-movie cliché since The Exorcist. Perhaps the most absurd moment occurs in Paranormal Activity 3, where the babysitter (and assumedly the audience) is freaked out by an actual sheet-wearing ghost.
The final rhetorical aspect suggested by Oring is regarding the “moral expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); and it is here that these films apparently succeed for most of its audience, but fail for me. The zombie epidemic in the [REC] films is caused, not by chemical or biological weapons, but by demonic possession. In the American remake of the [REC], Quarantine, the demonic possession element is dropped in favour of a biological agent. There appears to be shift in the moral centre of these narratives; demons in one cultural context will sell, but not in another. In the Spanish Atrocious, a found-footage haunted house movie, ghosts mix with mental illness, but in the American Paranormal Activity films, a ghost isn’t as scary as a demon. The moral centre of these films, like in legend telling itself, is context dependent both geographically and temporally. These films need their moral-centres to reflect what is anticipated the moral centre of the audience is going to be. But surprisingly, if that is true, then the moral centres of these films is not warning against playing with the supernatural, because you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The demon Toby in the Paranormal Activity films follows Katie specifically, whether Micah antagonizes him or not. The demonic presence in The Devil Within moves from Maria to Isabella Rossi, in what the filmmakers call “demonic transference”. In all these cases, including the Spanish films, the “kids” pay for their parents moral debts. The moral centres of these films seems to be, taken as an aggregate, the resentment of one generation for what the previous generation left behind; and are powerless to escape from it.
The found-footage films are an extreme example of legend-films, due to their mockumentary style of presentation. Currently, they are fashionable, particularly for horror movies (although there’s no reason why a romantic comedy couldn’t also use this style). However, I’d like to conclude by suggesting that the central question we need to ask of any legend-film is regarding what rhetorical devices are the filmmakers utilizing in order to convince us of the veracity of their narrative? We may ultimately discount the story as a fabrication – that’s not the point. What matters is that these filmmakers try in the first place to convince us that their tales are true.
[Rec]. 2007. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.
[Rec]². 2009. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.
[REC]³ Génesis. 2012. [Film] Directed by Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.
Blair Witch Project, The. 1999. [Film] Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez. USA: Haxan Films.
Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. [Film] Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Italy: F.D. Cinematografica.
Grave Encounters 2. 2012. [Film] Directed by John Poliquin. USA: Twin Engine Films.
Grave Encounters. 2011. [Film] Directed by The Vicious Brothers. USA: Twin Engine Films.
Oring, E., 2008. Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth. Journal of American Folklore, Volume 121, pp. 127-166.
Paranormal Activity 2. 2010. [Film] Directed by Tod Williams. USA: Paramount Pictures.
Paranormal Activity 3. 2011. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.
Paranormal Activity 4. 2012. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.
Paranormal Activity. 2007. [Film] Directed by Oren Peli. USA : Paramount Pictures.
Zombie Diaries 2. 2011. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.
Zombie Diaries, The. 2006. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.