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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 55.2: Cecilia Sayad
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Cameras and Ghosts

Cecilia Sayad

My article in Cinema Journal 55.2 (“Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing”) is a first incursion into a broader study of the ways in which reality comes into play in horror films. Affect is certainly an element in this wider project, but in this particular piece I draw from theories of framing, as well as its use as an element of style, to argue for a different approach to the relationship between horror and reality. The idea was to extend beyond the notion of allegory that traditionally defines this relationship and explore, instead, those filmic elements forging, on both a conceptual and a visual level, the permeability between the film and the surrounding (“real”) world that we, viewers, inhabit. I deploy a theoretical and a formal examination of the cinematic frame to investigate the found-footage horror film’s playful suggestion that there may be an unsettling ontological and spatial integration between the image and the extrafilmic, here understood as the space both of production (with crew and equipment) and of consumption (film viewing).

While traditionally horror narratives are seen to offer allegories of real events or scenarios, the found-footage horror movie presents itself not as the fictional and metaphorical articulation of reality, but as the actual documentation of it (irrespective of the allegorical readings their fantastic plots may invite). This cycle is undoubtedly a culturally endorsed hoax—audiences are not presumed to be misled into believing in the factuality of the story events. But these films’ fictional quality does not undermine the impact the documentary mode can have on our perception of both the intersection and the separation between the represented world and the real one. The found-footage horror blurs boundaries between film and reality on many levels. Its style and presentation playfully confuse documentary and fictional modes; its particular form of direct address gives the camera diegetic status, transposing it from the realm of the extrafilmic into that of the fiction; its unstable framing decenters composition and suggests greater continuity between the image and the off-screen.

It follows that my proposed discussion of the frame is not limited to what lies within the borders of the image, but encompasses also a more abstract sense of narrative space (diegesis vs. extrafilmic) and fictional territory (through the ontological implications of the movies’ documentary claim and style). Released after the writing and editing of my article, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Gregory Plotkin, 2015), the sixth installment in the franchise, finds a new way of suggesting this blurring of domains. In a scene that is as short as it is unsettling, the movie dramatizes the inter-penetrability between the realms of film and reality in a way that is far more profound than the 3D-produced illusion that phantom dust crosses into the audience (3D technology is the sequel’s presumed “contribution” to the series). The story takes place in 2013, when a family moves into a house built over the site once occupied by the childhood home of Katie and Kristi (here played, respectively, by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown), which, as we had learned in the first film of the franchise (Oren Peli, 2007), was burned down. Brothers Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Mike (Dan Gill) find and watch VHS tapes showing events in the girls’ lives (the subject of Paranormal Activity 3, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2011). Radically reconfiguring the ontology of film, the images of Kristi and Katie acknowledge the two men—they can see and hear them. The old (and found) footage of the girls breaks away from the spatial and temporal boundaries that constitute it as a record of the past, for the past is not fixed on tape but, instead, interacts with the viewing of it in the present time (when Mike’s daughter, Leila [Ivy George], enters the room, her sneeze is greeted by Katie and Kristi with a “Bless you”). This scene subverts also the voyeuristic dynamics presupposed by classical psychoanalytic theory: here, the image’s returning of the gaze removes the viewing agents from the comfortable position of seeing without being seen.

Katie’s image, on tape, reacts to what goes on while Ryan and Mike watch the footage in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Paramount, 2015). Source.

But most importantly, the girls’ ability to see Ryan and Mike puts the filmed image and the surrounding reality in direct communication. This possibility can also be understood in light of the longstanding relationship between science and the occult, which is the focus of research on ghost hunting reality shows I have been undertaking since the completion of the Cinema Journal piece. I have been looking at paranormal investigation programs that use well-established generic tropes of horror to generate suspense and scares. Unlike the found-footage horror film, shows like Most Haunted (Living TV 2002–2010; Most Haunted TV 2013; Really 2014–), Ghost Hunters (Sci-Fi 2004–2009; SyFy 2009–2011; Thrill 2011–), Paranormal State (A&E 2007–2011), and Fear (MTV 2000–2002) actually purport to investigate events in the lives of real people or places, even if these events’ supernatural or paranormal nature can be put into question both by skeptical viewers and by the shows’ hosts. The study of these reality series within the parameters of the horror film has allowed me to expand my methodology to include historical considerations about the intimate relationship between new technologies and the supernatural.[1]

Similar to found-footage horror films like the Paranormal Activity franchise, The Devil Inside (William Brent Bell, 2012) and Devil’s Due (Matt Betinnelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, 2014), in reality shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State technology has a dual function. On the one hand, it can solve a mystery and verify whether or not a place is really haunted or a person really possessed by demonic forces. The technology has the potential to reveal a presence that can be felt by a human medium—individual members of a haunted family, for example—but not by everyone. The technology thus channels the paranormal, reaches out to it, and renders it visible and audible. We could even say that the technology causes the manifestation of supposedly paranormal phenomena. In Ghost Hunters a spirit decides to tell the investigators that he is “not dead” because he knows the apparatus will allow them to hear his voice. In the fictional Paranormal Activity movie, the act of filming invites a demon into the characters’ home. On the other hand, except for those who supposedly see ghosts, this rendition of the supernatural has no existence outside of the recordings: images and sounds are accessible only on tape or hard disks, just as ghosts could only be seen in the pictures taken by spirit photographers after they had been developed—thanks, as Tom Gunning states, to “the more sensitive capacity of the photograph.”[2] Furthermore, there is the possibility that what is interpreted as supernatural may have natural causes, or that the rendition of supernatural events may be simply fabricated.

At any rate, the very act of revealing ghosts or demons previously unseen attributes to the apparatus the power to transform reality. The apparatus clearly fabricates monsters, either through mistaken attributions of paranormal status to natural phenomena (supposedly unintentional reflections or glares in reality shows) or through computer generated images and special effects in found-footage horror movies. The very belief that technology may reveal what would otherwise not be seen attributes to it the power to transform reality: technology unveils a reality previously unknown, because previously unseen; it presents a familiar reality anew.

The specialist optical and aural devices used to capture evidence of paranormal activity in these works place them within a historical tradition of deploying technology to at once scientifically scrutinise reality and extract some magic from it, a tradition that weds science to fantasy with the aim to entertain—the very medium of cinema originates from this coupling. The coexistence between a positivist impulse and the uncanny suggested by Gunning[3] encapsulates the tension between documentary and fantasy in these works. This tension, in turn, produces images that suggest not the safe separation between film and reality, but the unsettling integration of the two. This does not undermine the horror genre’s allegorical or symbolic dimension; it only brings this dimension closer to everyday existence. The experience of the extraordinary is no longer removed from normality—it is, disturbingly, part of our lives.


[1] The literature on the topic includes Tom Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny,” in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 42­–71, and “To Scan a Ghost: The Ontology of Mediated Vision,” Grey Room 26 (Winter 2007): 94–127; Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Annette Hill, Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 2011); María del Pilar and Esther Peeren (eds.), Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture (New York: Continuum, 2010).

[2] Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations,” 64.

[3] Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations,” 42–3.

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