"What do voyeurs see when they look in the mirror?": The Use of Video in Contemporary Horror Films

The integration of home movies, surveillance, and video in horror movies is nothing new. The 1986 films April Fool's Day opens with home movie footage; the footage not only introduces to the main cast of characters, but also sets the tone for the movie. Similarly the third installment of Poltergeist features the use of surveillance video, which objectively captures the manifestations of the evil spirits in a high rise.

The increasing use of such technology like surveillance video and home movies is not surprising as it mirrors the reality of American life, namely that being on film is an expected feature of every day existence. Other technological advances such as cellphones have also been increasingly featured in horror films. The inclusion of these devices adds to the reality of the world of the horror film. For example, the movie Red Dragon does not include the use of cellphones, which is necessary to the justification of the final scene, but it makes the climax of the film somewhat implausible. Would the FBI allow a man like Will, who is quite valuable and also still a target of Lecter, go without an emergency cellphone? Not likely, and this omission (especially considering that FBI agents Mulder and Scully were sporting cellphones as early as 1992-and cellphones were in common usage among doctors and other emergency workers as early as the mid-eighties) damages the reality of the climax.

However, the integration of video into horror movies is slightly different than that of cellphones. Although cellphones have become the central device of some horror films (like Cellular, which is more likely termed a psychological thriller) video has been incorporated several different ways, which heighten the threat made to the audience. The use of video can be divided into three major categories: incidental video (like a surveillance tape), intentional video, and "evil" video.

Incidental video is merely the integration surveillance tapes into the horror movie. As already mentioned, this device has been around for quite some time, but some modern horror films like The Grudge and Frailty have used it merely to objectively recording the presence of a supernatural element. This use of video is often meant to enhance the reality of the threat made to the characters. The evil, in such a case, is not something imagined or ineffable, but is tangible enough to be recorded on film.

The second category is intentional video. There are two subcategories of intentional video: intentional video by a supporting character or intentional video by the killer. The movie Scream has perhaps the most complicated use of intentional video by a supporting character. At the climax, teens gather in a house to watch horror films. While the teens are watching the horror film, Gail Weathers, a newsreporter, is watching the teens on a planted surveillance camera. In other words, the audience is watching a horror movie in which teens are watching a horror movie at the same time the teens are being watched by Gail. The multi-layering puts Gail and her camera man in the same position as the audience (watching the teens). The murder of the camera man, who is a stand in for the audience (casually watching the endangered teens while eating cheetos), heightens the threat to the audience. It condemns the audience for its apathetic observation of murder.

The use of mirroring in Scream consistently threatens the viewer. For example, when Randy Meeks talks to the video, inciting Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around and see the killer, the audience is tempted to do the same to Randy, who is unaware that he is being menaced by the killer. Some audience members might agree with Sidney's condemnation of horror films heroines who "run upstairs when they should be running out the front door." However, when the killer attacks Sidney not more than a minute later, she runs upstairs instead of escaping out the front door. The inclusion of such episodes illustrates how audience members might attempt to overcome the fear created by such films by imagining that they are superior than the characters in the film. By self consciously including such episodes and revealing the fallacious nature of the fantasy, it heightens the audience member's sense of danger.

One of the most interesting increases, however, is the inclusion of video used by the killer. Films like Feardotcom and Saw, going back as far as Copycat (1995), feature killers who enjoy videotaping their handiwork. The increasing use of such a device not only mirrors the unfortunate reality of serial killers like Charles Ng and Leonard Lake who videotaped the rape, torture, and murder of several women, but also involves the audience in the story in an unusual way. Saw has several point of view shots in the beginning, which heighten the drama by forcing the audience to literally be in the place of the victim. Jigsaw characterizes Adam's life as "Up until now, you've simply sat in the shadows watching others live out their lives." This exact accusation could be made of the audience who is passively observing the unraveling fate of two men. However, as the film progresses more and more surveillance footage from a camera planted by the killer is spliced into the film. The viewer instinctively moves away from the victim's p.o.v. and increasingly allies himself with the killer, who is both safe and in control. The killer sets up situations in which passivity ends in death. However, the last shot of film is from Adam's p.o.v. as he is sealed into his tomb. Adam has been condemned by his passivity. Although some critics, like Robert Scholes, see the act of viewing an interpreting video as active, the majority of critics view television/video/film as a medium that invites passivity. Thus the viewer, who has been passively observing the film, is condemned for his "apathetic , but mostly just pathetic" existence.

In Feardotcom and the Ring video itself becomes the conduit for evil and merely observing becomes a fatal activity. These films make the fear of television/video's destructive nature literal. A special feature of Grudge DVD has a psychologist remarking that what drives audiences to see horror films is a way of experiencing fear in a safe environment. The viewer is afraid, but able to look around at the same time and acknowledge that it's "just a film" and thus defang the threat. By making the video itself evil, horror films undermine the audience's belief that they are observing the film under "safe" circumstances. When the girl comes through the television screen at the end of the Ring, it terrifies audiences because it plugs into their base fear. The key moment is, in addition, shot from the victim's p.o.v. enhancing the direct threat made to the audience.

Feardotcom combines two approaches to video. The killer records his murders and then broadcasts them over the internet. The viewers who indulge in their sordid desire to see a torture murder are then killed by the spirit of one of the killer's first victims. Thus the film demonstrates the public's ambivalence about video-it is a way for a killer to broadcast his perverse acts, but it also becomes the way in which a murder victim is able to met out justice. Passive viewers who do not attempt to investigate or help the victims are relentlessly pursued by the spirit of a murdered girl. The passive viewer's indulgence of his own voyeuristic nature and his refusal act is punished by death. Such a threat indirectly threatens the viewer who is also passively indulging in observing the sordid going ons of the movie.

Horror movies have long been alledged to enforce an ethical code. Made explicit in Scream, characters who indulge in sex, drug use, or alcohol are ear marked for death. The use of video in horror movies adds a new wrinkle in which the passivity and indulgence associated with watching movies and tv shows is also punishable with death. Not only making our fear of the dangers of television/video literal, it also allows horror films to heighten the thrill of watching by directly threatening the viewer.

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