First-Person Vérité Horror: The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Outlast (2013)

File:Blair Witch Project.jpg
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Box Office Artwork via Wikipedia
Outlast (2013) Promotional Art via Wikipedia

A forest, an asylum. A film crew, a reporter. A witch (maybe), mental patients (and worse).

On the surface, The Blair Witch Project (1999 horror film) and Outlast (2013 horror game) seem to share little more than the same overarching genre. Looking at simply a narrative level, the common ground does not improve greatly. The Blair Witch Project comes from independent directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, presented as found-footage shot by film student Heather and her crew members (Joshua and Mike) for a documentary about the titular Blair Witch. Meanwhile, Outlast, by independent studio Red Barrel Inc., follows investigative reporter Miles Upshur as he documents his attempts to verify a tip about inhumane practices at the private Mount Massive Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Perhaps one of the few aspects they do share is a certain critical subgenre fatigue that clashes with their mostly positive reviews. Found-footage seems to be collapsing under collective weight of all the Paranormal Activity movies and Blair Witch remakes, while first-person games have to suffer the baggage of every iterative first-person action-shooter.

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) Box Office Art via Rotten Tomatoes

Where these two works explicitly do intersect is in their similar use of technology, specifically that of the camera. The Blair Witch Project and Outlast both rely on footage from diegetic cameras operated by the main character(s) and shot mostly in real-time, making both of them works of first-person “vérité horror” as coined Barry Keith Grant in his essay“Digital Anxiety and the New Vérité Horror and SF Film” (Grant 153). This common visual and narrative framing found its popular start with The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and has since then been adapted and tweaked by interactive media to a crystallized form represented by Outlast in 2013. Together these two works form a dialogue that offers a chronological record of its evolution and informs the vérité horror mode as a whole.

Though it certainly was not the first instance of vérité horror in film (many would argue that the title goes to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust in 1980), The Blair Witch Project was certainly the film that popularized both the subgenre and its subcategory, found-footage. As such, The Blair Witch Project exemplifies much of the characteristics identified by Grant as vérité horror. The entirety of the film is shot on the two diegetic cameras that the documentary film crew carries with them into the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland. Additionally, whether conscious or not, the actors channeled cinema vérité’s respect for “real-time” in their depiction of real-life duration of events. And, even more effectively, these amateur filmmakers (both the directors and the actors) convincingly represented “real-space,” prompting viewers to “anxiously search the periphery of the screen for…something that simply [was] not there” in the words of Scott Dixon McDowell (qtd. in Grant, 165). In keeping with its style of shooting that would come to be known as “shaky cam,” The Blair Witch Project presents flawed, impartial, or even obscured glimpses of the film’s horrors purposefully in a skillful ploy to up the suspense of the film as audiences wait for a big reveal that never comes. Instead, audiences find themselves stuck, eating up the amateur aesthetic of “real” fear while simultaneously wishing it would break its own rules.

Shaky Cam via Giphy

The real-life directors of the film took vérité horror a step further, having their actors film their trip, improvise their lines, and actually camp alone in the woods for long stretches of time–“method filmmaking” in the words of Myrick (qtd. in Heller-Nicholas, 97). This “method filmmaking” functions much like cinema vérité, dissolving the boundaries between “the artificial” and “the real” so that the audience has trouble telling the two apart. The Blair Witch Project certainly succeeded in walking that line, as a large part of its popularity surrounded whether or not it was “real.” Accompanied by a strong (mostly Internet) marketing campaign, seemingly encouraged the controversy of its veracity. No matter the audience opinion, these calculated advertising pushes kept the film at the forefront of conversation for a sizable amount of time.

These extratextual reminders of the controversy and the medium itself serve to evoke in viewers a further elevated sense of reality, striving for an effect labeled “hypermediacy” by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin–a sort of hyper-self-awareness in regards to media and technology possessed by certain works. The Blair Witch Project touts hypermediacy even within the text itself, its characters almost revelling in their acknowledgements of the camera, juggling of filming, mocking of the documentary process, and even direct address of the (intended) audience of the film.Together with its marketing, these elements work in conjunction to create a hypermediacy that further elevates the vérité horror of The Blair Witch Project.

Further adding to the hypermediacy resulting from the online marketing and authenticity debate, film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas argues that the creators of The Blair Witch Project engineered an “alternative reality game” (ARG)–an interactive narrative using transmedia storytelling that often acts as promotional material–that made viewers “actively partake” in part of the production of The Blair Witch Project’s vérité horror. This added enticement to involve the viewer comes on top of the first-person perspective that the film employs, and is further amplified by the inherent “interactivity” that Grant argues is significant to the vérité horror subgenre. He argues that when the diegetic “camera operator interacts with profilmic event” (the event happening in front of the camera), the film encourages the viewer to abandon their abstract detachment from the film and subconsciously identify with the camera and camera operator. With this its additions to vérité horror’s built-in interactivity, The Blair Witch Project sets a remarkably high standard for audience involvement.

In discussing interactivity in horror, the mind might naturally jump to horror video games. Grant spends a considerable amount of time comparing cinematic vérité horror to horror video games, especially survival horror games. Grant provides a strong definition for survival horror, which he defines as a subgenre where “the player fights monsters” with limited means of resistance, “often in enclosed, maze-like spaces while searching for hidden items that will allow movement to new areas…or provide various means for staying alive” (Grant, 163). He traces this term back to the 1996 release of the first Resident Evil, a fixed-camera zombie game that depended on its confusing spatial design, challenging puzzles, and (most importantly), its extreme scarcity of ammo and resources. In the almost two decades since then, survival horror has bled into the first-person market–the result of which has recently pushed the subgenre to an extreme. After the critical and financial success of 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, first-person survival horror games have embraced an almost complete powerlessness in contrast not only to the recent glut of action-oriented first-person games (think shooters like Call of Duty and Halo), but also to even Resident Evil’s limited combat. Outlast follows in this vein, emphasizing from the very beginning that you, the player character, cannot fight, rather you can only run and hide, and you have no weapons or tools except for a night vision-enabled camcorder with which to “record” the events of your investigation.

Outlast’s camera interface (plus incredibly big scissors!) via Giphy

With this mechanic, Outlast creates an unusual relationship with the player and the character, as you interact with the game world in an unusually passive manner for a first-person game, yet you actively spectate these interactions by recording with the diegetic camera. Despite this paradox of control, Outlast still essentially takes the immersive nature of vérité horror to another level.

Perron highlights a distinction between emotional reactions to horror mythology and conventions. Among other types of responses, he distinguishes between “fiction emotions” and “gameplay emotions,” which he defines as “emotions rooted in the fictional world” and “emotions that arise from the gamer’s actions in the game-world,” respectively. Whereas films, invoke fiction emotions, video games elicit both fiction and gameplay emotions, giving you the player an emotional reason to immerse yourself fully into the game. Outlast provides a unique combination of these emotional enticements, placing more emphasis on the fiction emotional stimuli while still supplying the gameplay emotional stimuli that its interactivity guarantees.

In addition to the added emotional investment, the game also includes diegetic, non-diegetic, and extradiegetic features to heighten the realism of your immersion. The sound plays a crucial role in the immersiveness of the game, with diegetic elements like heaving breath, dripping blood, beeping ripping body parts to draw you into Outlast’s vérité horror experience and nondiegetic sound effects to amplify the effectiveness of the horror without removing you from the experience. One of the more effective immersive details comes in the form of the extradiegetic vibrating controller feedback that adds to the emotional responses of the experience.

By far the most immersive factor in Outlast is its treatment of the diegetic camera. The experience of using this camera acts contrary to most other first-person implementations of the mechanic. Unlike many other video games, Outlast attempts to make using its diegetic technology as transparent as possible, channeling the “immediacy” of media and technology as coined by Bolter and Grusin and contrasting The Blair Witch Project’s hypermediacy. Outlast’s immediacy acts as a boon to the player, since it increases the immersiveness despite the fact that the game positively reinforces the camera’s use with both story and gameplay. Yet, for better or worse, that immediacy means that many of the actual limitations of night-vision camcorders are applied to the diegetic camera, ranging from light blindness to battery-life issues that turn the game into a terrifying battery scavenger hunt.

While in other more action-oriented games, the immersion from this first-person gameplay might be “replaced by the sense of agency” in the words of Film Studies professor Bernard Perron, Outlast instead partially invokes the passivity of the filmic experience. But unlike cinematic vérité horror, Outlast’s video game vérité horror places you in control of the camera operator, rather than only allowing you to identify with him or her. As such, it strikes a unique compromise between the distance between audience and experience, allowing the player control over the focus of events (except in scripted cutscenes), but discouraging some of the mitigating mechanisms that are effective with films (closing your eyes or covering your face, for example). Consequently, Outlast’s vérité horror experience becomes infinitely more graphic than The Blair Witch Project’s earlier cinematic version–embracing its identity as postmodern horror by displaying all the camcorder-captured mutilation, decapitation, and evisceration it can.

Though both The Blair Witch Project and Outlast exemplify first-person vérité horror, they act as bookends of a still-changing subgenre. The Blair Witch Project may have created the current popularity (and fatigue) that surrounds the found-footage and vérité horror in general. However, Outlast currently stands as distillation of the spirit of vérité horror, making the player actually step into the role of the camera operator rather merely identify with the camera in spite of the uncanny (or just plain unrealistic) nature of video game graphics. Yet as graphics and computing technology improve alongside that of virtual reality, we find vérité horror has strayed beyond both both The Blair Witch Project and Outlast to take on different, even more immersive form.

Works Cited:

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Revised ed. edition. The MIT Press, 2000. Amazon. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.

Grant, Barry Keith. “Digital Anxiety and the New Verité Horror and Sf Film.” Science Fiction Film and Television 6.2 (2013): 153–175. Print.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. Found Footage Horror Films : Fear and the Appearance of Reality. Jefferson NC, US: McFarland, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 1 March 2017.

Perron, Bernard. “Sign of a Threat: The Effects of Warning Systems in Survival Horror Games.” ResearchGate . Web. 26 Feb. 2017.