by Adam Daniel
Adam Daniel has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Western Sydney and is a member of their Writing and Society Research Centre. He works as a tutor at UWS, and is in his second year as a PhD candidate. His current research interests are horror film, embodied spectatorship, Deleuzian theory, and neurocinematics.
[This is the text version of a paper presented on the day. It is a summary of a work in progress and in no way a finished product. Comments and feedback on the ideas in this paper are most welcome and encouraged. Please ‘leave a reply’ in the box at the bottom of this page.]
The word Horror, from an etymological perspective, is derived from the Latin horrere, which means to shudder or bristle. This immediately reveals horror’s intimate and inextricable connection with the body, which most of us would be familiar with as spectators, and where much of the focus of this paper will be situated. Like the broader film theory to which it belongs, much of horror film theory has, until recently, been driven by an ocularcentric logic that sees audience immersion principally occurring via perceptual and cognitive engagement with the representational elements that drive narrative-based cinema. The contemporary focus has shifted to an equal consideration of the affective and sensorial power of cinema on the body. In ‘The Horror Sensorium’, for example, Angela Ndalianis considers the full range of both sensory and intellectual encounters with horror, and puts specific emphasis on how horror fiction “translates (it’s) sensorial enactments across our bodies.”[i] It is this emphasis on the link between sensorium and corporeality that I see as critical in working with and thinking about how various modalities of new media have interfaced with the genre of horror.
By new media in this paper I am specifically referring to the web series Marble Hornets, although my intention in my thesis is to consider more broadly the interface between digital cinema, horror film, and new media, ranging from internet videos to horror games to future developments in cinematic virtual reality. For me, Marble Hornets is an ideal subject to explore these ideas because it is situated in the intersection between digital cinema aesthetics, new media and horror.
Made by a core group of three amateur filmmakers, Marble Hornets is composed of a series of 87 videos that were sporadically uploaded to a Youtube account, between the years 2009 and 2014. It initially engaged with the now-familiar trope of “found footage horror”, in that it claimed to be the product of twenty-something Jay’s investigation into his filmmaker friend Alex Kralie’s discarded tapes; an unfinished student film project named Marble Hornets. When Alex suddenly and inexplicably ceased working on the project, Jay persuaded Alex to allow him to have the tapes, with the proviso that Jay was never to mention the tapes to him again. Subsequently, Alex mysteriously transferred schools and lost contact with Jay.
The gambit of the series is that each upload is something Jay has discovered on the tapes that is of interest. Gradually it becomes clear that Alex’s filmmaking endeavour is ‘haunted’ by a possibly malevolent entity – an unnaturally tall, thin faceless man in a black suit, which they refer to as The Operator. Those familiar with horror figures will identify him as a version of ‘the Slender Man’, a relatively new mythological figure created by artist Eric Knudsen in 2009. The Slender Man mythology ignited in internet forums but soon took on a life of its own, spreading to short stories, films, and video games. Within Marble Hornets, this enigmatic and frightening figure first appears only in glimpses, but soon, begins to have definite and damaging effects on all of those involved in the film.
For me the key questions raised by Marble Hornets are the following: What are the differences between what Marble Hornets does and conventional horror or conventional found footage, why are these differences relevant, and what potentials might this reveal in the future development and integration of horror and virtual reality cinema?
An analysis of Marble Hornets reveals some core and potentially valuable insights into how new media and digital cinema can potentially reorient horror towards a sensory-affective experience that actively questions the hierarchy of perception and cognition. This is important to consider as much of the early scholarship on horror has focused on the monster and what it represents. These distinct and disparate fields range from the application of aspects of psychoanalytic theory, to the monster’s role as allegory, its position as a reflection of societal trauma post-9/11, and its role within a holistic social and cultural context. Each field presents its own argument for the spectatorial affect of horror. Theories based on psychoanalytic foundations, for example, extend Freudian or Lacanian theories of how the unconscious structures forms of representation wherein the monster serves a particular role in re-establishing a symbolic order. Allegorical interpretations, on the other hand, attempt to place the monster within a defined social and historical context, wherein the monster becomes representative of a threat to recognized social or cultural mandates.
In ‘The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart’, one of Noël Carroll’s fundamental theses is that horror centrally requires the presence of two evaluative components by audiences in their contemplation of its central monster; that the monster is regarded as both threatening and impure. He contends that if either element is missing, the effect will be incomplete; a monster without impurity generates only fear, whereas a monster without threat produces only disgust.[ii] Building upon Mary Douglas’ classic study, Purity and Danger, Carroll infers that the impurity present in horror emerges from what Douglas defined as “the transgression or violation of schemes of cultural categorisation.”[iii] That is to say, in Carroll’s terms, horror as a genre requires of it beings, creatures or elements that are categorically contradictory, incomplete or formless.
Carroll further argues that the presence of these monsters is the intellectual hook which draws in a spectator: in his words, horror narrative works “because it has at the center of it something which is given as in principle unknowable” (italics his).[iv] He presents the creation and consumption of horror fiction as the intellectual desire for the process of discovery, revelation and ratiocination of the “putatively unknowable”.[v] For my consideration, however, this foundation underlying horror does not fully account for the intensity of the corporeal effect of horror film on a spectator. It is too grounded in intellectual consideration, and does not latch on to what Cosimo Urbano identifies as an essential element of horror film; the “set of peculiar and specific feelings that the films elicit in their viewers.”[vi] For me, these feelings are more than simply our cognitive reactions to threat or impurity, or our emotional reactions of fear, dread, or anxiety; they are pre-cognitive bodily intensities that can overcome the viewer’s attempts at scepticism or disavowal. These intensities are heightened by the particular sensory-affective qualities of the interface between digital cinema and horror, which makes it an ideal site for this analysis.
Certainly, if we were to ground an analysis of horror’s effects in the disciplines of thought mentioned earlier, we would find many salient observations, and the cognitive pleasure in horror film Carroll advocates is not irrelevant. However, when the appeal of horror film is constrained to the potentialities of a sharply defined central monster or a narrative drive to know the unknowable, it neglects to consider that cinema engages with us at a level that goes beyond cognitive evaluation of potential threat and impurity (and to be fair, Carroll himself admits this definition is far from complete and exclusory). Likewise, considerations that latch on to submerged psychoanalytic compulsions at its origins, or the veiled social currents that shape its allegorical role, are each too limited to be solely that which propels the horror genre’s power and appeal. I return instead to the notion that the valence of horror transpires from the particular affective bond generated by its sensory and sensual capacities, an affective energy that permeates the boundaries of our skin as viewers and destabilises hierarchic notions of a mind/body split.
The Cartesian binary of a mind/body split has been interrogated across many disciplines in recent years, with much current neuroscientific research insisting that all cognition is embodied cognition.[vii] Yet still, as detailed above, much of horror film scholarship has focused on the cognitive aspects of horror at the cost of a more holistic approach. One almost ubiquitous thematic presence in horror films is the constant reminder of the impossibility of hermetic distinction. At the level of narrative, this is often demonstrated through the infiltration of supposedly impenetrable boundaries by the monster; the most vivid example here, for me, is the ghost of the young girl Samara crawling out of the television in Gore Verbinski’s 2006 film The Ring. Returning to Carroll’s notions of threat and impurity, one could argue that underlying all horror is the recurring thematic of the persistent human desire to enforce a binary structure of purity (true/false, inside/outside, self/other, for example) onto bodies and worlds that are distinctly heterogeneous, and that it is our failure to achieve this demarcation that produces fear, disgust, and revulsion for the spectator: consider here films such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead as exemplars of this collapse.
What I would like to do, through an overview of Marble Hornets, is to instead interrogate this implied division between our cognition and our sensory-affective experience, and examine the ways in which the affective intensity of horror film can, through the process of implicating the body of the spectator in a palpable way, overpower this cognitive rationale. Marble Hornets, in particular, is a worthwhile site for this examination, because, for me, the most potent examples of sensory-affective experience overriding cognitive deliberation occur in the meeting point between the exigencies of found footage horror and the capacities of digital cinema; that is to say, films wherein the act of recording is built into the diegetic world of the film are especially productive of this experience for a spectator.
The modern trend of found footage horror film was arguably launched by the success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Much has been written on the field, with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s survey of the sub-genre offering perhaps the most comprehensive study of its origins and effects. [viii] One of the central questions of her analysis regards the inherent instability of the construction of verisimilitude in found footage. That is to say, although the content that the cameras are capturing and recording is thought to be impossible (ghosts, Bigfoot, aliens, etc.), the documentary-style record encourages belief. Theorists such as Heller-Nicholas overcome this dichotomy with the concept of a spectator engaging in “active horror fantasy”.[ix] I contend that this is a partial but incomplete understanding, and that instead Marble Hornets traverses this fantasy through its sensory-affective excess. In order to further discuss this excess and how it occurs, I am going to bracket it within two frames: ‘Hardware’ and ‘Software’.
On the side of ‘Hardware’, I would first like to discuss the manner in which the image is captured and presented in Marble Hornets: through the ubiquitous presence of cameras within the diegetic world. Excluding the video responses of Youtube user Totheark (which I will detail shortly), everything we see throughout the series is captured by a camera either carried or mounted to the body of one of the protagonists. One of the biggest innovations of digital cinema is the mobility and economy of camera size, and economy of camera price, that allows for an entire new world of images. Horror is one genre where filmmakers actively experiment with this new flexibility in order to best intensify the spectatorial experience. In Marble Hornets, as paranoia grips the protagonists, they take to recording everything, even going so far as wearing body mounted cameras. Whilst I recognise the process of using handheld cameras is not particularly innovative, having origins in the Direct Cinema movement of the late 1950s, I contend that the way it is presented in Marble Hornets has different effects. The loss of focus, incongruent framing, camera shake, and particular rhythms and movements of the handheld or bodily attached camera in Marble Hornets heightens our sensory engagement – not just of our vision, but the kinaesthetic qualities that vision links to – to the point where our body and its position in the world feels disrupted. Anna Powell, in ‘Deleuze and Horror’, identifies this increase in sensory participation as the result of pre-cognitive affects on our mechanisms of perception, arguing that horror’s “undermining of normative perspective” intensifies participation at the sensory level.[x]
To clarify, this is not a visual identification with the camera as identical to the spectator’s eye, but instead the ability of the sound and image to engage all the senses and stimulate our entire corporeal presence. In fact, I would argue that the bodily mounted cameras stymie the visual identification with the eye and produce a whole new experience of camera as body; in ‘Entry #83’, for example, as Tim is racked with the coughing fits that harken the presence of The Operator, we experience the inability to stand and the struggle to breath in a visual sense that is unusual for conventional films: by a fish-eye lens that captures the world from the position of the sternum. In this way, the camera synchronises more fully with the body of the performer, a body that we become implicated with as we kinaesthetically synchronise with the movement of the image.
I think it is in part the familiarity of our own bodily experiences with using handheld devices as recording tools that allows for this kind of kinaesthetic destabilisation to occur, in that we bring our existing relationships with these technologies to the image. Philosopher Don Ihde labels these kind of relations as embodiment relations, wherein the artifacts of the world become part of our corporeality. In an embodiment relation Ihde argues that “I take the technologies into my experiencing in a particular way by way of perceiving through such technologies and through the reflexive transformation of my perceptual and body sense.”[xi] This leads to a symbiosis between user and artefact through action. I believe this is particularly relevant to found footage films, where this ‘perception through technology’ is replicated on the cinematic screen, not merely by a stimulation of the visual sense, but through cinema’s multi-sensory capacities, which in turn stimulates proprioception as an aesthetic sense – proprioception here being the sense by which we acquire information about the positions of our own bodies in space.
When this occurs, we also move, fall, crouch, hide, run, and struggle to breathe, all without ever leaving our seats. These kinaesthetic sensations are heightened by the particular rhythm of the hand held or bodily mounted camera and the manner in which it captures and reproduces movement through these environments. These sensations are also aided by the digital image’s accentuation of the materiality of these environments. This process becomes even more obvious in long takes, where duration brings out the tactile terrain of the various locations we move through as spectator, generating an intense sensory engagement which exceeds spectatorial disavowal. In an article regarding film and the uncanny, Lesley Stern offers a particular thought about the strangeness of movement and temporality I think Marble Hornets engages with, when she writes (and I quote):
Cinema, as we know it, systematically plays upon a slide between the familiar and the unfamiliar… On the one hand there is a drive to depiction, to the representational familiar; and on the other there is a rendering strange through movement, through cinematic temporality. The cinema gives us the experience of time, but in temporalizing it plays all the time on a series of indeterminacies: here/there, appearance/disappearance, life/death, past/future … The cinema taps our imagination, our unconscious, to produce a sensory affect of dissonance at the very moment of identity. [xii]
This dissonance for me ties back to Powell’s understanding of horror and affect, in which the incongruous colours, distorted sounds and hallucinatory images of horror all contribute to the experience of spectatorship as a Deleuzian assemblage between viewer and text, an assemblage that is, in Deleuzian terms, molecular and corporeal. One element of Marble Hornets that fully embraces these abstract potentials of horror is the creative decision to have another so-called anonymous Youtube user named Totheark begin commenting on the main videos with uploads of their own. These response videos are intricate and often disturbing visual puzzles, less interested in unveiling the mystery than in fostering further questions – questions that require compulsive further investigation. At the same time, there is something particularly physically unsettling about the imagery Totheark adopts that surpasses any narrative comprehension.
My second point builds on this notion of affective dissonance: and that is to say, new media and digital cinema offer new understandings of horror film because of the particular sensory-affective qualities they can generate. These qualities are able to overcome potential deficits in the narrative or in the performances of the actors, because they heighten our engagement through synaesthetic means. For the purposes of this paper, I bracket these elements under the term ‘Software’.
In ‘The Hidden Sense’, Cretien van Campen defines synaesthesia as “a neurological phenomenon that occurs when a stimulus in one sense modality immediately evokes a sensation in another sense modality.”[xiii] Applying this synaesthetic capacity to cinema, Laura Marks, in The Skin of the Film, claims that vision itself can be tactile, “as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes” (she terms this “haptic visuality”).[xiv] Marks draws her theoretical frame from art historian Alois Riegl’s interrogation of the hierarchy of perception. This notion of haptic visuality is central to my claim that these types of images exceed the boundaries of Heller-Nicholas’ “active horror fantasy”, which includes in it a conscious or unconscious denial of the verisimilitude of the image. Vision, particularly in the horror film, involves an immersion in the filmic space: its atmosphere, its spatial relations, its texture. Rather than processing a film purely on the level of sense-making through narrative and character, haptic visuality involves a new sensorial relationship that brings into play a synaesthetic exchange between light, colour, sound, mood and texture.
This hapticity is not solely a link between image and body, but also extends to a kind of inhabitation of filmic geography for scholar Giuliana Bruno, who labels this intersubjective form of presence a “geopsychic architexture”.[xv] ‘Entry 40’ of Marble Hornets serves as cogent exemplar of this creation of space through images that stimulate our sense of tactility, creating for me a “geopsychic architexture” of location that is immersive and potent for the viewer.
The combination of the movement through this environment, the aural landscape of the various consistencies under the feet, the hyper-saturated colour, and, towards the end of the clip, the textural contrast between the organic and the manmade, allow the viewer to inhabit this location. For me these images are clear examples of Laura Mark’s definition of haptic visuality – where our interest is not so much in the textual elements of the image, but in the textural. As Marks says, “Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture.”[xvi] She argues that these types of images draw on the viewer’s resources of memory and imagination, two capacities that are especially powerful in the realm of horror. I contend, however, that the most relevant capacity of haptic images to the horror genre is in the destabilisation of a viewer’s cognitive disavowal of their authenticity.
Marble Hornets not only takes advantage of particularly haptically charged environments like that seen in the example just shown – it also features a manipulation of the image, most aptly demonstrated in the Totheark video responses. The filmmakers, using entry level software, pushed the effects and editing capabilities of these softwares to the brink, often intentionally “corrupting” the image in order to produce the vividly haptic imagery seen in the following images.
The sensory engagement heightened by the visual “tears” in the image, and the auditory “tears” that accompany them, can also draw us into a new kind of relationship where our perceived control over our experience of the film through mastery of plot and narrative is completely broken down. By disrupting the image in this particular way, we are also left with a disrupted relationship between the film and ourselves – as these videos reject the usual patterns of cause-and-effect motivated by narrative demands, they heighten our entanglement, and thus our tension and fear. This is also echoed by the way in which the filmmakers handle the appearance of The Operator; when he does appear, he is often out of focus, obscured behind visual layers, or at the edges of frame, such as in these examples.
This too is a movement away from ocularcentric logic, where our understanding of the image is designed to be clear and unambiguous, to a sensory logic that deemphasises the visual and accentuates the other senses in order to generate fear. When we replace the semantics of the image as our primary engagement with the film, we are left with the idea of the image itself as enigma, puzzle, or code. As further demonstrated by these other types of images, it is not just the settings and environments that are haptically charged that stimulates this multi-sensory engagement – it is also the confounding and unsettling digital textures and content of the Totheark imagery that does so.
What should be of particular interest for horror film scholars is the manner in which the limitations of narrative coherence, quality of performance and budgetary constraints serve in no way to limit Marble Hornets immersive properties. The series offers a direct challenge to concepts that position horror’s foundations in an Aristotelian vicarious terror, where we as spectators watch endangered protagonists, imagine ourselves in their place, and are connected to them through an empathic response. The central question of the series seems to be what exactly is it that is haunting those who get involved with Alex’s tapes, and why, yet possible answers to this are rarely posed in a conventional way. Instead, the narrative content of each entry varies in terms of its importance to the complete arc of the series, and many entries often contribute little to no additional information to the series central question. Some entries, for example, focus on innocuous and seemingly unimportant plot points, such as the initial auditions for the film. Others simply involve the main characters recounting or discussing the events of a previous entry. Furthermore, its fractured chronology and its staggered release pattern also served to frustrate attempts at conventional audience identification. Despite this, at its best, Marble Hornets is strikingly visceral for a viewer.
It is this corporeal intensity, accelerated by the specific types of imagery discussed above, that delineates why this new and vital type of found footage can go beyond the conventions established by The Blair Witch Project and carried over into contemporary found footage films such as the Paranormal Activity franchise. Marble Hornets demonstrates that our engagement as viewers does not only come about only through the representational aspects of horror – the narrative, the characters, the monster – but in the dynamic way these elements are integrated with non-representational aspects, like the materiality of the image, the hapticity of the environment, and the intensities generated by the movement and rhythms of the handheld or bodily mounted cameras. It is these aspects that power horror’s affective capacities and truly break down our defences as viewers, exceeding any intellectual repudiation of the unreality of the image.
Where does this lead us to in terms of the potential interface of Cinematic Virtual Reality and Horror Films? This is an area I have only recently turned and can therefore only touch on briefly, but I do consider it to be an exciting and fruitful realm for questions of spectatorship, cinema and embodiment. My recent work has been experimenting with the Oculus Rift.
The Oculus Rift is a Head Mounted Display (or HMD) that is due for commercial release in early 2016. Whilst its primary purpose in its early release appears to be gaming, there are many who are already investigating and trialling the potential future of virtual reality cinema. Many of these filmmakers have seen horror as a productive site for experimentation. These experiences are currently limited by the capacities of the technology and its restrictions in terms of storytelling, but they do point to virtual reality’s potential to generate the most immersive and affective experience of spectatorship.
Although virtual reality would appear to be ocularcentric in its foundations, theorist Mark N. Hansen argues against this, placing the body as the active framer of the image, even in an environment where our biological vision is effectively replaced with that generated by the digital image. In Hansen’s view, all vision is interpreted by a material human body situated in the wetware of interacting sensorimotor systems.[xvii] This is especially relevant to virtual reality, which is sometimes presented as a type of “optical” illusion, playing purely on the visual sense. Biologist and philosopher Matias Maturana responds to this contention by pointing to how illusion and perception are affectively identical. He writes: “Whenever we have an illusion we really have it. In our experience we cannot differentiate between what we call a perception and what we call an illusion. Whenever we have an illusion, we experience it always in the same ways as we experience what we are used to calling perception.”[xviii]
If virtual reality does have the potential to instantiate a world where there is no distinction between perception and illusion, this opens up fascinating questions for horror and its ability to confer reality for a viewer. However, these illusory properties are not yet within reach, with improvements required for the resolution of the image and the experience of the headset. The more immediate drawback of these embryonic cinematic experiences that have been created for virtual reality is the limitations of designing for a static seated participant. This requirement is brought about by the potential disjunction between your visual, vestibular and proprioceptive senses. To explain briefly, cinematic virtual reality uses a static camera in a real three dimensional environment. It is this camera that equates with the user’s vision, allowing the user to look in a complete 360 degrees, including the vertical axis. If the camera were to move on a dolly or track, this acceleration creates a mismatch with the viewer’s senses that can cause motion sickness. In order to circumvent this, the experimental films that are being made so far try to make use of a single static, preferably seated location.
One such example of this is the horror short 11:57, made by The Sid Lee Collective. Within this film, you awake from darkness with a gauze-like surface preventing your vision. This is a mask, which is soon removed to reveal what looks to be a catacomb-like basement. The shadowy mask remover walks away from you, leaving through a distant door. You look around and there are only dimly lit recesses. An unintelligible whisper seems to surround you. The lights flicker, revealing the immensity of the chamber, and then go out. They flicker again, and where moments before the room was empty, there is now a woman in a ragged dress facing the wall. This is only the beginning. Although only 5 minutes long, narratively insubstantial and composed mainly of short sequences of frightening imagery, 11:57 does demonstrate some of the incipient potential of virtual reality horror. The actual experience of watching this through the headset is intensely corporeal.
How does this link with Marble Hornets? Essentially, and this is a very limited attempt at connection, I believe that if cinematic virtual reality is to be considered a stage in the evolution of horror film, it will be so because the bodily experience that is generated through the interaction with Marble Hornets’ kinaesthetic and synaesthetic images is immediately inherent in virtual reality. Hansen argues as such, stating that it is the affective and interoceptive sensory processes that ground visual sense making in the body, and that these are generative of a “haptic spatiality”, an internal image of the body that exists prior to and independent of external geometric space.[xix]
What will be truly fascinating for the intersection of horror and virtual reality is not so much its attempts to replicate reality for a spectator, however, but its potentials for contradictory visual-sensory-motor solicitations, where our embodied habits are pitted against a virtual world that doesn’t necessarily correspond to reality. For if the embodied brain constructs its own reality from the illusion, what happens when the physical laws of normal perception, or normal geometric space, are broken or defied in horrific ways? What if the “monster” is no longer the subject of the image, but in the body-brain connection that builds the image? Could this remove the necessity for narrative, and completely extricate vicarious identification from this form of cinema? And if so, would this still even be a form of cinema? It will be up to the first phalanx of virtual reality filmmakers to pose th
[i] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012).
[ii] Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1990), 28.
[iii] Ibid., 31.
[iv] Ibid., 182.
[v] Ibid., 184.
[vi] Urbano, “What’s the Matter With Melanie?” in Horror Film and Psychoanalysis, ed. Schneider, S. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 25.
[vii] Varela, Thompson and Rosch, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).
[viii] Heller-Nicholas, Found Footage Horror Films (Jefferson, NC: McFarland,2014).
[x] Powell, Deleuze and Horror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 5.
[xi] Ihde, Technology and the lifeworld (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 72.
[xii] Stern, “I Think Therefore I Somersault: Film and the Uncanny.” Paradoxa 3.3-4, 1998. pp. 348-366.
[xiii] Van Campen, The Hidden Sense (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 1.
[xiv] Marks, The Skin of the Film (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000), xi.
[xv] Bruno, Atlas of Emotion (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Verso, 2002), 4.
[xvi] Marks, The Skin of the Film (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000), 162.
[xvii] Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
[xviii] Maturana, “Realität, Illusion and Verantwortung.”, 80.
[xix] Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990),204.