In my new column, Distorted Memories, I am taking on the world of found footage, a divisive horror film technique that relies on shaky cameras, glitchy footage, and the power of the unseen to portray a constructed version of the truth. Found footage is a revolutionary cinematic technique that reveals our relationship to truth and technology, whether through video cameras or webcams. Each month I’ll examine a found footage film, its techniques, and how it works to portray reality to create fear. From The Blair Witch Project to The Den, I’ll be discussing the importance of glitches, the terror of the static camera, and much more. This is my love letter to found footage, an experimental technique and subgenre that challenges the way we look and enjoy horror.
As it’s Enchantment Under the Sea month, it is only appropriate to start off my column by looking at Barry Levinson’s (The Sphere) 2012 film, The Bay. This body- and eco-horror film is framed as a documentary that pieces together footage taken on the day of July 4, 2009 in Claridge, Maryland, a small town perched on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. The film’s use of found footage, from cell phone video to news coverage to recording video calls, pieces together what happened that night and how the government covered it up.
“The Bay […] creates an engaging and disgusting eco-horror that wants the viewer to grapple with what it means to tell the truth.”
The Bay’s framing narrative features Donna (Kether Donohue, Pitch Perfect), a journalist who was covering the July 4th festivities in Claridge. She was able to capture the entire night on camera as a document to the horrific events that befell the town, and now three years later, she wants to expose the truth: the government is covering up a parasitic infection caused by pollutants in the Bay. Not only is Donna’s perspective given, but we also follow Stephanie (Kristen Connolly, The Cabin in the Woods) and her family as a parallel storyline; this is not just about the journalist and her cameraman, but about the destruction of an entire town in just one night.
What makes The Bay feel real is its documentary framework that is often seen in found footage horror. “Pure” found footage is a film made up of, predictably, found footage. However, films such as Lake Mungo and Ghostwatch adopt the format of the documentary to add an air of truth around the narrative. By utilizing documentary film techniques, from having a narrator or title cards to putting together a compilation of footage, films like The Bay work to convey an idea of the truth. Yes, it is a constructed truth that is meant to terrify, but it is still a convincing truth that makes the horror feel so much closer to home.
Donna is the film’s narrator, lending a trustworthy voice to guide you through the night’s events. She was there, she filmed it all, so she is unfortunately an expert on the topic. This use of the narrator does give The Bay a sense of credibility as she is able to carefully weave together a story using the myriad of footage they claim to have acquired. But it is not just her authority on the events that establish that credibility. She is emotionally honest, discussing how hard it is to discuss that night and is impassioned about telling the people the truth. Again, The Bay is playing with layers of truth, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
Running parallel to Donna’s footage is cellphone video by Stephanie of her husband and baby. They are a foil to the chaos on land; they are out on their boat, blissfully unaware of what awaits them when they make shore. While the previous footage of boils, blood, and death is horrifying, what is more horrifying is awaiting the fate of this small family as they are just enjoying a beautiful summer day. You know that they will eventually discover the truth (and when they do it breaks bad) and the suspense alone is heart-wrenching. While Donna’s perspective is important as a journalist, this is bigger than her; it is about the devastating effects of this lie and how widespread it is.
“[Found Footage] forces its viewers to think and consider what it means to claim something is true. Found footage wants you to engage with it and really watch”
I’m from Maryland and grew up on the Chesapeake Bay. I visited small towns like Claridge every summer, routinely had crab feasts, and spent warm days splashing in the questionable waters of the Bay and its estuaries. The world Levinson constructs in The Bay hits close to home as everyone is swimming, boating, and fishing. It also tells a painful truth about the state of the Bay and how toxic its waters really are. In school, we’d talk about how to save the Bay and take field trips to help plant oyster beds. We loved the Bay, but we also knew it was dying. Levinson, a Maryland native, takes that melancholic reality and imagines it into something truly horrifying.
The Bay, with its pseudo-documentary format and effective use of CGI, creates an engaging and disgusting eco-horror that wants the viewer to grapple with what it means to tell the truth. Who is telling the so-called truth? Can they be trusted? This is what is so amazing about found footage. This technique forces its viewers to think and consider what it means to claim something is true. Found footage wants you to engage with it and really watch; this isn’t about just passively letting a film wash over you. It is about interrogating what it means to believe what you see in the digital world.
What found footage films would you like to see me cover in the coming months? Let me know over on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook page.