If you think you’d love found footage, but you’ve been avoiding the subgenre entirely because you get motion sickness, you’re definitely not alone.
Blame your brain. It thinks you’re being poisoned.
At least, that’s my favourite theory.
Motion sickness is assumed to be first and foremost from your brain being confused about conflicting information from your senses. When you’re watching found footage, you’re seeing the world as if you’re the one holding the camera, running around and swinging the camera erratically. Your brain is fooled into thinking you’re moving based on visuals alone, but your other senses, with input from all sorts of sources from sensory cells in your skin and muscles, to your semi-circular canals (fluid-filled tube structure in in your inner ear that signal to your brain when your head is moving, and in what direction) tell you that you’re sitting on your butt watching a movie.
In this sense, motion sickness from found footage is working in the exact opposite way that motion sickness does when you’re reading in a car, where your eyes tell you that you’re not moving, but the fluids sloshing around inside your semi-circular canals tell you that you’re actually zipping down the highway.
The disconnect tells the brain that something weird is going on, but it can’t tell what the cause might be. Evolutionarily-speaking, driving around in cars and watching horror movies are relatively new developments in human history, so we haven’t developed adaptations for these activities. What our brains do have adaptations for is how to behave when our bodies might be poisoned.
Your poor brain is all: hmm… I feel dizzy and disoriented but I don’t know why. Feeling dizzy and disoriented could be a symptom of poisoning. Guess I’ll make this body barf just in case.
The poison theory (first put forward in the 1970s by Michel Treisman), can apply to other reasons why squeamish people get queasy: see or smell rotting food? Barf just in case you ate some. See someone vomit nearby? Maybe barf just in case you were exposed to whatever toxin made them sick. Not everyone finds this theory convincing, but anyway you slice it, it’s fascinating to consider.
So, you know your brain’s being duped, but that doesn’t help to make watching found footage any easier. While we’ve developed some tools to deal with seasickness and carsickness (like anti-nausea medication and these nifty glasses), there isn’t a go-to solution for movie motion sickness.
Here are some recommendations for getting the most out found footage from me, a fellow motion-sickness susceptible Fiend, to you. (You’re welcome.)
1. Focus on Found Footage with Stationary Cameras
Here’s a secret that’s totally not a secret: a lot of found footage doesn’t have shaky handheld cameras. There are piles of films that you can check out that use surveillance tapes, webcams, and planted cameras that move very little or not at all — and you’ve probably heard of a lot of them. Paranormal Activity (2007) and pretty much every entry in the Paranormal Activity franchise, Unfriended (2014) and Unfriended: Dark Web (2018), The Collingswood Story (2002), and The Blackwell Ghost (2017) are all found footage titles that favour delivering scares through cameras that don’t move all that much.
There’s also a certain helplessness to stationary found footage in that there’s usually no living person controlling the camera (and your perspective) who can step in to affect the events that are unfolding or help you see what horrors are happening just outside of your field of view. You are as stuck and immobile as the camera.
2. Consider the film synopsis and trailers
You don’t need to get into spoilers, but often checking a film’s plot description and trailer footage will give you helpful hints about how much shaky cam you’re in for. Is the camera person a professional cameraperson who is more likely to know how to use their camera or is it is a student who doesn’t know how to work the zoom on their family camcorder or smartphone? Is the setting easy to navigate or are they likely to navigate rough terrain? It’s not a perfect fail-safe method by any means, but consider:
Creep (2014): knowledgeable cameraperson + mostly set inside a house = less shaky!
[Rec] (2007): professional cameraperson + apartment building (confined spaces and lots of stairs) = shakier moments!
As Above, So Below (2014): professional camera person + non-professionals with headcams + crawling around in underground tunnels and catacombs = lots of shaky cam!
3. Dabble in Bigger-Name Found Footage
This isn’t to compare indie found footage versus studio films in terms of quality or value. It’s more of a statement that studio films just can’t help but produce more polished films, which also means scaling back on the shaky-cam realism in favour of cleaner cinematography. From personal experience, Cloverfield (2008) was my found footage white whale for over a decade because my formula told me it would be a doozy (non-professional camera guy using his friend’s camera + running through crumbling NYC buildings under attack by a giant monster = definitely shaky!!!). The film work was way less erratic than I thought it would be, probably because of some combination of directorial vision and executives’ decision-making.
For some found footage fans, a more polished filming style might be considered a flaw (because it sacrifices the impression that you’re watching real, raw, and un-staged footage), but if you’re seeking tamed camerawork, it might be just the ticket.
4. Watch with Distractions
If you suspect that a movie might give you motion sickness, then maybe that’s the perfect movie to put on in the background while you do something else. Throw on Hell House, LLC (2015) while you do repaint your basement; play Crowsnest (2012) while you’re cooking dinner — have a task to work on that prevents you from getting too immersed into what’s going on on-screen, but not so distracting that you miss the whole movie. If you do want to actually sit down and focus on the movie, then you can make it less immersive by watching with the lights on (so you can see other things in the room other than just the screen), or by watching on a smaller screen, like a laptop or mobile screen.
5. Give Your Brain a Break
Sometimes the best method is the simplest: if you feel yourself feeling sick, try closing your eyes until the feeling passes.
You’re not a failure if a movie makes you sick. You’re just cursed by a quirk of biology. Pause the movie, lie down on the floor, go outside and get some fresh air, drink some ginger tea until your guts settle down — whatever. If you want to get through a movie, you’ll get through it eventually, and it’s no big deal if that means you have to watch it in digestible chunks over hours or days or weeks to do it.