Posted in Cinema
October 1, 2019

Participatory Reception – First Person Perspective In Horror Films And Video Games, Part 1 (Shelagh Rowan-Legg)

The following is the first installment of a two-part series.

In the late 19th century, authorities at the morgue in Paris, overwhelmed with unclaimed bodies, made the decision to put those bodies on display to the public, in the hopes that someone would recognize a corpse. In these new days of burgeoning urban centres and mass culture, the salle d’exposition displays became a new kind of participatory medium. Onlookers used the pretense of possible identification of the bodies to justify their curiosity. Street vendors sold food to the lines of crowds (353), and the bodies were displayed on marble slabs with green curtains hanging on either side (89).

As with public executions in the past, this rather theatrical display brought out many people’s taste for the macabre, and marked the beginning of legal and legitimate forms of 20th century public reality horror entertainment. In the late 20th century, audiences of the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) would begin chanting words and phrases at the film during screenings, in what has since become a staple of any theatrical viewing of the film. The act of watching has frequently overlapped with the act of participating.

In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins theorizes that the variety of media platforms and interfaces available in the 21st century will create a merging of content across said platforms. And while this is likely, I would argue that there is also a merging of style and execution, particularly with regards to audience participation. There is an increasing cross-over in style, content, execution and marketing strategies of horror films and video games.

Films such as The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), [REC] (Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007), Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) and Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007) utilize the concept of found footage/first person perspective to make the spectator a character in the film. Video games such as Half-Life, Doom, Resident Evil and Tomb Raider incorporate film narrative technique and cut-away scenes to give the impression of a film within the game.

If we are living in the era of the cult of the amateur, we are also living in the era of on-demand culture. The internet has allowed not only for greater and constant access to media, but for the average consumer to control and participate in that media. The horror genre seeks from its spectators an almost constant heightened emotional state, where the challenge is to make it through to the end of the film/game alive.

In this paper, I will examine the horror genre’s proclivity for audience participation, the first-person perspective and the cult of the real in fiction, the internet and other popular media’s increase of the desire for participation, and the proliferation of marketing techniques exclusive to the internet. In addition, I will present case studies of films and video games that utilize the first-person camera to actively encourage a particular kind of participation, and the paratextual devices used by horror films and video games to invite spectator involvement. Finally, I will examine a selection of films that, while not shot from the first-person perspective, explore and utilize the video game aesthetic.

While most films intend to provoke an emotional reaction from the spectator, horror films seek to elicit little but the most intense emotions. But these films also provide a challenge to the spectator: will they, as an extension of the characters in the film, survive the horror? There is an emotional gratification to getting through a scene alive, much like in a video game.

Horror video games have a direct connection to this challenge, for the gamer must make it through a scene alive, or start the scene over again (a privilege obviously not afforded to the film spectator). There is a large crossover of audience between horror gamers and horror film spectator.

Tanya Krzywinska writes: “Horror offers death as spectacle and actively promises transgression; it has the power to promote physical sensation.” There is a deviance to horror that makes it appealing; an ability to look upon activities that one normally would not, and in the case of games, act upon the desire to participate in such activities.

In most horror films and games, though, the main character (that is to say, the one the spectator/gamer is meant to identify with) is in the position of good rather than evil. That is not to say that the spectator/gamer does not or would not enjoy being/playing the villain, but it is rare for that to be allowed in film/games. The authors of Film Art write of the standard horror film monster, “If the monster horrifies us because it violates the laws of nature we know, the genre is well suited to suggest the limits of human knowledge” (330).

One could argue that the limit of human knowledge is the end of their nose; that is to say, one cannot know what it is like to see through another person’s eyes. Given the intense emotional nature of the horror genre, horror films/games that utilize the first-person perspective are uniquely adapted to test this limit of human knowledge. Since this genre frequently shows that which is not just supernatural, but outside the realm of most people’s experience (murder, apocalypse, etc.), the first-person perspective allows the spectator’s emotional experience to be brought one step closer to what he/she might consider reality; or at least his/her own version of a horror reality.

In horror films/games, there is usually a discernible goal (more often than not survival). Anne Bartsch writes, “Emotions can also be gratifying due to their goal conductiveness and controllability” (131). While the spectator of a film cannot control the actions or outcome as a gamer can, there is still a power derived from the first-person perspective. Although the identity of the cinematographer is usually known (if not visually at least aurally), the spectator can superimpose his or her own identity, morals and values onto that person and become the cameraperson.

In a horror game, the avatar is usually known (again, if not visually at least by voice) and the gaming console becomes the first-person camera, the means of interaction in the horror. The challenge to survive the film/game is heightened when the spectator/gamer becomes a part of the film/game, and by extension the emotions are heightened, making this genre more popular and more adept at the use of the first-person camera perspective.

Film theorist Andre Bazin felt that the most important aspect of film was that it represents reality, that it recreates the real world. For the past ten years, some of the most popular shows on television have been so-called “reality shows,” and documentary films have seen a surge in popularity over approximately the same time period. According to Nielson Ratings, at least two if not more reality television shows have been in the top twenty weekly ratings of shows since 2001.

Joel Black writes in The Reality Effect, “Reality is never more in demand than it is in our global mass-mediated film culture”(15). And yet, according to Box Office Mojo, six of the top ten US domestic grossing films for 2009 were fantasy based. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard theorized that the lines between the real and the fictional were become more blurred with current technologies.

This begs the question: does the spectator desire reality, or does he/she desire to see him/herself on the screen? If the spectator can see him/herself as a participant on a television show such as Survivor, why can they not also see themselves running through a forest trying to get away from a zombie? Margrit Schreier writes, “Reception studies have usually been based on the normative assumption that recipients ought to be able to draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction” (307). But as technology allows the spectator to become more directly involved with the product, Brigid Cherry writes, “One aspect of everyday life that has been key in contemporary horror cinema is technology and the new media culture that has been engendered by the internet, game consoles, mobile phone communication and multi-channel television” (186).

As discussed before, arguably more than other genres, the intense emotional nature of horror engages the spectator to a greater extent than other genres of film and games, and contemporary technology, because it can allow the spectator more involvement, creates a desire for involvement. The first-person perspective in a horror film asks of its spectator, what is real? How would you define real? Would you, as in Diary of the Dead, be able to shoot a friend who was bitten by a zombie, this supposing in the realm of the film that zombies are real? And for the gamer, Edward T. Hall writes, “The computer is an extension or part of the brain” (3). The same quote goes on to say, “…the telephone extends the voice, the wheel extends the legs and feet,” suggesting that technology becomes an extension of our bodies.

First-person perspective in a horror game puts a console in the hands of the gamer; a console that is on the screen a gun, and “gamers are actively engaged in the actions and choices that the game character makes, they are at the same time making those choices as gamers in the real world and as characters in a fictional world” (DeMaria 74). The aesthetic of the first-person perspective not only creates the emotional experience; it allows the visceral nature of the horror film to be taken one step further. The spectator still desires the fictional world through a construct of reality.

This desire for participation through this new mode of spectatorship could be an extension of the current “on-demand” culture. In the western world in particular, societies with the means to do so, have constant and relatively unmitigated access to cinematic entertainment. If the movie theatres are closed, there is television; if you don’t like what is on television, there is YouTube and countless other websites where a spectator can watch not only famous movies, but infamous and homemade ones as well.

If you want interactivity, get a gaming console. Oddey and White write, “The new mode of spectating is to focus only on what “I” want to see; on my perception of the world as “I” see it” (8). Not only can the spectator see what they want when they want, but also how they want. The first-person perspective suggests that each individual has something to offer; that it is you, the spectator, who are necessary to complete this story or to win this game.

Jenkins writes, “New technologies are enabling average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content” (1). The individual has never been more important in consumer technological culture. Any given spectator might have myriad of profiles and identities on various websites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube. The spectator immerses themselves in these various identities, which may or may not be close to the reality of his/herself, but which nonetheless they interact with the world through, through technological means.

The film screen and the game console become an extension of this through the first-person perceptive. The film/game creates a kind of avatar for the spectator/gamer, who then becomes part of the story directly. In his book Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu writes of the “deep-rooted demand for participation … the desire to enter into the game” (33). In the film Being John Malkovich, a character discovers a portal that, when passed through,allows the spectator to become John Malkovich for 15 minutes. And while the desire to become someone else (however briefly) can be seen in certain online games, there is still desire for unmediated access to the fictional space through us, through spectator contribution.

The spectatorship of horror films/games leans more toward the scenario proposed in the film The Matrix through the character of Neo. Thespectator/gamer wants not to be someone else, but to find the “hero” within him/herself. The spectator justifies their presence at the morgue in 19th century Paris by virtue of their contribution, their unique ability to be the hero and identify the corpse. The horror film/game spectator/gamer becomes part of the first-person perspective through their individual contribution.

Of course, this kind of role-playing is not new or exclusive to the cinematic apparatuses. Role-playing board games that evolved out of war games from the 19th century became popular in the mid-20th century with the creation of Dungeons and Dragons and similar games, according to Mackey (14). This is when the idea of a “character” or “characters” came about, and participation became a part of the medium. Gamers controlled specific characters, which were a combination of his/her own self and their ideal self. Many of the games grew out of literature, and created its own subculture, which in turn created its own conventions, organizations and newsletters (16).

But while stories in the media (both in years past and continuing today) often associate video games and gameplay with a kind of cultural decline, falling standards of literacy and educational achievement, (as shown by Newman), other studies have shown that the majority of gamers are educated and literate (4). And this is a crossover audience, legions of fantasy, science fiction and horror film fans, as shown by Mackay (15). Mathew Kumar told me, “there is a significant cross-over between gamers and horror films that use first person camera styles … gamers like horror.”

Not only are spectators/gamers watching these films and playing these games for their participatory nature, they are expanding their participation into the internet. Chat rooms are created for fans to interact to discussing films and game strategies; hundreds write so-called “fan fiction,” writing their own stories based on the characters and setting of various horror films and games, and sometimes even reality television shows.

Although, it is hard to give an exact reference for this information. After some internet searches using terms such as “horror”, “participation”, “role-playing” and similar terms used in this essays, hundreds of sites would come up with connection to chat rooms. Typing in “fan fiction” yields similar results.

New sites of audience expression have been created since the technology became available, suggesting the desire for this level of participation has always been there, and technology is just now catching up. Andrew MacTavish suggests that, “the movie viewer and the gamer may share a psychologically active oscillation” (45). The visceral impact of participation in games can transfer to the visceral emotional impact of films.

The new system of simulation through the first-person perspective, allowed by contemporary cinematic technology, has created a participatory reception in horror film, and a receptatory participation in horror games. A spectator/gamer can participate through chat rooms, fan fiction, and communication with other fans, and participate actively in the story itself. In his book Games Cultures, Jon Dovey writes that there is a claim that “the ‘old’ system of representation is collapsing in the face of the ‘new’ system of simulation” (10). This may be true.

As technology and software applications allow for not only greater interaction between people, but also the ability of those people to create their own entertainment, the desire to be a part of entertainment arguably increases, particularly for fans of horror. The genre lends itself not only to emotional investment, but temporal investment and participation.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of people who play video or computer games is 35. And while horror films tend to attract a younger audience, a healthy portion of those who attend are in the same age range. Certainly, game and film companies make a large marketing effort to gain the much-coveted youth audience, recognizing that most people enjoy a wide variety of art and entertainment forms; for example, in the late 1990s, Playstation moved away from conventional marketing formats and hyped their product at the Glastonbury Festival (23).

There are different wants and expectations with different media formats. But as Andrew Keen points out in his book The Cult of the Amateur, as people read fewer newspapers and go to fewer movies, what is becoming morepopular is the internet, suggesting that we enjoy a certain amount of involvement with content and enjoy being part of the process. Part of the apparatus of that process becomes in horror films/games the first-person perspective.

The generation that enjoys gaming, with an average age of 35, is also the generation to whom the home movie camera was the norm. The technology of the movie camera was not foreign, not seeing oneself in a film unexpected. The exposure to the home movie genre (if it can be called that) leads to an association of oneself as part of the story, and hence a factor in the desire to be a spectator/gamer in the game. The spectator, in seeing themselves in home movies and in filming these home movies, can develop a kind of parasocial relationship with the characters in horror films/games that utilize the first-person perspective.

Dovey writes, “computer games require a manipulation of technology [that] underpins our adoption of technology as an ‘extension’ of ourselves” (32). As more people carry technology in their pockets (so to speak) on a constant basis, and we see technology as a regular extension of us, our desire for the emotionally engaging experience extends to entertainment and seeing ourselves involved in entertainment. Websites such as YouTube,6 (as opposed to sites such as Facebook, where one can exert control over who can see the content), allow anyone with a computer, a webcam, and an internet connection to upload anything that could potential be watched by thousands (even if it is not worthy of attention).

Jacques Lacan, in his theory of the gaze, posited the saying “I see myself seeing myself”; which is to say, the subject/spectator only recognizes him/herself through an outside gaze. The subject relies upon the gaze of the object (what he/she is looking at) in order to find his/her own representation. The subject can only see his/herself as others see, so the first-person perspective allows them direct access to this representation.

In today’s culture of social networking and constant online access, the spectator is not his/herself unless he/she is not alone. By extension, the spectator/gamer finds an identity through the first-person perspective given to them by horror films/games.

When The Blair Witch Project became the surprise hit of the 1999 season, many critics and spectators called it a groundbreaking film, referring to its style and mode of communication. Certainly, several things about it were groundbreaking. As stated before, it was one of the first films to utilize the internet as a primary means of marketing.

A website was created months before the film was released; this website (which is still in operation) perpetuated the myth that the film was a documentary. Posters replicating the graphic design of missing persons posters, featuring the film’s actors were placed around various large university campuses and replicated on the website. Further, a documentary, The Curse of the Blair Witch, aired on cable television’s Sci-Fi Channel a few weeks before the film’s release.

However, the found footage technique was not new, nor was the incorporation of the camera as part of the film. Documentary filmmaker Robert Drew and others like him used the handheld camera as soon as the technology was capable of being used in an easy manner, and American fiction film director John Cassavettes used a portable 16mm camera to shoot his film Shadows (1959). The tradition of direct cinema, which records an ongoing event as it is happening, and then shown in relatively the same manner and order in which was filmed with little or no editing, can clearly be seen in The Blair Witch Project.

Shelagh Rowan-Legg is a writer, filmmaker, and academic. She is a programmer for FrightFest, and a critic for Sight & Sound Magazine. She is the author of The Spanish Fantastic: Contemporary Filmmaking in Horror, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi (I.B. Tauris, 2016).

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