Horror has a long history of scaring the bejeezus out of people. After all, that’s the point of horror films, isn’t it? To scare people? But usually, when you get scared in a horror film, the credits roll, the lights go on, you exit the theater, and leave your fear behind.
Not these five films. Whether because the special effects were so outstanding or the marketing was so skillful, these films are examples of horror experiences that, in one way or another, tricked audiences into believing they were actually real.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The first found footage film, Cannibal Holocaust is notorious for its graphic sexual violence and murders, and real footage of animals being murdered on camera. The film follows an anthropologist who is reviewing the footage of a documentary team who went on an excursion into the Amazon. Less than two weeks after the film premiered in Milan, the reels were confiscated and director Ruggero Deodato was charged with obscenity. A French magazine suggested that the murders in the film were real, which caused the Italian government to add murder charges to Deodato’s record.
This wasn’t something that Deodato shied away from. In fact, he made his stars sign contracts forbidding them to do any press for the film, or appear in any other media for one year after the release of Cannibal Holocaust. This was to make the documentary footage seem more authentic. Deodato had to produce the actors and prove they were alive, as well as reveal his special-effects secrets in order to get the murder charges dropped. He, along with several producers on the film, were found guilty of obscenity, and given a four month suspended sentence.
Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985)
In the original 1995 edition of Killing For Culture: An Illustrated History of Death on Film, authors David Kerekes and David Slater considered the first Guinea Pig film to be the closest example of a snuff film (having decided that filmed murder-for-profit, or “snuff” films, did not exist). However, it was the second in the series that drew attention.
In 1991, Flower of Flesh and Blood found its way into the hands of actor Charlie Sheen. He had been told that it was rumored to have been a snuff film, and was fully ready to watch it and dismiss it as a hoax. However, after watching it, he was so horrified by the content that he no longer thought it was a hoax – he turned it over to the FBI, who investigated but eventually dropped the case after viewing a “making of” documentary. A year later, a British man was arrested for importing a snuff film: Flower of Flesh and Blood. Forensic analysts determined it was a clever manipulation, and the man was fined.
The band Skinny Puppy wrote a song about Flower of Flesh and Blood called “The Mourn,” and used footage from Guinea Pig in the music video. In a 1988 interview in Melody Maker, frontman Nivek Ogre said, “Apparently the people [that made the film] sent four copies to the government and the newspapers. They’ve never been traced nor has the body been found.”
This ninety minute ghost-hunting “documentary” aired on BBC1 on Halloween night. Roughly based on the Enfield Poltergeist story, Ghostwatch involved BBC1 reporters investigating a malevolent ghost at a London home. The show included footage from the house, as well as footage of reporters back in the studio. Though the entire show was scripted and not actually aired live, this didn’t stop viewers from thinking it was real. The BBC nearly pulled the show from the air, but a compromise was reached that it would air with opening credits, including a “Written By” credit, in hopes that viewers would believe it was scripted. It didn’t work.
A call-in number was provided, for the audience to talk about “ghostly phenomenon.” The phone number was the same one used on other BBC shows, but when viewers called this number, they were greeted with a message telling them the show was fictional. Unfortunately, the phone number was inundated with calls, resulting in a busy signal for many. To those people, this just confirmed that the show was real.
The BBC received over 30,000 calls regarding the show. A young man who was obsessed with the show committed suicide five days after it aired, stating in his suicide note that “if there are ghosts I will be … with you always as a ghost.” There were also several other documented cases of children suffering PTSD after watching the show. The BBC eventually banned the show. It never again aired after its premiere, but it did receive a home video release in 2002. A documentary released in 2013 delved into the making of Ghostwatch and the reaction to the program.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Though The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found footage film, it is often considered the film that put the subgenre on the map. Clever marketing left viewers wondering if what they saw was real or not. I remember seeing this with a friend, who was convinced it was real.
Besides being a relatively new subgenre, the marketing behind it was clever. Flyers were passed out ahead of the film’s Sundance premiere, asking for help in finding the “hikers.” The actors – Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard – kept their own names in the film, and their IMDb pages listed each as “missing, presumed dead” for a year after the film came out. The film’s official website was set up to act more like a missing persons site, including fake police photos, “news” footage, and even childhood photos of the actors.
Adding to the hoax was Curse of the Blair Witch, a mockumentary that aired on the SciFi Channel prior to The Blair Witch Project’s release. This mockumentary was played as real, and offered a look at the history of the Blair Witch, including interviews with local residents and folklore experts.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Paranormal Activity, while it didn’t have the same marketing plan that The Blair Witch Project did, used many of the same techniques in order to press the “realism” of it. After watching the film, a friend called me, asking me if the film was real. He didn’t quite believe me when I said it wasn’t real, but seemed like he wanted to believe my assessment.
Paranormal Activity was shot with a home movie camera in order to keep the “shot at home” feeling. Like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity gave the characters the names of the actors: Micah was played by Micah Sloat, and Katie was played by Katie Featherston. Director Oren Peli also had Sloat film much of the footage himself. In addition, the film wasn’t really scripted; the actors were given outlines of scenes and asked to improvise. A similar method was used on The Blair Witch Project.
Considered the first “viral film,” after premiering at a few film festivals, Paranormal Activity was picked up by Paramount and rolled out slowly to theaters. It started by playing in twelve college towns, with Peli suggesting that fans who wanted to see the film “demand” it come to their town, offering a website to vote on where the film played next. After a couple months of this strategy, Paramount stated that if the film got one million “demands,” they would give it a wide release. Paranormal Activity reached this milestone after four days.
Bonus: “The War of the Worlds” Radio Play (1938)
Not a film, but Orson Welles’ broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel about alien invasion terrified people across the country. At the time, reports came in from police departments, and the mayor of a small midwestern town, claiming that there was panic, riots, and suicides. Recently, it is thought that much of the “panic” was whipped up by anecdotal, improperly sourced reports stemming from a single AP report. Regardless of what the truth is, the story of the panic will live on in infamy.