Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Generation X Goes Back to the Future 3: Reality Horror and the Horror of Reality

Fake Missing Sign, featuring the actors in the movie, The Blair Witch Project. Image: BlairWitch.com.

No sparkling vampires, please. Picking up on the themes from the Urbex piece yesterday, the online journal Ol3Media of Cinema, Television and Media Studies, based at University Roma Tre is calling for papers (here) on the new genre of Reality Horror.  From the call for papers: "From the unpredictable success of The Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity, horror has seen the emergence of a new genre: the reality horror or live recording horror. Beyond the possible labels this trend has been the one great novelty of expression of horror cinema, next to the Eastern wave of the early years of the new millennium.  Some movie suggestions: The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Diary of the Dead, Rec, Rec2, Cloverfield, Series 7: The Contenders, Otogiriso."  It was fake history - a false claim to reality in horror - that made Blair Witch, a movie with a notoriously small budget of around $25,000, walk away with a gross profit of $248,639,099.

A fake historical photo of a search party at Coffin Rock.  We believe it's real because it's in sepia and people are wearing old-styled clothing. Image: Blairwitch.com.

There are rumours of a third Blair Witch film in development which will likely take a historical angle and give the witch's backstory and/or accounts of other cases involving the witch; there's also talk of a Scottish remake. Of course, Blair Witch is famous for its successful online viral marketing campaign - possibly the first of its kind.  The film was initially marketed as a true story.  I remember when the first ads appeared on TV for Blair Witch.  They were shot in black and white (another sure sign of authenticity - people place more historical trust in black and white imagery), with the filmmakers screaming while they ran blindly through the woods at night.  This was followed by a strange little caption that the filmmakers had disappeared.  It looked more like a documentary.

The ads referred curious people to a website - at a time when the web was still pretty new and credulity levels were high.  The site had a false story about the town's search for the filmmakers (including the missing placard, above) plus several fake newspaper articles, fake police reports and photos, and false newscasts, as well as fake historical documents of the witch's trial and execution.  Weirdly, where my willing suspension of disbelief waned was not with the fake newscasts and police reports, which looked real enough (although how and why they had been posted on the site was odd).  Rather, it was the historical material that made me wonder what the hell was going on, complete with interviews with fake professors, who didn't exist.  I had read real historical documents on early modern court trials and read some stuff on witch trials in New England.  While looking at the falsified witch trial accounts on the site, I started to get the creeping feeling that this was all fiction.  It seems absurd to say that now, but the internet was a much more static animal in the late 1990s; no one had played with the common conviction that 'websites simply sat there and told the truth' yet.  This was a time just before Reality TV, which had long precedents, exploded in global popularity with shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Most people had never heard of Google, so digging around on Google was not an option to check on whether Blair Witch was real or not; the Blair Witch site had only gone up a few months after Google became active (in September 1998) and shortly before the film was released (in July 1999).

Many people in the first week or so leading up to and during the film's release thought The Blair Witch Project was real found footage - essentially a new kind of documentary, not a new kind of dramatic film.  People besieged the town in Maryland that supposedly was the historical site of the witch's trial and death.  More, when they were told that the film was fiction, they were convinced that the locals were lying to hide the town's shameful past.  Or they thought it was some sort of conspiracy theory.

"Child Killer Hanged": Fake newspaper coverage of Rustin Parr case, which is part of the Blair Witch mythos, Nov. 22, 1941. Image: Blairwitch.com.

A fake book (not) published in 1809 reported on the trial from colonial times: "It was testifi'd, That at the Examination of the Prisoner Kedward before the Magistrates, the Bewitched was extreamly tortured. . . .was the Shape of the Prisoner, which was whipped with Iron Rods, to compel her thereunto. . . .about Sun Rise, he was in his Chamber assaulted by the Shape of this Prisoner : which look'd on him, grinn'd at him, and very much hurt him with a Blow on the side. . .and. . .Shape walked in the Room where he was, and a Book strangely flew out of his Hand, into the. . . six or eight Foot from him. . . .he wak'd on a Night, and saw plainly a Woman between the Cradle and the Bed-side, which look'd upon him. He rose, and it vanished : tho' he found the doors all fast. . .he saw the same Woman, in the same Garb again ; and said, In God's Name, what do you come for? He went. . .The Child in the Cradle gave a great Screech, and the Woman disappeared. Blood was . . . with the doors shut about him, he saw a black Thing jump in at the window, and come and stand before him. The Body was like that of a Monkey, the Feet like a Horse, but the face much like a Man. The Day after, upon inspection, Hair of Horse lay in.  . . .did in the holes of the said old Wall, find several Poppets, made up of Sticks and Rags and Hogs-bristles, with headless. . ."

A fake census of the town of Blair from March 14, 1779. Image: Blairwitch.com.

Another aspect of Blair Witch's seeming authenticity was the amateur camera work.  Since the turn of the Millennium, Reality Horror has reflected the Tech Revolution by incorporating handheld cameras.  The camera reflects a Millennial dualism that's been gaining steam for about 15 years. There are two narratives in Reality Horror and reality TV: there's what people subjectively believe is happening, and what's 'truly' happening - which the camera records.  Thus, the camera is supposed to be the voice of objective truth, or reality, opposite flawed human perception.  David Lynch played with this idea in his 1997 film, Lost Highway, which anticipated many of the themes in Blair Witch, and especially its less accomplished sequel, Blair Witch 2.  In Lost Highway, the characters discuss this:

Ed: Do you own a video camera?
Renee Madison: No. Fred hates them.
Fred Madison: I like to remember things my own way.
Ed: What do you mean by that?
Fred Madison: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

Of course, shaky amateur camerawork now screams: fake!  'Reality' as conveyed through black and white images, sepia photos and amateur camerawork is no longer genuine enough.  The next stage is making films that use various tricks to make thems seem even more real - even when we know they're not.  As for Reality TV, it's long dawned on even the most hardcore fans that the genre is fixed and scripted - and fake.

The alternative to making a hyper-reality is making films like 300 (2006) and Sin City (2005), which offer a hyper-stylized, intensified reality.  Similarly, the 2006 adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly took real film footage and used it to create a graphic-novel-type animation, thus making a "graphic novel come to life."  Wiki: "Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times found the film 'engrossing' and wrote that 'the brilliance of [the film] is how it suggests, without bombast or fanfare, the ways in which the real world has come to resemble the dark world of comic books.'"  This film took Dick's original book, published in 1977, and translated a quintessentially Boomer experience into a Gen X mouthpiece through an ironic and innovative twisting of truth and fiction.

It's that transition from Blair Witch in 1998 to A Scanner Darkly in 2006 that maps out the mindset of Generation X over a critical period when the Tech Revolution kicked into high gear and took hold.  It's a generation that moved from believing in reality, to using it, to no longer believing in it, then using that loss to convey something of the sadness and uncertainty that lurks beneath our tech-hyped experiences.

See all my posts with Generation X themes.

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