This is the first of two articles riffing on found footage horror and new media. The second is Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s “Found Footage Horror #2: Textures of Silence and Decay: Marble Hornets and the Haunted Archive,” q.v.
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“What happens when, just like in the flip book, the immobile figures of the past start moving, when the fly bursts out from the amber, and what should belong to the past is no longer there? What happens when we do not need to make an effort to recollect, because the mementos of the past come to us of their own will? That is what ghost movies very often talk about.”
I clearly remember the first time I saw a flip book; it showed Donald Duck blowing up a blue balloon. I recall being fascinated by the phenomenon of movement from a series of static images. It was magic, I was sure. Later I realized that it was just a delusion of the senses, and at the same time it was something that revealed one feature of the nature of the spectacle: by making the image move, something dead becomes living, the past intertwines with the present. These are issues that are very often addressed by ghost movies. They are depicted in quite a unique way in a recent one, the Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters.1 In this article I analyse the cinematic spectres of Grave Encounters by borrowing some ideas from Jacques Derrida’s hauntology and the classic theories of psychoanalysis, and by the end of the study we will hopefully get a notion of how key terms like life and death, continuity and discontinuity appear both in a spatial and temporal sense in the movie, and how they reflect on the essentially horrifying nature of the moving image.
There are minor debates over the question of whether photography stands for the past or (because of its timelessness and instant availability) remains always present, in closer (and perpetual) connection to the present. Kaja Silverman in The Threshold of the Visible World argues that “the still camera simultaneously kills and affirms; it lifts the object out of life and into representation, and psychically and socially actualizes it” (199). She suggests that the photographic process pushes the object onto the side of death, but simultaneously (by the representation of it) maintains it as still existing and actual. While in Silverman’s theory photography provides immortality for the subject (as the photographic object), Roland Barthes draws photography much closer to death. In Camera Lucida he argues that “Death is the eidos of [the] Photograph” (15), its nature, its essence, its cause and its effect. Photography mummifies the moment, as Peter Wollen writes; it is a device “for stopping time and preserving fragments of the past, like flies [are preserved] in amber” (76). There is one aspect of all these theories that is consistently emphasized: the stillness and the immobility of the deadly image.
The deathly quality of the photograph was perfectly mirrored by the so-called post-mortem photography (sometimes referred to as mourning photography), quite popular in the Victorian era, that photographed the recently deceased. For today’s spectators the most shocking aspect of these photographs is that they do not necessarily want to present the dead body as a dead body: coffins are usually left out of the photos, and the dead people are in most cases represented playing out aspects of their lives, that is, the posture is very much like that of the living.2 Nineteenth-century post-mortem photography was born with the specific purpose of taking one last picture of the beloved to help the process of mourning. There are instances in contemporary art, when an artist chooses death as the subject of his/her work; for instance the American photographer Andres Serrano has created a photo series of dead bodies called Morgue. These images are different in the sense they are made to show the beauty in the body; that is, Serrano intends to give an artistic value to the dead body.3 There are two features of post-mortem photographs that reflect on the deathly character of the still image: on the one hand, it reassures the argument that these images stand for death; on the other hand, by putting dead people into lifelike situations it reflects on the ghostly (filmic) phenomena that are to be touched upon several times in this study.
It seems that the stubbornness of the photograph represents a particle of the past, standing for the world of the dead, and as such, it is the space of remembering (and forgetting). Georges Bataille claims that “life is movement and nothing within that movement is proof against it” (101). Therefore in moving things there is something originally alive that denies death. But what happens when, just like in the flip book, the immobile figures of the past start moving, when the fly bursts out from the amber and what should belong to the past is no longer there? What happens when we do not need to make an effort to recollect, because the mementos of the past come to us of their own will? That is what ghost movies (and psychoanalysis) very often talk about and as such, go against Bataille’s theory and against common sense too. Along with the birth of the moving image the very idea of ghostliness arose, and its (a)temporality quickly became the central theme of ghost movies.
In the following discussion, first I reflect on ghostliness that derives from Grave Encounters‘ unique application of space and time and how these affect the spectrality of the narrative of the movie. Then I elaborate on similarities between psychoanalysis and the temporality of this film, and how the continuity takes control over death and the whole of the cinematic apparatus. Finally, I investigate the technical features of this movie and reflect on how the spectator experiences the deadly spectacle.
Hunting and Haunting – on Ghosts’ Tracks
Previous tenants of a house, slaughtered family members, mad mothers/fathers – these are just a few examples of the creatures who keep coming back to the living in ghost films. The haunted house is one of the most ancient realms of fear in horror stories. However, no matter how terrifying these places are, the living need them. People can live only in a haunted house that already has a story.4 Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space examines the significance of the relationship between memories and the space of the house, leading to the supposition that remembering and space have a strong correlation from the perspective of psychoanalysis, psychology, and phenomenology as well. Bachelard claims that “a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated” (8, emphasis added). Particles from the past are needed to be able to define the self, so the shadows of the past are always with us – we are never alone. This phenomenon always lies at the heart of the interpretation of ghost stories: in such narratives the question is not only the nature of the haunting apparitions, but (probably more significantly) the nature of the haunted too. Maybe this is the reason why the documentary crew of Grave Encounters enter the extinct asylum: the ghost-hunting trip is rather a self-exploring journey for them, a journey with a hidden Hades to the underworld.
Temporal issues play an enormous role in Grave Encounters, and not only because it is a ghost movie that mingles past and present. Within the diegesis, the crew members are locked up for eight hours in the building, and they record everything that happens to them. The team technician, Matt, plants ten static cameras throughout the building, each with a counter in the corner; thus we spectators can see the actual time they have spent in the building. This gains greater importance when after the planned eight hours (at 8.44 am), it is still pitch dark outside, and the caretaker has not arrived to free them. This is the point in the movie where confusion and madness start to subdue the diegetic filmmakers, and this unavoidably influences the spectator’s temporal sensation as well. As we move ahead in the film, we can witness other instances when time seems to play a trick on the protagonists: when one of them opens the freezer box, he sees that the fruits and sandwiches are rotten and full of worms, as if they have been there for months. At their last desperate effort to get out, they decide to break down the main entrance door that was locked by the caretaker. This is probably the most disturbing part of the movie: they should be outdoors by now, but the door opens to another hospital corridor. Then they try to go out where they find the “Exit” sign, but wherever they go, they find another depressing, horrifying corridor. The hallways of this asylum are reminiscent of memory archives: from the main corridor we can step into smaller ones, and from them into the patients’ rooms, each of them preserving an individual story. Alongside the temporal confusion the crew members have lost their sense of space as well – it seems that they are lost in the memory-labyrinth of the previous tenants. There are other moments in the movie when creatures from the past literally get in touch with the crew members. Once they wake up to find the word “HELLO” scratched into the back of their cameramen, Sasha, and at another time they find hospital bands on their wrists with their names, let alone the occasions when dead patients appear and attack them. The ultimate scare for the viewer is the scene when the only remaining member, Lance, descends into the underground tunnels, and we see that the static camera’s counter is completely disturbed, it too has gone mad, and finally we see Lance after a lobotomy. Grave Encounters (like the witch hunter group of the movie The Blair Witch Project) is a movie within a movie. The act of shooting a film about shooting a film literally calls into play the notion of the mise-en-abyme, the intrinsic self-reflexivity at the heart of the spectacle. Along the strategies of identification and the experience of the cinematic spectacle, this phenomenon and the documentary style, what we witness throughout the movie is what makes us, spectators, locked up in the asylum as well and what enables us to discuss the idea of spectrality in a much wider sense.
The moments before the filming of the scenes in the asylum include several details suggesting that the filmmakers are going to sink in the past (or present) of the asylum, calling into question the issues of narration and storytelling within the frame of spectral existence. Before stepping into the actual building, they conduct interviews with a local historian, providing the spectators with insight into the history of the hospital and into personal memories related to the place. The cinematic haunting starts when, during the conversation, we can see original recordings of the hospital, photos of the director of the institution, and video recordings of him practicing lobotomies on patients. The idea of a lobotomy – along with the idea of ghostliness – is hovering above the heads of the crew members throughout the film: this medical practice causes massive brain damage, mainly in compromising recollection and thus in self-recognition and the sense of identity, and often results in “apathy, passivity, lack of initiative, poor ability to concentrate, and a generally decreased depth and intensity of (…) emotional response to life” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The existential confusion deriving from the thematic spectrality within the movie, and the cinematic editing of the images together result in a temporal (con)fusion on and off the screen. Louise Burchill in her study “Derrida and the (Spectral) Scene of Cinema” discusses how the Derridean hauntology, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology meet in the cinematic apparatus. Based on Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, she claims that the cinema “would differ from all other teletechnologies of the image through its being spectral […] by its […] engaging a modality of ‘belief,’ which, in an unprecedented way, suspends the distinction between imagination and the real, hallucination and perception, indeed, life and death, such that, by believing in the apparition on the screen, all while not believing, the spectator undergoes a vacillation of her/his own sense of identity” (168).
Grave Encounters makes an additional twist on this by presenting the realm of the impossible within the cinematic frames of the real, that is, in a documentary style. Here the spectator is forced to believe not only the spectres on screen but the film characters, believing what they sense. We have to empathize with an adopted belief, and with that we become secondary consumers of the spectacle. The idea of the horror film spectator as a secondary consumer of the spectacle is a central theme of Aviva Briefel’s study “What Some Ghosts Don’t Know.” In this article she talks about a certain subgenre of horror films that she labels “spectral incognizance.” She argues that “the protagonist of this genre, with whom the viewer is meant to identify for the entirety of the film, finds out in the final moments of the narrative that he or she has died or has been involved in a prolonged dying process” (96).5In this study Briefel claims that the structure of these films involves temporal continuity in the sense that we are just “second-time viewers, even if we have not seen the particular film before. […]. If death is no longer a surprise, these narratives will fall into the category of what Barthes would term the ‘already seen.’ Death is reduced to a recognizable narrative form” (102).
In Grave Encounters, when the crew steps into the building, they see a warning written on the main entrance door: “Death awaits.” The notion “death,” on the one hand, relates to the ghosts, the particles of the past, and, on the other hand, the crew members’ symbolic deaths as they become part of the past, that they are unable to leave the place of the dead. However, considering Briefel’s notion on spectral incognizance, the words on the door are a clear message for the spectator as well: it seems that deathprovides the frames of the movie, but since it “awaits” – it is coming, we watch for it –, its prolongedness takes control over the film. It is not death but rather dying that drives the narrative, and it creates a turmoil in the spectator that results in an ontological confusion in the spectatorial subject. Along with the idea of lobotomy, death (or dying) reflects on the repetitive, never-ending act of perception of the spectacle, which evokes some resemblance between spectators and ghosts: through the spectator’s cinematic identification, the adoption of temporal confusion is inescapable. This mutual non-belongingness is what drives Grave Encounters – both the documentary series and the movie.
At the beginning of the movie, the protagonists do not want to escape the temporal confusion; what’s more, they seem to create the situations when temporal dimensions fuse together. One of their strategies of ghost-hunting is to take up the position of dead patients: Sasha sits down in the room with the scribbled walls, while Lance lies into the bathtub in which a girl killed herself. Another strategy is the use of a special piece of equipment, spirit photography; it is said to be able to record apparitions that are hidden from human eyes. Although he intends to take photos of ghosts, Lance unwittingly takes photos on which one of the crew members is always there. Finally, Lance manages to take photos of unrecognisable apparitions behind the crew members. With this act he literally sentences them to death by pushing them into the visual realm of the dead. As Christian Metz claims, “the snapshot, like death, is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world” (84). By using spirit photography, Lance forces the dead to slip into the world of the living by pulling the trigger on the camera, and this works vice versa in the case of the photographed crew members: the filmic equipment functions as a gateway between the world of the dead and the world of the living. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida reveals the ghostly nature of the objects of photography when he says “the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a spectre” (14, emphasis added).
The use of the present continuous tense here (“I am truly becoming”) and my previous observation in connection with dying signify the ongoing nature of the change that is happening to the ones shot by the camera, and to the spectators as well. In Grave Encounters, the members of the filming group firstly become shot, and, although they are still alive, they acquire the position of deadly apparitions; secondly, they become objectified by spirit photography and,considering Barthes’ idea and the assumptions that photos are preservers of the past, they become passivised, immobilised, locked up in the photo-frame, and something in them becomes really dead.
The temporal continuity deriving from the appliance of stills within the moving image shows similarities with the temporal issues of classic psychoanalysis. Metz in “Photography and Fetish” argues that “[m]ovement and plurality both imply time, as opposed to the timelessness of photography which is comparable to the timelessness of the unconscious” (83). The return of some past events is reflected in the practice of psychoanalytic treatment as well: it is nothing else but opening the repressed past of the patient and transferring his/her hibernated memories into the present, to make them available for here and now. Sigmund Freud in “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through” says that “repetition is a transference of a long forgotten past not only on the doctor but also on to all the other aspects of the current situation” (2502, emphasis added). Practically, this is what we witness in Grave Encounters, depicted as negative side-effects of psychoanalytic treatment: dead patients and doctors, that is, mementos from the past of the asylum come back to the living, the continuous, into the present of all filmic characters – and that of the spectator. As a result of being an organic part of the cinematic apparatus, or as Laura Mulvey puts it, as “the audience […] watches the final product” (843), they share the past and the present experienced on screen.
The filming group lock themselves up in the building “during the peak hours of dead-time,” which refers not only to the peculiar period of ghost-h(a)unting but to the time of sleeping, dreaming, when, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, the unconscious, the buried, the dead take control. As ghosts relive their own past again and again, the crew members experience their suffering along with it: they lose their senses, and while they are trying to get out, they realise that they are going around in circles continuously, repeatedly. Freud in connection with dreams claims that repetition is “ill-applied and interpolated into an inappropriate context” (903). This inappropriate context in Grave Encounters can be grasped in spatial and temporal terms: the group is at the wrong place at the wrong time; they have broken into the space and time of the dead, and they should not be there. Haunting means the never-ending return to the same place, in this case to the asylum, where there is no more place for the ghosts; therefore they are constant reminders of a certain lack. Conversely, the crew members create a surplus within the space: although they are unwanted there, they keep haunting the place, circulating in the corridors like unnecessary blood cells, gradually washing away the borders among spatial and temporal dimensions. These deeds of the crew members on screen and the chains of words in the psychoanalytic practice of the talking cure serve the same purpose: the fusion of the spaces of time and the filling of certain gaps.6 This fusion is what the spectator experiences off-screen and what is depicted in the fusion of psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and Derrida’s deconstruction. As Louise Burchill claims, “cinematic perception, so to speak, mirrors the practice of psychoanalysis: both call on the process of hypnosis, fascination and identification, while film’s shifts in perceptual focus – notably the close-up – open onto the unconscious in a way similar to the psychoanalytic attention to slips of the tongue or other details previously unnoticed in the broad stream of perception” (169).\
There are three basic assumptions that, in my reading, center upon the idea of continuity, which is a disturbing feature of being. These three notions are: (1) film-viewing is always some kind of a continuation of the act of watching (Burchill’s claim); (2) repetitions, haunting, coming back again and again is a never-ending activity; (3) death (the recurring past) and dying (we talk about recurring past, and not an enclosed period of time, constantly affecting what comes after).In Georges Bataille’s theory, asexual fissiparous beings are continuous, since by fission (into two or more distinctive beings) the original being indirectly survives: “continuity is given by one being to another and by each to the totality of the others in the transition of the reproductive process” (97). However, sexual beings (including human beings) live a discontinuous life, since there is a certain endpoint in their lives from which point on they cease to be present for living human beings: “[Sexual beings] can put up only a temporary resistance, to their own teeming energies as to the general surge of life” (101). According to Bataille, for sexual beings one way of experiencing continuity is sexual fusion. There is no need to deny that there is something comforting in the fact that there is one point in our lives when we leave the realm of the living, when we finish our tasks here, and leave for another place. As Bataille argues, “the idea of a world where human life might be artificially prolonged has a nightmare quality” (101, emphasis added). In Grave Encounters (and, to some extent, in every ghost movie), this comforting discontinuity fails: after their deaths, spirits of the dead patients keep on haunting the old building, keep coming back to life, jeopardising the reassuring fact that death definitely comes. In Grave Encounters, we can witness the extension of the cinematic frames of life, which, in its present form, is to be associated with dying. As Peter Brooks claims, all narratives are heading toward their own death when they finally provide meaning: “the ultimate determinants of meaning lie at the end, and narrative desire is ultimately, inexorably, desire for the end” (52). Since in Grave Encounters death is delayed by several cinematic strategies, dying takes death’s place over justifying questions about the continuity of the moving image, and the temporal and spatial continuity experienced on/off the screen: analysing the technical framing of Grave Encounters, how does the very phenomenon of the moving image (as opposed to stills) add to this nightmarish quality of the movie?
Going back to the very essentials of film semiotics and the principles of the technical construction of the spectacle will help us understand the spectral visuality of Grave Encounters. On the pure visual level, the gaps that temporally separate viewers from the viewed are intertwined by the sewing of images into the flow of movies. Kaja Silverman in The Subject of Semiotics elaborates on the cinematic significance of suture: the camera negates “its own existence as much as possible, fostering the illusion that what is shown has an autonomous existence, independent of any technological interference, or any coercive gaze” (201-2). This means that, although suture obviously connects two originally separate elements (two shots), the stitches remain invisible, resulting in the smoothness of the spectacle and the feeling of continuity. The movie Grave Encounters is unique in the sense that it manages to create the smoothness of the spectacle in most cases without applying the techniques of continuity editing. This results from the diegetic rationale that the movie is made up of the raw materials that the filming group recorded; what’s more, the producer of the show makes a quite ambiguous announcement in the very beginning of the film: “I want to be very clear about this. What you’re about to see is not a movie. (…) This is just raw footage edited strictly for time.” Apart from the instances when photos and records from old archives are shown, this may be credible; however, the producer, by claiming that this is not a movie, creates the inherently self-denying nature of this film. The spectator is constantly reminded of the film’s unique status of being a movie that is actually not a movie – but of course, the final product is a movie. Through sustaining the illusion of providing the spectator with the actual raw material recorded in the building, the movie lacks the visual instruments of continuity editing, and as a result of this, the cinematic smoothness and suture are born exactly out of the negation of themselves. Grave Encounters manages to drag the viewer into the film by this Brechtian distancing effect that constantly tries to push him/her out of the cinematic apparatus.
Through my analysis here my aim was to reveal how the temporal and spatial aspects of spectrality appear in Grave Encounters and how these affect the act of perception of the movie, and how all these are mirrored in the practice of psychoanalysis. The labyrinth-like space in the movie and the instances of temporal confusion together result in a continuity that is a characteristic not only of the thematic ghostliness, but of several other issues that the movie addresses: the very idea of ghostliness pervades the structure of the movie too; it shifts through the diegetic and non-diegetic elements of the movie, revealing the internal paradox that lies in the act of watching it. The idea that present and past fuse together is a phenomenon that is reflected in the psychoanalytic treatment and in the perception of the film as well. Conversely, we may assume that Grave Encounters not only is about spectrality, but opens up a new dimension of spectatorship that is spectral in itself: an act of perception that is repetitive and temporally (and spatially) confused, an act of perception in which the spectator is very much aware of his/her semi-presence within the filmic apparatus.
In the introduction I quoted the following from Georges Bataille: “life is movement and nothing within that movement is proof against it.” In the light of this analysis, I would make some amendments to this idea (which by the way, I believe, is fully valid). Life in Bataille’s theory is to be understood as progress, as some meaningful change, and considering Brooks we know that such a change may take place only when the narrative comes to an end. In Grave Encounters, repetition is peculiar to both the theme and the structure, the very essence of ghostliness creeps into every detail of the movie, and repetition is something that goes against progress. This movie is not about repetition that fails to provide an end; it is rather about repetition that provides an end that is inherently self-denying and consistently maintained in its present form. Continuity provides the frames of the narrative and the frames of the spectatorial self too, which generates an internal struggle for meaning: if we get the meaning, we lose the essence of the film, and of ghostliness itself. Lance at the very end of the movie says the following after his lobotomy: “I’m so much better now, I finally go home.” Lobotomy is a medical treatment equal to spectralization: initiative is gone; motoric, repetitive functions remain. Lance’s case reflects that repetition is the only way out for the spectator as well: getting out – that is, getting meaning – lies in the adoption of endlessness, namely, in signing a production agreement with dying.
Note: This research was realized in the frames of TÁMOP 4.2.4. A/2-11-1-2012-0001, “National Excellence Program – Elaborating and operating an inland student and researcher personal support Systemconvergence program.” The project was subsidized by the European Union and co-financed by the European Social Fund.
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Briefel, Aviva. “What Some Ghosts Don’t Know: Spectral Incognizance and the Horror Film.” Narrative, 17.1, 95-108. ProjectMuse (accessed 23 February 2013).
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. London: Harvard UP, 2000.
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Grave Encounters. Dir. The Vicious Brothers. Twin Engine Films, Digital Interference Production, 2011.
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- The movie is about a group of filmmakers who are about to shoot the final episode of a ghost-hunting documentary series in the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. Their mission fails as they lose control over the ghastly happenings in the building: they are attacked by apparitions or they mysteriously vanish by the end of the film. [↩]
- Children often pose with their toys or pets; what’s more, the family members very often hold their hands or hold them in their arms. Adults are also photographed with family members, very often with their eyes open, as still being alive. [↩]
- See an indication of his work on the following link: http://www.artnet.com/usernet/awc/awc_thumbnail.asp?aid=424202827&gid=424202827&cid=118026&works_of_art=1 Accessed 5 March 2013. [↩]
- This idea was part of Professor Tamás Bényei’s presentation “Spectrality and Remembering in Theory and in Ghost Stories” (“Spektralitás és emlékezet az elméletben és a kísértethistóriákban”). Loci Memoriae Hungaricae conference. Debrecen, Hungary, 16 November 2011. I would like to thank Professor Tamás Bényei and Dr. György Kalmár for their guidance with this paper. [↩]
- Briefel discusses films like The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001), and Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990). [↩]
- Here I would like to call your attention to an obvious difference between the nature of words and images: images are unconscious (like in dreams), but language always supposes some logic; thus it comes from the conscious. However, psychoanalysis works with words, since this is the only tool in its hand (a mutually understandable system) to build a bridge between the patient’s psyche and the therapist. [↩]