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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Writing the Found Footage Horror

This is an adjunct to my blog on the about the Found Footage Horror genre. Check that out to learn the rules and tropes of the genre here we’ll talk about using them in a script. Found Footage will almost certainly continue to be a hot genre for the next years. What that means for the writer is that every knucklehead with a version of Final Draft will be banging out his version and sending it in. How are you going to make yours stand out from the pile?

Once again MASSIVE SPOILERS on Last Exorcism.

The Beginning

As I cover in my blog, Last Exorcism nailed its opening. Previously everyone had been going the Blair Witch route. They’d just have people milling about aimlessly on a loose journey to…somewhere. Then the demon or the Cloverfield monster would disrupt their lives and that’s the fun would start. But it was teeth grating to get to that part in Blair Witch, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity and it probably looked even worse on the page. Last Exorcism presented a new paradigm, borrow from real documentaries. They give us a character who is interesting and they quickly show why he’s interesting. In just a few short minutes we get a look at who Cotton Marcus is, his history and why he’s so fascinating (a preacher who may not believe in God) and then we’re off on the exorcism of the title. It not only gives us a good character it gets us on the road and headed towards trouble faster than any other Found Footage I can think of. Writer’s should definitely take a look at this opening. It’s like a journalism piece. It leads with the headline, or at least what the fictional documentary makers thought would be their headline. If you were writing a documentary your first job would be identify your subject and tell us why he’s worth watching. That’s really a good tip for any kind of writing.


It’s a little heavy handed but it makes people chuckle. Both Last Exorcism and Blair Witch use interviews with the locals to foreshadow their endings. It sounds outrageous but it turns out to be 100% true. This type of foreshadowing is used in fiction a lot (as a fan of George R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice I am eagerly awaiting the appearance of the giant ice spiders) But it’s not something that appears too often in films. It’s up to the writer whether or not he wants to use this technique. Right now it’s cool. It will eventually make audiences groan so if you’re going to use it, best use it in the next few years.


One thing restricts Found Footage is you usually can’t pile on the dead bodies and mayhem until the very end. If these fictional cameramen start seeing people die they’re not going to hang around. They’re going to book it to the nearest police station. So things have to proceed with more subtleness. Instead of the growing body count of a slasher film the writer has to up the creepiness factor bit by bit. In Last Exorcism, Nell appears to be suffering from schizophrenia. It’s not until late that we hear two voices coming out of her room. The exception to this rule is if you’re doing a REC/Cloverfield story where the characters are trapped in an area that’s under siege by zombies or giant space aliens.

Use the Medium to Your Advantage

Some of the creepiest moments from Found Footage movies are aural in nature. There are the voices in Last Exorcism and that baby crying in the distance in Blair Witch. And who can forget the sound of the monster stomping by the store in Cloverfield? Yes, that had a visual component as well but it started as just a noise. Visual shocks can work very well in the medium because they have the illusion of being real, but they tend to be so powerful that they’re best saved for the end.

Kill Everyone

Don’t forget to leave no survivors. This is Found Footage after all. The people who shot this did not survive. Generally it’s not until the very end that the characters all die like in Last Exorcism, Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. Just remember it’s always a single camera being operated by one of our characters. He’s not going to hang around and give you a perfectly framed shot of one of his friends being killed (which is why foreshadowing is a good thing!) The one exception is when the camera man gets killed like in Cloverfield where the poor shlub is obviously paralyzed with fear giving us our first clear extended shot of the monster’s face…right before he eats the character.

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