Humans have an obsession with the macabre and the extreme, from acts of sex and torture to the existence of the paranormal. Rapidly developing technology has only encouraged that interest, increasing both the ability to access disturbing content and to create it, birthing a new kind of DIY horror filmmaking that’s stretched from the VHS tape to digital spaces such as TikTok. These films and videos, part of an emerging subgenre I call digitally discovered horror, are experiments with the horror genre that blur the line between fact and fiction, not unlike their found footage cousins. However, these experiments are more than just horror movies—they’re seemingly true first-person accounts of the disturbing and horrific, posted online using the same platforms as daily social activity. It doesn’t matter if these videos are actually real or not; all that matters is that we believe them.
The launching point for this iteration of experimental horror started in the realm of physical media with the video nasties of the 1980s. With the rise of video cassettes and the wider access of films to the public, the United Kingdom realized there were no regulations on who could access images of violence, sex and terror. So, with the Video Recordings Act 1984, the video nasties were born: A list of films deemed too violent to be shown or distributed in the United Kingdom. These films, such as The Evil Dead, The Driller Killer and The Last House On the Left, were all low-budget indie horror films that pushed the cinematic boundaries of the genre.
While they were only technically banned in the U.K., so much attention was given to the gory and disgusting subjects of the films that they became hugely sought after. Video nasties laid the groundwork for advancing viewing technologies (and the innovations/accessibility they bring) ushering in new generations of horror lovers and creators. They provided a bridge between the realm of physical and digital media, showcasing the power of weaponizing taboos and using them as entertainment. Fanzines such as Cold Sweat popped up in the 1980s, which were lists of and homages to the video nasties. Physical media collectors bonded over where they were able to find copies of these films. Directors, such as Neil Marshall of The Descent, cite video nasties as a core inspiration for their own horror filmmaking.
These trends continued in later films such as the Japanese movie The Flowers of Flesh of Blood, a snuff-like film that led actor Charlie Sheen to call the police due to its graphic violence. Again, that appearance of reality is crucial to generating not only fear, but the urban legends that surround such films. Then, there is The Blair Witch Project, a found footage horror film that was perceived as a snuff film until its release. It wasn’t just a cinematic experience, but also a digital one as communities began to spring up on the early Internet to solve the mystery of the three murdered students.
From there, DIY horror filmmaking begins to morph into digitally discovered footage—a form that heavily relies on the authenticity of being just another person uploading their experiences online. The form became much more amorphous, shifting from the full-length narratives of the video nasties into something much shorter, grittier and homemade. In the ‘00s and ‘10s, as the Internet was exponentially growing into the terrifying and beautiful monstrosity it is today, there was a hunger to discover the nastiest and scariest videos online. Think “2 Girls, 1 Cup,” “Lemon Party,” “BME Pain Olympics”—the shock site list goes on. Strangers around the world bonded over their shared trauma and friends would laugh as they tricked other friends into looking at things such as Goatse and Blue Waffle. The key to the shock created by these images was how they were perceived to be real; viewers were finally given access to taboos that were kept hidden from society. Those women really were eating that. That man really was stretching his body like that. The human body was taken to the extreme, and viewers believed it was truly happening.
Then, there were the YouTube videos that claimed to capture true paranormal experiences and made viewers believe that monsters did in fact exist. The YouTube channel became a place for mysterious users to share their supposed experiences with the world and encourage communities built around fear, not unlike the found footage horror phenomenon that was in its heyday, kicked off by The Blair Witch Project and updated with Paranormal Activity. Like those feature-length found footage films, these videos were filmed with handheld cameras, so the images are shaky and occasionally damaged, which lent additional authenticity; what filmmaker would post something so unpolished? But unlike found footage, these videos exist solely in the digital world, making them accessible to millions, and generating even more complex communities that wholeheartedly believed that these videos were real.
Marble Hornets is a prime example of such experimental YouTube horror and of how online communities have been able to manipulate the established horror genre into something unique. Troy Wagner started the channel in 2009 and claims to navigate the existence of the Internet’s boogeyman: Slender Man, a tall faceless man in a suit. The Marble Hornets series was a combination of footage from the user’s friend and the user’s own videos as he tried to understand this creature. It was a new take on found footage, one that was experienced in real time with each new upload. In high school, my friends would talk about it like the footage was cursed and we’d dare each other to watch it. Marble Hornets developed an online community where viewers were a part of the discovery, working together to solve the mystery and share their own experiences with the fictitious Slender Man. There was no doubt that he was real. Instead, the community came together to protect each other from his supposed influence.
Like the video nasties before them, YouTube was a stepping stone for the current iteration of experimental horror content that can now be found on TikTok. The short-form video app is all about the mobile experience, making micro horror films accessible wherever, whenever. Armed with a phone, anyone can now make videos and quickly capture whatever is happening in front of them. If something bizarre starts to happen, one can easily start recording and capture that experience. Even if the experience is fabricated, a TikTok user can still make their own horror short that taps into belief in the supernatural.
An extremely simple, yet extremely effective, example is a video from user @readmybioyo. He lies in bed in the dark, with captions explaining that something is breathing behind him. It’s a single shot of just his face, with simple text and no music. It is straightforward and unnervingly immersive through its selfie-view; this could be anyone as they lay in bed scrolling through the app. Importantly, @readmybioyo is not a consistent horror creator; the rest of his account is full of comedy skits. But, thanks to TikTok and access to a cell phone, he can quickly experiment with the horror genre, appeal to a new audience and see how many people buy his story. It is not only an exercise in creativity, but (again) in community building.
Then there are more heavily edited examples, such as a video by @gabrielle.quinn about an adventure turned spooky. In 30 seconds, she tells the story of adventuring in an abandoned property with a friend…until there’s the sudden sound of someone screaming for help in the woods. There are obvious edits and added music, transforming a daily vlog or Instagram story into a suspenseful horror tale. The top comments are not quick to judge, either, and are in fact quick to defend the authenticity of the video. Users share how scared they are watching this and even offer advice about what kind of creature or entity could be screaming. Belief is suspended and people come together in the face of unspeakable horrors. They want to believe in the paranormal and these clips give them even the smallest scrap of proof.
Horror is an incredibly malleable and personal genre, which makes it perfect for experimental video formats that play with the idea of truth. The evolution of the horror narrative of the 1980s—outlawed and legendary—to the shortened 15-second horror TikTok—overtly accessible—has birthed digitally discovered footage that puts terror right in a person’s hands. It is found footage for the ever-evolving technological landscape, that redefines “footage” as something found beyond damaged videotapes or mysterious thumb drives. It is now clips and posts that can be easily stumbled upon while scrolling through a favorite video app. It is a link sent from a friend via Twitter DM. It is a subgenre that allows viewers to come even closer to “death” without actually putting themselves in danger. Seeing is believing, they say, and the fabricated (or real) horrors of the Internet want to make us believe.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.