One of my favorite lines in all of horror cinema comes from The Blair Witch Project (1999). Josh (Joshua Leonard) gazes through a video camera view-finder at Heather (Heather Donohue) and trenchantly notes that the picture isn’t “quite reality.”
In other words, the act of perceiving reality through a camera lens distances oneself from the objects and situations perceived. In a non-horror setting, this was actually the subtext for the final episode of the popular sitcom Seinfeld in 1998. Jerry and his friends watched a crime being conducted (a car-jacking) through a video camera, but did not intervene to actually stop the crime as it was occurring. The apparently-passive act of gazing through the camera enabled George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry to see themselves as being somehow apart from reality, and apart from community, even from the law itself. There was no need to help the victim of a crime. They were merely…watching, as they would a TV show.
The camera can also be a social good in the horror film. It can be a tool of investigation and observation (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Poltergeist), but more often the point of many horror films is that you can’t really hide from terror behind the eye-piece. The camera may be a filter, but, in the final analysis, it’s a filter that doesn’t protect you. Beyond the camera lens, life is happening in all its unpredictable, horrific, and sometimes wondrous forms.
The greatest terror associated with the video camera is that it could be all that survives a terrible event, a witness to death, and to your very end. Years later, your footage might be found...