Found footage isn’t something you see a lot of on television . It’s hard to sustain the format over an indefinite period, even years depending on the show. Aside from 2009’s short-lived found footage series The River (2012), and the occasional one-off or original episodes, like Doctor Who’s Sleep No More, found footage is still primarily found in movie theaters and VOD rather than on TV. But if there was one show that could utilize the format and try something outside the box, it’s American Horror Story (2011).
The long-running anthology series takes on a new theme or trope beloved to horror fans each season and turns it into a sprawling, myth-building story, sometimes a trainwreck and sometimes a worthy entry into the horror canon. Prestigious actors (Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates) work alongside genre favorites (Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts) and stars the show itself has discovered (Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson). After tackling witches, asylums, and circus freaks, fans were clamoring for the show to do an all found footage season, especially as the found footage format has been dominating horror cinema for years now.
And now, in season six, they did. Sort of.
Fans were clamoring for the show to do an all found footage season
American Horror Story: Roanoke kicks off with five documentary-style episodes, with “real person” talking heads and dramatic re-enactments. The story follows a family who moves into a large house in the middle of the woods (always a great idea) and was terrorized by the angry ghosts of the Roanoke colony, not to mention the powerful witch who roams the woods and the cannibal hillbilly family that lives nearby. The meta show within a show was called “My Roanoke Nightmare.”
Episode six takes the season in a new direction, switching to a found footage format. “My Roanoke Nightmare” had aired and was a smash hit, making stars of both the re-enactment actors and their real-life counterparts. Desperate for a sequel, the smarmy producer sends the whole group back into the house, equipped with camera phones and hidden cameras, to create a Big Brother-esque sequel of the alleged hauntings.
The final episode is a combination of found format and clips from TV specials, wrapping up the most meta, TV obsessed season to date.
The Story: My Roanoke Nightmare [Spoilers]
Matt and Shelby are a real life couple from California and the stars of My Roanoke Nightmare, recounting their story to the documentary-style cameras. They are played by Lily Rabe and Andre Holland while speaking to the camera, and by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the re-enactments. They were attacked in a racially-motivated hate crime in Los Angeles, where they lived, and decided to leave the city. They found a large, sprawling home in the middle of the woods in North Carolina that is up for auction at an insanely low price. The couple buys the home and moves in straight away.
They can only attack during the Blood Moon, which occurs over three days in October
It doesn’t take long for strange occurrences to start happening. Household items go missing, the couple thinks they see glimpses of people in the next room, they hear mysterious footsteps upstairs when no one is home, and it rains teeth one day. Matt and Shelby still refuse to move, thinking hillbilly neighbors are just harassing them. They even call Matt’s sister Lee (Adina Porter in real life, Angela Basset in re-enactments) to stay with them for protection.
Then, the ghosts show up. The parcel they are living on was once where the famed, missing Roanoke colony lived and their spirits protect the land. The Butcher (Kathy Bates) was the matriarch of the family and was given powers by an ancient witch that lived in the woods (Lady Gaga). The Butcher then killed the whole colony, including her son, so that they could live forever and vengefully protect their property. They can only attack during the Blood Moon, which occurs over three days in October.
The colonial ghosts arrive with torches and pitchforks in hand, joined by a man wearing a pig mask. Together, they’re performing strange rituals with human sacrifices. They terrorize the family for days, kidnapping Lee’s young daughter and murdering the psychic that Matt and Shelby called for help. The first glimpse of the show’s foray into found footage comes when Shelby discovers videotapes from a man who used to live in the house, who first saw the Roanoke ghosts. He films first-person as the Pig Man walks through the woods and delivers exposition to the camera about how all the houses’ previous tenants were brutally murdered and he feared he was next. He was: he traveled back to the house to warn the new tenants, Shelby and Matt, before being assailed by ghostly arrows and taken by the hillbilly family down the road and carved up for dinner. The hillbillies, a side plot that takes up a lot of screen time, are the mortal protectors of the land who entered a deal with the Roanoke ghosts: they get to live on the land as long as they bring someone else for the Butcher to sacrifice.
Story: Return to Roanoke [Spoilers]
Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell begins. This half of the season is almost entirely found footage, following producer Sidney who wants to make another hit show like My Roanoke Nightmare. His plan is to bring both the actors and their real-life counterparts back into the house during the Blood Moon and film it all as a Big Brother-style reality show.
While the first half was about setting the stage, creating tension and delivering some real scares, and it’s here where the show lets loose and has fun.
Sidney’s plan has some bumps, both from convincing everyone to return to the house and dealing with unexpected problems on set: animal entrails appear without cause one day, and a freak accident kills a member of the crew.
One by one, the cast of outlandish characters arrive. Audrey (Sarah Paulson) is a pretentious British actress who constantly talks about her craft or her much-younger husband Rory (Evan Peters, who briefly appeared as a ghost in My Roanoke Nightmare). Dominic (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a hot-shot bad boy who had an affair with real life Shelby and is excited for all the screen time that will get him. Monet (Angela Basset) is an alcoholic who thinks the real life Lee murdered her ex-husband and pinned it on the ghosts. Shelby just wants to reconcile with Matt; Lee wants to prove her innocence, and Matt doesn’t seem to have a clear motive for returning to the house, especially after everything that happened there. Sidney and a few members of his crew are in the production van, watching everything go down live. Not present? Agnes (Kathy Bates), who played the Butcher and went a little crazy with the part, now believing she is the Butcher. Everyone’s scared she’s going to show up and attack the cast, and smarmy Sidney is hoping she does.
The blood starts flowing almost immediately: Rory is murdered the first night in the house, and sure enough Agnes shows up in full Butcher gear and attacks Shelby. While the house is still reeling, she makes her way to the production trailer and kills Sidney and the crew. Lee, Monet, and Audrey head out to find Sidney and get help only to find their mangled corpses. Sarah Paulson gets to do some comedy work for the first time this season, getting great one-liners:
Audrey: “Is he dead?”
Lee: “Of course he’s dead!”
Audrey: “I don’t know, I’m not American, I’m not used to all this carnage!”
Back at the house, we learn why Matt was eager to return: he had an affair with the witch of the woods and came back to be with her. Shelby goes crazy upon learning this and kills him. Before they can deal with that, Agnes-as-the-Butcher shows up outside and starts a ritual, claiming she is the real Butcher and they are on her land. The Roanoke ghosts and the actual Butcher arrive and kill a pleading Agnes. Shelby and Dominic lock themselves in the bathroom where Shelby finally comes to terms with the fact that she murdered her husband, and then kills herself while a hapless Dominic watches.
“Shelby would never kill herself. She’s too self-centered! I know, I played her for six months!”
Audrey, Lee and Monet get lost in the forest and are apprehended by the Polk family, the hillbilly neighbors. They’re angry about their portrayal on My Roanoke Nightmare and are filming their own version of events. One begins to mutilate Lee and feeds strips off her leg to Audrey and Monet. Lee attacks the Polk that has her captive and escapes. They all manage to run back to the main house, where they find Dominic with a pair of corpses. They don’t believe his story, and Audrey gets another great line: “Shelby would never kill herself. She’s too self-centered! I know, I played her for six months!”
They kick Dominic out, and he’s dispatched almost immediately by the Pig Man. Then, a new Pig Man arrives – an actor named Dylan (Wes Bently) who was hired by Sidney to show up and scare the cast. Not knowing everything has gone awry, Dylan arrived in costume ready to do his part. Fortunately for Lee and Audrey, Dylan’s an ex-military man and is well equipped to get them out of there. But nothing’s ever that easy, and Dylan is killed by a member of the Polk family. Lee gets injured and lost in the forest when the witch approaches her and has her drink blood from a pig heart: the same thing she did to give the Butcher powers. Lee is seemingly healed.
The next episode follows a group of teens who were fans of the show My Roanoke Nightmare and are trying to find the house during the Blood Moon. They’re recording their journey and live streaming everything. They’re heading towards the house when they run into Lee, who swings a cleaver and kills one of the teens. The other two flee and eventually find the production trailer surrounded by corpses. They lock themselves inside and see the video footage of the house with Audrey and Monet inside, and a deranged Lee on her way there. The teens decide they have to try and help and head towards the house to warn Audrey and Monet. They don’t make it in time and Lee kills Monet. Audrey escapes and hides in a bunker outside. When the teens finally arrive, they are attacked by Lee and the Roanoke ghosts and impaled on a pole and burnt alive—still live streaming the whole time.
It’s the live stream of their murder that finally gets the police involved, and they show up at the house in the daytime. The ghosts are all gone, and Lee doesn’t seem to have any memory of what transpired, but Audrey does. When seeing Lee, she grabs a gun from a cop and takes aim at Lee, but instead is shot down by all the police on scene. Lee is the lone survivor.
In the final episode, we see the aftermath through clips from reality TV shows, true crime specials, sit down Barbara Walters style interviews and even a ghost hunters show. Lee is brought to trial for the murder of three people (a Polk, the teen, and Monet) but is found not guilty because of the torture she endured at the Polks farm. They even try to charge her with her husband’s murder, of which she had confessed and her daughter witnessed, but she also gets off on that thanks to her daughter’s friendship with one of the ghosts. The jury thinks young Flora is prone to making things up, but of course, it’s real. Flora returns to the house to find her ghostly friend and join her in the afterlife. Lee convinces Flora to live and in return, she will die and stay with the ghost girl and protect her from the Butcher. Flora leaves as the house burns down with Lee inside. The ghosts are all still on the land, and this story is far from resolved.
Found Footage Influences
American Horror Story is a show that always wears its influences on its sleeve. The series does not set out to create something wholly new, but rather to pay homage the great horror films that have come before it. This year’s major influence in many ways was The Blair Witch Project (1999), but there were also many nods to the film that reinvigorated the found footage genre: Paranormal Activity (2007).
With the series meant to appear as a Big Brother-style reality show, video cameras are mounted throughout the house to catch seemingly everyday moments. Early on, the characters of Lee and Monet have things appear and disappear while they’re in the kitchen, similar to a scene in Paranormal Activity (2007) where kitchen appliances disappear then come crashing down. In fact, that exact scene is something Sidney planned on replicating by rigging the kitchen cabinets to come flying open and scare everyone. In the finale, during the Spirit Chasers TV show portion, a sheet is thrown through a room and briefly lands on an unseen figure before disappearing, similar to how Toby the ghost used a sheet to appear on Paranormal Activity 3.
The static interior shots of the house with unseen forces are interspersed between clips of the characters always filming themselves, particularly while running through the woods and crying. Yes, The Blair Witch Project (1999) is clearly the obvious influence here, particularly in how the footage is shot and constructed. Each character receives a camera, and they film everything, from what they see to themselves giving emotional confessions or even just their own confused faces at a bizarre angle. When three teens stumble into the proceedings, equipped with cameras and camping gear to document their hunt for the house, it’s an even clearer homage to The Blair Witch Project (1999). The stick figures that mysteriously appear, the witch dwelling in the forest and the way everyone seems to get lost, turned around and lose daylight unnaturally quickly in the woods just drive home the point: the American Horror Story crew love The Blair Witch Project (1999).
The subplot with the three teens was reminiscent of Grave Encounters 2 (2012). The teens were fans of the show and eager to find the original building and see if the Blood Moon was really real, similar to the group of students who film themselves trying to track down the building from Grave Encounters 2 (2012) and see if the hauntings were real. These characters all share a similarly unfortunate fate: finding the cast of the original that they were so fascinated with, learning how truly real everything was and ultimately being killed.
There are also minor allusions to Cannibal Holocaust (1980), perhaps the most controversial found footage horror film to date. Producer Sidney is prepared to stage the entire show, much like the crew of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) are constantly manipulating and terrorizing the native villagers for their documentary. Sidney is on film manipulating a mentally unstable Agnes into attacking the cast, rigging the set, planning to give booze to an alcoholic cast member and allowing people to die in violent, horrific means to get the best shots for his show. He’s long gone by the time things get terribly gory, but watching the camera footage of characters impaled on poles and burning alive brings back that same feeling of Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
These aren’t the only horror classics referenced throughout the show: the nurse ghost sisters are a grown-up version of The Shining (1980) twins, the Taiwanese family quickly turns into Japanese ghosts out of The Grudge (2004), and the family of cannibal hillbillies is clearly from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). There’s even a nod to star Kathy Bates’ infamous scene in Misery (1980) when Mama Polk takes a sledgehammer to Audrey’s ankles. That’s not even touching on the re-enactment style footage, true crime-bent and ghost hunting shows, all of which come straight out of TV programs like A Haunting In Connecticut (2009), The Jinx (2015) and Ghost Hunters (2004).
Found Footage Execution
One of the biggest hurdles found footage movies have to get over is: why keep filming? Even if it’s a camera crew, like [REC] (2009), or people desperate to record evidence of hauntings, Paranormal Activity (2007), there still comes the point where continued filming suspends all belief. The most clever thing American Horror Story did to navigate that problem was filling the cast of characters with narcissistic actors and reality TV show stars. Of course, they’re still filming. Why would they stop? They’re there to be seen; they want their every move captured. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Dominic wants to be the star. Kathy Bates’ Agnes just wants to be on TV. It doesn’t matter that she’s murdering innocent people and trying to stage a mass human sacrifice, she still has to set up her tripod and get the whole thing on tape.
They question it, of course, but there’s always a reason. “What art thou doing?” Agnes asks Shelby, as she raises her arm to film her attacker. Shelby wants the world to know who’s attempting to kill her and why. “Why the hell is she filming herself?” Dominic asks mere hours later as Agnes films herself threatening them. “Get the camera, get the camera!” Sidney shouts as he finds his PA bleeding to death outside the production trailer. This is going to make great TV, and they all know it. They’re famous now, after all, and the world wants to see their every moment, even their blood-soaked last moments.
Lee is the only one trying to control her own narrative, the only one savvy enough to know that the cameras around the house are of no use to her: “That they control and edit to tell their story. This camera is my story. People are going to know I did not lie.”
The show is tackling more than just haunted houses and spooky forests. The larger thesis seems to be about fame and reality TV, and how it inevitably consumes us all. Shelby let the fame from My Roanoke Nightmare get to her head and had an affair with actor Dominic, which put the tabloids into a frenzy. Agnes became obsessed with the Butcher and the acclaim she got for being on the show, going crazy with it and doing everything in her power to be on TV again. The teen fans are so obsessed with the show that they talk about it incessantly, run fan sites and even try to find the set, wanting to be a part of it in any way they can. Lee has had her life turned upside down by someone else’s portrayal of her life, and she wants to show the world the real her. Sidney wants another hit show so badly he will rig it, lie to everyone around him and ignore all warning signs. Of course these people agree to put their lives on TV, and of course they want to film every possible moment. They want the fame, they want the attention, and they want the world to see them.
Another great addition from the found footage format is the use of title cards to create tension. After a member of the production crew dies, text appears on screen ominously telling the audience that her body wouldn’t be found until months later. And once all the participants move into the house for their reality show, the title cards inform us the show never aired and all the characters, save one, die over the next three days. This knowledge sets us up for a blood bath, since about seven people have to die in 72 hours, and creates a mystery around who the sole survivor will be and why. Without the found footage aspect of the show, with an unseen force editing this footage and giving us clues, viewers would be trying to guess if anyone makes it out alive instead of who. The lack of music, and specifically the lack of the much-loved intro music, works for the show within a show as well: we aren’t watching American Horror Story, we are watching a different show assembled from found footage. The television clips in the finale each have their own intros and theme music and are the only time you really hear music in the back half of the season, which makes it a jarring transition from the ‘real’ footage we had been watching.
The Plus Side to Television
Using found footage on TV is certainly a challenge, but there were many ways in which American Horror Story benefitted from the format and was able to succeed where many horror films failed. One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to found footage horror is typically the acting. Since the audience is meant to believe this footage is real, found footage horror often utilizes non-actors or lesser known actors and a realistic, imperfect style. This can lead to a mixed bag in terms of quality, and sometimes the attempt at seeming real is what makes the film comes across as fake. American Horror Story doesn’t have this problem, considering the audience knows the actors are actors, portraying characters (sometimes more than one) and any semblance of forced realism is irrelevant.
This same logic applies to the style of the found footage: while some of the footage is shot on phones or camcorders, the stationary cameras set up in the house are high-quality cameras meant for TV. The low-quality shots can be used sparingly for effect without becoming too distracting, and the fact that we know we are watching a TV show excuses the fact that it looks like a TV show. While something like The Gallows (2015) was constrained by being the type of footage shot by a bunch of amateur teens, Return to Roanoke was supposed to be a primetime television special with millions of viewers on the line. The footage can, and did, reflect that.
The use of found footage is effective and makes for one of the most unique and entertaining seasons of American Horror Story to date. Leveraging this horror sub-genre and finding new and creative ways to shake up the format gives the show a much-needed shot in the arm, and hopefully opens the door for more creative and innovative uses for found footage on TV .