War of the Worlds, Found Footage, and the Power of Viral Marketing

All movie-going requires some suspension of disbelief – we all know, for example, that the concept of Clifford the Big Red Dog is preposterous, but for argument’s sake, we’re willing to allow for the possibility of a 30 foot tall dog living in a typical American suburb. Found footage horror takes this suspension of disbelief one step further, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. We are put in the position of voyeurs, watching the last moments of the doomed in real time. We know that what we’re watching is ultimately just a work of fiction, albeit with a few novel stylistic flourishes, but there’s a rich legacy, beginning with a legendary broadcast of “War of the Worlds” from the 1930s, of these stories existing in a sort of liminal space between real and pretend. Viral marketing allows the narrative to extend beyond the limits of the work of fiction, flooding into the real world and causing audiences to legitimately question if what they’re seeing and hearing might actually be true.

The “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, part of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, is probably the most famous audio recording of all time. Initially broadcast on October 30, 1938, the episode featured the deep, distinctive voice of Orson Welles, who served as narrator. Although the first few minutes included a disclaimer explaining what the episode was, most of the story was designed to sound like a regular radio broadcast being interrupted by news bulletins as aliens invaded the planet. If you tuned in from the very beginning, or were already familiar with the H.G. Wells story that it was based on, it would make perfect sense. But if you happened to be scrolling along the dial and land on the broadcast partway through, you might just think it was real. 

The legend goes that audiences panicked: elderly listeners had heart attacks out of fear, some others died by suicide to avoid the alien invasion, people ran streaming through the streets. (None of this was ever corroborated by contemporary sources, mind you, but that’s not the point.) What matters is that when the newspapers picked up a narrative of terror striking misguided American audiences  – ironically, in an effort to show the tragic downside of a medium that was quickly cutting into its profit margins –  they cemented the legacy of this one single radio episode in history. In doing so, they demonstrated the mighty power of viral marketing, a tactic that would be used more and more frequently throughout the entertainment industry, especially in horror.

If the “War of the Worlds” broadcast used fake news bulletins to make audiences believe their story was actually happening, Cannibal Holocaust took this sense of reality to an entirely new level. Essentially giving birth to the found footage genre, the film frames itself as a documentary of real events that allegedly took place in the Amazon rainforest. he entire production features a frankly disturbing commitment to making the film based in reality, from the actual, recurring cruelty towards animals to the coercion of actors into graphic sex scenes with more nudity than they were comfortable with. 

But beyond that, director Ruggero Deodato went to great lengths to create a marketing campaign that would work in concert with the film’s narrative. The main actors of Cannibal Holocaust signed a contract agreeing not to make public appearances or work on any other films for a year after its release, in an effort to preserve the illusion that they had actually been killed. The concept of a snuff film long predates this, but Cannibal Holocaust is arguably the first to use these rumors of death as part of a coherent media strategy, one that ultimately allowed it to achieve some level of success in mainstream cinema (albeit on the very margins). The hoax of Cannibal Holocaust was so convincing that Deodato was charged with murder in Italy, and it was only when the actors from the film turned up, alive, on an Italian talk show that the charges were dropped. Although the film stirred up considerable controversy upon its release and was banned in several countries, audiences continue to be fascinated by it decades later, confirming the viability of its marketing strategy.

The combination of a found footage horror narrative and PR stunts designed to convince audiences of their reality was spearheaded with Cannibal Holocaust, but it would find its ultimate success nearly 20 years later, with The Blair Witch Project. This 1999 sleeper hit featured a trio of filmmakers who venture into the forest in hopes of making a documentary about the mysterious Blair Witch, a local legend. But they disappear, leaving only their video cameras behind to tell the story of their tragic fate. 

Not only was The Blair Witch Project part of the found footage subgenre of horror, which by its very nature asks audiences to believe at least on some level that what they’re watching actually happened, but its marketing team pushed this concept into overdrive. Just as the “War of the Worlds” broadcast 60 years earlier had capitalized on the burgeoning medium of radio to inject its story with a sense of realism, The Blair Witch Project turned to the internet, which was in the midst of a transition from niche to mainstream at the time, full of possibilities for an enterprising PR team to take advantage of. They used the movie’s website to house fake police reports about the filmmaking team, complete with missing persons posters and childhood photos of the actors, lending a sort of cardboard validity to its assertions of authenticity. The promotional campaign, including its IMDb page, listed the actors as missing, presumed dead. Within three month of the film’s release in 1999, its website had 160 million hits, spreading the myth of The Blair Witch Project far and wide.

Horror produces a visceral reaction in audiences, who are eager to give into the illusions and temporarily believe in what we’re seeing on screen. Found footage is tailor-made for this uniquely dark fantasy, which explains why it’s such a consistently popular format. But on the rare occasions when filmmakers have been able to use viral marketing to convince audiences in the reality of their stories – not just to buy into it for two hours in a dark cinema, where no one can see, but to really believe – they capture the public imagination for decades. It’s why Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, despite being made for peanuts, have a hold on audiences even now, and why one single episode of a humble radio serial from nearly a century ago is still synonymous with public hysteria. People want to believe.

Audrey Fox is a Boston-based film critic whose work has appeared at Nerdist, Awards Circuit, We Live Entertainment, and We Are the Mutants, amongst others. She is an assistant editor at Jumpcut Online, where she also serves as co-host of the Jumpcast podcast. Audrey has been blessed by our film tomato overlords with their official seal of approval.

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