by Monica Villarreal
Kōji Shiraishi’s film, Noroi: The Curse (2005) is unlike any other found footage film – maybe even horror film – out there, and I swear that I’m not being dramatic. Unlike other found footage horror films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), REC (2007), and the Paranormal Activity franchise, Noroi is different as it introduces the audience to a fear that they themselves have never thought of before: the fear of the authentic.
Now, it’s not to say the other found footage films out there aren’t “realistic” or fail to present themselves as actual events. For example, The Blair Witch Project does an excellent job with its acting and camera work, delivering a hauntingly real performance. It also helps that because of the film’s creative marketing team, many people walked into theaters genuinely believing that what they were about to witness could perhaps be the last living moments of this missing group of college students.
However, by the time the end-credits rolled, almost as if lowering the curtains after the end of a show, the audience is reminded that none of this supposed “real-life found footage” is actually…well real. In fact, I was surprised to hear from Professor Ian Jones how audience members groaned in the theaters after the viewing of The Blair Witch Project. Perhaps it’s because of how intricate and highly successful the film’s marketing was that allowed some people to walk in a with a deep sense of immersion that honestly hasn’t been seen since, which as a result led to some leaving with some sort of annoyance being reminded that it was just a film.
While other found footage films haven’t come near the level of marketing success as The Blair Witch Project, if we take a step back, they all stand at the same level of the level of horror they rely on and deliver (i.e. shaky cameras and jump scares). Again, it’s important to once again state that I’m not saying these films don’t feel real or whether one found footage is more “scarier” than the other. However, what all these films fail to do and which Noroi does so well is present itself as authentic, and this authenticity might prove to deliver a different kind of untaped fear that hasn’t been seen in many films and, in my opinion, needs to be explored more.
Authenticity in Found Footage
I’ve already gone off and labeled the other found footage horror films mentioned above (and honestly most found footage outside of Noroi) as inauthentic with very little explanation as to why, so before I start to gush over what makes Noroi work so well, I’m going to quickly define what I mean by “authenticity” in horror films – specifically in the found footage genre.
In the majority of found footage films, the “found footage” itself is presented to us through us as something we weren’t supposed to see or was never meant to be recorded in the first place. A film that unintentionally captured something that was never meant to be seen, but through some third party it was made public either way. In Paranormal Activity, it can be inferred that it was the police that discovered the footage of what happened inside the couples house, and the whole point of The Blair Witch Project centers around the idea that perhaps in their search for the missing students, someone stumbled across the tapes and put them together to raise awareness.
Either way, all of the contents found inside this footage was captured on accident. Even if the original filming was done on purpose such as for a documentary (Blair Witch) or to confirm if anything unusual is going on (Paranormal Activity), what ended up being captured was never meant to be released, mostly because the people who were originally filming ended up deceased.
At times too, it feels like this theme of being “hidden” continues on with the content itself of what little is shown in the majority of the film. Most of the horror in these films doesn’t come from the idea that any of this could be real or actually happened, but instead from the actor’s realistic reactions of their environment along with the combination of the shaky camera and loud noises that produce momentary jump-scares. It’s usually near the end of the film when the climax begins and what was hidden begins to be shown, causing us to raise our alertness as we see everything madly unfold as we reach a point of no return. And finally, once has happened: the credits roll and we are reminded that it’s not real.
I mean, were we ever supposed to believe what we were shown was genuine? Even with the incredible marketing that came from The Blair Witch, the end credits remove any suspicion we may have had on its authenticity. In addition, the fact that most of the technology that was used to capture this footage is relatively a very simple and widely available technology, and in a way because of it’s simplicity and poor video quality causes this footage to cast a shadow of unreliability. Anyone with a simple handheld camera could go out and replicate the same effects, and with some careful editing and staging can present their own “real” haunted footage.
All these factors prevent most found footage from being viewed with any degree of authenticity, and they tend to rely on other forms of horror such as jump scares or the actors’ terrified reaction to deliver their scares. While effective as a horror movie, I think it’s unfortunate that they don’t really deliver anything new. I mean absolutely no disrespect to the genre and impact these movies have had in shaping horror films, but in the end they’re still bound to the rules we’ve all have gotten used to seeing in other horror films. With such an interesting medium and concept, it’s a shame to see these films rely on the same scare tactics of common horror films instead of pushing the boundaries in horror to discover new ways to deliver some unexplored fears within the human psyche.
And that’s where Noroi comes in.
The Uncanny Realness of Noroi
On the surface, Noroi: The Curse has the same concept of any other found footage film. The movie centers around paranormal investigator and journalist Masafumi Kobayashi who has recently started making documentaries of his investigations of the occult with Noroi being his current work in progress. However, what really differentiates Noroi and allows it to branch out onto different territories no other film has gone before is in the way they present the found footage.
Unlike other films, Noroi presents its footage not as an accidental discovery but with purpose: everything was meant to be seen, and they make sure you know it. For starters, there’s very few footage in Noroi that are hard to read or follows the normal found footage format of the shaky camera. Instead, everything is professionally shot and clearly captured since this is a documentary being filmed for a publishing company. Albeit granted it’s a fake document for a fake company, it genuinely feels like an actual documentary you would see in the real world. In fact, the only people who are credited when the movie ends before its end credit scene are the characters of Kobayashi and the cameraman. Even when the final act ends, there is no mention of the real-life actors who portrayed these characters. Only Kōji Shiraishi and the producer are credited in the beginning of the film, but for the rest of the movie, it’s quite literally treated like its own separate film.
With the fake production company to the narration in the beginning and end of the film, we know that everything that is about to be presented with us is done so with purpose and not by accident. Someone within this in-film universe looked through the entire footage, selected what clips were going to be shown, and organized them to form a coherent journal of Kobayashi’s last investigation before his disappearance.
Probably one of the most notable examples of this are the multiple freeze frames that occur when something supernatural is captured. It might seem annoying to rewind and replay something that just occurred, focusing on something most of us might’ve already spotted the first time, but this actually is what allows for a new terror to blossom within us. By forcing viewers to examine let’s say a ghost that stood in the background, the viewers are forced to stare at an unnatural phenomenon straight right into its eyes.
This level of visibility is unheard of, especially in found footage. Shiraishi is removing any possibility of unclarity and make it very apparent that these outside entities do exist and are living within our world, silently standing in the back unnoticed until they are made noticeable. We get to see characters react to this footage, and like we’d expect any person to react to this information, they express their anxieties of not noticing these supernatural objects the first time, only left with the dread of now knowing that it was there.
Now that’s the emotion that Noroi exposes us to and opens the possibilities for other films to explore: dread. Early on in the film, we are made aware and are shown clearly that these occult beings do exist and have an effect in this world. And as Kobarashi continues to go deeper into his investigation, all we’re left with as he continues to uncover and present us with more evidence is dread for what’s about to come when he eventually gets too close to these out-of-our-control entities. This fear of the unknown is innate and natural, and throughout the years many horror films have delved into the themes around it. Shiraishi, however, comes and adds more to this fear by making the unknown extremely known. We can’t ignore it or pretend we saw it wrong, but instead we have to confront it. The scariest part though is that not only do we have to accept the occult exists, but that in the end we don’t know anything about it, bringing us back to square one of being at a disadvantage when dealing with the unknown.
Other ways that Noroi creates this veil of authenticity is through its multiple sequences where it uses outside sources of information and clips it into the documentary footage Kobayashi is recording. Although seemingly random at first, with these clips ranging from previously aired variety television programs to unused television footage or interviews clips, the inclusion of these segments build a sense of grounded reality in this world. The occult is not only occurring within what Kobayashi has already captured, but also apparently on a constant basis outside of his view. This once again builds into that fear of the unknown because if all of these instances exist and are recorded as proof, then one can only wonder how many other supernatural things have happened but we don’t know because nothing captured it. This is where Noroi peaks and really drives home that what is being presented to the viewers is not a trick or fake footage but a real haunting that led to the tragedy of the investigators’ disappearance.
By stepping outside the found footage format and editing clips that make us stare into the occult, providing outside “sources,” and giving up jump scares to build up exponential dread and fear throughout the film, Noroi opens up a window to look into what really makes us afraid when it comes to horror that I believe films need to begin exploring more. It’s not how scary a monster appears or the loud “BOO!” that’ll make anyone jolt in shock for a second. It’s something much deeper and more natural; something that can only be represented if done so carefully. With found footage specifically, a medium that relies so much on selling that what we’re seeing has actually happened, Noroi has taught that this genre needs to start going outside the constraints of the normal horror formula and focus and what makes the authentic so terrifying. How if you carefully set up your film to stand on its own as truly a genuine recording of some unknown happenings, people start feeling the true fear of this footage being “found”. It raises the truth that if any of this footage actually was real and these beings do exist, we would be completely left the dark, unprepared, and afraid. We’d be helpless, unable to do anything about it with the only having control being that which we do not know anything about.
That is the power of posing a film as authentic.