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Dead Air

Internet-born analog horror intensifies the uncanny with familiar, obsolete media.

The last decade of cinema has seen the horror genre move further away from its lowest-common-denominator status and into something approaching prestige. Though award recognition still feels far off, films like It Follows, Get Out, and Midsommar have enjoyed as much critical acclaim as they have box office success. Horror as high-art is not new, of course, but the eagerness of studios to produce has lately been more widespread. “I’m … jealous,” It Follows director David Robert Mitchell told Vulture, “because right now, if you’re an indie director with a horror script, you can probably get that thing made.” This is just as true of people not typically associated with horror. This year alone saw the much-hyped films Bodies Bodies Bodies, scripted by “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian, and Barbarian, written and directed by Zach Cregger, of The Whitest Kids U’ Know and Miss March fame.

But even high art has a way of becoming generic. Watch enough recent horror films and you might begin to see a new generation of tropes. The stalking serial killers, the horny teenagers, and the exploitative jump scares are replaced by molasses pacing, pristine photography, and prioritizing atmosphere over narrative. 

But for every lull in creative output from larger studios, there is a lesser-known, independent movement making boundary-pushing art in their place. For the horror genre, one striking example of that is analog horror.

Analog horror is an internet-born and internet-dwelling genre, though its themes and aesthetics are taken from pre-digital sources. It’s classified by its distinct style featuring otherworldly threats, Lovecraftian influences, purposeful lo-fi quality, often low budget and grassroots nature, and the use of analog technology as its prime vehicle for storytelling – via ominous or warped VHS tape recordings and camcorder “found footage.”

Found footage is a controversial subgenre. Famous examples like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project have used the immediacy (not to mention the budgetary conveniences) of the first-person documentary form to create what could be passed off as authentic occurrences. So much so that upon its release in 1980, Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato was brought up on multiple murder charges in an Italian court due to claims (at first unrefuted by Ruggero himself until eventually admitting to the farce) that several of the actors had actually been killed in the Amazon jungle. 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which grossed $250 million internationally on a $60,000 shooting budget, leaned into its authenticity with an elaborate marketing campaign that included listing its three actors as “missing” or “deceased,” a fabricated TV documentary aired on the SyFy Channel (when it was still SciFi) and, most prophetically, a website with details of the case.

Today, found footage – or “shaky cam” to its detractors – is among the most widely imitated horror subgenre, by virtue of its undemanding hardware and cost requirements. The results are just as laden with clichés, guaranteeing return-on-investment and not much else besides. 

Analog horror, by contrast, revitalizes that original spirit of insurgency; it injects the art with an unsettling amount of realism by introducing unknown, cosmic terrors to recognizable (and easily corruptible), outdated technology. But what really pulls the genre away from anything else done before it, is its direct ascent from internet message boards and sites like 4chan and creepypasta.com – a repository for “creepypasta,” scary stories told with the framing of urban legends.

What began as spooky stories told by fellow internet users for each other’s entertainment turned into full productions on YouTube that used those stories as source material or inspiration for the creators’ own horror media, often shown through multiple video installments complete with hidden messages, unlisted secret episodes, and a dedicated fan base excitedly discussing every aspect of the art. Theories and breakdowns of the most popular analog horror series are almost as watched as the series themselves. It’s a thriving community filled with horror fans who have been yearning for this level of creativity that’s been missing from much of the genre in recent memory.

It should be reiterated that the level of professionalism and creativity of many series in the genre excel their limitations. With all the millions of dollars poured into widely released films, it’s sometimes lost on the average horror fan just how much can be accomplished by one person or a small team of creators with little money, few resources, but huge amounts of skill, tenacity, and passion for what they do.

As is becoming more common through the democratization of content creation via social media, self-publishing, and YouTube, anyone with the talent and knowhow can make their art and deliver it straight into the hands of their audience, cutting out the middleman. This has played a large part in the fervent nature of analog horror’s fan base: the audience feels a close connection to the creator, able to interact and give input as they consume the product, breeding a sense of community where otherwise there would be a few degrees of separation.

This phenomenon hasn’t been totally relegated to niche corners of the internet, though. The 2012 horror anthology film V/H/S and its sequels (each reaching various levels of critical success, depending on whom you ask) were a clever mainstream example of what could certainly be considered analog horror; the first installment centering around a group of burglars who break into a home thought to be abandoned, in search of a specific VHS tape they’ve been contracted to retrieve by an unnamed and mysterious party. Within the home they discover a dead body, a television set playing white noise, and a wall of VHS tapes. Every short film in the anthology, each directed by a different horror creator, are shown as different VHS tapes are inserted into the player to see if one is the correct tape they’re searching for. In typical fashion, the overarching plot tying together the short films grows increasingly more anxiety-inducing as the burglars continue to sift through tapes.

The podcast Archive 81, started in 2016 by Daniel Powell, involves the continuing story of Dan, an audio archivist in the present-day tasked with the job of restoring mysteriously damaged audiotapes recorded by a woman named Melody Pendras in the 1990s. The story becomes increasingly bizarre, mind-bending, and meta from there on. In 2022, a television adaptation of the podcast appeared on Netflix for just a single season before it was canceled. So perhaps the bigger media companies just haven’t quite caught on to the wave that parts of the internet have been riding since the early 2010s.

Considered to be the first true example of analog horror as we now know it, a series titled Local 58 first premiered on YouTube in 2015 from creator Kris Straub that still continues to this day – the most recent episode being uploaded on Halloween of 2021, with new episodes rumored to be released in the future. Elsewhere, Straub’s creepypasta story “Candle Cove” was adapted for SyFy’s anthology series Channel Zero in 2016, and is centered on a 1980s children’s puppet show.

Local 58 is analog horror that fully embraces the concept of an Eldritch Terror, synonymous with cosmic horror and the greater footprint left behind by H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Within the Lovecraftian universe, an Eldritch Terror is something so otherworldly, so incomprehensible, that mere knowledge of the entity’s existence is itself horrifying. 

Local 58 is told through a series of television PSAs and one incredibly discomforting children’s cartoon, wherein the public broadcasts begin to paint a picture that something has gone horribly wrong. A war was lost. What war, we don’t know. Soon the PSAs turn insidious, with a message seemingly from the US government declaring that all is lost, and that all citizens have a moral duty to kill themselves and their families. As if that’s not terrifying enough, the PSAs begin to flicker back and forth in their messaging, warning the viewer to close all windows and not to look outside, before the screen frantically glitches, now telling the viewer to look at the moon. You have to look at the moon. Go outside, lie down in “the victory position,” and look at the moon. From there, it only gets more eerie, more urgent, and more unsettling. More unknown.

It’s difficult to convey the frightening nature of these scenes just through the words you’re reading, as a key element of analog horror is the methods used to distort these videos, to warp and clip the audio, to play with the viewer’s mind, even introducing genuine psychological trickery through blinking imagery that you can’t tell for certain if you really did see. It all comes together to fully immerse you into this world of cosmic horror the artist has created, to the point that you aren’t sure what parts of the video are fact, and what are fabrications. For instance – and be warned before watching – there is a particular segment of one of the videos where text shows on the screen in a typical PSA manner, telling the viewer that dreams are not necessary, dreams disrupt rest, and dreams need to be avoided. The PSA then explains that there is something called the “Anti-Sleep” method. What is then shown on the screen is a type of horror that’s hard to put your finger on. And that’s quite on purpose, and for good reason. People have reported that after watching this segment of Local 58, they began having nightmares depicting exactly what was seen in vivid detail. 

What’s also a key element of analog horror is that, essentially, each series is a period piece. That’s because the medium conducting the genre is… well. Old. Dash cam footage, VHS tapes, local public access channels, handheld camera recordings – these are the cornerstones of what propels the stories forward. There is room for mystery and for error in this technology: Corrupted data, hacked footage, partly destroyed media that requires the viewer and creator to together fill in the blanks. Think about how in modern horror there is now the necessity to explain away why the characters don’t just call the police on their now-dated iPhone 6. It’s an inherent reality of our day and age that negates mystery, diminishes the unknown. That’s exactly why analog horror works so well within its parameters: It lives inside a timeline where the unexplainable can remain unexplained, where horror can be found inside – and as a result of – a narrow and often faulty lens.  

Much of analog horror takes place in the 1960s to the 1990s. And for a younger audience on YouTube watching these series, that the setting takes place during those long-passed decades serendipitously adds that layer of unfamiliarity that makes good horror exceptional. It’s just another element that brings out that feeling of originality, not just in spite of, but also because of its nostalgia factor. 

Now, with the growing popularity of analog horror, the scope and focus too has changed and morphed into different subgenres with expanding subject matter. There’s The Mandela Catalogue by Alex Kister, which was my introduction to the genre, that details through PSAs, found footage, pager messages, and (my personal favorite aspect of the series) eerily corrupted children’s Christian cartoons, a vague and ominous uprising of shapeshifting entities that inhabit the bodies of their victims through electronic media like TV screens. There are incredibly dark (and sacrilegious) insinuations that delve into the creation of man, the Christian faith’s true, unknown origin, and the Devil and Hell itself told exclusively through 1990s electronics, adding a layer of irony to the series.

These are massive concepts sewn into a sprawling narrative tapestry, all done by one man. The accumulated material amounts to something approaching an alternate, wholly sinister universe. In which familiar but antiquated media serves as a transmitter of the uncanny and a corrosive of normalcy. Put out for free on the internet. 

For the horror fan, there is no greater thrill than seeing a beloved film for the first time. The entire experience – not just the film itself, but where you were and who you were with – crystallizes in your memory. The desire to relive it is all the more intense, but impossible to relive. You can appreciate that object for its artistry, but the visceral stimuli has dulled. Theoretically, this new era of media saturation where there are fewer overlooked gems and no almost no secrets should offer more opportunities for discovery. But it much more easily indulges these persistent memories of past grown cold. 

In this sense, analog horror’s real ingenuity is to validate our nostalgia in order to undermine it, and then to draw us closer into its vision, quite literally in fact. For while the traditional horror film in a theater or on a television is like a painting, viewed from an appropriate distance, the horror on a computer or phone screen narrows that gap, until it is almost entirely dissolved. Analog horror is fear at its most technologically sophisticated, and its most intimate.