I have to be honest, I didn’t mind the found footage boom when it first started. Paranormal Activity really got to me in the theater. They turned out all the lights right at the end and left us in darkness for almost a full thirty seconds, and it might have been the most terrified I’ve ever been seeing a film on the big screen. So I was fairly excited for the wave of found footage flicks that hit in the early 2010s. At first. The genre became quickly oversaturated and in no time it was more than obvious that 90% of found footage features didn’t need to be found footage and probably weren’t originally written as such. There were also so many coming out that it became hard to keep track of them, and so many of them felt so identical to one another that it even became hard to remember what ones had been seen and what ones hadn’t, and which moments and scares belonged to which movie. By 2012, I was already jaded on a trend in horror that was barely over a year old. And that was when I discovered Grave Encounters, which was almost a year old at that point. Just like that, it completely renewed my interest in the format. Here was a smart, savvy, genuinely scary film that needed to be found footage, which was the number one ingredient that almost all of the others were missing.
I’ll admit that the movie has a bit more effect if you watch or have watched paranormal-themed reality shows. We started seeing a ton of them in the late 2000s. From Ghost Hunters to Paranormal State and beyond. There are tons of them now. In particular, Grave Encounters seemed to use Paranormal State and Ghost Adventures for the jumping-off point for the titular, fictional ghost hunting show.
The brilliance, of course, is that it’s quickly revealed that the ghost hunting show we’re following is a complete sham. They’ve never witnessed anything out of the ordinary, they’re just trying to make good TV. There’s something endlessly appealing to me about frauds coming face-to-face with the real thing. I think it’s one of the most underused tropes in horror. Dating back to Fright Night and even well beyond that, it offers the opportunity for great character reflection.
Even better, Grave Encounters spends much of its third act legitimately breaking down some of the things that go on behind the scenes of some—granted, not all—of these shows. My favorite bit in the movie is when they break from a series of interviews about the hospital to ask the gardener if he’s ever seen anything out of the ordinary, and he says “no.” The camera then cuts to him so unenthusiastically saying that yes, he saw something once and it scared him very much.
Ever since I first saw that, I’ve seen countless reality shows, from competitions to documentary series, where I’ve noticed that moment of “Oh, they were just told off camera to say exactly what they just said.” It becomes so easy to spot once you start thinking about it.
The best thing about Grave Encounters is that not only do these people come face-to-face with actual ghosts, but the world they enter into is just one of pure nightmare fuel. With cynical protagonists like these, they can’t just see run-of-the-mill paranormal entities, they pretty much have to enter into hell.
Once the supernatural element kicks in, everything about it is ramped up to 11. The entities are frightening to look at, and then you’ve got that Blair Witch element that goes even crazier than Blair Witch did. The whole building is rearranging on them, there’s no sense of time in there, they’ll watch hallways close up and windows disappear right in front of their eyes.
This is so much beyond a haunted mental institution. The characters, at that point, have pretty much entered into hell. But the best thing about Grave Encounters is that while it’s a very modern feature for its time, cashing in on a huge current trend, it follows one of the oldest rules of horror filmmaking—and that’s ultimately what makes it work and why it’s still remembered today. That rule is very simple: if you want to scare an audience, make them laugh.
Like American Werewolf in London before it, the moment the horror kicks in is that much scarier because you’ve spent so long laughing with the characters. You let your guard down, so the already chilling moments of spookiness are that much more intense because you’re completely unprepared for them. I knew going in that these people would be encountering actual ghosts, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that the things they’d be experiencing would be so nightmarish and bizarre.
I don’t think fans always understand that movies like Grave Encounters are so incredibly rare. There are a lot of great horror comedies out there, but that’s not entirely what this is. Films that are able to make the audience laugh, to get them to genuinely have fun before flipping on a dime and scaring the crap out of them—only a few features ever have successfully pulled that off.
That’s why I think Grave Encounters is so effective. That’s why it matters. It’s hard to say what horror flicks of this decade will wind up standing the test of time, but I have complete faith that we will still be talking about Grave Encounters in ten years.