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Killer POV: First-Person Camera and Sympathetic Identification in Modern Horror

Adam Charles Hart

Abstract | Killer POV—a sub­jec­tive cam­era with­out a reverse shot—is at the cen­ter of many of the most influ­en­tial crit­i­cal writ­ings on mod­ern hor­ror. How­ev­er, these dis­cus­sions often start from the assump­tion that the camera’s point of view pro­duces iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. This essay attempts to dis­en­gage our under­stand­ing of hor­ror spec­ta­tor­ship from such mod­els and to pro­vide an alter­na­tive read­ing of killer POV that engages with the genre’s struc­tures of looking/being looked at while remain­ing sen­si­tive to what pre­cise­ly is being com­mu­ni­cat­ed to view­ers by these shots. Killer POV sig­nals to the view­er the pres­ence of a threat with­out dis­play­ing the monster/killer/bearer of the look onscreen. In addi­tion to keep­ing the threat un-embod­ied (or only vague­ly embod­ied) and unplaced, killer POV alerts the view­er to the films' with­hold­ing of cru­cial diegetic infor­ma­tion, both of which are essen­tial to under­stand­ing the unique mode of spec­ta­tor­ship pro­voked by mod­ern hor­ror films.

Résumé | Killer POV—caméra sub­jec­tive sans mon­tage parallèle—est au cen­tre de nom­breux arti­cles cri­tiques les plus influ­ents sur le film d’horreur mod­erne. Ces dis­cus­sions se basent cepen­dant sou­vent sur l’idée que le point de vue de la caméra crée l’identification. Cet essai tente de détach­er notre inter­pré­ta­tion du regard du spec­ta­teur sur l’horreur de tels mod­èles et d’offrir une lec­ture alter­na­tive de killer POV qui implique les struc­tures du regardant/regardé de ce genre de film tout en demeu­rant sen­si­ble à ce qui est exacte­ment com­mu­niqué aux spec­ta­teurs par ces scènes. Killer POV sig­nale au spec­ta­teur la présence d’une men­ace sans représen­ter le monstre/tueur/ por­teur de cette apparence sur l’écran. En plus de garder la men­ace non-incar­née (ou seule­ment vague­ment incar­née) et physique­ment absente, killer POV alerte le spec­ta­teur sur le fait que le film retient des infor­ma­tion diégéniques cru­ciales, ces deux fonc­tions sont essen­tielles à la com­préhen­sion du mode unique de regard provo­qué par les films d’horreur modernes.


In the 1970s, hor­ror was a genre in flux. Where­as in tra­di­tion­al West­ern hor­ror nar­ra­tives mon­sters such as Drac­u­la came from Old Europe (often prey­ing on New Europe), the descen­dants of Nor­man Bates and Romero’s ghouls came from next door or from the out­skirts of town, hap­pen­ing upon vic­tims thanks to inop­por­tune stops along the high­way or more inti­mate, famil­iar rea­sons. Though ghosts and vam­pires nev­er went away, the genre made room for—and was increas­ing­ly iden­ti­fied with—more human mon­sters.1 In the hor­ror films of the 1970s mon­stros­i­ty shift­ed to psy­cho­log­i­cal and behav­ioral cat­e­gories: you are a mon­ster for what you do, not what you are, for your brain rather than your phys­i­ol­o­gy, super­nat­ur­al or oth­er­wise. This new wave dis­tin­guished itself in part through an empha­sis on vio­lence, as hor­ror films became bloody in a way that had most­ly exist­ed at the mar­gins of the exploita­tion cir­cuit before Night of the Liv­ing Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Mas­sacre (1974). This was an era of raw, vis­cer­al hor­ror that spawned the first sus­tained seri­ous crit­i­cal and aca­d­e­m­ic con­sid­er­a­tions, most influ­en­tial­ly in the writ­ings of Robin Wood, who iden­ti­fied an emerg­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary ener­gy in the genre.2

As the influ­ence of Psy­cho (1960) and Night of the Liv­ing Dead took hold with films such as Mas­sacre, Last House on the Left (1972), The Exor­cist (1973), Sis­ters (1973), Car­rie (1976), Shiv­ers (1976), God Told Me To (1976), and Hal­loween (1977), hor­ror shift­ed styl­is­ti­cal­ly along­side nar­ra­tive and the­mat­ic changes, typ­i­cal­ly in favor of more imme­di­ate, vis­cer­al aims. Most obvi­ous­ly, this change came through spec­ta­cles of vio­lence, but also through doc­u­men­tary-inflect­ed cam­er­a­work and an increased reliance on off­screen space. These styl­is­tic shifts were, in part, a reac­tion to the genre’s turn away from tra­di­tion­al mon­stros­i­ty. When the fear­some spec­ta­cle of mon­sters was no longer the defin­ing trait of hor­ror, the genre found oth­er ways to dis­tin­guish itself. With­out the oth­er­world­ly ter­rors of ghosts and gob­lins, what sep­a­rates a killer with a knife or a chain­saw from, say, a killer with a gun in a gang­ster movie? The answer was large­ly for­mal. If tra­di­tion­al mon­sters are mon­strous because they exist phys­i­cal­ly at the edges of our realms of under­stand­ing, then mod­ern hor­ror sought to make its phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly human killers suf­fi­cient­ly fear­some and unfath­omable through styl­is­tic inno­va­tions. Cin­e­matog­ra­phy became cru­cial to horror’s aes­thet­ic and to its cre­ation of threat­en­ing, dan­ger­ous mon­sters. Mon­sters and killers moved off­screen, and lurk­ing, rov­ing cam­eras sig­naled to the audi­ence that some­thing was out there watch­ing and wait­ing to attack.

This trans­for­ma­tion becomes for­mal­ized and focused through what I call “killer POV.” An unat­trib­uted sub­jec­tive cam­era, killer POV is unique to hor­ror. It places a threat with­in a scene with­out visu­al­iz­ing it. The tech­nique was quick­ly adopt­ed as a method for attribut­ing a sort of unfath­omable fear­some­ness to the phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly unex­cep­tion­al killers of 1970s hor­ror. Killer POV locat­ed its threats off­screen, in the unseen spaces sur­round­ing us, just beyond what was vis­i­ble. It vis­cer­al­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed (and enact­ed) the para­noid tinge of 1970s hor­ror: we know the dan­ger is out there, somewhere.

By the ear­ly 1980s, the rov­ing, unat­trib­uted point-of-view shot was emblem­at­ic of hor­ror, but it also became a sym­bol­ic punch­ing-bag for much that crit­ics hat­ed about the always dis­rep­utable genre. For many crit­ics, killer POV was evi­dence of a turn away from the rebel­lious, anti-author­i­tar­i­an ener­gy that Wood cel­e­brat­ed in 1970s hor­ror. Where­as the films of the ear­ly 1970s focused on iden­ti­fy­ing the human­i­ty with­in their dis­pos­sessed mon­sters and vil­lains, the masked killers of the 1980s offered no such oppor­tu­ni­ties. To the genre’s detrac­tors, killer POV seemed to invite a sadis­tic cel­e­bra­tion of the vio­lence it depict­ed with­out human­iz­ing its per­pe­tra­tors. The result­ing crit­i­cal con­sen­sus on this era of the genre has been large­ly reliant on mod­els of sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that assume a con­ven­tion­al, nar­ra­tive­ly absorp­tive view­ing posi­tion. Such analy­ses, often found­ed on assump­tions tak­en from the appa­ra­tus the­o­rists of the 1970s, sug­gest that sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is decid­ed pri­mar­i­ly (or even exclu­sive­ly) by cam­era posi­tion.3 The aim of this essay is to dis­en­gage our under­stand­ing of hor­ror spec­ta­tor­ship from such mod­els of sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in favor of a more flex­i­ble under­stand­ing based on horror’s sen­sa­tion­al modes of address. I also aim to show how sym­pa­thet­ic dis­tance can be cre­at­ed between the spec­ta­tor and the cam­era, a sep­a­ra­tion of the camera’s look from the gaze.4 More­over, this essay will work through the mean­ing of a POV cam­era with­in nar­ra­tive cin­e­ma more gen­er­al­ly, to dis­sect pre­cise­ly what is com­mu­ni­cat­ed by an image that rep­re­sents the vision of a diegetic character.

The Devil’s Eyes

Consid­er this exam­ple: A POV cam­era approach­es a large soror­i­ty house from the out­side, notice­ably freer and slight­ly shaki­er in its move­ment than it was in the pre­ced­ing exte­ri­or shot. The image cuts between this hand­held cam­er­a­work and more tra­di­tion­al­ly (tri­pod-sta­bi­lized) shot and edit­ed scenes of the women inside the house. One sta­tion­ary insert shot shows the par­tial sil­hou­ette of a man’s head as he peers through the win­dow from approx­i­mate­ly the same posi­tion as the pre­vi­ous hand­held shot. This is the clos­est the film gets to a reverse-shot reveal­ing the bear­er of the look. As the cam­era approach­es the side of the house, two arms appear at the edges of the frame and climb, along with the cam­era, up to a sec­ond sto­ry window.

The killer sneaks into a second-story window in Black Christmas. (Warner Bros.)

The killer sneaks into a sec­ond-sto­ry win­dow in in Black Christ­mas. (Warn­er Bros.)

This sequence from the begin­ning of 1974’s Black Christ­mas is an ear­ly instance of killer POV, a shot that rep­re­sents the posi­tion and per­spec­tive of a char­ac­ter but is dis­tin­guished from oth­er POV shots in its refusal of reverse shots and its near­ly uni­ver­sal char­ac­ter­i­za­tion as men­ac­ing (or at least sus­pi­cious). Black Christ­mas returns to killer POV repeat­ed­ly: the POV cam­era moves stealth­ily through the soror­i­ty house, sneak­ing up on its unsus­pect­ing inhab­i­tants for a first-per­son view of each sub­se­quent attack. For many of the film’s attacks, hands will appear at either side of the frame to stran­gle or stab some unfor­tu­nate co-ed. We read the cam­era as a lit­er­al pre­sen­ta­tion of the killer’s per­spec­tive: it presents not a gen­er­al approx­i­ma­tion of his posi­tion with­in the scene but, sup­pos­ed­ly, pre­cise­ly what he is see­ing. First and fore­most, it indi­cates pres­ence.

Vari­a­tions on this device have been incred­i­bly com­mon in hor­ror since the 1970s. Its instant leg­i­bil­i­ty explains its sus­tained, wide­spread use: upon see­ing a killer POV shot, the view­er can assume that it rep­re­sents the posi­tion and per­spec­tive not just of some­one with­in the scene, but of a specif­i­cal­ly malev­o­lent fig­ure. Indeed, the prac­tice was so ubiq­ui­tous that hor­ror films quick­ly became fond of play­ful­ly exploit­ing this assump­tion, with count­less killer POV shots end­ing in friend­ly greet­ings, prac­ti­cal jokes, or leap­ing cats.

Black Christ­mas was one of the ear­li­est North Amer­i­can films to employ killer POV exten­sive­ly. The tech­nique comes less from Hollywood’s exper­i­ments with the sub­jec­tive cam­era in films such as Lady in the Lake (1946) or Dark Pas­sage (1947) than it does from the pio­neer­ing Ital­ian gial­li of Mario Bava and Dario Argen­to. Brief killer POV sequences appear in Argento’s Bird with the Crys­tal Plumage (1969) and Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (Reazione a cate­na) (1971). The tech­nique would go on to play a major role in Argento’s fil­mog­ra­phy espe­cial­ly, becom­ing a major com­po­nent of lat­er films such as the influ­en­tial Deep Red (Pro­fon­do rosso, 1976) and Opera (1987). In Argento’s and Bava’s films, killer POV plays a cru­cial nar­ra­tive pur­pose: in many ways, these films fol­low the nar­ra­tive struc­ture of mys­ter­ies, and killer POV allows attacks (and oth­er scenes in which the mur­der­er plays a role) to be shown on screen with­out reveal­ing the murderer’s iden­ti­ty to the view­er. In that sense, it is a styl­is­tic equiv­a­lent of the black gloves and mask of Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino) (1964) and sim­i­lar­ly con­ceal­ing cos­tum­ing in Argento’s ear­ly films. Killer POV also fits in with the com­plex, vir­tu­osic net­work of mov­ing cam­er­a­work and sub­jec­tive shots that char­ac­ter­ize both direc­tors’ work—one type of mov­ing cam­era among many.

Once the tech­nique spreads through North Amer­i­can cin­e­ma, it moves beyond mys­tery nar­ra­tives. Although Black Christ­mas, like the Ital­ian films, has obvi­ous mys­tery ele­ments, it de-empha­sizes them—and, in fact, nev­er reveals the killer’s iden­ti­ty. Fur­ther, the sys­tem­at­ic, exten­sive use of killer POV in Black Christ­mas serves an addi­tion­al func­tion, one that sub­se­quent films will cap­i­tal­ize on even as the remain­ing mys­tery-genre trap­pings fall away. These films rec­og­nize that keep­ing the killer off­screen is essen­tial to main­tain­ing the threat­en­ing char­ac­ter of their killers: being off­screen is pre­cise­ly what makes them fear­some. Although Black Christ­mas’ killer’s move­ments are care­ful­ly mapped out with­in the house (much more so than in many sub­se­quent slash­er films), killer POV here cre­ates a sense of near omnipres­ence. The killer is vague­ly locat­ed “off­screen” rather than being con­crete­ly placed, and there is lit­tle sense that he could actu­al­ly be detect­ed by any of his unsus­pect­ing vic­tims. His iden­ti­ty remains a mys­tery, but the pow­er of killer POV lies rather in its capac­i­ty to cre­ate a vague yet urgent sense of threat, one that exists with­in the scene but that can­not be pre­cise­ly placed. Killer POV appears along­side the rise of the slash­er and its all-too-human vil­lains pre­cise­ly because it allows films to char­ac­ter­ize its threats as being unem­bod­ied, non-human, and per­haps even super­nat­ur­al.5 That is, the nar­ra­tive tells us that an escaped lunatic with a knife is per­pe­trat­ing the mur­ders, but what we see onscreen is an un-visu­al­ized (per­haps even un-visuabliz­able) force, not lim­it­ed to a body, human or oth­er­wise. The camera’s per­spec­tive places it with­in the scene, but in a way that avoids pre­cise loca­tion: the threat exists, in essence, off­screen, either behind the cam­era or oth­er­wise out­side the frame.

In Hal­loween (1978), the bravu­ra open­ing killer POV sequence grants cred­i­bil­i­ty to the open­ing attack, in which a young boy attacks his old­er teenage sis­ter. The delay of this rev­e­la­tion cre­ates a sus­pense­ful curios­i­ty, and there is a fris­son of sur­prise when the young Michael Myers (Will Sandin) is revealed to be the killer. Yet this sequence has lit­tle to do with the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal tasks of the mys­tery genre. Shown from a more tra­di­tion­al per­spec­tive, the sight of a six-year-old with a knife pre­sum­ably becomes much less men­ac­ing, per­haps even ridicu­lous, and the con­fronta­tion between broth­er and sis­ter much less believ­able.6

The camera creeps towards a swimmer in Jaws. (Universal Pictures)

The cam­era creeps towards a swim­mer in Jaws. (Uni­ver­sal Pictures)

Per­haps the most famous, most icon­ic, and most influ­en­tial killer POV shots, how­ev­er, came from out­side of the slash­er tra­di­tion in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Cap­ping off its cel­e­brat­ed open­ing scene (and revived again for the film’s sec­ond attack), a cam­era moves under­wa­ter, angling upwards towards an unsus­pect­ing young woman swim­ming alone. When the cam­era reach­es its tar­get, the shot cuts above the water to show the swim­mer being painful­ly tugged from below. Like all of the above exam­ples, this sequence allows for the depic­tion of an attack with­out show­ing the attack­er. How­ev­er, even more so than the lat­er exam­ples, this could hard­ly be char­ac­ter­ized as a mys­tery: the killer POV belongs, of course, to a shark. Not until the film cuts to the first shot above the water does the view­er get any con­crete, visu­al evi­dence of the threat that was con­nect­ed to that mov­ing cam­era. Yet the shot, which did not have any exact pre­de­ces­sors in main­stream Hol­ly­wood (and so is not refer­ring to a rec­og­nized con­ven­tion), is read­i­ly leg­i­ble: a pres­ence is creep­ing towards the object of some kind of immi­nent assault, and we quick­ly asso­ciate the cam­era with not just a being, but with a malev­o­lent one. As view­ers, we real­ize that when the mov­ing cam­era reach­es its object, some­thing unpleas­ant will hap­pen to the poor young woman skin­ny-dip­ping alone at night. The two killer POV sequences in the film are key to char­ac­ter­iz­ing the vil­lain not sim­ply as a shark, but as an unstop­pable killing force—one that is not effec­tive­ly stopped until the heroes bring it above the water and killer POV is left behind.

Although its pop­u­lar­i­ty and leg­i­bil­i­ty have led to it being dis­cussed fre­quent­ly in both aca­d­e­m­ic and pop­u­lar crit­i­cism, writ­ing on hor­ror is marred by an unex­am­ined assump­tion that killer POV impli­cates the spec­ta­tor in the sadis­tic voyeurism of the mon­ster or killer through whose eyes we are sup­pos­ed­ly see­ing. Accord­ing to the stan­dard crit­i­cal per­spec­tive, killer POV constructs—some would even say demands—a posi­tion of sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with that killer. In his influ­en­tial essay “Through a Pumpkin’s Eye: The Reflex­ive Nature of Hor­ror,” J.P Telotte describes the open­ing shot of Hal­loween as hav­ing “forced” the view­er to iden­ti­fy with the young mur­der­er (117). How­ev­er, killer POV can also be under­stood as work­ing against the kind of sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion implied there. By send­ing direct sig­nals to the view­er indi­cat­ing immi­nent attack to an onscreen char­ac­ter, it also pro­duces fear for the character’s safe­ty. Fur­ther, by with­hold­ing cru­cial nar­ra­tive infor­ma­tion in a rather osten­ta­tious man­ner, killer POV gen­er­ates a dis­tan­ci­a­tion effect by indi­cat­ing that we are not privy to some of the scene’s most rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion. Rather than sim­ply align­ing the sym­pa­thies of the view­er with the killer in the act of look­ing, I want to argue that killer POV pro­vides a sus­tained image of that look, a view­ing sit­u­a­tion that intro­duces a more com­pli­cat­ed series of effects.

Killer POV and Sympathetic Identification

Point of view = iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Car­ol Clover asserts, argu­ing that the view­er of the typ­i­cal slash­er is “linked, in this way, with the killer in the ear­ly part of the film” (45). Roger Ebert famous­ly railed against what he called the “vio­lence against women” film, and killer POV was a key part of his objec­tion. Ebert argued that “it is a tru­ism in film strat­e­gy that, all else being equal, when the cam­era takes a point of view, the audi­ence is being direct­ed to adopt the same point of view,” claim­ing that the films there­fore “dis­placed the vil­lain from his tra­di­tion­al place with­in the film and moved him into the audi­ence” (55-56). Ebert goes fur­ther than Clover, assert­ing that killer POV impli­cates the audi­ence and pro­vokes a kind of sadis­tic voyeurism on the part of the spec­ta­tor, elid­ing pos­si­ble dis­tinc­tions between a nar­ra­to­r­i­al posi­tion and spec­ta­to­r­i­al sym­pa­thies. As per­haps the most influ­en­tial crit­ic in the Unit­ed States at the time, Ebert suc­cess­ful­ly used his nation­al plat­forms on tele­vi­sion and in print to draw sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­lar and aca­d­e­m­ic atten­tion to horror’s prob­lem­at­ic gen­der pol­i­tics. Clover, on the oth­er hand, makes room for more nuanced spec­ta­to­r­i­al posi­tions. In her ger­mi­nal text, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gen­der in the Mod­ern Hor­ror Film, Clover argues that the viewer’s sym­pa­thies lie with the monster/killer in the first half (a sadis­tic per­spec­tive), and then, as the “Final Girl” grows more assertive and active, with the hero­ine in the sec­ond (a masochis­tic one). Both writ­ers’ influ­en­tial accounts assume that visu­al POV is tan­ta­mount to sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Clover exam­ines the flex­i­bil­i­ty and insta­bil­i­ty of that posi­tion with­in a sin­gle film, and in her dis­cus­sion of the Final Girl rec­og­nizes that there are fac­tors beyond cam­era posi­tion decid­ing spec­ta­to­r­i­al sym­pa­thies. She priv­i­leges and pri­or­i­tizes iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the Final Girl, with whom the spec­ta­tors have devel­oped a more exten­sive rela­tion­ship, over the ear­li­er, briefer moments of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the pathol­o­gized killer. Yet in her account that ear­li­er sym­pa­thet­ic rela­tion­ship with the killer is based entire­ly on killer POV (42-64). Through­out the 1980s and ear­ly 1990s, crit­ics would con­tin­ue to account for killer POV’s pop­u­lar­i­ty in the genre large­ly through ide­o­log­i­cal read­ings. The most influ­en­tial accounts of killer POV have under­stood it to be inviting—again, even demanding—identification with the killer, using it as evi­dence that hor­ror view­ers sym­pa­thize with mon­sters and killers. The impli­ca­tion, of course, is that hor­ror films are sadis­tic, misog­y­nist, and inciting.

Lin­da Williams, cit­ing and build­ing on Ebert’s argu­ment, sim­i­lar­ly attrib­ut­es malig­nan­cy (and an invi­ta­tion to sadis­tic sym­pa­thies) to killer POV, but re-ori­ents the argu­ment. Williams points out that, in old­er hor­ror, mon­sters would often be seen from the heroine’s point of view: we see the mon­ster as the victim/heroine sees it, allow­ing for a “recog­ni­tion and affin­i­ty between the woman and mon­ster” that she claims is an essen­tial ele­ment of horror’s appeal for female view­ers (“When the Woman Looks” 31). Williams exam­ines hor­ror films such as Nos­fer­atu (1922), The Phan­tom of the Opera (1925), and King Kong (1933), in which the shots of female char­ac­ters’ look­ing at the mon­ster man­i­fest a sym­pa­thet­ic recog­ni­tion of oth­er­ness.7 In mod­ern slash­er and slash­er-influ­enced hor­ror films, how­ev­er, she iden­ti­fies the mon­ster as a “non-spe­cif­ic male killing force” that “dis­places what was once the sub­jec­tive point of view of the female vic­tim onto an audi­ence that is now asked to view the body of the woman vic­tim as the only vis­i­ble mon­ster in the film.… She is the mon­ster, her muti­lat­ed body is the only vis­i­ble hor­ror” (31, orig­i­nal empha­sis). While still agree­ing with Ebert’s basic assump­tions, Williams shifts the terms from direct sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the mon­ster to an absence of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the vic­tim (still based on cam­era per­spec­tive), and she points out the impli­ca­tions of the victim’s body replac­ing the mon­ster as spec­ta­cle. Indeed, in the 1970s and after, horror’s pri­ma­ry spec­ta­cles begin to shift from ter­ri­fy­ing mon­sters to wound­ed vic­tims. For all of the night­mares inspired by images of Fred­dy, Jason, and Michael, the films in which they appear are often dom­i­nat­ed more by images of the open, abject bod­ies of vic­tims than they are by intim­i­dat­ing views of their icon­ic killers.

These fem­i­nist cri­tiques are cru­cial not just for the his­to­ry of hor­ror schol­ar­ship, but for the his­to­ry of the genre’s pro­duc­tions, as lat­er gen­er­a­tions of film­mak­ers would more ful­ly engage with their sub­stance.8 Yet with­in those cri­tiques, these crit­ics still assume that killer POV caus­es spec­ta­tors to iden­ti­fy with the killer rather than the vic­tims. But why would we assume that, in these cas­es, “point of view = iden­ti­fi­ca­tion”? To be sure, crit­ics have made room for nuance with­in such accounts. Vera Dika, for exam­ple, argues that, because the killer is unseen, the view­er may “iden­ti­fy with the killer’s look, but not with his char­ac­ter” (88). How­ev­er, even Dika’s account starts from the famil­iar pre­sump­tion of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. This sug­ges­tive asser­tion of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with a cam­era angle has per­sist­ed, car­ry­ing over into writ­ings on found-footage hor­ror, in which writ­ers such as Bar­ry Kei­th Grant assert that view­ers iden­ti­fy with the diegetic cam­era (154).9

The cru­cial inter­ven­tions in the 1970s of the appa­ra­tus the­o­rists, par­tic­u­lar­ly Lau­ra Mul­vey, pro­vide a use­ful and durable the­o­ret­i­cal mod­el for under­stand­ing the inher­ent ide­o­log­i­cal con­tent of nar­ra­tive cin­e­ma. Ana­lyz­ing nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive was of cen­tral impor­tance to their project. Mulvey’s “Visu­al Plea­sure and Nar­ra­tive Cin­e­ma” claims that clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma was built on an assumed het­ero­sex­u­al male per­spec­tive: men were the active dri­vers of the nar­ra­tive, while women func­tioned pri­mar­i­ly to be attained and to be looked at. The look of the cam­era at female characters/actresses fre­quent­ly aligned with the look of the male pro­tag­o­nist. Mulvey’s cri­tique of Alfred Hitch­cock, in par­tic­u­lar, depends on the “sub­jec­tive cam­era” of films such as Ver­ti­go.10 Although, as Mul­vey notes, most of the shots in Ver­ti­go have at least some rela­tion to the protagonist’s POV, we are also shown numer­ous images of Scot­tie, the pro­tag­o­nist, look­ing. We espe­cial­ly see him look­ing at Madeleine/Judy, the object of his obses­sive affec­tions. Thus, while Kim Novak as Madeleine is clear­ly pre­sent­ed as erot­ic spec­ta­cle to the audi­ence, this per­spec­tive is just as clear­ly marked as belong­ing to a char­ac­ter with­in the nar­ra­tive. In Mulvey’s read­ing, this con­struc­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly insid­i­ous, illus­trat­ing the con­fla­tion of the per­spec­tives of male char­ac­ter, male spec­ta­tor, and cam­era that char­ac­ter­izes clas­si­cal cinema.

Writ­ing a lit­tle more than a decade lat­er about Mul­vey and the Screen school of film crit­i­cism, Vivian Sobchack points out that the func­tion of suture—the process of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with an onscreen char­ac­ter that relies on such clas­si­cal devices as the shot/re­verse-shot construction—is to “dis­guise the film’s per­cep­tu­al pre­sen­ta­tion of a rep­re­sen­ta­tion.… To appro­pri­ate the pre­sen­ta­tion­al func­tion of the film’s per­cep­tive body for the nar­ra­tive and thus to deny the nar­ra­tive its depen­dent sta­tus as the expres­sion of a per­cep­tion by a per­cep­tu­al author­i­ty embod­ied out­side the nar­ra­tive” (228). What is prob­lem­at­ic about this sys­tem of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Sobchack argues, is that it is not ques­tioned or prob­lema­tized with­in the film: the film, in effect, hides its own per­spec­tive, nat­u­ral­iz­ing it as the per­spec­tive of char­ac­ters with­in a film. Not only does the cin­e­ma adopt a voyeuris­tic posi­tion towards eroti­cized female bod­ies, it nat­u­ral­izes that voyeurism.

Killer POV stands out from near­ly all oth­er sub­jec­tive shots in nar­ra­tive cin­e­ma in its insis­tent refusal to cut to the reverse-shot that tra­di­tion­al suture requires. Rather, it insis­tent­ly draws atten­tion to itself as a sub­jec­tive shot. Clas­si­cal Hollywood—from Hitch­cock onwards—tends to rely on shot/re­verse-shot con­struc­tions to indi­cate per­spec­tive. It is through shot/re­verse-shot that both lit­er­al own­er­ship of the look and, typ­i­cal­ly, broad­er sym­pa­thies are com­mu­ni­cat­ed: the reac­tions of the look­er help to form the sym­pa­thet­ic per­spec­tives of the film itself and, to some degree, the viewer’s. By dis­pens­ing with the reverse shot, the process of suture that Sobchack describes remains incom­plete, and, so too the view­er becomes decou­pled from one of the pri­ma­ry mech­a­nisms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. If the shot does cut to anoth­er angle dur­ing a killer POV sequence, that new angle does not reveal the iden­ti­ty, or even the exact place­ment, of the look­er. The film gives no view of the killer’s face to cue any­thing like sym­pa­thet­ic reac­tions or have a con­nec­tion of any kind with them as a character.

Fur­ther, in many cas­es the vil­lain, even once revealed, is not exact­ly a sub­ject; they are, var­i­ous­ly, a shark (Jaws), a bab­bling psy­chopath (Black Christ­mas), a blank-faced killer with dis­tinct­ly robot­ic move­ments (Hal­loween), and so on.. Even though the shark is heav­i­ly anthropomorphized—vindictive, even—it is not char­ac­ter­ized as a full, coher­ent sub­ject with whom one might be able to iden­ti­fy. This is not to say that there is no pos­si­bil­i­ty for local­ized, event-based (as opposed to char­ac­ter-based) iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.11 Undoubt­ed­ly, the hor­ror film chal­lenges its view­ers in part by solic­it­ing our own, per­haps sub­con­scious, blood­lust. This is, how­ev­er, not depen­dent on iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the per­son per­pe­trat­ing vio­lence, and does not pre­clude any of the oth­er reac­tions dis­cussed in this essay. That is, that blood­lust can be accessed whether an attack is filmed with killer POV or in a more clas­si­cal manner.

Rather than being imbri­cat­ed with­in the log­ic of suture, killer POV abstracts the look, remov­ing it from ref­er­ence to a famil­iar or con­crete char­ac­ter who is doing the look­ing. Instead, it presents the act of look­ing to the audi­ence, and thus should be under­stood as a depic­tion of a look. That is, the look itself is just as much the object of the camera’s gaze as are the vic­tims-to-be who appear on cam­era. The camera’s look may cor­re­spond with that of a char­ac­ter, but there is a rhetor­i­cal dis­tinc­tion. Rather than com­mu­ni­cat­ing sym­pa­thet­ic align­ment, it shows the view­er that, with­in the scene, some­one is look­ing. Killer POV might align the image of the film with the lit­er­al per­spec­tive of a char­ac­ter, but if we are invit­ed to sym­pa­thize with any char­ac­ter in the shot, it is not obvi­ous that cam­era posi­tion alone should be the deci­sive fac­tor in pro­duc­ing fear for the vic­tim. Killer POV, rather than being pri­mar­i­ly an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion-device, is a device for cre­at­ing sus­pense in that it cues us to expect an attack and to wait for it to arrive. For all of their impor­tant cri­tiques, Clover, Ebert, and Williams tend to ignore this sus­pense func­tion because they do not think of hor­ror in terms of its affec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the audi­ence: killer POV direct­ly sig­nals the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an attack. As a device, killer POV is only effec­tive­ly fright­en­ing if view­ers rec­og­nize the dan­ger for char­ac­ters onscreen. What is dis­turb­ing about these sequences is the dis­par­i­ty between the scream­ing vic­tim and the unseen, emo­tion­al­ly unre­spon­sive wield­er of the look: the only emo­tion­al cues we are offered come from the object of the look, with a rad­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion between the view­er and the per­son through whose eyes we are looking.

Indeed, killer POV is indica­tive of horror’s shift­ing pri­or­i­ties, away from sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in gen­er­al (asso­ci­at­ed with the “absorp­tive” view­ing prac­tices described by the appa­ra­tus the­o­rists) and towards more direct affec­tive stim­u­la­tion, akin to the visu­al dis­play asso­ci­at­ed with the cin­e­ma of attrac­tions.12 The objects of killer POV’s look are indeed objec­ti­fied, but that objec­ti­fi­ca­tion can itself be hor­rif­ic. The pre­cise locus of ter­ror in the sequence is asso­ci­at­ed with impo­tent screams and futile attempts at resis­tance. Even when it does not cul­mi­nate in an attack, killer POV presents an image of the object of the look as pow­er­less, unaware of and unable to con­trol the threat­en­ing look direct­ed at them. The fact that those vic­tims were “most often and most con­spic­u­ous­ly [girls]” (Clover 33) sup­ports the fem­i­nist read­ing that ter­ror in hor­ror is writ­ten on and with female bod­ies, but does not neces­si­tate a sadis­tic plea­sure tak­en in the images them­selves. The assump­tion that “point of view=identification” pre­vents the genre’s crit­ics from explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for sym­pa­thy– even if it is sim­ply mimetic–with the fig­ures onscreen.

Mov­ing away for the moment from the thorny, much-debat­ed issues of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, it is pos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy two essen­tial func­tions served by killer POV. The first is prac­ti­cal: it allows for an (inex­act) inser­tion of the killer/monster into the sceno­graph­ic space with­out putting their body onscreen. This is direct­ly con­nect­ed to the spectator’s estrange­ment from the look of the cam­era. What is being com­mu­ni­cat­ed most urgent­ly is not a sym­pa­thet­ic close­ness to the unseen, often unknown fig­ure that is doing the look­ing, but, rather, the pres­ence of a threat and the inevitabil­i­ty of attack. Sec­ond­ly, killer POV helps to set up a rela­tion­ship between space inside and out­side of the frame that is cru­cial for under­stand­ing the for­mal and affec­tive work­ings of mod­ern hor­ror. Off­screen space in hor­ror of the 1970s and after is often a space of pos­si­bil­i­ty that can be dan­ger­ous­ly unpre­dictable. This is most vis­i­bly evi­dent in the jump scares that punc­tu­ate mod­ern hor­ror, moments in which some­thing sud­den­ly appears on screen, unex­pect­ed­ly breach­ing the edges of the image.13 Killer POV is an impor­tant ele­ment of this, as the killer is char­ac­ter­ized as an enti­ty that is not con­strained by the lim­its of the frame.

It is through killer POV and an insis­tent refusal to offer more than a glimpse of the vil­lain onscreen that oth­er­wise vul­ner­a­ble human char­ac­ters become some­thing more intim­i­dat­ing. The phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly unex­cep­tion­al vil­lains of Fri­day the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980), The Burn­ing (1981) and any num­ber of sequels and imi­ta­tors vio­late the log­ic of time and space in a man­ner that approach­es a sort of spec­tral omnipres­ence (while also seem­ing to attain omni­science and omnipo­tence), as long as they remain off­screen. Mod­ern horror’s sen­sa­tion­al address means that the worlds of mod­ern hor­ror often seem to be built back­wards, with the audience’s per­spec­tive dic­tat­ing the diegetic realm. With killer POV and oth­er tech­niques to keep the killer out of the frame, there is no onscreen body for the view­er to see, and so, in a very lit­er­al sense, it does not exist to be defend­ed against or defeat­ed by char­ac­ters with­in the film. As such, the frame around the image seems to have some bear­ing on the nar­ra­tive world of the film. Indeed, the mod­ern hor­ror film blurs the dis­tinc­tions between diegetic and non-diegetic, with the lim­its of the frame in par­tic­u­lar neces­si­tat­ing con­sid­er­a­tion as a diegetic or qua­si-diegetic category.

Unreliable Spaces

Killer POV does not just com­mu­ni­cate the pres­ence of a threat; there is some­thing inher­ent­ly threat­en­ing about it, some­thing fun­da­men­tal­ly dis­con­cert­ing, regard­less of con­text. There are straight­for­ward expla­na­tions for this. Per­haps most obvi­ous­ly, this species of POV cam­era lurks. It peers voyeuris­ti­cal­ly through leaves and win­dows, an inher­ent­ly sus­pect activ­i­ty that the device calls atten­tion to: we are see­ing an image of this voyeuris­tic look. Fur­ther, the slash­er cycle was so famous­ly for­mu­la­ic and recy­cled ele­ments from pre­vi­ous films in the genre that any sub­se­quent film is to some extent rely­ing on the asso­ci­a­tion built by Hal­loween and Fri­day the 13th between the POV cam­era and a killer. Cru­cial­ly, that killer POV is employed in this way because there is some­thing that makes it instant­ly under­stood to be malev­o­lent even when it is not direct­ly con­nect­ed to an actu­al­ly threat­en­ing char­ac­ter (i.e. the joke that ends with a leap­ing cat). A reverse-shot would reveal the bear­er of the look and the space behind the cam­era, and this unique absence con­tin­u­al­ly reminds audi­ences that there are large, nar­ra­tive­ly sig­nif­i­cant areas in the die­ge­sis that are being with­held from them.

David Bor­d­well char­ac­ter­izes the space of clas­si­cal nar­ra­tive cin­e­ma as being gov­erned by pre­dictabil­i­ty; a coher­ent world is built through pre­dictable rev­e­la­tion of off­screen space (161). The shot/re­verse-shot con­struc­tion is essen­tial to build­ing this coher­ent, pre­dictable space, reveal­ing those areas that were pre­vi­ous­ly unseen. In oth­er words, shot/reverse shot con­fig­u­ra­tions give the view­er a sense of visu­al mas­tery over the film’s space by assur­ing that any and all impor­tant ele­ments of the scene will be revealed. In con­trast, hor­ror films from the 1970s onward tend to thrive on unpre­dictabil­i­ty: the mod­ern hor­ror film forces its audi­ence to real­ize that they do not know what lies around the cor­ner, or out­side the frame, and killer POV, maybe more than any oth­er tech­nique, expos­es, even flaunts, just how lit­tle the view­er knows about that world. Killer POV starts with­out indi­ca­tion of who or what may be wield­ing it (though we are invit­ed to guess) and denies or delays the reverse-shot that would com­mu­ni­cate that very impor­tant infor­ma­tion. The reverse shot may come at any sec­ond, or it may nev­er come, or it may come too late, but the view­er has no con­trol over this and, as such, is made to real­ize that inad­e­qua­cy. The affec­tive response to a killer POV shot aris­es not just through the antic­i­pat­ed vio­lent end to the shot, but from anx­i­ety over what we might be miss­ing on the oth­er side of the camera.

Killer POV allows the own­er of the look the free­dom of move­ment and appar­ent mas­tery over space that comes from remain­ing unseen. At the end of a film, when the tables are turned on the killer, the com­bined looks of cam­era and pro­tag­o­nist sta­bi­lize them with­in a more-or-less con­sis­tent phys­i­cal­i­ty that can be defend­ed against and even defeat­ed. This mar­riage of viewer/protagonist per­spec­tive comes in the form of a return to clas­si­cal shot/re­verse-shot con­struc­tions, with the pro­tag­o­nist as the bear­er of the look at the killer. The diegetic space final­ly becomes much more pre­dictable at this point, and view­ers are sub­ject to more tra­di­tion­al sus­pense rather than the shocks (and para­noid antic­i­pa­tion) that punc­tu­ate the rest of the film. Where the vic­tims had been the objects of the gaze in pre­vi­ous attacks, here the killer has become the object of the gaze of the hero­ine and the cam­era work­ing togeth­er. The hero­ic Final Girl of slash­er films over­comes the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of vic­tims in ear­li­er scenes to assert her own sub­ject­hood, vic­tim­iz­ing the killer who once sadis­ti­cal­ly objec­ti­fied her. And rather than rely­ing on cam­era posi­tion, that sub­ject­hood is based on tra­di­tion­al cin­e­mat­ic meth­ods of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion: she is a ful­ly-fledged, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­plex, and often hero­ic, char­ac­ter. Fur­ther, we are aligned styl­is­ti­cal­ly with her in much more tra­di­tion­al forms – not sim­ply through a reliance on shot/reverse shot, but through a sur­plus of close-ups of the Final Girl.

For the view­er, killer POV works against a spec­ta­to­r­i­al sense of mas­tery over the die­ge­sis that is typ­i­cal of a more clas­si­cal nar­ra­tive con­struc­tion (or of these final cli­mac­tic sequences). It refers to and acti­vates vast areas of the sceno­graph­ic space to which view­ers are not privy. The only onscreen fig­ures with whom we might sym­pa­thize in killer POV sequences are in dis­tress and often about to be attacked. Some films, and some view­ers, can of course see this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for straight­for­ward­ly sadis­tic view­ing, but the mar­gin­al­ized posi­tion of the spec­ta­tor in these scenes, the with­hold­ing of impor­tant infor­ma­tion, and the shocks that come with sud­den erup­tions into the frame, com­pli­cate the ease of tak­ing such a posi­tion. The jump scare, a spe­cial­ty of mod­ern hor­ror, dis­turbs the safe dis­tance nec­es­sary for voyeurism. The shocks and screams and sud­den loud nois­es prompt a dif­fer­ent type of view­ing, one that is not only self-con­scious but unset­tled. If sadism implies mas­tery, then horror’s shocks works against it. The film, as Car­ol Clover reminds us, attacks not just the onscreen vic­tims, but the view­er in these moments, and these attacks can blur the cus­tom­ary dis­tance between spec­ta­tor and screen while expos­ing the lack of knowl­edge they have about the world of the film (202-203). In Clover’s terms, we might con­sid­er masochism to be more cen­tral to the expe­ri­ence of the entire film, from the killer POV-heavy ear­ly sequences onward.

Reverse-Shot: Looking at the Monster

When off­screen, slash­er vil­lains are rarely lim­it­ed to the con­straints of a phys­i­cal body. Jason, in the first sev­er­al Fri­day the 13th sequels, is able to appear from the unseen space behind a tree at just the right time to gar­rote a vic­tim, or to wield his machete, unde­tect­ed, from just out­side the frame.14 He is near­ly omnipresent, except for the space with­in the frame. Killer POV keeps him loose­ly teth­ered to sceno­graph­ic space, but only for the dura­tion of that shot. His sud­den intru­sion into the frame, the source of the film’s most suc­cess­ful shock effects, often punc­tu­at­ed by shrill vio­lins on the sound­track, is an iter­a­tion of the sort of pen­e­tra­tion of place with which mod­ern hor­ror seems to be obsessed: the killer is always on the out­side of the house, the room, the clos­et, try­ing to get in, and of course the vil­lain seeks to pierce the body, the ulti­mate mea­sure of place, with knives, claws, teeth.15 Here I want to sug­gest that a sim­i­lar pen­e­tra­tion is occur­ring in films such as those in the Fri­day the 13th series when the threat sud­den­ly and vio­lent­ly enters into the place of the frame. Where­as in diegetic space pro­tag­o­nists seek to for­ti­fy their bound­aries, lock­ing doors and putting boards over the doors and win­dows when pos­si­ble, here the protagonist’s pri­ma­ry pro­tec­tive mea­sure is visu­al: keep­ing the mon­ster in one’s sights seems to be a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for sur­vival. In the final scenes of the film, the look of the cam­era and the look of the pro­tag­o­nist align to sta­bi­lize the mon­ster with­in the frame, to lim­it the threat to a sin­gle, phys­i­cal­ly sta­ble body.

At the end of the first Fri­day the 13th, the killer has not been onscreen except for brief glimpses of hands and shoes (and hazy views in long shot). No vic­tims have been able to muster any­thing resem­bling a defense until Mrs. Voorhees (Bet­sy Palmer) intro­duces her­self to Alice (Adri­enne King), the film’s Final Girl. Once Mrs. Voorhees is shown onscreen and, short­ly there­after, reveals her­self to be the killer, Alice is able to fight back, to run away and, even­tu­al­ly, to kill her attack­er. This is in stark con­trast to the series of killings in which Mrs. Voorhees had eas­i­ly dis­patched Alice’s fel­low camp coun­selors. Equal­ly, once Mrs. Voorhees appears onscreen, her attack is not as instant­ly effec­tive as it had been in pre­vi­ous instances when a sin­gle blow from a weapon was all that was need­ed to kill a vic­tim. Being onscreen makes her human and vulnerable.

The killer—Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer)—reveals herself in Friday the 13th. (Paramount Pictures)

The killer—Mrs. Voorhees (Bet­sy Palmer)—reveals her­self in Fri­day the 13th. (Para­mount Pictures)

Hor­ror films in the 1970s and after are very much con­cerned with instill­ing para­noia in the view­er about off­screen space—that which can­not be seen is unpre­dictable and threat­en­ing and defend­ing against those unseen threats requires a hyper­vig­i­lant atten­tive­ness to the cor­ner of the screen. As not­ed above, it is fre­quent­ly a break in the coher­ence of the camerawork—an obstruc­tion, a hes­i­ta­tion in move­ment, a shaky frame—that sig­nals the pres­ence of a sub­ject whose look is iden­ti­fied with the cam­era. As such, the POV cam­era empha­sizes the pres­ence of the frame, and the view­er is made ful­ly aware of the pres­ence of a con­scious choos­ing of the fram­ing. Clover notes that the shak­i­ness of POV cam­era indi­cates a weak­ness in its bear­er and pre­fig­ures their ulti­mate defeat (186-87). She ques­tions how any­one could take the threat invoked by the POV cam­era seri­ous­ly as, she asserts, it always car­ries with it these connotations.

How­ev­er, Clover over­looks the struc­ture of killer POV with­in indi­vid­ual scenes. Dur­ing the course of a killer POV shot, the bear­er of the look is more or less invin­ci­ble. In a mate­r­i­al sense the own­er of that look is not ful­ly present with­in the die­ge­sis to be defend­ed against (and cer­tain­ly not to be sur­prised by anoth­er char­ac­ter). That is, killer POV sug­gests a place­ment in the scene, but it is not until the moment of the attack that they ful­ly and unequiv­o­cal­ly enter the die­ge­sis. Again, mod­ern hor­ror films tend to blur the line between for­mal and diegetic prop­er­ties in ser­vice of sen­sa­tion­al effects. Even with its occa­sion­al shakiness—Clover makes no dis­tinc­tion between the shak­i­ness of hand­held and smoother Steadicam/Panaglide cam­er­a­work that would dom­i­nate all but the low­est bud­get films in the 1980s—and the lurk­ing and hid­ing that it often under­takes, killer POV rep­re­sents a posi­tion of pow­er over the object of the look. This is pre­cise­ly why the cli­mac­tic reversal—the align­ment of the look of the cam­era and the look of the pro­tag­o­nist towards the killer—becomes so impor­tant in the final act: it lim­its the killer to a mate­r­i­al body and a spe­cif­ic place with­in the die­ge­sis. Even then, if the killer moves off­screen, those con­straints often dis­ap­pear, as we see, for exam­ple, in the final shots of Hal­loween.

Indeed, killer POV has a spe­cif­ic affec­tive func­tion, unset­tling view­ers through its insis­tent with­hold­ing of cru­cial diegetic infor­ma­tion. Thus, even when this is a feint or a joke, and even when there is no pos­si­ble anthro­po­mor­phic per­spec­tive aligned with it, hor­ror view­ers receive con­sis­tent reminders of how lit­tle they know of the die­ge­sis, how inad­e­quate their per­spec­tive on the scene tru­ly is. Hor­ror view­ers do not know with cer­tain­ty what lies out­side the frame, and the films insist on that uncer­tain­ty and exploit it to shock their view­ers. In oth­er words, these view­ers are not the tran­scen­dent voyeuris­tic sub­jects hypoth­e­sized in the first wave of the­o­ret­i­cal writ­ings on spec­ta­tor­ship.16 View­ers of a mod­ern hor­ror film are bet­ter under­stood as being at the mer­cy of the film itself: they are insis­tent­ly made aware of not being in a priv­i­leged posi­tion of knowl­edge about the diegetic world. Killer POV shows us that hor­ror movies tend to act on view­ers.

This effect is essen­tial to a genre that is so emphat­i­cal­ly obsessed with look­ing and being looked at. Clover lays out the cen­tral­i­ty of the­ma­tized look­ing for mod­ern hor­ror, but the impor­tance of the look for hor­ror is even more struc­tural­ly fun­da­men­tal, going beyond close-ups of eyes or instances of voyeurism (see 166-168).17 The sep­a­ra­tion between look­ing and being looked at struc­tures the mod­ern hor­ror film—which, as Clover and Williams remind us, is a deeply gen­dered divide. Killer POV in par­tic­u­lar puts the act of look­ing on dis­play while ren­der­ing the expe­ri­ence of being looked at ter­ri­fy­ing and dangerous.

When a film such as Hal­loween or Fri­day the 13th reach­es its cli­max and the killer is, at least tem­porar­i­ly, defeat­ed while fixed with­in the look of both cam­era and pro­tag­o­nist, it does so with a return to clas­si­cal shot/re­verse-shot con­struc­tions and more tra­di­tion­al­ly pre­dictable char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of space. After the many vic­tims being sub­ject­ed to the killer’s look, impo­tent to protest, the hero­ine stands in for all of the killer POV’s objects by assert­ing her own sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and, cru­cial­ly, bring­ing the cam­era and the view­er along with her. This asser­tion, along with the sub­se­quent return to order with­in the nar­ra­tive, is marked by a rein­state­ment of clas­si­cal for­mal prin­ci­ples. It is in the final sequence that hor­ror most close­ly resem­bles the films of any oth­er genre: even as the excite­ment and sus­pense builds in a final show­down, horror’s shock-ori­ent­ed unpre­dictabil­i­ty is sup­pressed. Thus, at the moment that the hero­ine asserts her sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, view­ers find them­selves in a more tra­di­tion­al­ly priv­i­leged spec­ta­to­r­i­al position.

Horror’s lack of reverse-shots, how­ev­er, have tak­en new forms in the past decade with the rise of diegetic cam­eras in the so-called “found-footage” films. This sub-genre is built around a dif­fer­ent kind of POV cam­era, with a gaze asso­ci­at­ed with pro­tag­o­nists and vic­tims rather than vil­lains. Each film’s images are sup­pos­ed­ly those cap­tured by a cam­era with­in the world of the film. The style goes back to the noto­ri­ous pseu­do-doc­u­men­tary Can­ni­bal Holo­caust (1980), but grows more promi­nent with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and then, near­ly a decade lat­er, Para­nor­mal Activ­i­ty (2007), Clover­field (2007), and a pro­lif­er­a­tion of films in the sub­se­quent years. This is a sub-genre pred­i­cat­ed on trag­ic end­ings: some­one with­in the nar­ra­tive uses a cam­era to record some­thing strange or threat­en­ing and, even­tu­al­ly, that threat­en­ing some­thing attacks and kills the cameraperson.

The dis­tinc­tion between killer POV and the diegetic cam­era of found-footage films is imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent. Although they some­times look sim­i­lar onscreen, the for­mer sig­ni­fies an unplaced, vague­ly defined malev­o­lent pres­ence, while the lat­ter very specif­i­cal­ly places the cam­er­ap­er­son, usu­al­ly a pro­tag­o­nist.18 There is still unpre­dictabil­i­ty in these images, but unlike killer POV this unpre­dictabil­i­ty comes not from who and what is behind the cam­era but from the lim­its of the diegetic camera’s view onto the world. Where­as killer POV indi­cates some­thing approach­ing invul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and omni­science, the diegetic cam­era sig­ni­fies utter vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty because nei­ther the view­er nor the cameraperson—whose views are here aligned—know what exists beyond the edges of the frame: we do not know who else might be look­ing or where they might be look­ing from. If Killer POV presents a medi­at­ed per­spec­tive on the die­ge­sis that is only par­tial­ly placed with­in that die­ge­sis (and there­fore only par­tial­ly restrict­ed by its phys­i­cal rules), the hand­held cam­era images of found-footage films, reliant on tech­no­log­i­cal­ly medi­at­ed vision, show char­ac­ters ful­ly placed with­in the world of the film.

This upends the log­ic of killer POV. Here, the bear­er of the look is vul­ner­a­ble pre­cise­ly because they (how­ev­er, notably almost exclu­sive­ly mas­cu­line19) are look­ing. The spec­ta­to­r­i­al posi­tion coin­cides with that of the cameraperson—at least in scenes in which the cam­era is being wielded—in that both are search­ing unfa­mil­iar, unseen ter­ri­to­ry for poten­tial threats, and both are reliant on a medi­at­ed view that is always inad­e­quate. The task of the cam­er­ap­er­son both with­in the film and as the spectator’s avatar is to do their best to com­pen­sate for that inad­e­qua­cy, to attempt to achieve the sort of mas­tery over filmic space typ­i­cal of the own­er of the look in killer POV, or of the cam­era in clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma20. How­ev­er, this is not to say that there is a strong sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the cam­er­ap­er­son, who is rarely the pro­tag­o­nist of the film. By pri­mar­i­ly remain­ing behind the cam­era, the cam­er­ap­er­son tends to be a cipher; the peo­ple the cam­er­ap­er­son films are more ful­ly devel­oped char­ac­ters and tend to be the ones dri­ving the action. The onscreen char­ac­ters are usu­al­ly in the same dire sit­u­a­tion as the cam­er­ap­er­son: vul­ner­a­ble and impo­tent to defend against an unseen enti­ty poten­tial­ly lurk­ing just off frame, with the spec­ta­tor being left sim­i­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to sud­den intru­sions from the cor­ner of the frame.21 This, how­ev­er, inspires a dif­fer­ent order of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion than the one being dis­cussed by Clover, Williams, or Mul­vey. Rather, this is sit­u­a­tion­al and sen­sa­tion­al, com­ing less from close acquain­tance with a char­ac­ter than from the spec­ta­tor being placed in a sim­i­lar­ly exposed sit­u­a­tion: by look­ing at the movie, the spec­ta­tor is sub­ject­ing him or her­self to the kinds of attacks that result in jumps and screams. Thus, although the mean­ing of the POV shot has been com­plete­ly reversed, found-footage’s diegetic cam­eras arise from the same approach to off­screen space.

Found-footage brings to the fore­front the genre’s anx­i­eties about the look and look­ing. The shaky cam­era of found-footage makes the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the view­er, sub­ject­ed to the genre’s shock­ing, hor­ri­fy­ing images, the explic­it text of the film. It aligns the view­er with the own­er of the look, the cameraperson’s onscreen com­pa­tri­ots cue­ing our emo­tion­al reac­tions along with what­ev­er com­men­tary the cam­er­ap­er­son might offer. But the anx­i­eties that found-footage the­ma­tizes are already present in killer POV, which always implic­it­ly con­trasts the omnipo­tent look of the killer with the par­tial, vul­ner­a­ble looks of both view­er and victim.

In hor­ror, the look is a hot­ly con­test­ed are­na, for char­ac­ters as well as for view­ers, and spec­ta­tors have no assur­ance of con­trol over or safe­ty from the images in front of them. When the slash­er film and its descen­dants rein­state clas­si­cal for­mal norms in their cli­mac­tic scenes, the image becomes more reas­sur­ing­ly pre­dictable. Found-footage, how­ev­er, rarely leaves its struc­tur­ing prin­ci­ple of the diegetic cam­era, and order is nev­er restored, with film after film end­ing trag­i­cal­ly as the killers/monsters emerge tri­umphant from their con­fronta­tions with cam­era-wield­ing pro­tag­o­nists for whom the act of look­ing is both their only hope for sur­vival and, at some lev­el, what makes them vul­ner­a­ble. Where­as films reliant on killer POV ulti­mate­ly, even­tu­al­ly adopt more tra­di­tion­al cin­e­mat­ic forms to reas­sure their view­ers that the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of their own look can be over­come, that their sub­jec­tiv­i­ty might indeed be assert­ed against the dehu­man­iz­ing vio­lence of a monster’s gaze, found-footage horror’s diegetic cam­era thor­ough­ly rein­forces our feel­ings of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. In doing so, it deflates any expec­ta­tions of–-or aspi­ra­tions towards—mastery or con­trol that we as view­ers may yet har­bor. What is lost in this tran­si­tion to a new mode is a sense of con­trast: the wield­er of killer POV asserts pre­cise­ly that sort of mas­tery over the objects of the look, but also draws a clear dis­tinc­tion with our own lack of pow­er. In the end, killer POV sug­gests pre­cise­ly the oppo­site of what its detrac­tors claim: it shows the inad­e­qua­cy of our own looks in com­par­i­son with those of the mon­sters and killers con­trol­ling the camera’s per­spec­tive. It is not that we have no choice but to iden­ti­fy with these fig­ures, but rather that our help­less­ness to com­bat their con­trol of the image is itself a source of horror.

Works Cited

Ben­son-Allott, Caetlin. Killer Tapes and Shat­tered Screens: Video Spec­ta­tor­ship from VHS to File Shar­ing. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2013.

Bor­d­well, David. Nar­ra­tion in the Fic­tion Film. Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Press, 1985.

Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cin­e­ma, trans. Clau­dia Gorb­man. New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999.

Clover, Car­ol. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gen­der in the Mod­ern Hor­ror Film. Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1992.

Diffri­ent, David Scott. “A Film Is Being Beat­en: Notes on the Shock Cut and the Mate­r­i­al Vio­lence of Hor­ror.” Hor­ror Film: Cre­at­ing and Mar­ket­ing Fear, edit­ed by Stef­fan Han­tke. Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2004, pp. 52-81.

Dika, Vera. “The Stalk­er Film, 1978-81.” Amer­i­can Hor­rors: Essays on the Mod­ern Amer­i­can Hor­ror Film, ed. Gre­go­ry Waller. Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, 1987, pp. 86-101.

Ebert, Roger. “Why Movie Audi­ences Aren’t Safe Any­more,” Amer­i­can Film, March 1981, pp. 54-56

Gal­loway, Alexan­der. Gam­ing: Essays on Algo­rith­mic Cul­ture. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2006.

Grant, Bar­ry Kei­th. “Dig­i­tal Anx­i­ety and the New Ver­ité Hor­ror and SF Film.” Sci­ence Fic­tion and Tele­vi­sion, vol. 6, no. 2, 2013, pp. 153-174.

Hart, Adam Charles. “The Search­ing Cam­era: First-Per­son Shoot­ers, Found-Footage Hor­ror, and the Doc­u­men­tary Tra­di­tion.” The Jour­nal of Cin­e­ma and Media Stud­ies, Forth­com­ing 2019.

Hills, Matt. “An Event-Based Def­i­n­i­tion of Art-Hor­ror,” in Dark Thoughts: Philo­soph­ic Reflec­tions on Cin­e­mat­ic Hor­ror, eds. Steven Jay Schnei­der & Daniel Shaw. Lan­ham, Md: Scare­crow Press, 2003, pp. 138-157.

Hodge, James Joseph. “Gifts of Ubiq­ui­ty.” Film Crit­i­cism, vol. 39, no. 2, 2014-15, pp. 53-78

Lowen­stein, Adam. Shock­ing Rep­re­sen­ta­tions: His­tor­i­cal Trau­ma, Nation­al Cin­e­ma, and the Mod­ern Hor­ror Film. Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005.

----- “Spec­ta­cle Hor­ror and Hos­tel: Why ‘Tor­ture Porn’ Does Not Exist.” Crit­i­cal Quar­ter­ly, vol. 53, no. 1, 2011, pp. 42-60.

Metz, Chris­t­ian. The Imag­i­nary Sig­ni­fi­er: Psy­cho­analy­sis and the Cin­e­ma, trans. Celia Brit­ton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brew­ster, and Alfred Guzzetti. Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1982.

Mul­vey, Lau­ra. “Visu­al Plea­sure and Nar­ra­tive Cin­e­ma.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1976, pp. 6-18.

Paul, William. Laugh­ing, Scream­ing: Mod­ern Hol­ly­wood Hor­ror and Com­e­dy. Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1994.

Shavi­ro, Steven. The Cin­e­mat­ic Body. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1993.

Sobchack, Vivian. Address of the Eye: A Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of Film Expe­ri­ence. Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1992.

Spadoni, Robert. Uncan­ny Bod­ies: The Com­ing of Sound Film and the Ori­gins of the Hor­ror Genre. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2007.

Telotte, J.P. “Through a Pumpkin’s Eye: The Reflex­ive Nature of Hor­ror.” Amer­i­can Hor­rors: Essays on the Mod­ern Amer­i­can Hor­ror Film, edit­ed by Gre­go­ry Waller. Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, pp. 114-128.

Williams, Lin­da. “Film Bod­ies: Gen­der, Genre, Excess.” Film The­o­ry and Crit­i­cism, edit­ed by Leo Braudy and Mar­shall Cohen. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002, pp. 727-741.

---. “When the Woman Looks.” Dread of Dif­fer­ence: Gen­der and the Hor­ror Film, edit­ed by Bar­ry Kei­th Grant. Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 15-34.

Wood, Robin. “An Intro­duc­tion to the Amer­i­can Hor­ror Film,” in Planks of Rea­son: Essays on the Hor­ror Film, eds. Bar­ry Kei­th Grant & Christo­pher Shar­rett. Scare­crow Press, 2004, pp. 107-141.

Zino­man, Jason. Shock Val­ue: How a Few Eccen­tric Out­siders Gave Us Night­mares, Con­quered Hol­ly­wood, and Invent­ed Mod­ern Hor­ror. Pen­guin Books, 2012.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1 The killer sneaks into a sec­ond-sto­ry win­dow in Black Christ­mas. (Warn­er Bros.) 

Fig­ure 2: The cam­era creeps towards a swim­mer in Jaws. (Uni­ver­sal Pictures)

Fig­ure 3: The killer—Mrs. Voorhees (Bet­sy Palmer)—reveals her­self in Fri­day the 13th. (Para­mount Pictures)


1 As chron­i­cled in Jason Zinoman’s Shock Val­ue: How a Few Eccen­tric Out­siders Gave Us Night­mares, Con­quered Hol­ly­wood, and Invent­ed Mod­ern Hor­ror, the shift to more human mon­sters was a will­ful deci­sion on the part of the film­mak­ers, who loved the hor­ror movies they grew up on but want­ed to avoid the cheesi­ness of their monsters.

2 Wood wrote sev­er­al arti­cles through­out the 1970s, cul­mi­nat­ing in his foun­da­tion­al “An Intro­duc­tion to the Amer­i­can Hor­ror Film,” orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1979. 

3 Most promi­nent­ly, Car­ol Clover (1992) and Lin­da Williams (1996, 2002), dis­cussed below.

4 Hor­ror has been a fer­tile forum for such explo­rations, with schol­ars such as Lin­da Williams (2002), Adam Lowen­stein (2005), Robert Spadoni (2007), and Steven Shavi­ro (1993) pro­vid­ing accounts of hor­ror spec­ta­tor­ship that have proven influ­en­tial out­side of the genre as well.

5 The effect is not unlike that of the acous­mêtre as described by Michel Chion in The Voice in Cin­e­ma. For Chion, the off­screen voice of a not-yet-visu­al­ized char­ac­ter achieves prop­er­ties of “ubiq­ui­ty, panop­ti­cism, omni­science, and omnipo­tence” (23). The acous­mêtre’s “pow­ers” come from hav­ing one foot in the die­ge­sis, while the oth­er remains in the areas of pos­si­bil­i­ty off­screen. Killer POV sim­i­lar­ly places its wield­er par­tial­ly in the die­ge­sis while keep­ing them unvisualized—and it is no coin­ci­dence that it is not uncom­mon for Killer POV to be aug­ment­ed with the wielder’s breath on the sound­track, turn­ing them into lit­er­al acous­mêtres.

6 William Paul makes a sim­i­lar obser­va­tion of the film The Bad Seed (1956), in which the crimes per­pe­trat­ed by a young girl are kept off cam­era (275).

7 Williams sees the mon­sters of clas­si­cal hor­ror films as rep­re­sen­ta­tives not of exces­sive or mon­strous mas­cu­line sex­u­al­i­ty (a com­mon read­ing of hor­ror), but, rather, the “feared pow­er and poten­cy of a dif­fer­ent kind of sex­u­al­i­ty (the mon­ster as dou­ble for the women)” (“When the Woman Looks” 20).

8 Most direct­ly, Scream [1996] ref­er­ences Clover’s ideas, but films such as The Descent [2005], You’re Next [2011], A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [2014], and The Love Witch [2016] are equal­ly built on fem­i­nist respons­es to the genre.

9 For a more thor­ough dis­cus­sion of POV and found-footage, see Hart.

10 Mul­vey writes, “In Ver­ti­go, the sub­jec­tive cam­era pre­dom­i­nates. Apart from one flash-back from Judy’s point of view, the nar­ra­tive is woven around what Scot­tie sees or fails to see. The audi­ence fol­lows the growth of his erot­ic obses­sion and sub­se­quent despair pre­cise­ly from his point of view” (16). Note the eli­sion of sub­jec­tive cam­era and “point of view.”

11 See Hills for a relat­ed dis­cus­sion of what he calls an “event-based def­i­n­i­tion” of the hor­ror genre.

12 Adam Lowen­stein (2011) has dis­cussed cer­tain modes of hor­ror as inher­i­tors of the cin­e­ma of attrac­tions in his essay on “spec­ta­cle hor­ror.” Lowen­stein is there con­cerned with dis­plays pre­sent­ed direct­ly to the view­er, while I am argu­ing for a more total­iz­ing under­stand­ing of horror’s direct address. 

13 For more on “shock cuts,” see Diffrient.

14 Jason was played by a dif­fer­ent actor in each Fri­day the 13th film until Fri­day the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988), the first of four films in which Kane Hod­der plays the role. 

15 The soundtrack’s debt to Bernard Herrmann’s Psy­cho score is appar­ent through­out both this film and its pre­de­ces­sor in the series, but nev­er more so than dur­ing attack scenes that mim­ic the famous vio­lin shrieks of the Psy­cho show­er scene.

16 See Hodge for a nuanced re-read­ing of Chris­t­ian Metz’s orig­i­nal essays dis­put­ing the con­ven­tion­al read­ing of his account of the cin­e­mat­ic spec­ta­tor as “tran­scen­dent sub­ject.” Where­as the received ver­sion of Metz tends to assume he is describ­ing a lit­er­al tran­scen­dence of bod­i­ly aware­ness, Hodge argues that Metz instead asserts the impos­si­bil­i­ty of this aspi­ra­tion. Per Hodge, Metz’s argu­ments are found­ed on the spectator’s aware­ness of their body.

17 Per­haps the most intrigu­ing response to Clover has come from Caetlin Ben­son-Allott, who refig­ures Clover’s focus on look­ing into an analy­sis of what she reads as horror’s anx­i­eties about movie piracy.

18 Alter­na­tive­ly, the found-footage places the cam­era itself. Although the Para­nor­mal Activ­i­ty films rely heav­i­ly on hand­held cam­er­a­work, they all exten­sive­ly use sta­t­ic, sur­veil­lance-style cam­eras on tripods or mount­ed to ceil­ings (or, in a par­tic­u­lar­ly inge­nious sequence in PA 3, to the motor of a jer­ry-rigged rotat­ing fan). These sur­veil­lance cam­eras gen­er­al­ly indi­cate an impo­tent view­ing: always seen after the fact, if at all, and there is no human agent asso­ci­at­ed with that look to inter­vene. Many of these sur­veil­lance scenes occur when the cen­tral char­ac­ters are asleep, so no active look­ing or align­ment between char­ac­ter and cam­era is even possible.

19 The most notable excep­tion is Patrick Brice’s Creep 2 (2017), in which the cam­er­ap­er­son is played by film­mak­er Desiree Akhavan.

20 In this sense, found-footage hor­ror is sim­i­lar to the screen of the First-Per­son Shoot­er (FPS) video game. Alexan­der Galloway’s writ­ings on the FPS and its res­o­nances with uses of the sub­jec­tive cam­era in film unfor­tu­nate­ly pre­dates the recent blos­som­ing of diegetic cam­eras in hor­ror and else­where, and these films do not fit with­in his tax­on­o­my (39-69).

21 As Caetlin Ben­son-Allott sug­gests, in found-footage hor­ror films, the act of look­ing is not only dan­ger­ous, but is often pun­ished. (167-202).