Book Review:

Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms, by Adam Daniel

Reviewed by Madelon Hoedt

Review of Adam Daniel's Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality, Edinburgh UP, 2020. Hardcover. 224 pp. ISBN: 978-1474456357.

As is stated in the introduction of Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality, horror as a genre does not lack in attention from scholars. Yet, Adam Daniel argues in his monograph, these inquiries have often taken a particular thesis as their starting point, questioning the attraction of the genre. Why do audiences flock to experiences aimed at negative emotions, at scaring them and making them feel uncomfortable? In this work, Daniel aims to move away from this tradition: he is not interested in the why but in “what horror film does differently to other genres” and how this might affect its audiences (2). Horror, Daniel argues, relies on ideas of embodied spectatorship to intensify the experience of its scares, thus positioning his argument against previous work that relies on a cognitive rather than a somatic response to horror. Much of the existing scholarship posits that instead of being drawn to experiencing negative emotions, horror fans are compelled to watch by curiosity or aesthetic appreciation. They wish to find out how the plot will resolve itself or, alternatively, are compelled by horror’s depictions of its monsters and monstrous deaths. It is this understanding of the genre, and in particular of horror cinema, that Daniel wishes to move away from. Central to his argument here are theories of embodied spectatorship, “the sensory-affective properties of cinema [which are] foundational to the viewing experience” (2). According to Daniel, these properties are recognized most strongly in recent expressions of horror that both use and expand on the cinematic to achieve new affects and to push the boundaries of the genre, often resisting interpretation in favor of a more visceral experience of the material. Drawing on the work of Deleuze and the notion of the post-cinematic, the book aims to explore this new relationship and its interest in destabilizing narratives and the ways in which audiences understand these stories.

After introducing his theoretical frame, Daniel opens his analysis of case studies with four chapters discussing found footage films, where each chapter examines a different aspect of this subgenre. The first is used as an extension of the introduction, where existing models for studying (horror) cinema are questioned in relation to the particular aesthetic of the form. Found footage, Daniel notes here, is more concerned with the viewers’ experience than with their ability to conclusively interpret the film’s narrative through carefully planned cinematography and script. These films use their aesthetic and mode of delivery to draw their audiences into their worlds. The subsequent chapters (2 through 5) each explore an aspect of the affective techniques used by found footage: its veneer of reality, forcing audiences to question what they are seeing and whether it might be true; the cinematography of the ‘out of frame,’ where part of the interpretation of found footage narratives relies as much on what is not seen as on what is seen; and ideas of audience position and identification, using both a Deleuzian approach (chapter 4) and recent research in the field of neuroscience on empathy and alignment (chapter 5) to explore the relationship between the viewers and the characters. The key argument across these chapters centers on the idea of horror escaping its frame: from the confinement of the constructed shot to the moving handheld camera, the relationship between audience and film is altered. The use within found footage of the out of frame, where visual cues are often replaced by ambiguous off-screen sound, means that there is little to no semantic context provided to interpret (and, by extension, explain) the events that take place onscreen. This, Daniel argues, creates an experience of uncertainty in viewers that supersedes their ability to cognitively master the text through semantic reading and interpretation. For these reasons, found footage can be said to reach beyond the confines of its fictional world and into the real world, increasing the affect felt by its viewers through this transgression into ‘our’ reality.

This argument is expanded in chapters 6 and 7, in which Daniel draws on a number of YouTube videos and series. Here, too, the argument against a possible semantic interpretation is upheld, as the case studies used similarly draw on questions of veracity and the warping of sound and image quality to resist interpretation. More so than with found footage, which is still presented within a cinematic frame, this audio-visual material is freely available online and relies on a different relationship of its audience to the platform. As Daniel argues, this further strengthens its capability for affect and embodied spectatorship, as the integration of YouTube into people’s lives means that its horrors have the potential to hit much closer to home.

Daniel’s argument suffers, however, in the two chapters that follow, which aim to cover horror videogames and VR cinema. The argument here is that these two forms share aspects of the aesthetics of found footage and YouTube videos, as well as push them further into the new media and hardware. Unfortunately, it is here that the scope of the work becomes an issue: already seven chapters in, the brevity of the discussion on these interactive media means Daniel is unable to establish the necessary academic context. As a result, these final two chapters are less convincing than the discussion that precedes them and feel more suited for revisiting in a separate study to fully realise the ideas introduced here.

Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms is a clear move towards a departure from more accepted models of (horror) film studies. However, its scope is ultimately too wide for its argument to be wholly persuasive. Despite some weaker parts of the book, particularly in the later chapters, its strength lies in the introduction of new ways of studying this type of material and in opening the door for others to further the work presented here by Daniel.

-24 Apr. 2020