FOUND is an anthology that traffics heavily in nostalgia. This is made clear by the cover, a brilliant design by Ann Shetelia, via which the book is made to look like a stained and faded VHS cover. The title doesn’t even appear on the front but on the “label” (aka the book’s spine): FOUND: An Anthology of Found Footage Horror Stories.
The book contains eighteen stories which are a mix of those told through “found” media and others told in a traditional first- or third-person voice. Early on, there are two stories that vibe with the cover’s throwback aesthetic: “Face Down Death Volume VIII” by Josh Rountree and “Junk Pickup” by Fred Fischer IV. Both of them have that holy grail of found footage, the VHS tape, as the central plot device.
In Rountree’s story, a young boy becomes obsessed with Face Down Death, a film series that features clips of both real and staged deaths (and is an obvious stand-in for the real-world film series Faces of Death). The story has some vivid imagery, particularly near the end, as the real and unreal begin to merge into something horrific. It feels like the author is on to something with the narrator using the snuff film series as a way to process his father’s death, but the idea doesn’t really land, and instead the story goes for a more supernatural crescendo.
Similarly, “Junk Pickup” has a great premise for a found footage story, but it would be nice if its protagonist was a more active participant in solving the mystery of the tape. The story is seemingly set in recent times, but aside from the main character referencing Paranormal Activity (2007), this story could have been comfortably set in the 1990s or earlier. Peter, the main character, is a young man staying with his father for the summer. Both Peter and his dad love watching old movies on tape; they have over 300 VHS tapes, a collection built up over years of salvaging garbage. One day Peter discovers a tape with some mysterious footage: in it a child has set up a camera to capture proof of the monster under his bed. The backstory of the child in the video is delivered to Peter by a character he just met, who more or less unprompted tells him everything he needs to know. While the pacing is a little off, then, the strongest part of “Junk Pickup” is the relationship between Peter and his dad, giving the story at least a very human heart and making it bittersweet when an act of love by Peter’s dad dooms him.
I think having these two stories right after each other so early on was a misstep: it makes it seem like many of the collection’s stories will be ’80s nostalgia featuring a teenage boy. But luckily that’s not the case. In fact, the first story in the collection, “Two Months Too Long” by Holly Rae Garcia, eschews VHS for texts and transcripts. Through a collection of mixed media, Garcia shows the fallout of a failed teenage romance. There’s a moment in the story that is a stomach-turning testament to just how far the main character will go to win back her boyfriend. It’s something I’ll always think about when I think of this anthology—it’s the flat-out grossest thing in the book and features someone trying to fake a pregnancy in a very hands-on way. But because it’s such a disturbing moment, everything that follows after it feels a little rote and tame, mere murder becoming ho-hum.
Other stories aren’t quite the sum of their parts, either. “Disappearances at Coal Hill” will be familiar to anyone who has spent time online reading about weird mysteries: author Nick Kolakowski faithfully recreates various forms of writing, from a freelance writer’s pitch emails to a message board full of conspiracy theorists. That familiarity, though, is part of the story’s problem: while it faithfully recreates that internet sleuth vibe, it doesn’t really do anything new with it.
But this is not the case with other stories in the book. “A Grave Issue” by Bev Vincent sticks to one medium: an internet message board for book fans and collectors. Vincent uses the format to great effect, telling the story of a forum of book nerds who are falling prey to madness as they pass around a mysterious manuscript. Aside from being a fun, spooky story, it also faithfully replicates the feeling of stumbling upon a small but intense online fandom, one where the users have their own in-jokes and insults, long-running feuds and annoyances—a place where people are bound together not just out of a mutual love for a thing but a desire to prove that you are the biggest fan of all. Despite the users’ prickly interactions, however, there is something bittersweet (and scary) about seeing them go mad one by one, the forum slowly going silent.
“Walls and Floors and Bricks and Stone” by Georgia Cook also features images that leave you feeling unsettled in a way that’s hard to shake, and it’s one of my favorite stories in the collection. It has a super-unique, unsettling premise (which I don’t want to spell out here, but is basically the idea of homes taking up residence inside of us). That said, I don’t know if the story gained much by being told through a series of transcripts. Rather than clinical autopsies, I want to feel the bricks and stones alongside the characters.
It’s not the only story here that may have been stronger if told in a more conventional format, but fortunately there are plenty in this anthology that are stronger for being told in a more conventional format. One of the best among them is “Accidents, of a Sort” by Kurt Fawver, which features an insurance agent whose understanding of the world gets turned on its head when he watches some truly unsettling dashcam footage. The stories in FOUND that ended up being misses for me were mainly ones that were too broad with their central idea (one story essentially asks, “What if Fox News literally turned your parents into mush-brained zombies?”), but Fawver’s was productively focused. Still, I wish that there was a story (or two) in here that did something really wild and interesting with the formatting, a la House of Leaves (2000).
What I like about found footage films/stories is how they make me feel like an active participant, to the point of feeling complicit, a willing voyeur who should look away. I’m a big found footage fan, so I am admittedly the target audience for this type of collection. But, despite not all the stories being to my liking, I loved a lot of them. There are three stories in FOUND that to me really understand the impulse of this subgenre, and they are the dark, shining stars of this collection.
“Green Magnetic Tape” by Tim McGregor starts with a guy cleaning out his garage. As he does so, our unnamed narrator finds some old VHS tapes. The footage is a record of his girlfriend Jenny’s wild twenties. But here’s the thing: Jenny as she is now is a total straight-edge softie, nothing like the boozing party girl in the tapes. The narrator can’t help but watch more and more of the footage, even after Jenny finds out and asks him to not watch any more. The core of the story is strong and compelling even before the supernatural is invoked. Jenny and the narrator are a little bit older and have settled for one another, trading excitement for an easy, comfortable domestic life. They each have pasts, obviously, but, until the narrator finds those tapes, they are both content to let sleeping dogs lie. Once that pandora’s box is in play, though, the narrator’s trust in and loyalty to Jenny is put to the test. How much do we really know the people we love? How would we react if we discovered that they had a totally different past than the one we’d been led to believe? And if they forbade us from digging into it, would we be strong enough to avoid temptation?
The next story that really brings out that voyeuristic, conflicted feeling is “This Video Is Unavailable” by Robert Levy and is told as an oral report: “In this oral history, Trespass Magazine takes a look back at one of the darkest episodes born of the internet age, as told by those who lived it” (p. 229). Most of the project’s participants are people who were fans of a makeup and lifestyle YouTuber named Daniel Travers. Daniel’s fanbase is more or less obsessed with him, so when he starts showing up on camera with mysterious bruises, his followers become instantly concerned. They become even more so when there’s a glimpse of some otherworldly creature in the background of one of Daniel’s videos. This story is a masterclass in pulling a bait and switch on the reader, introducing different possible explanations for the events yet still telling a satisfying story. It’s also a great take on a kind of modern internet mystery, in which a YouTuber has odd bruises/demeanor/injuries and fans immediately believe they are being abused. In some real-life cases this has led to fans crossing lines, getting in touch with the YouTuber or their family, or accusations that the YouTuber is faking it to drum up views. In this way, “This Video Is Unavailable” draws an interesting parallel between the voyeuristic drive behind our love of found footage stories and also our desire to form parasocial bonds with the celebs.
The last item in the collection that really gets found footage isn’t actually a story at all but one of the editors’ forewords. The anthology is edited by Gabino Iglesias and Andrew Cull, and the book opens with Iglesias’s foreword. It’s a good opening to the book, name-dropping some certified found footage bangers such as REC (2007), Savageland (2015), and Lake Mungo (2008). But it’s Andrew Cull’s foreword that really made me buy in to the concept of the anthology. It opens with this:
On November 7th, 2019, a well-known video sharing site (not named for legal reasons) removed the channel of one of its most popular ASMR sleep video uploaders. This removal coincided with an FBI raid on the home of Texas man Boyd Thomas Sinclair.
Cull goes on to talk more about Boyd’s case, with all its oddities—including cattle mutilation, murder, and visions of strange, smooth-faced beings. Cull explains that he was following Boyd’s case around the time he first conceived of the idea for FOUND, and so the two are linked in his mind, partly because of timing and also because of how Boyd’s case shows that the real world is stranger than we are willing to admit.
As I was reading Cull’s foreword, I went through a journey of my own. At first I felt a bit of queasiness: it seemed in bad taste to reference a real-life serial killer to kick off your anthology of spooky fiction. But I was fascinated by Boyd’s case despite that, and surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before. Then it dawned on me that I’d been worked: there is no man named Boyd Thomas Sinclair, or at least not one who’s a deranged mass murderer/cattle mutilator. For a moment I’d been truly conflicted about reading further, about whether to support something that made me feel grimy by invoking real-world tragedy. When I realized the truth, that it was fiction, I was delighted by the trick Cull had managed to pull on me.
“Found footage” fiction isn’t in itself a new idea; it’s basically a broader version of epistolary stories. Horror itself has a long history of using “mixed media,” going back to the letters and diary entries and newspaper articles that make up Dracula (1897) and Frankenstein (1818). And modern horror writers are likewise using new mediums to tell horror tales that are modern not just in the fears they address but the way they tell them. In Eric LaRocca’s novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (2021), a reply to an online for-sale ad quickly escalates into a sexual master-servant relationship. In Several People Are Typing (2021) by Calvin Kasulke, an office drone must contend with the existential terror of having his consciousness uploaded onto his office Slack channel. Both these stories use the means of their telling to question whether so much connectivity to other people is really such a good thing. While many of the stories in FOUND use their chosen mediums to great effect, I wish more of them used the narrative to examine the mediums themselves.
Cull and Iglesias have recently put out a call for stories for a Volume 2 of FOUND. Based on Volume 1, I’m excited to see what other found footage stories they manage to gather. Personally, I’d love to see more stories from outside of America—so many of the stories in this book have a veneer of Americana that feels a bit stale after a while, invoking a nostalgia for a time and place that is US-centric rather than more accessibly diverse. There are already some really interesting stories in Volume 1 based outside the States, such as “The Novak Roadhouse Massacre,” which is set in Australia, and “The Pall,” which is set in South Africa. But found footage truly is a global genre, with some especially amazing stuff coming from Asia—such as the film Incantation (2022) from Taiwan and the Japanese YouTube series Fake Documentary Q (2021). It would be great to see that reflected in Volume 2 of FOUND.
Regardless, I will be picking up the second book up when it comes out. I have faith that the stories will be an interesting assortment, as they are in Volume 1. And besides: the two books will look so cool next to each other on the shelf, two spooky story collections masquerading as VHS cases, just waiting to lure in unsuspecting readers.