C’MON, TELL ME: WHO ARE YOU?
So, if questions of category are, themselves, really just one manifestation of questions of identity, found footage is seriously messing with identity in a lot of ways. But messing with identity is also dangerous work; in conversation, Megan is Missing is regularly compared to snuff films, an infamous genre wherein even the fictionalization of death is made too graphic, too visceral except to the small contingent of social outcasts who are physically gratified by that sort of thing.
But it is the very attempt at realism, at minimizing the degree to which the viewer has to suspend disbelief, that stands as an establishing characteristic of found footage–according to our reckoning here, at least. So how can we consider any found footage film in which someone dies not a snuff film? Is Cloverfield, for instance, with its body count that stretches across New York City, not a snuff film? If we would still say ‘no’, what is it that makes the difference? Would Cloverfield director Matt Reeves or writer Drew Goddard call it ‘snuff’? Would Paramount PIctures?
For, to have a narrative means that someone (maybe more than one someone, maybe a lot of someones) did the work of putting together, well, something that, by the time it gets to us, we can take as a narrative. But why do they bother? Literally, why do people start creating any particular story in the first place? There must be an excuse for that narrative–we could call it a ‘reason’, ‘point’, or ‘purpose’, but, considering the general reaction to Megan is Missing, a lot of viewers might find ‘excuse’ more fitting. I use the term, then, not to placate the fainthearted, but to point out how closely connotatively-negative and positive terms lie to one another in practice. For, whatever the reason or excuse that Megan is Missing exists, it does exist and was created with deliberation and intentionality–to be, if nothing else, a narrative that viewers engage with, that they view and discuss even as so many potential categorizations, be it snuff, splatter, or even just horror (especially, so often, just horror) tend to foreclose against further serious consideration.
To be clear, even though this all sounds like a question for the filmmakers specifically, ‘why did they make this film?’ is not really the question we’re asking; between its writer/director/producer, Michael Goi, its two producers besides Goi, and the multitude of cast and crew who lent their efforts to making it, Megan is Missing, like almost any feature-length film, must be the product of more than one individual’s intent. Nor is there any rule that those respective, individual intentions ever agreed with one another at all beyond just getting something made and distributed. And all this in addition to the understanding that individual intentions are, themselves, often murky even to the individuals that hold them. We don’t pursue what Goi himself may have intended, then, because those intentions might not be what we expect, they might not even be clear to him, and his position as some sort of sole author with autonomy over ‘his’ creation becomes more and more obviously fiction the longer we look at it. We’re not saying that any particular content creator–novelist, screenwriter, director, videogame designer, boardgame architect–isn’t actually doing the work with a purpose in mind. Just that it doesn’t matter so much here.
Yet, while creative intentions are largely either unknown or irrelevant–and not just for Megan is Missing–that doesn’t prevent us from exploring what it is intended to be within its own narrative context. For, a found footage film always exists within its own story, generally as a product of the events of that story; it’s in pursuing what Megan is Missing means within the world it creates that things start to really get neat (and, by ‘neat’ I really only, always, ever mean ‘weird’–usually: really weird).
AW, WHO THE !@#$ ARE YOU?
But, before we address meaning within context, we should get a better idea of how the found footage narrative is made to move out of its own realm, and into our world. We’re going to call this the ‘chain of delivery’; it’s a phenomenon almost entirely unique to found footage fiction and, as such, is bound to get a lot of coverage in the reviews to come. For now, though, here’s the gist, taken from a paper that I might (or might not) get around to posting in full one day:
“[The found footage film] has been discovered by someone other than its author and, ultimately, delivered to a publisher. Though we rationally understand the story to be fiction… the establishment of some chain of delivery, no matter how scant, will suffice [in helping the viewer suspend disbelief]. In fact, while some link in the chain of delivery is essential… [a usual] lack of information regarding the delivery process frees [the viewer] to imagine for themselves how the material came to the attention of the public.”
So, the chain of delivery, the means by which the found footage story is found and transmitted to the audience, needs to allow that audience to reasonably believe that the story could happen in our own world, that our reality and the reality of the story are effectively the same.
But this is fiction (and some psychology), not hard science; often, only an indicator of that chain needs to be presented. In films like Cloverfield or Blair Witch, we’re given title cards that establish the footage as being recovered from wherever the action has taken place. But, for widely-released films like Cloverfield, the setting of a viewing can, itself, become problematic in supporting the chain of delivery and the suspension of disbelief: would the real, recorded-at-the-scene footage of an alien attack in New York City really make it to the local drive-in, or would we be watching it on the news? Megan is Missing, on the other hand, had a handful of theater a showings, but has likely been seen by far more viewers on their televisions. You know, that thing we actually use to watch actual news stories that, sometimes, actually appall us?
So, if the narrative has somehow managed to invade our reality, to make the characters people in our world, shouldn’t we be wondering what role we’re being made to take in the world of the narrative? Who does the viewing make us into? If this footage is real within its own context and we are meant to suspend disbelief, to ignore the distinction between that context and our own, then what role must we be taking in that fictional realm that we’re able to view this footage at all?
And, for that matter, who in that world put this footage together in the first place? While the reliability of the narrator has long been a topic of interest in more traditional genres and media, it is a question with unique implications for found footage narratives, one that is both telling and often ignored. In Megan is Missing, much of what we see is taken from Amy’s personal camera, filmed by her and, after she is captured, by the antagonist. Yet, once he has disposed of his victims and left the camera and its footage to be discovered by police, the narrative continues on. But according to whose will within the story?
Giving Credit Where Credit is Deux (Yeah, I just did that)
At their base, most of the narratives we would identify as narrative are concerned with antagonists and protagonists. Found footage is no different, but the sorta-‘meta’ status of the genre, the self-recognition of found footage films as films (or, at least, as filmed) means that we need to concern ourselves with another force, a character we might already know or one we may never see directly: the compiler. In Megan is Missing, the additional footage after the discovery of the camera stands as the most obvious evidence of some sort of hand in the editing, but we can see that party’s will being worked long before the girls meet their fates.
Earlier, when we’re presented with some pieces of ancillary information, such as the fake ‘self-portrait’ the antagonist sends to Megan, the visuals are accompanied by functional, professional-looking captions; we might reasonably assume that the compiler is a police employee or someone hired to process the video from the investigation. Other insertions, though, such as a the comparatively bombastic title cards, belie this: the title itself, Megan is Missing, takes up most of the screen in a bold, Impact-style font. There is nothing comparable in a lot of other examples of found footage, as even the act of naming the feature outright within itself clearly indicate a dramatic intentionality, a particular perspective on what this footage is and how the viewer is supposed to take it.
But the seeming conflict in the compiler’s goals and how they manifest in the editing may just be our own misperception based on evidence which, itself, is only so complete as the creation of the film allows it to be. The very assumption of a single, indecisive compiler makes it easy to label the editing as inconsistent, yet there is nothing about the way the narrative works that precludes more than one compiler. Rather than some lone police employee, could the telling of Megan and Amy’s story, within-world, have been shaped by unknown others? And, if so, does our viewing of the footage then subject us to the will of forces within the story itself, a party who might just be more clearly aware of us than we are of it?
Creepy, ain’t it?
 As examples, see:
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/MeganIsMissing. On its page for the film, TVTropes points out the final twenty minutes specifically as being an example of the ‘snuff film’ form.
 Not that the genres themselves are necessarily limiting—quite the opposite–but that those who are discussing these films too often think of the label as a way to answer the question of what the narrative is and be done with it. In understanding at least the less-directly informed criticisms of Megan Is Missing, and found footage and even horror, we can easily see some very lazy thinking at work. And while I won’t put down any film in which the participants went to the effort of actually producing the thing, I damn well will rail against uninformed assumptions about those works.
 At least, so far as I can reckon. That doesn’t mean that it’s limited to found footage horror films, however. For literary examples, see Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Poe’s only finished novel, 1838), and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928). Kinda makes me wonder if found footage audio is a thing, actually.