The horrors of the mind on VHS.
[ I ] introduction
Imagine an alternate reality almost identical to yours, a reality where supernatural, Lovecraftian beings exist but are hidden from the public eye for fear of widespread panic, a reality where the only evidence towards these horrific beings are short, ambiguous government tapes, homemade movies, and emergency alerts. You wouldn’t have even known if it wasn’t for your morbid curiosity to catalog these findings and piece together the clues in the hopes of uncovering the world’s darkest secrets. The most vivid window into this alternate reality comes in the form of analog horror, an immersive microgenre rooted at the heart of vintage nostalgia and cosmic horror where the true horror is what’s formed within the viewer’s imagination.
[ II ] it’s all in the mind
Considering that the most effective horror is often the kind that requires the audience to fill in gaps, analog horror rarely presents the actual monsters or supernatural beings, but instead shrouds them in mystery and only provides vague observations or distorted images. This forces the audience to decide for themselves how terrifying the monsters are. This alleviates some of the responsibility the creator of the short film has and places it on the viewer; all of a sudden, the audience is tasked with creating the monster, and as a result, they become more engaged. Typical of cosmic horror, these beings are difficult to describe as they are incomprehensible by humans. But special to analog horror, the descriptions and manners in which this information is described is outdated, hard to follow, and leaves the viewer more confused than before. The footage is purposefully made impossible to decipher, leaving the audience with no choice but to draw conclusions for themselves. “LIBERTYLURKER,” a short film by Alex Kansas, pieces together interviews and found footage and leads the audience to the revelation that the US government used the Statue of Liberty to physically cover up a supernatural being, dubbed the Libertylurker, which required human sacrifices, given as immigrants passing through Ellis Island, to be kept alive (Kansas). As this is a government effort, footage of the actual Libertylurker is nearly impossible to obtain, with the clearest shot only depicting its faint silhouette emerging from the base of the statue:
The audience is left to only imagine the scale of the Libertylurker as it emerges from the base of the statue; the cutoff may lead to questions regarding the safety of the people filming the incident and whether the creature has escaped the statue or not.
Different in subject yet similar in presentation, “The Mandela Catalogue,” a YouTube miniseries by Alex Kister, describes the Mandela County’s recent infestation of supernatural beings called alternates that have the ability to mimic humans. Their desires and origins are unknown, but disappearances in the county have sparked investigations by the local police department and their attempts to understand the threat have proved to be futile (Kister). The videos essentially display training tapes, recorded phone calls, dashcam videos, and children’s drawings all pertaining to close encounters with alternates. The alternates are all very different from each other. Some look identical to humans while others are severely disfigured with almost no recognizable facial structures:
The Mandela Police Department’s inability to classify these supernatural beings worries, rightfully so, the viewer. The keyword “alternate” suggests a creature of similar appearance to a human but just slightly off. How a person can tell the difference between an alternate and another person is explained but shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. If the police department cannot understand what these beings are, how is the public meant to deal with them, and how can you recognize one correctly, especially considering the life-or-death consequences of an encounter? This also hints towards the idea that very rarely has a human come in contact with an alternate and survived. In both “LIBERTYLURKER” and “The Mandela Catalogue,” there is a clear indication that these forces are terrifying, but with no clear understanding of how they look like, the audience cannot help but come up with images in their mind. All of these images are valid, as the entire point is to make the video scary and intriguing. Two individuals may watch the same video and fear totally different versions of the same monster.
[ III ] it’s all in the tapes
Though shrouding these supernatural entities in mystery is important for setting the tone of an analog horror piece, effectiveness in creating tension is mainly attributed to its format, a seemingly normal training tape, home movie, or government propaganda video. The use of analog technology sets the context far enough in the past to make the viewer unsure of the video’s validity. In fact, it may be difficult at times to distinguish what is false and what is true, as is the case in “LIBERTYLURKER.” The opening statement says that “The following audio is an excerpt from an 1889 interview with the designer of the Statue of Liberty” which might lead you to believe what is shared in the video is true:
“The following audio is an excerpt from an 1889 interview with the designer of the Statue of Liberty” (Kansas).
In fact, this video was my first introduction to analog horror, and knowing nothing of the microgenre’s existence, I assumed it was very old documentary footage that was just now resurfacing. However, as the interview continues, you learn of the Americans’ desire for the statue to have a bigger base than normal and that the French were not given the reason why. You wonder to yourself, is the statue’s base bigger than it should be? Is what I’m seeing actually a real historical interview? A hint of belief is all that Kansas needs to effectively share with the audience the reality of what lies underneath the statue in the last few moments of the video. It’s a dark twist that required little to no suspension of disbelief leading up to it, making its impact longer lasting.
Much like “LIBERTYLURKER,” “The Mandela Catalogue” is rooted enough in reality to seem plausible, and the mystery of the alternates is not inherently obvious at first glance. Knowing nothing of Mandela County or even if it exists, the audience has no personal experience that can immediately make obvious the video’s validity or not. Are you able to trust that this is official police training footage? What is the timeline of events? Is there enough information given to piece together everything going on? There is an unsettling aura that builds up tension over time up until the grainy and discolored reveal of an alternate in a hoodie as was described by the child’s drawings:
This subtle approach to worldbuilding is what allows analog horror to break the barrier between what your brain determines as fiction and reality, cementing the elements of horror deeper. As such, it is critical that these types of videos utilize a medium that is inherently difficult to place on a timeline; the more modern, the harder it is to pull off. Analog technology, therefore, is the perfect conduit for this microgenre, appropriately named after it.
[ IV ] analog is the defining element
It may be argued that analog horror is more simply a branch of existential or cosmic horror that so happens to use analog as a means of communicating themes. In other words, the analog component does not aid towards defining the microgenre itself. However, the analog technology used so frequently in analog horror does more than communicate to the audience information regarding the story being told. Analog technology, in the digital age, may take people by surprise. Realistic footage made to look analog may actually appear to be real to those who grew up with flatscreen TVs and have little to no experience with analog technology. As such, analog visuals help make the microgenre stand out against a sea of modern media. Someone is much more likely to remember the creepy visuals of a VHS recording than of a recording that was shot on an iPhone. Counterintuitively, we may be more convinced by what appears to be old footage that describes a supernatural occurrence as opposed to modern footage that could have been photoshopped, even though it is most certainly easier to doctor grainy and blurry VHS footage. And while analog horror does have themes relating to existentialism, nihilism, and Lovecraftian horror, every single one of these themes could be portrayed in numerous ways. Analog horror, true to its name, expresses them through the use of analog instruments, and in a sense, without those instruments, the effectiveness of the genre would quickly diminish.
[ V ] conclusion
Very rarely does a genre of media become widely accessible to a large group of people, but the simplicity and ambiguous nature of analog horror makes it easier for individuals to share a good idea in an interesting and innovative way. Some may argue that this medium lacks creativity, as so much is kept away from the audience. The beauty of this format, however, is that it works best on platforms such as YouTube, where half-finished products can be viewed by millions, and can continue to evolve through feedback from the audience. In essence, the audience is the author and vice versa. Clearly this microgenre appeals more to horror fans, but it also creates a niche group of individuals that want to be immersed in the horror. They want to be a part of it, either as a passive bystander or as an active creator in the genre. It also proves that you don’t need big budgets for the visual effects necessary to make something scary. Analog horror takes advantage of our imaginative minds by implanting seeds of intrigue and uneasiness through the use of outdated visual mediums, and then letting us fill in the rest, whether we like it or not.
[ VI ] works cited
Kansas, Alex. “LIBERTYLURKER” YouTube, uploaded by ALEXKANSAS, 12 September 2020, https://youtu.be/vUCvy8pKYXA.
Kister, Alex. “The Mandela Catalogue Vol. 1” YouTube, uploaded by Alex Kister, 9 August 2021, https://youtu.be/C8d12w6pMos.