Creating Fear Using the POV Shot

From the sinister gaze to the found footage genre, POV shots have helped shape the cinematic language of fear.
Blair Witch
By  · Published on December 18th, 2019

The point-of-view (POV) shot, also known as a first-person camera or subjective camera, is a filming technique used to let the viewer know what a character is looking at. Often, these shots are preceded by a shot of the character looking at something off-camera, followed by a shot of what they are looking at. This has been done throughout film history. Jean-Luc Godard calls it the most natural cut in cinema.

As The Take describes in their video essay about the POV shot, the technique is not merely informative. It is also a way to elicit an emotional reaction from the viewer, whether it be fear and dread or sorrow and frustration. These shots help forge a connection between the audience and the characters as we see through their eyes. 

The Take examines four ways that POV shots are used in cinema, one of them being the hidden monster perspective. This perspective is often used in the horror genre to build tension in hiding the identity of the killer while also creating an uncomfortable identification of the viewer with the killer or monster. A notable example takes place in the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween when a young Michael Myers stabs his sister. 

Halloween opens with a shot from the killer’s POV as they dig through a drawer searching for a knife. The killer then moves upstairs and even dons a mask that covers the camera. There are two eyeholes that convey the sensation of wearing a mask, which further helps the viewer embody the killer’s perspective. As the killer, revealed to be Myers as a child, stabs a woman, the viewer watches her death as if they themselves are committing the crime. This type of shot collapses the disconnect usually created when viewing violence in the third person. It creates in the viewer an uncomfortable association with the killer. It also allows the director and cinematographer to address the voyeuristic aspects of the horror film. 

While the POV shot has often been used in horror to align the viewer with the sinister gaze, it has also been used to showcase the victim’s perspective, as well. This provides a dichotomy within the horror genre to have the viewer identify on both sides of the violence, which seems like it is pulling the viewer in two different directions. In the horror genre, who should the viewer be identifying with or feeling some sort of connection to? Why not both? Horror is supposed to make the audience uneasy, so it only makes sense to utilize POV shots in seemingly opposite ways to create an emotional reaction.

In rape-revenge films, the camera often switches to the perspective of the victim while she is being assaulted. Such is the case in Meir Zaichi’s infamous I Spit On Your Grave. While the main character Jen is being assaulted on the forest floor, the shot cuts from a wide shot of the entire scene to a first-person camera from her perspective. It is a jarring transition, but one that is meant to have the viewer truly understand the horror she is experiencing. She sees nothing but dirt, leaves, and naked men around her as she screams for help. There is no one there to help her, and this first-person camera only further emphasizes the fear of that realization.

Even more specifically, the POV shot has been used to give the viewer a first-person view of fear through the found footage subgenre. These films do not just employ the POV shot in certain moments. They utilize the shot for their entire runtime. This is not the quick moment used in I Spit On Your Grave to encourage empathy or identification; instead, identification is practically forced upon the audience. The viewer and the character operating the camera become one as they both experience whatever horror is being documented in front of the lens. Instead of trying to hide the artifice of the camera, the camera is constantly addressed and the viewer is always aware of it.

The found footage technique also creates an aura of truth-telling around the film as if it is an unfinished documentary that was interrupted by the paranormal (while found footage horror has become more than just a person holding a video camera, as seen in films that utilize webcams and surveillance cams, this is the most popular iteration). The POV shot feels personal in this instance as if the viewer is granted access to something private or intimate, which makes it all the more horrifying. 

Such is the case in The Blair Witch Project, one of the most famous examples of found footage horror. Three student filmmakers, Heather, Mike, and Josh, travel to rural western Maryland to document the story of the Blair Witch, a spooky urban legend that looms over the town of Burkittsville. From the start, the film is set up as a meta-narrative: it is a film about people making a film shot from director Heather’s perspective as she documents their journey into the woods. 

At first, the first-person perspective helps establish the camaraderie between the tiny film crew. The viewer feels more immersed in their banter and conversation and therefore is more connected to the characters and invested in their journey. It feels as if the characters are talking to the viewer, not just to each other.

Building these relationships is crucial to the effectiveness of the horror elements as they begin their hunt for the Blair Witch. Heather carries the camera with confidence while stating that she knows exactly where they’re going and that they are perfectly on schedule. 

But as fear and exhaustion sink in and whatever lurks in the woods begins to close in around them, the camera is held lower, shakes more, and never seems to focus on anything. The confusion felt by Heather and her crew is translated into how the camera moves, and that physically conveys their fear in a way that dialogue can’t. 

The camera’s lack of focus also builds tension in the moments when some unknown creature is assaulting the characters. In one memorable scene, Heather runs into the woods holding her camera and begins screaming “what is that?” without showing the audience what she is looking at. This establishes that something is out there, but it doesn’t show the viewer what exactly it is. This makes the creature all the more terrifying. 

Found footage horror’s use of POV shots is often met with criticism, particularly in the subgenre’s use of a shaky camera. It can be a nauseating experience, especially in films such as Cloverfield that include long sequences of characters running while holding the camera. Yet it’s a raw experience that reflects the true fear that would be created in these scenarios. The use of this technique helps create a more visceral experience that assaults the senses. 

The POV shot is an integral part of the horror genre as it places the audience closer to objects of fear, whether they are meant to be seeing through the eyes of the killer or the victim. Having the viewer see through the eyes of the killer creates a palpable tension, as the viewer must confront their role in such an act. On the other hand, having the viewer identify with the victim, particularly through the found footage subgenre, creates a lack of distance between the viewer and subject. Therefore, the viewer feels as if they are more directly confronting the monster. 

First-person perspective is one of the crucial ways horror is able to ask questions of the viewer, to challenge their position as a voyeur, and to make them uncomfortable. While it is a tool that can be employed in a variety of ways, there is no doubting its importance specifically in a genre constructed around creating and confronting fear. 

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)