In 2020, the year of unprecedented uncertainty, it would be expected to turn to films of comfort and levity, pieces of sweet escapism that can transport the viewer into another world and grant them reprieve from the horrors of the real world. But we don’t want escapism. We are engulfed in tragedy—and media that reflects that reality serves as a form of catharsis. That’s why in the past few weeks, the 2011 found footage film Megan Is Missing has become the internet’s obsession.
This nihilistic movie about the dangers of the internet has people flooding Twitter timelines and For You pages with their reactions of shock, horror, and disgust. But why did this specific little indie film from 2011 go viral on TikTok in 2020? While there is no single user or video as the specific source of the trend, the central reasoning Megan Is Missing has entered the zeitgeist is its shock value.
Megan Is Missing is director Michael Goi’s response to the growing dangers of meeting strangers on the internet, which is rather ironic seeing how it’s now spreading like digital wildfire. His goal was to create a cautionary tale about what lurks in the digital world. The film was perhaps too successful as it took five years to find distribution and was banned from New Zealand for its graphic content. Megan Is Missing is often cited in movie lists or YouTube videos as one of the most disturbing films ever made, particularly due to its brutal finale that involves the assault and murder of two young girls. And now, TikTok users are posting videos of themselves sobbing after watching the film, documenting their trauma.
The film opens on two young girls, Amy and Megan, who are using Amy’s new video camera to document their lives. From the very beginning, it’s established that Megan acts much older than she is, while Amy is a more sheltered child. When Megan meets someone online, who is posing as a high school student, their relationship develops rapidly. When they meet in person and she goes missing, Amy desperately searches for her best friend…but she soon regrets what she’s able to find. The last 30 minutes shift from a sad, if not cheesy, examination of the secret lives of teens, to a borderline snuff film that leans into shocking imagery of death and torture.
Goi responded to the massive burst of attention for his film with a warning:
“Do not watch the movie in the middle of the night. Do not watch the movie alone. And if you see the words ‘photo number one’ pop up on your screen, you have about four seconds to shut off the movie if you’re already kind of freaking out before you start seeing things that maybe you don’t want to see.”
The film’s reputation, paired with Goi’s warning, is a recipe for virality. It is like the Video Nasties of the 1980s: the more people are told not to watch something due to its disturbing content, the more likely they are to consume it.
Megan Is Missing isn’t the only film to get the TikTok treatment. In June, Gasper Noe’s Love went viral as TikTok users posted reaction videos to its opening sex scene which shows unsimulated sex. While not nearly as violent as Megan Is Missing, Love held a similar allure of shock value. TikTok users have turned to these films during quarantine to test themselves and stretch the boundaries of the cultural zeitgeist. It’s the 2020 equivalent of watching videos on Rotten.com and bragging about it to your friends.
But Megan Is Missing has another layer of intrigue: since it is filmed in the found footage style, as made famous by films like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, and The Blair Witch Project, it feels real. Found footage horror is all about stretching the idea of truth and making a fictional film seem like a first-person document of horrific happenings. The shakiness of the camera, a defining feature of the technique, and the imperfections of the footage lend to the film’s authenticity. There is no way a filmmaker would release something so unpolished, so it has to be real.
The air of truth is also reinforced with title cards stating that the footage came from a police department, thanking the deceased’s family members, or making some kind of statement about where the footage came from. Megan Is Missing is no different, plainly stating at the beginning that “this film was assembled using cell phone transmissions, computer files, home videos, and public news reports.” Such a disclaimer establishes that none of this footage was meant for this movie; instead, they were all edited together to create a larger and horrifying narrative.
Some viewers were convinced by the approach, taking to Twitter and asking if this was all real footage. While many were quick to correct them and explain to them what found footage is, such a reaction is a testament to how found footage plays with truth to create terrifying narratives full of monsters, both real and fantastical.
This isn’t the first found footage film to go viral due to its subject matter and terrifying believability. When it was released in 1999, The Blair Witch Project based its entire marketing strategy on making audiences believe its three leads were actually dead. Missing posters were used as billboards, and the actors were even told to hide from the public eye to better sell the idea that the film was an actual documentary. Audiences truly believed they were seeing a snuff film, which of course caused the film to go “viral” in 1999 terms. Well-done found footage such as Megan Is Missing and The Blair Witch Project are able to walk the line between truth and fiction not only through the films’ diegetic narrative, but through the stories they create in our world as well.
Thanks to the found footage style, watching Megan Is Missing feels dirty and exploitative. It is formatted as something forbidden that should be kept secret and away from the eyes of the masses. This air of reality is what makes Megan Is Missing both repulsive and alluring. Amy and Megan on their video camera isn’t much different from a teen filming themselves and posting it on TikTok: they are both documents of personal lives through the eyes of young people. And now, posting a TikTok after watching it feels like a badge of honor, a testament to your willingness to stomach depravity. Yes, you suffered, but you are suffering alongside millions of other strangers on the internet, which is the antithesis to the film itself. It has created a twisted idea of community, united by a common trauma.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.