The Fatal Frame series hinges on a brilliant conceit: banishing ghosts using an exorcismal analog camera, which in capturing an image on film exerts all manner of real- and-spiritual-world effects. Well before enterprising videogame reformers implored us to step away from the plasma rifles and give notgames or trashgames or altgames or caregames or, uh, games in general a chance, Fatal Frame replaced guns with cameras.
Of course, the Camera Obscura shoots ghosts—something of a pun in practice, since mechanically, the camera’s function is the same as that of a 3D-modeled gun would be. Banishing spirits is only one of its uses, though. It also serves to ferry the player through a gauntlet of survival horror puzzles; cleansing sealed doors and revealing hidden secrets as necessary.
Not every spectre in the game is malevolent. Some are actively orchestrating whatever mystical ritual our protagonists have wandered into, but others are only seen in glimpses. Even those that do attack the player are made mad by the rage and grief that blighted their final moments. When the shutter clicks and the consecrated film absorbs their image, they often welcome their final oblivion. Like the spirits the player catches on audio tape in Sylvio (2015), relief—even something like catharsis—accompanies these spectres’ last moments on this plane of existence. “All my fault …” one moans. Another: “I’m sorry.”
This conception of ghosts—as former inhabitants of a place circling terminal traumas—is consonant with the dominant trend in cinematic Japanese horror of the early 2000s. The cursed videotape in Ringu (1998), which carries the psychic fury of a young girl on magnetic tape; the Saeki house in Ju-On: The Curse (2001) and its sequels, its domestic confines clearly mapped for the viewer in a psychogeography of agony; the red-taped doors in Pulse (2001), which seal away wandering spirits dislodged by the relentless push of urbanization+. Takashi Miike’s underappreciated One Missed Call (2003) synthesises a handful of these fixtures into a single sprawling spook story, methodically peeling back a premise that even in 2003 must have felt like cynical trend-chasing to reveal a grim story of child abuse.
Fatal Frame complicates this connection by introducing the ghost-expelling camera; the protagonists in these films are usually left to their wits and/or a few obscure old volumes in their efforts against the supernatural, but the agential nature of a videogame dictates a more active approach. That is: even a series as disempowering and atmospheric as this one needs to give the player something to do with her controller.
In Nigel Kneale and Peter Sasdy’s BBC movie The Stone Tape (1972), the research unit of an electronics company sets up shop in Taskerlands, a disused Victorian manor. Their remit is to outpace the Japanese by developing a new recording medium. In the manor there is a room the builders refused to renovate because they say it’s haunted; it’s shortly revealed that it is haunted, by the ghost of a woman who fell from atop a set of stairs. The concern of the film, then, is the seemingly fortuitous alignment of the researchers’ goals and the presence of this ghost. The haunting is treated in material terms, documented and measured like the subject of any experiment. It’s quickly apparent that the exposed stonework in the room, which dates back to the Early Middle Ages, is replaying the woman’s final moments, repeating a segment of recorded data much like a tape or a film reel. Could this be the cutting-edge recording medium the researchers are after?
The Stone Tape’s methodical, process-oriented depiction of a completely outlandish (sorry parapsychologists!) theory of haunting is similar to Fatal Frame’s Camera Obscura conceit. The ghost is in the stone! The camera can banish spirits! The Stone Tape explains its premise in forensic detail, as befits a scientific milieu, while even the later Fatal Frame games keep the camera’s inventor shrouded in folkloric obscurity. But both stories are about actively working to unwind a haunting++. Each Fatal Frame hinges on a wonderfully twisted ritual or curse (the Strangling Ritual; the Crimson Sacrifice Ritual; Hidden Moon Disease) terrorizing some rural area of Japan. Fatal Frame III brings the supernatural into modern urban spaces, which is one reason it’s the series’ most ambitious game.
Curses and grudges are deeply embedded in Japanese folklore. The premise of Ju-On is actually a fairly straight rendering of the legend of the onryō (vengeful spirit), a spirit who returns from limbo to right a wrong done to them. But if any yūrei (ghost) gets what it wants, it leaves. Hence the procedural aspects of contemporary mainstream Japanese horror, which in turn make it a natural fit for the methodical survival horror mold. Unlike in The Stone Tape, where the apparition is revealed to be only one of countless images held within the stone, stretching back to prehistory, Fatal Frame’s hauntings have definite starting points. They can indeed be researched, and unraveled, and finally dispelled.
What better object to serve as a totem of this approach than the camera? The camera observes, but it also captures. It shoots images: it inflicts a perspective on a moment that has already passed. The obvious cinematic reference point is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), where a killer mounts a knife to a camera, along with a mirror, so that he can record his victim’s deaths as he observes their reactions in real-time. Mark, the killer, is convinced he’s making a documentary, which of course he is—the kind of documentary we generally call a snuff film.
Mark’s subject is unconventional, but his method is universal. The camera is only a tool—it has no intent on its own. Scientist and inventor Étienne-Jules Marey’s fusil photographique chopped time into discrete motions with an elegance that Eadweard Muybridge’s earlier, and more lauded, studies lacked—it did so by imitating the design of a revolver, with photographic plates loaded into a rotating cylinder. He was studying motion with his photography, breaking something down to understand and reassemble it.
Fatal Frame’s protagonists study the tangled manifestations of a curse; one malevolent force seen through the dozens of twisted figures captured by a lens. The camera fills the ludic purpose of a gun—that is, “dispatching enemies”—but diegetically it serves the opposite role. Instead of destroying, it preserves. The player collects shots of all the spirits she exorcises throughout the game, their faces wracked with fury. Images of grief, pain, anger, and torment, as if these emotions, so powerful as to penetrate realities, are pulled away from the ghost and fixed to the film emulsion.
Every photograph signifies. The question is what, and to whom: the accumulation of photos throughout the Fatal Frame series creates a pointillist vision of suffering, witnessed and navigated by a protagonist determined to end that suffering. The internal logic of the games is uncommonly sound; if the player is handed a gun in a videogame and told to help someone, she will do that by hurting someone else. Fatal Frame has a charming, almost quaint belief in the power of witnessing suffering. It portrays characters who trudge through overwhelming circumstances, desperate to simply see more, to snap another photo, to plunge ever-deeper into a hell that can be understood, even defeated—if only you keep seeing.
+ By the end of Pulse, the film’s nominal logline of “haunted internet!” is totally abandoned.
++ They also share a belief that women are more attuned to the presence, and susceptible to the will of, the supernatural.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.