Not content to let their pop passions go unloved by the masses, Loser City staff have banded together to provide Pop Rehabilitation to the works that have been unjustly maligned and forgotten. This month, Christopher M. Jones looks back at the 2011 found footage horror film Megan is Missing, which was widely panned and failed to make much of an impact at the box office. But Chris feels it’s an unusually powerful work for its genre.
A friend of mine once said that good horror is literally torture: if it’s doing its job, it will make you suffer. I experienced this exact sensation a couple of summers ago when I first got involved with the storytelling community of Creepypasta, which in its simplest definition is the weaving and trading of internet urban legends. Reading and telling those stories is addictive, and many of the things I picked up from them remain in my writing—horror or otherwise—to this day, but reading so much of it in the span of such a short time wreaked havoc on my mental health. I couldn’t sleep with the light off for weeks at a time, the slightest noise became enough to paralyze me with terror, and my nightmares became downright hellacious. I had to go cold turkey off those stories for a couple of months, and even after long gaps in reading it took about 6 months for my brain to return to a resting state of non-petrifaction when the sun went down.
Fast forward a couple of years later: I’m writing this at 5:30 A.M. because Megan is Missing, a no-budget horror film released in 2011, won’t allow me to sleep. I haven’t been this powerfully affected by a movie since the first time I saw Oldboy, but like that landmark film, it’s not an experience I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone else.
Megan is Missing is a found-footage horror picture in the same tradition as The Blair Witch Project. It tells the story of Megan, a party girl who lives in a broken home and suffers from a deeply abusive upbringing, and Amy, her dichotomously wholesome best friend. Megan makes the acquaintance of the transparently named “skaterdude” over webcam chat (though, portentously, his camera is “broken” and won’t display his image to her). She decides to meet up with him in real life, and…bad shit happens. There’s not much you can really “spoil” with movies like this, but since I don’t even want to carry a mental image of what happens much less type it out I’ll leave you to surmise that some evil, evil things happen to these girls, things I wouldn’t wish on the world’s most amoral criminal, much less two kids who are just starting high school.
To say that Megan is Missing is more than the sum of its parts is perhaps the understatement of the year. This is not a polished film: The dialogue sounds like it was written by an 8th grader, the acting is amateurish, the characters suffer from plenty of Don’t Fucking Go In There horror movie stupidity and, on such a low budget, the cinematography is understandably negligible. If you go into it without an open mind you will likely find it ridiculous or even laughable.
Yet if there’s something I walked away from this movie understanding, it’s that there’s a difference between a movie being “scary” and a movie evoking horror. Megan is Missing is horror. It is truer horror then any movie I can recall seeing in my life.
In his World War I biography Rites of Spring, Modris Eksteins describes horror as being “the sensation aroused solely by the unexpected contradiction of values and conditions that bestow meaning on life.” Not a perfect definition, but I’ll take it. It certainly applies to the film in question: Megan is Missing is structured as the complete archive of audio/visual material in reference to the disappearance of and (spoilers, kind of?) murder of Megan and Amy. It is in this context between the humanity of the characters and the distant rigidity of the narrative’s framing device that Eksteins’ “contradictions of values and conditions” take their awful shape.
A very large portion of the film is structured as a series of phone chats between Megan and Amy. We see not only how they relate to each other as peers but how their relationship survives even as Megan makes a name for herself as one of the cool, slutty alpha-girls and Amy gains a reputation as a wet blanket and a social millstone around Megan’s neck. Early in the film Megan gives a prolonged, discomfiting monologue about the first time she performed oral sex at 10 years old, during one of these phone talks between her and Amy. Not only does the piece cement an ominous motif of sexual coercion and exploitation early in the movie, it exemplifies the bond that Megan and Amy have: Amy listens to her story without judgment, even displaying honest amusement when cued to do so by Megan. Though the dialogue itself is tin eared and forced, its function as character work is deft: it humanizes our leads, gives them nuance and a sort of narrative grace.
These moments of humanity work as an anchor for the cold, factual framing device that is necessitated by the “found footage” genre. Each scene is separated by a silent title card showing the time and date, reminding the viewer that each of these warm moments is taking us that one step closer to calamity. And in the interest of the “completeness” of the project, some scenes are included that have no discernible narrative purpose at all, making them that much more unsettling. The most chilling of these scenes is the security camera footage of the abduction: it shows Megan being led away by her aggressor, then shows the same scene magnified at 200%, then shows the same scene again magnified at 500%, with a title card buffering each reframing. There is no rhyme or reason to this other than to establish pure pace, pure meditative dread; it stretches and re-identifies one moment, one unthinkable prelude to ghastliness, into a veritable eternity, solely because the premise of the film dictates that it must. What might be obnoxious in another film here shows itself as an expression of totality, of futility behind the idea that data can ever give meaning to truth all by itself.
And then it pulls a trick I’ve never seen in a movie. It pulls a trick I’m not totally sure art should really have any business trying to pull in the first place.
A movie that is true horror, that makes the viewer truly uneasy with and fearful of their surroundings and themselves, can draw from vastly different sources to achieve its desired effect. Oldboy wages its psychological quagmire using weighty Greek pathos and the art of misdirection. The Shining takes advantage of the audience’s inborn distrust of the inexplicable. 12 Years a Slave wears you down with the burden of history and the tenacity of unbroken generations of brutality.
Megan is Missing does something that will be very familiar to those of us who came of age on the internet. It replicates that feeling you get the first time you see something your brain doesn’t have a place for. Maybe it’s a video of an animal being tortured, maybe it’s a picture of a corpse mutilated beyond comprehension, maybe it is pornography you knew existed in the abstract but hoped you’d never be put upon to confront with your own senses. It is something so cruel, so evil and pointless and cowardly and unreasonable that you cannot help but think about it for days, weeks, months, the rest of your life after you see it. It’s the first little something that takes the first little something away from you, just by virtue of the fact that it exists.
Megan is Missing is a movie; it’s not real, so it’s not that. But it sure as fuck shows you something that’s as close to that as you can fake. Your head knows the difference; your gut doesn’t. And it’s your gut that’s going to keep you awake.
So…that happens. That Thing. And then shortly thereafter we reach the final 20 minutes, which is simply an endurance test. Uninterrupted barbarism. And by “uninterrupted” I mean that literally 10 of those grueling minutes are one continuous shot of an empty ditch. I’ll save an explanation of the context simply to keep the scene from becoming ridiculous by the expression of literal terms. I’m sure you understand by now that in the movie itself the scene is pure hateful darkness.
Megan is Missing is not a horror movie in the traditional sense of inviting scares or even unease. Its ultimate aim is to make you feel powerless and miserable and disgusted. As a work of art with a clear set of goals, it is a triumph of amateur ingenuity, a tonally sophisticated narrative and a deeply affecting, wildly subversive example of transgressive fiction at its finest. It’s a masterpiece. I wish it had never been made.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.