Behind the Curtain: Defining Horror in "Catfish"

[Warning: MASSIVE SPOILERS for the movie Catfish FOLLOW. It will be much less fun to watch if you have read the spoilers. However, if you don't plan to see it, have already had it spoiled and/or don't care about spoilers, read on.]

Catfish premiered at Sundance earlier this year and had a limited theatrical release on September 17, with a wider release scheduled for this Friday. So far, the film is the indie breakout hit of the year - a low-budget documentary with a (mostly) well-kept secret twist. The trailer (below) makes it look like it's going to be a slasher film, but it's not. There's been some speculation about how much of the movie is staged, recreated or just entirely fictional; this post from the movie blog Very Aware provides some examples of fakery in the movie, but for the purposes of this analysis, it doesn't really matter whether it's real or not. (SPOILERS BELOW VIDEO)

A quick summary (don't say I didn't warn you about the SPOILERS): Yaniv "Nev" Schulman, a 24-year-old photographer living in New York City, enters into an electronic correspondence with a precocious, artistic 8-year-old girl in Michigan named Abby, who paints reproductions of his photos. He sends her photos, she sends him paintings and cute, newsy emails. He adds her as a friend on Facebook, and through her, meets adds other members of her family, including her mother Angela and her 19-year-old sister Megan. His correspondence with Megan turns flirty and then romantic. They talk on the phone, send naughty texts and call each other "babe." One day, Nev discovers, completely by accident, some details about her story that don't add up. Nev, his brother Ariel ("Rel") and their friend Henry Joost decide to go to Michigan to see how much of "the Facebook family" is real.

In short, it's all an epic troll. Angela is real, but her Facebook is not - that is to say, the photographs on it are not of her and the information listed is not true. Abby is real, but she's not the artist of the paintings Nev received (Angela is). Angela's husband Vince is real, but his Facebook is fake too. Megan does not exist. The friends and relatives that interacted with Megan, Abby and Angela on Facebook do not exist. All of their Facebook profiles are creations of Angela, with photos lifted from profiles of strangers. All of the interactions that Nev had with all of these people were really interactions with - you guessed it - Angela. Angela as Abby. Angela as Vince. Angela as Megan. Angela as Megan's fictional friend Ryan. Angela as Ryan's two fictional sisters. Angela as Megan's fictional brother Alex. All with separate Facebook profiles and email addresses, some with their own individual cell phone numbers. The sheer magnitude of Angela's invention is impressive, to say the least.

It's a fascinating human interest story, something that you might hear on "This American Life." But there's some confusion about whether it can accurately be called a horror movie or not. It would be easy to dismiss the trailer as misleading marketing, but the filmmakers' intentions are equally unclear. Certainly, there are parts of Catfish that are scary, and are obviously meant to invoke suspense: the profound disillusionment the filmmakers suffer when they realize that "Megan" is not who they thought she was, the ensuing fear about who she might be, the possibility of danger lurking at the end of the road as they drive through Michigan to Angela's house. But... there's no real danger. They find that Angela lied about her identity, which is wrong and harmful, but that's all she did. She doesn't scam the boys out of their life savings or blackmail them or stalk them or chop them up into little pieces. The big scary monster at the end of Catfish is a confused, depressed, intensely creative, sexually dissatisfied middle-aged woman who spends her days painting, caring for her two developmentally disabled stepsons and wishing that she had a different life. Her story is sad because she is sad, disappointed in herself, torn between her desire to care for her family full-time and pursue her fantasy of an artistic lifestyle. It's a common theme, made unusual only by the method in which Angela copes with her emotional dilemmas. To categorize the truth of her life as "horror" is to blatantly other every element of it - to characterize her sexuality, her Midwesternness, her fatness, her plainness, her age and particularly her interactions with disabled people as nothing less than freakish and pathetic.

So did the filmmakers were the ones to bestow this label upon their creation? Did they mean for us to see Angela as a monster, and for Catfish to be seen as a horror movie? Yes and no. From an interview with Austin360.com (emphasis mine):

[Austin360:] Is there concern that people are going to feel disappointed that it's not a horror movie?
Ariel Schulman: I don't think the movie disappoints, to tell you the truth. It's not not a horror movie. The best horror movies are the ones where you see the least. Thank God it's not a horror movie. Horror movies suck. Horror movies are totally forgettable and don't require a second viewing.
...
Joost: It's a film where, like real life, things are not black and white. There's a positive message and a negative message to the film, but the biggest surprise is that there is a sort of positive outcome at the end of a real connection.
Ariel Schulman: Which is what makes documentaries generally more interesting than horror movies, that they have complicated contradictory values and messages.

Scott Wampler, a reviewer from Comedy Examiner, saw the film at its Austin opening, which included a Q&A session with the filmmakers after the movie (note: this was the same day as the previously quoted interview was published):

During the second half of the Q&A... someone made a comment that basically amounted to, 'Catfish isn't a horror film, so why are the trailers made to appear that they're advertising a horror film?' The filmmakers responded as politely as they could, even though it was plain to see that they disagreed with that assessment. While the audience member spoke, everyone was polite enough, but the moment that little exchange ended between the question-asker and the film's leads, Harry [Knowles of AintItCool News] blurted, 'Well, all I know is, that was a horror film' (or something to that effect).

The noise the crowd made - myself included - tells me that this was the majority opinion. Sure, there are going to be some complaints from people that feel that the film's trailer... is a little misleading, or that it promises a slasher-style film.... Catfish is almost certainly a horror film by the most simple of definitions - "Did it scare me? Yes, and frequently".

I've read other reviews that disagree, but while watching the film, I didn't feel that the filmmakers' treatment of Angela or her family was exceptionally exploitative or condescending, for the most part. (It was certainly less exploitative than their treatment of Nev, who is shown objecting to the entire enterprise a few times and complaining that he was "bullied" into continuing to appear on camera.) There is one scene, however, that does enter this territory, and that has to do with the only explicit reference to Angela's sexual desires. From the nature of Nev and "Megan's" correspondence, it seems that their months-long non-monogamous relationship was mostly based on mutual attraction to photographs, a lot of sexting and a few long, presumably soul-baring phone conversations. All of the emotions (if not the facts) Angela expressed as "Megan" were real - in other words, Angela is completely infatuated with Nev. It's painfully clear, from the too-long hug that Angela gives him upon their first IRL meeting to her frequent comments about his looks. As Nev, Rel and Joost drive away from Angela's house for the first time, Rel says: "Angela's in love with you....You had an affair with like, a 40-year-old woman." "Yeah," Nev admits. He appears embarrassed, but only slightly. Rel and Joost, on the other hand, begin to giggle. The message is clear, if only for this one moment: you had a virtual affair with a fat old person. Gross. Horror fodder. But again, this is the only scene in which this idea is strongly implied or directly communicated; it's up to the audience to provide their own giggles for the rest of the movie. A.O.Scott's New York Times review from September 16 points out that

"[the filmmakers'] approach to the potentially volatile and undeniably exploitive implications of their stumbled-upon story is muddled and defensive. Shame on them, if that would mean anything to them.
...
But the object of the film's patronizing, pitying gaze is also the person who saves it: Angela, a woman whose life is, at first glance, a web of self-delusions, compulsive deceptions and plain desperation. Her whispery, sincere, wide-eyed lies and evasions were met, at the crowded screening I attended, with derisive laughter punctuated by gasps of horror. Plain-looking and soft-spoken, she seemed to be either a clown or a monster. [emphasis mine]
She might be those things, but in spite of its own facile, faux-naïf manipulations, "Catfish" reveals her to be something else as well, namely an artist. Mr. Joost and Mr. Shulman, young and entitled filmmakers, assume that the sophistication is all on their side, but Angela's mastery of the media of modern self-expression — from painting to social media to her very being — surpasses theirs in every way. ...Everything that is radical, disturbing and true about "Catfish" belongs to the fabulist at its center.

Word. Despite the half-assed portrayal of Angela as someone to be pitied, in the end, she's the game master. While the filmmakers most certainly manipulated both Nev and Angela to make the film, Angela out-manipulates them by a mile. Despite the complete moral reprehensibility of her actions, it's easy to sympathize with her motivations, namely, her desire to escape from her mundane life and her lust for Nev (who, not to put too fine a point on it, is smokin' hot). After Nev confronts Angela and she admits to the entire setup, the filmmakers record her logging into her multiple Facebook accounts and explaining the details of her deception. Watching her work is fascinating and the scope of her lies is, yes, slightly horrifying. But once you get past that, who can deny the beauty of a well-told story or a (semi-)successfully executed prank? "She fooled you," Joost says to Nev at one point in the film. "She didn't fool me," Nev says, "she just... told me things that I never thought to question." What's the difference?

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Comments

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hmm...

I kind of like the horror setup that isn't thing. There's all this fear-mongering and panic about creeps on the net and what they could do with access to your personal information and then there's the scam artists, and the hackers, and the fishing and it's all so dangerous and OH MY GOD ONCE IT'S OUT THERE IT'S OUT THERE!

So here's a woman who pulled off an elaborate deception via social networking, She got into this guy's head, she got into his heart, and she even got him to her home right up to the creepy barn and ... Kathy Bates was not waiting with a hammer. There was no sex dungeon in need of a gimp or slicked back gangsters waiting to pick up their next black market kidney. The level of access you can get these days seems like it should produce something horrible but the dangers are pretty mundane; bullying, scam artists, Farmville... Even this twisted abuse of the system offers nothing more than embarrassment and awkwardness at the end.

Just saw it.

I have to agree that Catfish is not a horror movie, not even in set-up; it only resembles one in the marketing. My partner suggested that the filmmakers might see it as a horror story because they experienced the few scary parts -- discover of "Megan"'s musical fakery, driving around the fake home in the dark, loitering outside Angela's house looking for life -- in real time, hours and days, while for us they passed almost immediately. Still, they chose to only have several minutes of suspense about halfway through the movie; seems like they should be able to understand that Catfish is not a horror story after all.

While Angela is fascinating, I find it harder to have sympathy for her now that I know she continued to lie until the end of the movie. In particular, announcing that she had cancer (she didn't) when Nev showed up and she knew her scam may be uncovered was pretty damn exploitative on her part. As for the filmmakers' exploitation, the one part that made me uncomfortable was the length that focused on Angela's methods of caring for her stepchildren with mental retardation. On the one hand, maybe the filmmakers wanted to make sure they weren't just props, but I felt that the scenes amounted to a demonstration of Angela's Pathetic Life. They weren't relevant to the plot and were implied to be the motivation for her fantasy life, because she "had to sacrifice" all outside interaction to take care of them. The martyring-sick-kids'-parents trope troubles me.

The entry from Very Aware is, I think, reaching. About half of the reasons the blogger thinks Catfish is a fake revolve around not believing Angela could really trick Nev, and the rest are easy to explain or just puzzling. The filmmakers didn't mention the events of Catfish on their professional site when they happened? Well, yeah; why would they? A website they used no longer exists? The internet changes, especially over several years. If staging or fakery occurred, it wasn't uncovered by that piece.