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ARCHIVAL HORROR: “ARCHIVE 81” – Memory Work and Demons From the Past

Tuesday, February 28, 2023 | Archival Horror, Deep Dives


One thing archival horror excels at is showing us the importance of layers and linkages. An old case file buried in an evidence room, an arcane manuscript falling apart in a provincial abbey or a microfiche of old news reports often act as bridges to the past. All manner of secrets and sins rise to the surface, reframing the present and upsetting the status quo. These archival items, however, sometimes fool us into thinking that an objective point of view is possible. Found-footage horror does this by pointing a camera at the world and letting reality show itself. In the Netflix horror series, ARCHIVE 81, the credibility of the one holding the camera becomes just as important. So, too, the one who views the footage – in this case, Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), a film archivist employed by a mysterious company called LMG to restore and digitize a private collection of Hi8 tapes.

Based on a popular podcast of the same name, the series replaces the found audio tapes of the original with video. Obsolete media formats are central to how the story unfolds. Dan is working for the Museum of the Moving Image when he receives a lucrative offer from a wealthy donor, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), to work on a set of fire-damaged tapes belonging to Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Melody was a Ph.D. student conducting a series of interviews as part of an oral histories project in 1994 with residents of the Visser building in New York. As we watch Dan’s fastidious attention to cleaning, viewing, repairing and storing the tapes, we come to understand that he knows the medium inside and out. So audiences trust in his reactions as a way of authenticating what they are seeing. However, we soon notice that both Dan and Melody have their mental health questioned by those around them. How they choose to capture or view footage is based on their own interpretations. And we, as viewers, must do the same. Across the series, we are given a traditional all-seeing camera perspective along with Melody’s footage. We get to watch Melody lug her camcorder around with her to various apartments, gallery openings, opera performances and visits to the local priest. Just like Sherlock Holmes with his trusty magnifying glass, when Melody points her lens at the world around her, our attention is drawn to this act of looking and probing.

Unlike typical found-footage horror in which all we have to go on are the tapes, ARCHIVE 81 offers us a wealth of media artifacts like pieces in a puzzle. The distance in both time and space between Melody and Dan – between the documentary filmmaker and the archivist – gives space for evaluation and research. Dan, himself, is under round-the-clock assessment by Virgil. The remote facility where he works (the tapes are too fragile to move) is monitored by video surveillance. For several episodes, little vignettes of found media serve as introductions to or supporting material for, various plot developments. Episode 4, for example, opens with an auction house’s old advert for a deceased artist’s estate. Eleanor, a “Spirit Receiver” who used her art as a gateway to other worlds, was the lover of one of the Visser residents, Cassandra Wall (Kristin Griffith). The Spiritualist tradition regarded the séance as a way for “mediums” to make connections with other worlds, just as recording mediums are said to do. This sets up a scene later in the episode when Cassandra hosts a séance in her apartment, hoping to contact the late film director, William Crest (Andrew Long). Crest, in turn, was working on a television project in 1958 called The Circle. Legend has it that it was based on a snuff film that Crest saw. This episode alone amply demonstrates how the connections between different media help build a bigger picture. Eleanor’s paintings, Crest’s show, the snuff film and Melody’s tapes relate to one another just as items in an archive might.

It turns out the snuff film, was a recording of a ritual by the Vos Society in 1924. Iris Vos (Georgina Haig), heiress to the family fortune, leads a secret cult with her brothers that uses blood magic in an attempt to raise the evil god Kaelego. Before making the film, Iris experimented with spirit photography, adding yet another medium for recording the supernatural. The cult was resurrected by the inhabitants of Visser buildings, led by the charismatic, Samuel Spare (Evan Jonigkeit), aka Alexander Davenport, Virgil’s brother. By the series finale, it is clear that Dan’s playing of the tapes is thinning the veil between our world and Kaelego’s dimension. In each staging of the ritual, the playing of media is essential to opening the doorway. When the residents of the Visser try to raise Kaelego, they play the Vos snuff film. Likewise, in the hidden bunker beneath Dan’s workspace, banks of television screens display Melody’s tapes on a loop, at the ready for Virgil’s attempt. As one of the characters in the final episode states, “That’s what playing the footage does. It unravels the spell that holds the door shut.” Time and again in archival horror the reading of a grimoire, the singing of a song or the playing of a tape unleashes a supernatural force.  This force is a stand-in for the power of archival material, the power of history to haunt the present. We see this clearly in the way Kaelego reaches through the surfaces of the screens and monitors around Dan’s desk.

ARCHIVE 81 reinforces the popular conception of the archivist as a shadowy figure working in silence and solitude to uncover dark secrets. However, it also explores the importance of connection between materials and sources as well as between people. During the finale, Dan is given a cache of audio tapes used in a Fisher Price PXL 2000 toy camcorder from the 1980s belonging to one of the younger residents of the Visser. The nostalgia for such outdated analogue devices reveals just how linked our memory and recording media have become. Both Dan and Melody are on quests to expel the demons that haunt their adult lives. By tapping into archival memory, they make sense of the fragility of their pasts and strengthen their sense of individual identity. Throughout archival horror, the responsibility of memory is taken out of the hands of institutions and given over to individuals who learn to participate in public memory – often righting the wrongs of the past.

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