Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Morris Dickstein


Amy Herzog

Committee Members

Amy Herzog

David Richter

Subject Categories

Aesthetics | American Film Studies | American Literature | American Material Culture | American Popular Culture | Broadcast and Video Studies | Communication Technology and New Media | Critical and Cultural Studies | Cultural History | Digital Humanities | Film and Media Studies | Interactive Arts | Interdisciplinary Arts and Media | Literature in English, North America | Modern Literature | Photography | Science and Technology Studies | Social Media | Television | Visual Studies


Narrative Theory, Narratology, CGI, DVD, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project


“The New Reflexivity” tracks two narrative styles of contemporary Hollywood production that have yet to be studied in tandem: the puzzle film and the found footage horror film. In early August 1999, near the end of what D.N. Rodowick refers to as “the summer of digital paranoia,” two films entered the wide-release U.S. theatrical marketplace and enjoyed surprisingly massive financial success, just as news of the “death of film” circulated widely. Though each might typically be classified as belonging to the horror genre, both the unreliable “puzzle film” The Sixth Sense and the fake-documentary “found footage film” The Blair Witch Project stood as harbingers of new narrative currents in global cinema. This dissertation looks closely at these two films, reading them as illustrative of two decidedly millennial narrative styles, styles that stepped out strikingly from the computer-generated shadows cast by big-budget Hollywood. The industrial shift to digital media that coincides with the rise of these films in the late 90s reframed the cinematic image as inherently manipulable, no longer a necessary index of physical reality. Directors become image-writers, constructing photorealistic imagery from scratch. Meanwhile, DVDs and online paratexts encourage cinephiles to digitize, to attain and interact with cinema in novel ways. “The New Reflexivity” reads The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project as reflexive allegories of cinema’s and society’s encounters with new digital media. The most basic narrative tricks and conceits of puzzle films and found footage films produce an unusually intense and ludic engagement with narrative boundaries and limits, thus undermining the naturalized practices of classical Hollywood narration. Writers and directors of these films treat recorded events and narrative worlds as reviewable, remixable, and upgradeable, just as Hollywood digitizes and tries to keep up with new media. Though a great deal of critical attention has been paid to both puzzle and found footage films separately, no lengthy critical survey has yet been undertaken that considers these movies in terms of their shared formal and thematic concerns. Rewriting the rules of popular cinematic narration, these films encourage viewers to be suspicious of what they see onscreen, to be aware of the possibility of unreliable narration, or CGI and the “Photoshopped.” Urgent to film and cultural studies, “The New Reflexivity” suggests that these genres’ complicitous critique of new media is decidedly instructive for a networked society struggling with what it means to be digital.