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Virtual Reality Filmmakers Tackle Smuttynose Island Murders

Shelby El Otmani
Daniel Gaucher (right) is directing a virtual reality film about the Smuttynose Island murders. Brendan Feeney (left) is a co-creator of the film.

Imagine if you could be transported to a different place and time. Where would you go? For Daniel Gaucher and his film crew, that place is Smuttynose Island, off the New Hampshire coast. And the time? 1873, the year of the infamous Smuttynose Island murders. And they want you to be there, too, through the power of virtual reality. But filmmakers have a lot to learn when it comes to using this technology. 
It’s a frigid winter day. The sky is a brilliant blue. It’s gusty, and the ocean looks choppy and cold. And in the distance, a lighthouse shines bright white on the rocky coast.

This is exactly the kind of place Daniel Gaucher was looking for. "I was looking for something that said New England, and had a sense of place," he says.

Gaucher is the director and co-creator of a film called “Maren’s Rock." It's based on the true story of MarenHontvet, who in 1873 was able to hide from a man who had already murdered two people in an incident known as the Smuttynose Island murders.

"Maren, in her night clothes in March with her tiny little dog, was able to hide in the crevice of a rock and elude this murderer all night long," Gaucher says. 

But “Maren’s Rock” isn't just a historical New England horror story. It’s a 360-degree immersive virtual reality (VR) film. It puts you right in the time and place of the story, and there’s no turning away. 

“It’s great in VR to have that sense of fear, that sense of what’s behind you and things you don’t know. A sense of dark spaces. And VR is the kind of medium that will put you right in there and tap right into those basic emotions.”

Gaucher explains that during a traditional film, horror or otherwise, you can escape. If you're scared or upset, you can look away or grab onto the person next to you. 

"But when you're immersed in VR, you do have to be a little bit aware of the audience’s level of sensitivity because there is no escape."

And if you're not careful, a really horrifying film might have the potential to become really, truly horrific in VR.

"We're not sure that it's potentially more traumatizing than in other media, but I think if we look at the results so far and if we look at these strong illusions, there are good reasons to think that it could be traumatizing."

That’s Dr. Michael Madary. He is a post-doctoral researcher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, and is co-author of the first code of ethical conduct for using and consuming VR technologies. 

While he emphasizes that they don't know for sure if VR has more potential to traumatize than traditional media, he says creators who do use VR have a lot of responsibility.

"I guess what filmmakers might want to keep in mind is that they're using a new technology, and in effect what they're doing is running experiments."

And "Maren's Rock" certainly is an experiment. Gaucher has 20 years of professional experience under his belt, but he says just about every step in the VR filmmaking process has been like a blank slate—whether it's finding the line between what's scary and what's potentially traumatizing, or trying to direct a scene without getting in the 360-degree shot. 

"The rules for the medium haven't been written yet. This is 100 years of film/AV language, and this is a whole new chapter. We’re talking about having to completely re-address everything we've been taught. Everything I’ve learned for 20 years is going to be different now."

But he says the uncertainty, as well as the creative and intellectual challenges that come with this new technology, is what's driven him to really delve into the medium.

"I just realized the impact that shooting in VR was going to have, specifically on post-production industry. And that as editors, we were going to have to learn a whole new language of what was acceptable and effective, and what was just too much in VR."

Gaucher is currently teaching a course on VR film production at Emerson College in Boston. 

And as "Maren's Rock" makes its way through post-production, Gaucher says he and his collaborators aren't even close to finished with virtual reality.

"There’s lots of other things that are begging to be experienced, and I'm dying to keep pushing this thing forward."

“Maren’s Rock” is on track to be released around mid-May, possibly on Samsung Gear.


Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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