Every now and then, the internet becomes obsessed with a fictional movie that it believes to be real. Back in the early days of the World Wide Web, The Blair Witch Project‘s marketing campaign convinced everyone and their parents that three film students had indeed gone missing in rural Maryland. During the pandemic, TikTok users found themselves obsessed with the 2011 found footage horror Megan Is Missing. To many, the images shown in the movie looked way too real to be faked. Not long after that, the phenomenon repeated itself, now with the 2007 mockumentary The Poughkeepsie Tapes at its center. As is the nature of TikTok, videos in which users talk about watching the movie quickly went viral, and it soon became clear that not everyone was fully convinced it was all just a story.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle, The Poughkeepsie Tapes sure presents itself like a real documentary. Interviews with experts and grainy images alike lend the film an aura of legitimacy that might deceive the most unsuspecting viewers. The movie claims that the footage shown on screen was actually used by FBI profilers as training, and its original marketing campaign doubled down the film’s alleged realism. Even without this backstory, the would-be-real footage is lifelike and gory enough to put the fear of God in the hearts of even the most hardened horror fans. But, no matter what The Poughkeepsie Tapes‘ distributor or some guy on TikTok may have told you, the movie is entirely fake. Whether or not it was based on a true story, well… That’s a bit more complicated.

For anyone who doesn’t know what they’re watching, The Poughkeepsie Tapes looks like any old sensationalist true-crime documentary out there. Filled with interviews with experts, police officers, and former victims, as well as graphic crime scene photos and old news reports, the movie tells the story of a serial killer who was active for decades in the town of Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York. The story begins with the police finding ten bodies buried in the backyard of a residential home. However, that is not the only thing discovered by the detectives. Inside the house, 800 videotapes are found, all chronicling the torture sessions and murders committed by Edward Carver (Ben Messmer), a.k.a. the Water Street Butcher.

It’s when the movie gets to the tapes that things begin to feel real, as well as extremely disturbing. Though the physical violence shown in the alleged found footage isn’t all that shocking in comparison to other violent, gory horror films, such as Saw or Hostel, the performances and the quality of the images are enough to split the unsuspecting viewers into two categories. Some will take a look at the images and quickly realize that they are watching a horror flick, and not a real documentary. Others, however, may be more gullible, and will simply believe the documentarians are being completely insensitive and unethical— which, considering the state of some of our true-crime media, isn’t that far from reality.

But The Poughkeepsie Tapes is not a real documentary filled with snuff footage. Instead, it is a fictional film that presents itself as a documentary. In other words, it’s a mockumentary, a representative of a genre that includes much more harmless and family-friendly movies such as What We Do in the Shadows and This Is Spinal Tap. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is also an example of a found footage film, i.e., a horror movie that purports to show images of real events shot by real people. The list of found footage horror films includes classics of the genre, such as the aforementioned The Blair Witch Project, Rec, and Paranormal Activity. To feed the belief that the people on screen are not actors, the directors of these movies usually work with fairly well-known performers who aren’t easily recognizable by audiences. Still, in each and every one of these films, there’s always at least one performance that gives everything away.

But even though viewers were already familiar with other pictures like The Poughkeepsie Tape, many still believed it to be the real deal. And this belief is not exclusive to TikTok: on Reddit, there are posts from as long as 10 years ago wondering whether the movie is indeed just a movie. How exactly did this happen? Well, apart from the reasons we’ve already mentioned — the grainy, home video quality of the images, and the marketing campaign — The Poughkeepsie Tapes faced some issues in its distribution that added to the film’s mythos. The movie was originally released at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007 and was subsequently bought for distribution by MGM, with a planned theatrical release for the following year. However, even after all the money spent on the movie’s marketing, MGM decided to pull it from distribution alongside a handful of other films. The company didn’t release any official statement explaining why the movie was pulled. This, in turn, did nothing to discourage crazy theories from popping up online. Some claimed that the movie had been pulled for being deemed too scary, while others went a step ahead and stated that it was banned because it showed real-life murders.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes remained out of viewers’ legal reach up until 2014 when it was briefly released on VOD. It was only in 2017, ten years after its original release, that the movie came out on DVD and Blu-Ray.

But even though The Poughkeepsie Tapes is not real, could it still be based on a real story? That is both a hard yes and a hard no. Though screenwriters John Erick Dowdle and his brother, Drew Dowdle, didn’t draw inspiration from one single case, though they may have been influenced by many stories of real-life serial killers. One of them seems to be Ted Bundy, who even appears as a character in the movie, played by Todd Cahoon. In the real world, Bundy raped and killed at least 30 women between 1974 and 1978, often keeping his victims’ remains as mementos. In The Poughkeepsie Tapes, he appears as an FBI consultant in the chase for the Water Street Butcher. In order to hide the fact that Cahoon and Bundy are not the same people, Dowdle disguised the serial killer’s scenes as extremely blurry CCTV images.

In a 2009 story, the Poughkeepsie-based Marist College Circle drew comparisons between the Water Street Butcher and the crimes committed by local serial killer Kendall Francois, who murdered between eight and ten sex workers between 1996 and 1998. However, the similarities stop at the fact that both killers are from Poughkeepsie and were active at around the same time since Francois never shot videos of his victims. John Erick Dowdle has also stated that he never heard of Francois before. Even so, the comparison still pops up online whenever someone brings up The Poughkeepsie Tapes.

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