Horror movies capitalize on hiding monsters and murderers off-screen, in reflections and in shadows, to terrify the audience with what they can only glimpse, briefly, from the corner of their eyes. This is due to a) imagination being even more terrifying than anything that is actually shown; and b) the limitations of construction materials for making the monster (CGI is good, but not there yet). But what happens when a monster doesn’t need to skulk in the dark or come around the corner to attack? What happens when you can keep an eye on it but still cannot see it? Or stop it? And what happens if there is no escape? What happens if the haunted house follows you?
Paranormal Activity happens. If you go home from the movie not just a little bit afraid of every bump in the night, you weren’t paying attention. This tiny movie, shot for less than the price of a used car, in about a week, rediscovers terror in the white noise of everyday life while destroying the former comfort of horror movies: you don’t have to stop paying attention for the monster to get you.
Unfair comparisons to The Blair Witch Project diminish the achievement of Paranormal Activity. For one, The Blair Witch Project relied on buzz that the film was actually culled from the footage of three film students who were never heard from again. Paranormal Activity presents a similar pseduo-cinéma vérité introduction, letting you know that the film was released only with the blessing of the families of the couple involved (and the San Diego Police Department). However, the marketers of the movie cheerfully assure you that this not real. They don’t have to lie about the veracity of their horror movie for it to scare the shit out of you. At the midnight screening I went to, not one but three introductory speeches (from a ShockTillYouDrop.Com rep, a Paramount Pictures President of Production, and Harry Knowles) assured the audience that This. Is. A. Movie. It still did not matter. Part of the genius of Paranormal Activity is that it does not attempt to fool the internet-scam-savvy audience that The Blair Witch Project never had.
Respect goes a long way towards ingratiating a film with an audience. An understanding of the baseline technological knowledge most people have in the internet age also serves to tell the story. The skeptical male protagonist, Micah Sloat (played, as in Blair Witch, by an actor of the same name), uses gadgets in alternating attempts to discover, cajole, provoke, appease, and, ultimately, challenge and destroy the demon who is haunting his girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherston). The film opens with Micah having bought an expensive video camera that he will use to record the titular phenomena, hooking up his camera to a computer to compile the increasingly eerie and unexplainable events that occur while he and Katie are asleep.
Any good horror movie will take down the defenses that the characters believe they have. From the start, Micah’s use of a camera in no way deters the demon; it will act against the couple while on camera, and it is an open question whether or not the filming itself is what has provoked the demon into more intrusive action. Moreover, the boldness of the demon contributes to spooking the audience because the visible consequences of his actions must be performed using some special effects sleight-of-hand, and it is nearly impossible to tell how it is done. Not being able to detect the seamless technological wizardry is tantamount to accepting that maybe there really are dark forces at work. If there weren’t, you would see the zipper/mask/rendering errors, right? Perhaps the marketing was more clever than it appeared. By billeting Paranormal Activity as fiction, Paramount sets up the audience to dismiss it; the cognitive disconnect brought about by invisible special effects leads them to accept it. It’s just a movie...or is it?
The horror escalates while the audience watches, starting with simple, dismissible events and scaling upwards into demonstrably supernatural events. What terrifies most is how difficult it is to track the exact moment the demon’s antics become threatening. What starts with knocks on the wall and steps in the hall (not atypical behavior for a monster in a horror film) progresses to loud bangs with no possible cause, doors that slam, and sheets that move, almost all of it happening on camera. Is it that first thud, like a dead body dropping from a height, that makes the break from eerie to dangerous? Is it as simple as the physical violence inherent in a door slamming? Or is the quieter violation, the presumption of ownership, as the invisible tormentor flicks on a light, pounds up the stairs, and then turns the light off again? Long before there are tangible proofs that something has penetrated Micah and Katie’s personal space, the demon has become a menace worth fearing.
Much of the physical action is prefaced by a subtle audio cue, rather like the sound of central air conditioning starting up. It is even possible that this noise is only the air conditioning; however, the juxtaposition of this mundane sound and the ensuing paranormal chaos sets the audience up for a fright. It’s a tactic as old as scary music leading up to an attack (think of John Williams and Jaws). Notably, there is no soundtrack to Micah and Katie’s life that exists independent of their or the demon’s actions. Life doesn’t come with a score, another bit of banality that contributes the film seeming more real than life. That heavy whooshing of air persists long after such prologues are no longer necessary. When the demon wants attention, he gets it.
All this is not to say that Paranormal Activity is entirely effective at its presumption of reality. A psychic is called in to determine the source of Katie’s stalker (it is he who says the monster is a demon and not a ghost). It makes sense that Katie, who believes in her monster, would call on a psychic, and Micah’s scorn for people who treat the supernatural as science explains a lot of his apparently suicidal determination to confront this demon. However, psychic’s later appearance serves no purpose, as he simply declares that the situation is out of control, which is not, by that point, exactly news. Katie’s sister’s visits exist only to verify that the demon has plagued Katie all her life and that she and Micah cannot escape it by pulling up stakes and moving. While this solves the haunted house problem (a.k.a. “Why don’t you just leave?”), the sister cannot emphasize any better what Katie herself attests to and what the film demonstrates. There is also a name obtained via Ouija board that does not lead anywhere substantial. Not surprisingly, the film moves along much more smoothly when Micah and Katie are on their own, as it is always more frightening to have to deal with trouble in isolation. (An isolation that follows you, no less.) The visits back to the mainland, to people unaffected by the demon, only derail the terror of Micah and Katie’s lives.
Otherwise, the film chills to the very core, being as it is a confluence of playing on reasonable audience paranoia; performing impossible stunts onscreen; and eradicating the safe harbors of horror movies past. Paranormal Activity sets itself as the new standard not because you don’t see the monster (after all, you never saw the Blair Witch, either) but because you do. Because the film invites you to see all the horrible things right in front of your (Micah’s camera’s) unflinching eyes and know that being able to see it does not preclude it from happening. It is a movie worth watching, not merely in the colloquial sense, but in that you are rewarded for being hyper-vigilant with more terror.
That the sound of the film contributes to its creep factor is a strong argument in favor of seeing the film in a movie theater, where you, like Micah and Katie, will be isolated and unable to escape the full range of assaults on your senses. The theater is usually a place of few distractions—minus the odd asshole on a cell phone or crying baby—and to truly appreciate the subtlety of Paranormal Activity, it is the ideal place to view the film. To that end, if you would like to see this film where it will be best seen, you can fill out a studio-sponsored petition to bring the film to a theater near you. Like most internet-savvy people, I’m wary of schilling for anybody, least of all the makers of a film who themselves begged and pleaded for the preview audience to do so. I am willing to set aside my aversion because I think that Paranormal Activity, unlike Halloween 2 or Saw VI, deserves a run at scaring theater audiences across the country (if not the world). You will not regret encouraging the distribution of this movie. (Okay, you might regret it a little afterwards. Have fun with those nightmares!)
Dayle McClintock watched Paranormal Activity and then took the subway home at 2:30 am. They give medals for that sort of bravery, don’t they?