My long-documented enthusiasm for cinema on this website stems from my recognition of the fundamental importance of art to society: firstly, for it’s basic nourishment of our non-corporeal selves (be that our minds/souls/spirits, pick your potato), but also because of its imitation or even mirroring of life. Often, we need an outside perspective to allow us to realise truths about ourselves or our society, which leads to why films are so important, as they are often the most accessible and immersive art form to the masses. To have the sins of mankind aired out for crowds of ordinary people to see is empowering; it gives access to the truth which may have eluded many people otherwise.
Now on the topic of the artistry of film, a point that is often agreed upon is that out of all the typical genres, horror is indeed the most immersive through its ability to elicit the most intense and visceral responses from audiences. To quote the creepy guy from the beginning of Frankenstein (1931):
“I think it may thrill you. It may shock you. It might even HORRIFY you.”
Through the decades there have been urban myths about audience reactions to certain Horror icons: paramedics were called out to cinemas showing The Exorcist when it was first released, to treat those who had fainted or who had gone into hysterics. A study into the scariest movies of all time found that audience pulses jumped by 28.2% when Jack Nicholson axed his way through the door shouting “HERE’S JOHNNY!” in The Shining. The mother of Heather Donahue of Blair Witch Project fame received several sympathy cards, as some viewers who had seen the movie were convinced she had really been killed in this found footage flick. Besides the shock factor and gross outs, Horrors also provide the most perceptible social commentary of the anxieties of the time, whether those be Cold War fears, teenage delinquency or the believed collapse of society as we know it. Re-watching the classics can be like a brief yet intense lecture on sociology and contemporary history, and it truly is shocking to see how much social attitudes have changed over the last 50 years.
So, what has the 21st century have to offer so far on the Horror front? Thus far it has been a near two-decade series of franchises such as Saw and Final Destination; and of sequels and reboots like The Evil Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street. And you know, a lot of these I have enjoyed and have given me some terrifying jump scares and gross out moments, but nothing has chilled my blood quite as much as Paranormal Activity. I might even go so far as to call it our generation’s The Exorcist.
Hold on to your butts…
Following the great horror cliché, Paranormal Activity is a found footage film of couple Katie Featherston and Micha Sloat. They have been experiencing increasingly frightening disturbances in the night and boyfriend Micha has taken it upon himself to investigate, recording the couple through their day, including when they sleep. Katie also seeks the help of a professional – a psychic, Dr Friedrich, who specialises in ghost hauntings. He reveals the terrifying truth that the house is not plagued by ghosts, but instead Katie is effectively being stalked by a demon. He recommends a demonologist, but Micha ignores this advice to take matters into his own hands; against Katie’s pleas. Of course, things go from bad to worse but not without dragging the audience along a terrifying ride.
Now I’ve had my share of scary movie experiences starting from me and my twin sister crying over Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles when we were six, to being pranked by housemates after watching The Exorcist when someone hid under my bed; I even remember hiding under my bed covers after watching The Fly, terrified that I was going to get pregnant with a maggot because of Jeff Goldblum. But this… this is something totally different.
As I write this, nearly a week after watching, these dark autumn nights set me at unease as I sit in my darkened house: whole rooms and floors pitch black, capable of hiding whole armies of demons and ghoulies. I nearly jump out of my skin whenever I catch the dog walking around from the corner of my eye. These last few nights in bed I have slept with the curtains open with my CD player switched on all night so that their little lights will dispel any evil spirits from my room. I wake up in the morning with my bladder killing me as I daren’t step out into the dark landing for a middle of the night wee-wee. For God’s sake, I contemplated jumping into my mam’s bed as a grown 25-year-old woman the first night after watching the film.
So how did this happen? Why is it so frightening? On the surface, it doesn’t seem very original, especially in the wake of its 5 sequels (as Hollywood yet again milks dry any successful concept). Ever since Blair Witch Project “found footage films” have become one of the most boring shagged-out tropes, yet Paranormal Activity feels unique and even ahead of its time.
This could partly be due to the film’s subject, because demonic possession frightens me the most out of all the horror sub-genres. A still largely grey area in society and even in myself: I am sceptical over most Spiritualism concepts and reported paranormal activities with hauntings and seances being easily explained by science. However, as a Catholic, I understand that belief in demons is a part of my religion, with them being mentioned in the Catechism, and with prayers being offered for protection against “evil spirits that wander the world for the ruin of souls”. Personally, I would never fiddle around with a Ouija board and still hold a wariness in my heart against “evil spirits”; it may be my own faith that inspires this fear, but they have also stirred up the primordial fears of the human psyche since the dawn of man. The loss of control of our own bodies, loss of bodily autonomy, and of course, the forces of pure evil that lurk in the dark.
These anxieties and fears related to these supposed supernatural beings have been depicted in many horror movies (including a lot of crap ones), but to present demonic possession through found footage is nothing short of pioneering. It combines fear of the most terrifying early concepts of the human mind and mixes it with ordinary occurrences, thus creating a dread that bleeds into our own life. Though this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t executed with such perfect timing…
Most of the first half is the somewhat charming and relatable goings on of a young couple in love; the recordings from the night start off quite mild: a door gently opens and closes of its own volition, something we have all experienced in the middle of night. These almost none-noteworthy events are dispersed by the largely inane babblings of Micha and Katie who begin to get annoyed with each other over their approach to their demon problem, causing any audience anxieties to disappear. As the film progresses, the frequency of the disturbances slowly but surely increases, with the paranormal activity increasing in terror at the same rate; so by the last 20 minutes the terror is at such an exquisite level that you can barely make your heart rate relax and you end up uncontrollably screaming as the horrors unfold.
This gradual acceleration in the horror of the demonic manifestations is so brilliant as they never venture into the realm of the ridiculous, which is often the killer of many a horror movie when any fear is completely zapped. It’s usually often the monster reveal, which is conspicuous by its absence in Paranormal Activity – the most we see are footprints in salt *shudders*. All the disturbances we witness are something that we have all experienced in the middle of the night. Random noises of an unearthly quality (thank you, old houses and the awful noises you make as you cool down) and forgotten moments of sleep walking and sleep paralysis (because man you can see some weird shit with that). By the time the disturbances have broken through the expectations of reality, we are so wrapped up in Katie and Micha’s personal story that our disbelief remains suspended and our terrors intact.
It is the ordinariness and personal approach of Katie and Micha’s story that makes this movie so successful in scaring the pants off its audiences. Not only is it the buffer between the unfolding of paranormal disturbances, but the naturalistic approach makes us invested in their fate; as good as watching a couple having a terribly awkward argument in public. Furthermore, it helps to provide the hallmarks of all excellent horror movies. Katie and Micha seem to have the perfect relationship on screen, but in wake of the paranormal activity it is obvious that Micha is an absolutely garbage boyfriend whom Katie should have dumped a long time ago. Katie is facing unspeakable evil and is trying to deal with it in the best way she can, meanwhile Micha disrespects, ignores, belittles and even gaslights her; betraying her trust in the most awful ways, especially as she is so terrified of what is happening.
It almost seems stupid to say this as the film came out in 2007, but one of my main thoughts on the movie after watching it for the first time is that it was quite ahead of its time. It is just before the current wave of feminism took hold which had much emphasis on the destruction of largely normalised “rape culture”, but in 2007 Micha’s behaviour would have been more widely accepted as being normal. However, this film is a definite call-out of Micha’s frankly boring put-upon macho-ism, for which his is inevitably punished at the end. If anything, there is call to interpret the movie as the demon warning Katie of her toxic relationship. After all, she is the one who is eventually freed. It’s almost freaky as this film was only shortly before the rise of feminism which called out the abusive behaviour of men, with much of the behaviour criticised by this movement evident in Micha on the screen
So not only does Paranormal Activity utilise naturalism to make a truly terrifying account of things that go bump in the night, but the fly on the wall approach of Katie and Micha’s life gives a nuanced and complex response to the movie as not only do we scream our heads off at Micha’s fate, we can’t help but think the bastard deserved it. This movie is the last place I expected to see the seeds of Fourth-wave Feminism to begin to grow in, but I have to give credit to a movie which is one of the first to address the unmentioned but growing anxiety of women, that we may be afraid of our own relationships.
Bravo. Now excuse me, I need to put my jeans in the wash.