The golden age of horror: Paranormal Activity (2009)

Chris: If we know our horror movies, then it should be pretty easy to avoid ever living in a haunted house. For instance, we know that a haunted house needs an old, drafty abandoned place. We know they require some horribly tragic event in their past to bring back the spirits of dead human beings. Finally, we know that if things with the ghosts get too unbearable, you can just leave the house. No problems, right?

After the jump, what happens when the rules change?

Chris: The haunted house has been a staple of horror culture from the very beginning, and for fairly obvious reasons. Home is shelter, and it’s where we feel safe. Inside our homes, we let down our guards. If something with ill intent is inside the house with us, it can get us at our most vulnerable. That’s what lies at the center of Paranormal Activity. The entity spies on handsome young couple Katie and Micah as they sleep, when they’re at their most exposed. Worse yet, it plays by a different set of rules than any of us are used to. The couple don’t live in some gothic, cobwebby mansion in the deep woods of New England. They live in a modern townhouse in San Diego. The ghost that haunts them isn’t the spirit of a dead human that can be bargained with. It’s actually a demon, we’re told; it’s never been human. It has no grievances from the past that it wants Katie to fix or expose–it just wants to possess and destroy. Finally, and most chillingly, running away won’t help. The demon is tied to Katie and has been since she was a child. Wherever she goes, it goes.

Rob: I think my earliest memory of SNL was Eddie Murphy’s monologue about white people vs. black people in haunted houses. (Eddie: “Wow, baby, this is beautiful. We got a chandelier, kids outside playin’, it’s a beautiful neighborhood.” Demon voice: “GET OUT!” Eddie: “Too bad we can’t stay!”) I use that line all the time when a haunted house movie can’t be convincing about why exactly our main character needs to stay put and deal. The best plots seem to involve mothers with missing children like Poltergeist or The Orphanage. You really can’t argue with that one (although that doesn’t stop their spouses from trying their damnedest.) Paranormal Activity’s idea for addressing this issue is a really good one. Have the haunting follow Katie! Story wise, that sounds excellent. But then, due to the budgetary and narrative constraints of the found footage conceit, I’m expected to take that on faith. So all we get are a few lines of dialogue, first Katie and later Fredrichs the psychic who says, “Leaving won’t help at all.” That’s not enough for me. I don’t buy it. And apparently neither does director Oren Peli, since he eventually gets Katie and Micah onboard with the hotel anyway.

Chris: Huh. That’s a spin I didn’t even think of. I obviously bought into the demon following Katie more than you did, and I took the hotel suggestion as a resigned “I’ll try anything” when Micah keeps mentioning it and she finally goes along with it. I mean, she does initially push back against it a little, right? I did also buy into the way Peli dispenses with all of the other rules very subtly during the first half of the film. We get tiny bits of offhand exposition drops here and there. I stand by my feeling that exposition is the enemy of found footage films, but here the script, actors, and director do a very good job of doling out what little backstory and rules we need in fairly natural, offhand ways that might be easy to miss for the attention-impaired.

Rob: In general, I thought the first half of the film was far better than the second. But it’s not just exposition. The more of these I watch, the more I’m convinced that ANY narrative structure is the enemy of found footage movies. What these movies excel at are the visceral scares. Tracing their roots, you’d have to go back to the Lumiere Brothers’ single-shot film of a train chugging toward camera, a viewing experience which, as legend has it, caused audience members to flee the theater to avoid getting squished. We’re a bit more acquainted with the moving image these days, but its power to give us a believably terrifying visual experience is still astonishing. In Paranormal Activity, that terrifying image is the haunted bedroom and we return to it again and again.

Chris: As with other found footage movies that worked for me, believing the actors is a key here. Micah is Micah here, and he’s fine for what he’s asked to do. The real revelation to me on watching this again is just how terrific Katie Featherston is. It seems a cruel injustice that her association with this movie will simultaneously ensure her a place in horror history, while also likely prevent her from taking on bigger roles in the future. She’s always going to be Katie from Paranormal Activity, and her performance here is so good that that it just bums me out that it seems to have resulted in her being typecast. She’s so incredibly believable in this, managing to be a combination of frightened, vulnerable, angry, resigned, and even sad about what’s happening. Dear Hollywood casting personnel: please put Katie Featherston in more stuff that isn’t in this franchise. Please?


Chris: Paranormal Activity especially works for me because of how it plays with the haunted house tropes we’re used to. Don’t go near the old, deserted house. Don’t go deep into forbidding woods with a girl named Heather and a suspect map. Normally when we see a horror film, we escape from the setting of the movie to our own comfortable homes and beds, and I’m guessing for a lot of folks they look a lot more like Micah and Katie’s place than they do, say, the house in the Addams Family. After watching Paranormal activity, we get no escape. If it can happen there, it can happen…anywhere.

Rob: Yes! This movie literally gets you where you live. I think that more than anything is its masterstroke and why it caught on so big. After watching the film late last night, I turned off the lights. Walked upstairs. Brushed my teeth. Climbed into bed. Pulled up the covers. With every single step, all these mundane things I was doing felt so eerie and fraught with peril. I felt ridiculous! I closed my eyes and couldn’t NOT listen to every weird sound in the house.

Each time the movie shows you a new night, you know it’s pants-wetting time. The rumbling sound grows on the soundtrack. (Total cheat, but it works.) Katie and Micah twitch and slumber. The clock slows. Then you start scanning every inch of that familiar frame, foreground, middleground, background. The door. The bed. The pool of light in the hallway. The stairs. Where is the scary thing going to happen? The nightstand? Did it already happen? Maybe I missed it. Was that a shadow? It’s like a cinematic game of Where’s Waldo and you don’t want to win, lose, or even play.

Chris: I’m glad you mentioned the sound. I love the sound in this movie, and how it’s used as much as the visuals to establish the malevolent presence of whatever it is that’s out to claim Katie. This is a terrific movie to crank up the speakers for. That rumbling that sounds like it comes from somewhere between downstairs and the depths of hell, the horrifying, heavy footfalls coming up the stairs…they all let us create our own unseen terrible demon in our heads.

Rob: The contrasts and parallels with The Blair Witch Project are pretty interesting, especially given their roles as the two most successful found footage movies. At their core, they tap into a primal fear. They both operate on a strong, day/night cycle. Getting lost in the forest. Being in danger while you sleep. I get the feeling these movies resemble animal nightmares. The signature Blair Witch shot is running. The shaky, handheld camera with nothing but tree trunks and darkness all around to create its feeling of frantic helplessness. The signature Paranormal Activity shot is locked down. Wide shot of the bedroom and the same shot composition over and over again. Let’s explore all the different ways our bedroom might be acting freaky while we slumber. Both films do a nice job keeping the camera conceit simple. They both do interesting things with gender roles. And the presence of the camera becomes a strong source of conflict between the genders in both films. They both make great use of sounds in the night. Plus they both start and end with simple, written information to set up the reality of the film footage. I love Paranormal Activity’s simple “Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families…” But in the end, it’s all about that INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT.

Chris: I’m picturing guys who spend long hours on location shoots behind cameras and working as second unit directors and whatnot, sweating their craft for years and years, and here we are with one of the most iconic shots in recent horror movie history, and it’s security cam footage. At any rate, I thought that one non-bedroom scene worked very well. I loved the professor or whatever he was who isn’t a demonology expert who shows up at the house and just tells them “Yeah, this is dangerous, I’m out, save yourselves.” I thought that sequence as much as anything in the film established that this wasn’t a mischievous entity pulling bedcovers off, and really put a context to what we’re watching in the nighttime sequences.

Rob: Yeah, that’s a fun moment when their last-ditch hope for a rescuer gets the willies and bolts. “Too bad I can’t stay!” When it’s in the bedroom, Paranormal Activity is so enjoyable and effective that I don’t really need much out of the story. I like how Micah acts cocky and Katie’s emotional turning points are nicely handled. You’re right about her performance being the strongest. After an incredible first half, the magic starts to fade for me when I’m asked to watch the Ouija board instead of the bedroom. That scene felt a little fake or silly to me and the rest of the story fizzled with one exception. I love that photograph lying above them in the attic. But I don’t really mind the narrative shortcomings because every time we return to that bedroom, I am right back onboard. That shot and all they do with it is enough to make this film a worthy horror classic.

(Paranormal Activity is available to rent or purchase from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)