Killtoberfest 4 – #10: Paranormal Activity

In All, Movies by Kyu

“It’s getting worse.”

Paranormal Activity may be the most effective terrible movie ever made. That this is even possible says something unique about horror. That it happened the way it did says something unique about the internet.

How can be a movie be poorly made and work anyway? Bad comedies aren’t funny, bad dramas aren’t engaging, and bad robots have a mixed track record. Horror is one of the only places where a movie can fail on every technical level, including the writing, and still achieve its basic goal of freaking the audience out. Paranormal Activity isn’t just effective; it was extremely successful, spawned a half-dozen sequels, and is arguably one of the first movies to change our idea of realism for the internet age. If it had been good, too, it might be in the pantheon of great horror alongside its main cinematic influence, The Blair Witch Project. As it is, the movie is more of a historical curiosity.

In a weird way, though, that makes the franchise well-suited to a complete viewing. Most horror franchises begin with a stone cold classic, an all-time-great horror movie like ScreamThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The Exorcist, and then inevitably decline from there. This isn’t a problem with horror, necessarily, as it’s rare that the fourth or fifth or ninth entry in any franchise is anywhere remotely as good as the first. But this does mean that watching a long-running horror franchise is almost always a slow descent into disappointment. So I thought I’d try something different this year, and follow the Paranormal Activity movies to see if a franchise could start with a good idea/bad execution movie and find a quality expression of the premise somewhere down the line.

First, though, we’ve gotta get through this first movie. It’s quickly summarized, because there’s very little story here. Katie (Katie Featherston), an early-20s English student moves in with boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat), a mid-20s day trader, but she isn’t alone. As the movie begins, Micah has purchased a new video camera with which he intends to document the unusual occurrences the couple has been experiencing at night–unexplained noises, that sort of thing. Over the course of several weeks, events progress, exacerbated (it is implied) by Micah’s attempts to film or otherwise communicate with the unknown entity. The demon (or whatever) graduates from making noises to slamming doors, turning lights on and off, and moving or touching the couple. Katie begins acting strangely by night, and both her and Micah become more sleep deprived and more afraid of this thing that has invaded their house.

Let’s start with one of the biggest problems with this movie from a narrative perspective: to quote American Psycho, Micah is a tumbling, tumbling dickweed. He’s rude and inconsiderate towards Katie almost constantly. He ignores her objections to filming her, and even tries to tell her the camera is off when they’re about to have sex. He doesn’t take her seriously when she tells him how she feels about this paranormal stuff, and he basically uses it as an excuse to futz around with his camera. In fact, it’s not really clear why he’s filming at all–he speaks several times throughout the movie about getting good footage but never about what he intends to do with that footage or what his intended audience is. It’s like there’s a deleted scene missing where he tracks the followers on his Youtube channel or something. Micah is so committed to both filming what’s going on and being a tumbling dickweed that at one point when Katie cries out, he grabs the camera before going to see if she’s okay (Katie is dumbfounded by this level of callousness). On the one hand, these are small incidents; on the other hand, they’re very revealing of his self-centeredness, and given the limited scope and depth of the writing, they make up a large portion of both the movie and Micah’s character.

This is the point in a normal review where I would transition to a thematic reading of the movie, but my ability to do so is limited by how threadbare the film actually is in terms of conventional story and characterization. There’s some indications that Micah’s charmlessness extends to a sexism-tinged narrative in which he blames Katie for bringing this entity to their home. The film’s main source of information about the entity, a professional psychic who visits the house, tells them that according to Katie’s account of events (which includes her previous home burning down from no apparent cause, as well as paranormal happenings dating back to childhood), the entity is likely tied to Katie, not the home. This aspect of the story almost seems like it’s simply meant to accommodate the indie film’s extreme low-budget–it’s no use leaving the house because that’s their only available production location–but the possibly unintended consequence here is that the situation becomes Katie’s “fault.” Or at least it does to Micah, who yells at Katie that she should have mentioned this before they moved in together. Reports of demonic possession in real life have some relationship with both mental illness and child abuse, and knowing that the Paranormal Activity series eventually encompasses multiple prequels, I’m curious to see if either concept plays into Katie’s childhood experiences with the entity.

The other possibility also relates to Micah’s gross form of masculinity. Even once he starts taking the situation seriously, he’s more affronted than scared: “Nobody comes in my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.” The sentiment, which has him preventing Katie from getting some outside form of help, speaks to Micah’s broader narcissism. One reading of the movie is that the entity reflects some aspect of Katie which has been buried not by time or memory but by her relationship with Micah. He spends the whole film failing to listen to her and acknowledge or understand her feelings as something separate from himself, and eventually it bites him in the ass. But once again, there’s too little here (particularly in terms of Katie’s lack of characterization) to draw any real conclusions about what Paranormal Activity is trying to say.

That’s the rub, though, isn’t it? Maybe the movie isn’t trying to say anything more complicated than “Boo!” And as far as “Boo” goes, this is one hell of a “Boo” movie. Arguably Paranormal Activity followed more closely in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project than any other. The deviations by and large hurt the 2007 film, including the difference between TBWP‘s film student documentarians, who shoot their movie with some artfulness, and Paranormal Activity, whose amateur camcordists get some pretty mediocre footage (bad angles, bad lighting, bad framing, etc). But the similarities are key. First, PA uses some of the same tricks that TBWP did to save money by promoting a sense of realism, from title cards purporting a studio distribution of real footage to the actors using their real first names for the characters. One of the reasons PA was such a success was that it aped the way TBWP‘s genius marketing suggested that the film was, in fact, real. (The other gimmick that paid off for PA was focusing on a large number of early screenings on college campuses in order to build word of mouth.)

Second, and this gets to why the film really works, Paranormal Activity copies one of the key structural elements of The Blair Witch Project: the day/night cycle. After the first twenty minutes or so, TBWP settles into alternating between day scenes, where the protagonists discuss how frightened they are and try to figure out a way to escape the woods, and night scenes, where scary, inexplicable things happen. Those scary things get worse and worse every night, moving the film forward to its conclusion, and along the way we learn to anticipate and dread the nighttime scenes. Paranormal Activity takes this even further by having Micah put his camera down to record he and Katie sleeping from the exact same angle every night. The shot, with its blue lighting and open bedroom door creating negative space, is the best composition in the film, and the simple repetition of returning to the same shot again and again conditions us like Pavlov’s dogs to fear what will happen next. These scenes are the point of the movie, and frankly everything else is pretty much useless garbage padding out what would otherwise be an amazing viral video. It’s these scenes that work, and they do so not just in spite of the movie’s overall shortcomings but because of them.

The internet’s changed just about everything, so it should come as no surprise that it changed horror, too. Arguably the biggest sea change in horror as an overall genre in ages is the rise of online “creepypasta.” These are stories, images, and videos shared around the net, most of which purport to be true, of a creepy or scary nature. Some famous examples include the internet monster Slenderman, the horror fiction site SCP Foundation, “Ted the Caver“, “The Dionaea House,” and the invented urban legend Candle Cove. The most distinctive aspect of creepypasta stories is that they’re intended to be passed off as true. The best of them play off the fact that the internet has many weird corners, anonymous posts, and isolated discussions of questionable veracity. “Candle Cove,” for example, pretends to be an archived forum thread of people reminiscing nostalgically about a surreally dark children’s show they remember watching. As many creepypasta do, it concludes with a twist, as one poster relates that his mother told him what he thought was a show was really just 30 minutes of him raptly watching television static. Part of what makes these stories successfully work as pastiche is that they’re shallow and often poorly written or formatted, because we expect that most internet content is amateurish and conversational.

Just as part of what makes “Ted the Caver” work is that it exists as an ugly, poorly formatted AngelFire site, part of what makes Paranormal Activity work is that it’s a profoundly untalented movie. The acting is amateurish, the characters paper thin, the story repetitive and nonsensical… but it’s all been traded for the frisson of “this is really happening” that suffuses the film and makes even the smallest night events feel tremendous. A door moving by itself or Katie sleepwalking (the long periods of time when Katie stands over Micah in time-lapse footage are the creepiest shit) become huge and nerve-wracking because none of the distracting comforts of elegant fiction are there to distract or distance us from what’s happening. It’s this amateurish quality, combined with a simple escalating set of scares, that pinpoint Paranormal Activity as one of the first movies to learn from what makes creepypasta so effective–even if it fails to integrate those concepts into a more fully realized film.

The counter argument to all of this apologia for PA‘s flaws is my firm belief that good movies do better. Good action movies are more exciting, good sci-fi is more thrilling, and yeah, good horror is scarier. This is why most of the scariest movies ever made are also fantastic films in their own right, stories with depth of meaning and character, with plots that move and twist, with cinematography and acting and editing and direction that conveys the narrative in a powerful, indelible fashion. Paranormal Activity is scary, just like “Candle Cove” is scary; but in 100 years those will be forgotten and we’ll still be reading Edgar Allen Poe and watching Alien. What these filmmakers really did was find a shortcut to becoming a fad, and like any viral media, it got passed around quickly and then replaced by newer and shinier excitements. As I go through this series, we’ll find out if anyone managed to build on Paranormal Activity‘s scares while making a good movie, or if they’re all just more attempts to cash in on the fad.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because apparently Hillary and Obama are actually possessed by demons. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.