Watching all six Paranormal Activity films in less than two weeks was no simple task. These films had been on my To Watch List for some time already, so when the most recent installment in the series, called Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, was released on October 23, I decided to take the plunge; it was now or never. Currently playing in theaters (near you!), the film is being advertised as the final installment of a series that, over the past few years, has taken the horror genre by a tropical storm.
Released in 2007, the first film in the franchise received rave reviews and overwhelmed the box office, earning back over twelve thousand times its budget. The subsequent films have been greeted with some negative reviews, but, overall, the series remains a smashing success. Four out of the six films grossed over fifty million dollars, with the first and the third films grossing over one hundred million dollars. The series has managed to gain widespread popularity despite its relatively small budget – the first film in the series had a miniscule budget of an estimated fifteen thousand dollars.
Why were these films so successful, especially in a movie market packed with poltergeists and often disenchanted with desperate sequels? Because, as many have pointed out, Paranormal Activity so effectively executed the unique cinematic style colloquially called Found Footage Film. The premise behind each movie in the series is that the characters shown in the film had, at some earlier point, videotaped events in their house with a camera. Each movie is presented as a series of shots that were later discovered, either by authorities in their investigation of some horrific crime scene or by relatives of the videographers. The footage was then supposedly edited and organized by Paramount Pictures and released for the public to enjoy over Coke and popcorn.
The first movie in the series is the most straightforward. It begins with Micah experimenting with his new camera, videotaping his camera-shy girlfriend Katie in their new house in San Diego. Katie expresses her suspicion that strange supernatural events have been occurring in their house so Micah decides to set up the camera in their bedroom to investigate this paranormal activity. We see the footage from each night in sequence, and we watch as the supernatural events in their bedroom become increasingly bizarre and eventually culminate in murder.
This style has great appeal. Crucially, it proves that there is something more to our fascination with horror than the cheap thrill of seeing characters chopped up, eviscerated, or otherwise injured in shockingly grisly ways (more on this later). But, though somewhat less sanguinary than other horror flicks, Paranormal Activity is not entirely wanting for the thrill of the kill.
Though perhaps not humanity’s proudest quality, this dark curiosity is undeniable. People are transfixed by the demise of a stranger – when seeing someone else dying a painful death, many people cannot avoid experiencing, to quote Tolstoy, “the complacent feeling that ‘it is he who is dead and not I.’” The human fascination with the downfall of others is clear to anyone who emerges from a long stretch of highway traffic to discover that he has been moving at a snail’s pace because his fellow commuters have a seemingly irresistible compulsion to gawk at the wreckage of some terrible accident. As they approach the scene of the crash, they hit the brakes in order to survey the carnage out of their driver’s side window (a phenomenon somewhat dreadfully known as rubbernecking). You step on the gas, cursing the drivers around you for delaying your commute, but, despite your righteous frustration, you cannot stop yourself from shooting a sideways glance of your own.
Tolstoy may be correct that witnessing others’ misfortune gives us a comforting sense of security – we are safe and sound even as what used to be that fellow is sadly strewn over a stretch of asphalt. But this sort of experience also gives rise to the somewhat contradictory sobering thrill of knowing that it could have been you. Seeing others butchered forces us out of our habitual illusion of immortality, reminding us that we, too, will die.
Horror also has a stark moral dimension to it. Films from other genres might convey mixed moral messages, depicting conflicted characters who toe the line between good and evil. But horror films usually revolve around an antagonist that can be uncontroversially classified as pure evil. Whether it’s a person, a monster, a demon, or some formless sinister force, the instigator of the horror is almost never morally complex.
In Paranormal Activity, the line between good and evil is unambiguous. The viewer is several times reminded that the supernatural force is a demon, not a ghost, and throughout the series the characters learn from books, preachers, and other sources of supernatural lore that, while ghosts are disembodied souls of dead humans, demons are independent forces with no connection to the human realm. Thus the films set up a clear contrast between people and this evil disembodied demon. Every character in the film is either a cruel perpetrator of evil or an innocent victim. Characters can transition from one side to another; Jesse becomes violently demonic in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, but the moment of his transition from good to evil is unmistakable: he wakes up one morning with bite-marks on his side and the attentive viewer instantly knows that he is marked for demonic possession.
This strict moral dualism appeals to the viewer’s basic sense that there exists such a thing as pure evil. Moral relativism may try to rid us of our belief in the distinction between good and bad. Pop psychology may tell us that context and upbringing can explain away even the most terrible people. But horror teaches otherwise. Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street is pure evil. Halloween’s Michael Myers is pure evil. The alien in Alien is (revolting and) pure evil. And the inhuman apparition that haunts Katie and Kristi in Paranormal Activity is pure evil.
Some horror films are entirely naturalistic, but, as its name suggests, the entire series of Paranormal Activity assumes the existence of supernatural forces. Some have suggested that the supernatural subset of the horror genre plays on our subliminal doubts about the prevalent attitude towards superstitions. Most of us are quite sure that tales we hear about ghosts and haunts and witches and exorcisms are just a lot of hooey. But we cannot be absolutely certain. There have been too many stories, too many purported testimonials and documentations of the supernatural for us to totally dismiss our nagging doubts. When first confronted by strange events in their house, the characters in Paranormal Activity act as we would if placed in a similar situation – they initially laugh off the possibility of a supernatural explanation. But eventually even the most incredulous characters are unable to ignore the mounting evidence.
Perhaps the most prevalent criticism of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension targets its predictability and failure to provide any truly new elements that the first five movies had not already incorporated. This is a standard criticism of horror flicks. Critics of the newest monster movies and slasher films love to point out their predictability, noting that these films conform to relatively uniform plotlines and select from a small pool of traditional scares.
But some horror movie enthusiasts actually delight in their genre’s grim predictability. Horror has generated a recognizable world of alternative possibilities where all of the familiar things have gone familiarly rotten. The dominant horror themes are all inversions of the most commonplace aspects of reality. Possessed children turn on their parents. Dolls are creepy portents. Cohabiting couples are disemboweled. Mothers mutilate their families. Houses terrorize their inhabitants. This is the bread and butter of horror – taking the most normal, mundane elements of reality and consistently inverting them. Horror holds a mirror up to nature.
Some of the most popular horror films actually gained popularity by taking ownership of these stereotypes. Famously, the characters in The Scream explicitly joke about hackneyed horror elements. At one point, one of the characters lists “rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie.” For example, rule number three is “Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say ‘I’ll be right back’—because you won’t be back.” Of course, another character jokingly says, “I’ll be right back” as he leaves to get another beer and is soon killed. The Scream’s popularity showed that identifying the platitudes doesn’t eliminate the fear; critics may create an illusion of safety by turning horror into an item for objective scrutiny, but their world is no less treacherous.
Paranormal Activity managed to do something similar, in that it demonstrates the continuity of possibility between our world and situations of terrible torment. The appeal of Paranormal Activity is not the blood and gore (there isn’t much of it) but its ability to expand our horizons, exposing the terrifying limits of human experience. As much as we would like to deny the possibility of actual paranormal activity, the scenes are uncomfortably realistic. Even if the situations are far out, you can’t help but squirm as you sit in class the day after witnessing them and realize that you and the people around you exist on a continuum of possibility with such extreme horror. Once you see those situations lived out on screen, the possibilities loom like a dark storm cloud.
With this in mind, we can identify a critical flaw in the recently released sixth movie. The film was advertised with the tagline “For the first time you will see the activity.” A character in the film discovers a camera that can record supernatural beings and the footage shows the demonic forces in much more detail than any of the previous films. But something important is lost here. By showing us the demon, the film loses some of the element of the unknown that was so powerful in the earlier films and puts some comfortable distance between its world and ours. Whereas the world of the first five films is strangely close to our own, the explicitly fantastical scenes of the sixth have too much “para” and not enough “normal.”
But when people criticize the later Paranormal films for their repetitiveness and similarity to the earlier films, they miss the point. The beauty of the series is that it creates a complete and consistent alternative world of horror that is eerily consistent with our own experience. By the end of the sixth movie, this alternative reality becomes so familiar to viewers that its regularities can even faintly permeate the way they see reality. At one point soon after I had finished the series, I actually imagined I heard the characteristic low rumbling that always precedes an appearance of the demon. I half expected that doors would slowly creak open and chandeliers would sway softly, and I clutched my blankets in case something came tugging at them in the night. The paranormal had become normal.
But, thankfully, sanity quickly took back the reins. I’m back to conducting my daily activities without the faint fear of a demonic presence. Those eerie experiences were mere byproducts of an overactive mind, a manifestly outlandish illusion, a childish conflation of fantasy with reality. I think.