Friday, April 19, 2013

Paranormal Participation: How Paranormal Activity Connects With Audiences

Paranormal Activity gets a hard time. I can understand the criticisms thrown its way, especially since the sequels have worsened with each entry. However, the original was one of the only movies that sent me home terrified--a credit last given to The Ring and before that Event Horizon. Maybe this movie has a lot to be desired, but it did a lot of things right to make it a truly frightening story any writer of stories about ghosts and demons can learn from.

Most of the criticism comes from the acting, the character motivations, and the reality TV effect the movie is filmed in. I have to agree with the shortcomings all three of those presented. The acting was not phenomenal, but it wasn’t terrible either. It did the trick. The character motivations were ridiculous. In the face of a presence that can obviously not be fought, no rational person would continue fighting or filming. Of course, the excuse is used they can’t run away, but not attempting to flee was ridiculous. As for the reality TV effect, there is no defense. It’s a cheap ploy, and I hope movie makers forget about it soon.

Even with the three major shortcomings, positives overshadowed them. The movie pulled creepy off extremely well. If the strongest fear is the fear of the unknown, this movie portrays the purity of the unknown. The couple has no idea what they’re dealing with. The audience has no idea if it’s a ghost or a demon, or even what that necessarily means. Eventually, the biggest mystery of all is given away, which was whether the evil could be overcome. With an answer of no, the sequels lost an essential mystery and were therefore lacking at least one important element from their conceptions--audiences cannot fear for characters if the characters are certainly doomed from the start.

The sequels also had a Hollywood flare that the original lacked--especially when viewed with one of its original endings. The lack of this flare made everything more realistic and creepier. None of the events were so extreme the audience lost any sense of realism, until Katie grew fangs and attacked the camera. Simple problems like noises in the hall could happen. Larger problems like sleep walking and night terrors also happen. They are terrifying in their own light. When they were amplified by the threat of the unknown, they became more dreadful. If the movie had been a drama about a brain tumor causing these problems, the tumor would be as horrifying as the demon because the tribulations created are realistic. When a threat connects, it becomes real for the audience and makes them question their own lives.

The original ending, specifically the one where the cops show up, worked the best. I understand the switch to a jump-inducing ending for massive audience, plus the ability to make a sequel with the new ending, but the Hollywood ending was a gimmick. The ending with the cops was chilling. There’s never full verification of a demon, and when Katie gained lucidity in the final moments, the movie made me shiver.

My favorite portion of the film would be the photo in the attic. Everything else, I felt, could be rationalized with logic in some way, shape, or form. The picture, however, was tangible evidence that something had been stalking Katie for a long time. Maybe it was her own mental deterioration collecting personal artifacts and storing them in odd places, or it could be the odder possibility. Maybe a demon held onto that photo for decades. I even wondered if it had pockets to store the photo, but relating the demon to a stalker/voyeur/pedophile still makes me cringe to think about. The situation would be no less creepy if they found an old guy up in the attic with the picture--this is invasion and disturbing to the max. The fact it was supposedly a demon just makes the threat unbeatable.

This movie frightened me when I first saw it. I went home thinking every bump in my house was either a demon or an intruder. I wondered what I might find if I looked in my attic. I couldn’t sleep that night. I loved that rush. The sequels didn’t have the same effect. They were fun like a roller coaster might be fun, but they weren’t scary, and any emotion brought up in the film was left in the theatre when I went home. They’ve also progressively gotten worse, although the third one holds a special place in my heart because it reminds me of growing up in the 80s and playing ghost games with my friends. Too bad they all can’t work as well as the first one.

On a side note, I want to mention that the commercials for these movies have been a very interesting study. They have turned into mini films--scenes created specifically for the commercials, but created without any intention of being in the movie. For instance, the third one had a game of Bloody Mary, where a woman appeared in the background. It also had a huge fire scene in the preview, which had been elaborated on in the first two movies but did not appear in the third film. The fourth movie’s trailer was a fabricated, shortened version of the film--the protagonist jokes about her house being haunted and within seconds the haunting hits full force. The reason behind this false marketing has been to lure audiences in without ruining any of the jump-inducing scares. I give the film makers kudos for handling the commercials in this fashion, but if they handled the terror the same way as the first film, they wouldn’t need to mislead the audience as to avoid ruining the pop-up frights.


  1. For me, the acting didn't bother me so much, but I agree with the reality TV effect. I couldn't help but notice how every time something scary happened and they put the camera down, the camera always recorded right side up. As opposed to if you were in a moment of blind panic, and put it down however which way gets it down the fastest. It would have been nice if they let the frame go askew, for realism's sake.

    Curious... I did notice that my copy of the film had two endings, but at the time I was rushed for time and never went back to see the alternative version with the cops. If I find some spare time on my hands, I might just go back and check it out, if it's better done...

  2. Thank you for this blog, Ryan. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that I missed about Paranormal Activity and your blog brought it home to me. It simply didn’t work as a movie. Too much Hollywood involved ruined a nice, creepy Haunting.

    Looking at the movie with your blog in mind I can see the resemblance to The Haunting of Hill House, which worked as a book but failed as a movie. Especially, as you pointed out, the moment when Katie finds awareness at her final act, which echoes Eleanor’s lucidity at her final moments. (It does brring chills to me when I think of moment and the horrors that happen during Murders-by-Postpartum Depression. What does the mother feel at that moment of lucidity?) For a movie, that scene was too fluid or even too deep for the majority of audience members to catch and digest, me included, so it went by the wayside. However, it does bring to mind one of the true terrors of human nature: the shadow within our own soul. Maybe it was her mental issues that brought us here? Can there be anything more frightening than one’s own brain as their worst enemy? What was “the demon”? An Entity of the EEEE-vil unknown or, as The Church as preached for centuries, simply mental illness?

    Also, yes, the creep factor went up when the photograph in the attic arrived. However, I can’t help but feel that the screenwriter/director/Hollywood Producers dropped that ball in their chase for Terrifying Everyone in the Room, even those who don’t “get it.” That’s a shame, really, when one thinks about it.

  3. Heh. I liked the third one, too. I thought it was significantly better than two and four.

    I've never really understood the criticism of the acting. There's a couple of weak moments if you're looking for them, sure, but there's also plenty of strong points. The sense of realism the movie relies on requires some pretty capable actors, and I bought into the dynamics of their relationship more or less immediately. Maybe I've just got no eye for acting talent, but I thought the girl who played Kate had some real dramatic chops. If that moment where she was crying into Micah's chest after being dragged away didn't have you thinking "that's a girl who's just experienced a traumatic event", I've got nothing for you.

  4. But was it really unknown? The fear of the unknown usually means fear of things we have no knowledge and/or comprehension of. That was the impetus of Lovecraft's work and something that is almost touched on in Ghostbusters. But in Paranormal activity, the the first 20 minutes is all set up of what is going on and what will happen. they tell you the whole story in that meeting with the psychic. Unseen on the other hand, I would agree with and I think is a different fear all together. That I can give them credit for, but in the grand scheme, if they didn't do it well, they wouldn't have even been able to get the movie to go direct to dvdv.

  5. By far, the third one has been the best in the series. I am especially fond of the sheet standing up in the kitchen behind the babysitter. I found this prequel to be most unsettling. I haven't seen the fourth installment, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it measures up.