by Charlie Wachtel
Our Universal Fear of the Paranormal
Somewhere in your home, there is likely to be an old den or a rusting furnace that gives you the creeps with each encounter. At night there are creaks and squeals and slight breezes that may make you consider the existence of the supernatural. And, if you’re really unlucky, you may have experienced the fright of actually seeing something which permanently damages your psyche, leaving a branded impression of fear in your head each time you are alone.
Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat in “Paranormal Activity.”
Paranormal Activity preys on these very fears of ours. Arguably the most universally appealing of all horror movies because of its domestic subject matter, this docu-horror compels us to consider what happens in our homes when the lights go out. Unlike A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) which makes us fear the actual act of going to sleep, Paranormal’s appeal has to do with the fear in not knowing what happens when we fall asleep. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night to find bending shadows around your doorway or flickering lights reflecting from the hallway onto your ceiling then Paranormal will likely confirm your greatest fears.
This rare magic of Paranormal which immediately compels us to go home and check the blinds, curtains, and bedsheets is akin to the dreaded fear of never wanting to take another shower after viewing Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
As the flick continues to catch fire, Paramount has already decided on a wide-release to 2,000 theaters nation-wide, giving Lionsgate’s Saw horror franchise monopoly a run for its money when Saw VI debuts in its reliable Halloween slot. Not bad for a movie made for just $16 thousand.
The rookie writer/director responsible, Oren Peli, spent a year of pre-production redesigning his house since the entire film was actually shot inside his house. Peli was inspired to pursue the project because he himself admits that he wonders what would happen if he recorded footage of his house while he was sleeping.
“When you’re asleep you’re totally vulnerable, so I started thinking about the idea about what if somebody set up a video camera and you let it run and you capture something going on when you were sleeping. Then you review the footage and when that happened, that would be extremely unsettling. So that was pretty much the idea.”
While Peli refrained from prematurely commenting on the film’s eventual DVD release, Paranormal may join the likes of The Ring in making for an even more frightening viewing experience at home.
A lot of people will be comparing Paranormal to The Blair Witch Project (1999) which should take great credit for its influence. Both films rely on the use of hand-held cameras to tell their respective stories. But what makes Paranormal a superior film (looking past the established docu-horror precedent) is the mere fact that it takes place in the home of its main characters. What’s truly scary about this is that as viewers we are greatly empowered with the knowledge of such paranormal activity as we are first to see video footage of the couple’s bedroom even before they do themselves. So instead of watching characters’ loud screaming and muffled whimpering, you see in most horror movies, here we actually at times fear for these characters more than they can fear for themselves because they are asleep. Peli treats sleep as an unfortunate fact of humanity that puts us at our most vulnerable state.
To simply explain the plot, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) set up video surveillance in their bedroom to try and detect any evidence of paranormal activity. The screenplay is surprisingly sharp. Peli brilliantly designs his surveillance clips like Lumieres. The frame of each bedroom video clip is minimalist. But what makes it so effective in achieving a certain level of fright is that the terrifying sound design coupled with the mere fact that we are eagerly anticipating something out of the ordinary to occur keeps us on the edge of our seats. The expectation is that nothing in the frame should move. The difference between this expectation and the actual result is horrific tension. Genius tension.
In a way, instead of rooting for Micah and Katie to sleep safely in their bed, we are more-so rooting for ourselves. While the couple has a great interest in seeing what Micah’s surveillance tapes reveal, the tapes are an even more personal revelation to ourselves. Because in a way, if Micah and Katie discover video evidence that their bedroom is possibly haunted then the possibility immediately exists in our own minds as well. Peli’s pitch-perfect casting makes this viewer-to-character connection possible.
Micah and Katie are real people. Relateable people. They are not characters in some typical exploitation horror movie. Peli took great care in finding the best actors for these parts. The challenge, of course, was to make them believable, likable, and relatable. Peli batted a thousand. Micah and Katie are not the most attractive people in the world. Nor are their personal lives all that interesting. But instead, we judge them individually by the way they each handle and react to their situation. And their chemistry as a couple is so great that even their humdrum conversations are fascinating.
Here is a movie that sends shockwaves through the horror genre and dismisses the notion that docu-horror are just experiments, making such films a true force in horror. Paranormal Activity is easily the most well-crafted film in docu-horror, putting Blair Witch to shame. I will even go as far as to say that this film is the best horror film of the 21st century and that it deserves a special spot on the all-time list of horror movies.
The buzz is real. Soon comes the hype. See this film as soon as you can. Cause by Halloween it’s all you’re gonna hear about.
Charlie Wachtel is a Senior Writer for The Film Crusade and Founder of The Film Crusade.