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SYFY WIRE This Week in Genre History

This Week in Genre History: Paranormal Activity slammed the door on torture porn to revive supernatural horror

By Tim Grierson
Paranormal activity

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

“The movie could be stratospheric, or it could just become a cult favorite.”

In 2009, nearly two years after it premiered at a horror festival, Paranormal Activity was just about to hit theaters, and its commercial future was very much uncertain. Stuart Ford, who headed IM Global, the company that had sold the film to different international territories, was speaking to the Los Angeles Times just a few days before its release, and although the initial buzz was promising, well, you just never know. “It just depends on whether the studio can catch a wave,” he said.

Opening on Sept. 25, 2009, in a handful of theaters, Paranormal Activity ended up being a very big deal. Not bad for a movie starring two unknowns and made by a video game designer nobody in Hollywood had heard of. The low-budget movie had a clever premise. Katie (Katie Featherston) moves into her boyfriend Micah’s (Micah Sloat) San Diego home, but quickly she senses something evil in the house. But the invisible presence isn’t actually emanating from Micah’s domicile — it’s been connected to her since she was a kid, except now it’s especially strong and malicious. Convinced it’s not a demon but, rather, something far more benign, Micah starts filming everything, including when they sleep. That’s when the freaky stuff starts happening. 

Paranormal Activity was structured as an edited encapsulation of the footage left behind in the wake of an unexplained tragedy that befalls the couple. Not just a new wrinkle on the found-footage horror genre, Oren Peli’s indie shocker created a fresh franchise that’s still chugging along more than a decade later. Plus, it helped launch the career of one of horror’s most important producers: Jason Blum.

Why was it a big deal at the time? In the early '00s, horror was dominated by the Saw series, which launched with the 2004 original. Opening on Oct. 29 of that year, the first film spawned sequels that, like clockwork, came out every Halloween for the next half-decade. Jigsaw’s elaborate murder puzzles helped popularize the idea of torture porn, which led to the release of similarly grueling horror-thrillers like the Hostel films.

But as soon as something becomes faddish, there’s always a hunger for movies that go in the exact opposite direction. Torture porn made graphic gore and sadistic villains fashionable, so there was an opening for a horror film that showed very little violence and argued that there was nothing scarier than the supernatural. After spending so many years bombarding audiences with the grisliest of terrors, why not make a fright film where you couldn’t see the danger?

Enter Peli, who moved to the U.S. from Israel as a teenager. (“Interestingly, horror is not big in Israel,” he once said. “One theory I heard is that life is so stressful there that people don’t need more stress in their spare time. The nightly news is all the horror they need!”) Inspired by strange noises he heard one night, the computer programmer wondered if you could make a whole film out of the unsettling feeling that ... something ... is in your house. “It could be inside the room, or down the hallway or from the stairs,” he said. “You know something is going on, but you can’t tell exactly what it is and you can’t see it. To me, that’s a lot more unnerving than seeing something right in front of you happening. It plays to your imagination, which is often much more effective than what can be shown.”

Rather than writing out a script, the first-time filmmaker put together an outline and then started a lengthy, low-key audition process. (The casting notice gave only the barest plot description for this untitled “supernatural horror/thriller”: “A couple documents their battle with an unknown entity in their home. Not a cheesy teen/slasher movie [although some bad stuff may happen].”) Auditioning thousands of actors, he landed on Featherston and Sloat individually and then brought them together for a chemistry test, having them improvise their interactions. 

That air of experimentation continued during the filming, with Peli not telling his two leads exactly what was going to happen to their characters. “I kept [the story outline] to myself. They never saw it ... All the dialogue was improvised by them on the fly,” Peli said. “There were no rehearsals.”

When Peli shot the film over a week in the summer of 2006 on a budget of supposedly $15,000 — he used his own San Diego house as the principal setting — it had been seven years since The Blair Witch Project became an overnight sensation, similarly incorporating improvised scenes, a plotline that only the filmmakers knew, and a found-footage format. But Paranormal Activity didn’t get the same launchpad as The Blair Witch Project, which debuted at the splashy Sundance Film Festival. Instead, Peli’s film had its world premiere at Screamfest in October 2007, which is where an assistant at the high-powered talent agency CAA saw it. From there, Peli signed with CAA, which tried to drum up interest in Paranormal Activity.

One of the people who sparked to the film was Blum, whom we now know as the Oscar-nominated producer of Get Out responsible for Blumhouse, the respected, hitmaking horror company behind Insidious and The Invisible Man. But back then, Blumhouse was still trying to establish itself. Blum saw Paranormal Activity’s homemade qualities — its intentionally slipshod handheld camerawork, its naturalistic acting — as a massive plus.

“You watch it in your bedroom, it can look like your kid made it,” Blum told the Los Angeles Times. “You watch it with an audience, it’s an entirely different experience.”

Funny enough, though, one of the film’s earliest champions (and certainly its most famous) watched it in his bedroom by himself. Reportedly, Steven Spielberg was so scared by Paranormal Activity that he brought the screener DVD back to the studio in a garbage bag. This tale became a huge part of the prerelease marketing — as well as a rumor that, during Spielberg’s at-home viewing, his bedroom door closed on its own and locked, forcing him to call a locksmith so he could get out. Was all this made up to hype audiences for the forthcoming film? Peli swears Spielberg confirmed it all himself, adding, “The story I heard the next day was that he started watching the movie and got so unnerved by it that he turned it off halfway and finished watching it the next day during daylight.”

If Peli could unnerve Spielberg, maybe he could do the same thing to moviegoers.

What was the impact? DreamWorks eventually picked up Paranormal Activity; the initial idea was to commission a remake and release that, but after test screenings proved that people freaked out over Peli’s original version, that plan was scrapped. On Sept. 25, 2009, Paranormal Activity opened in 12 theaters, focusing on college towns like Austin. The plan wasn’t to dominate the box office but, rather, start building word of mouth while Paramount (which had taken over distribution rights from DreamWorks) rolled out the film over the next few weeks. Brilliantly, the studio decided to advertise the horror movie by showing audiences screaming and shrieking during the scariest moments.

The strategy paid off, and a few weeks later, Paranormal Activity was the No. 1 movie in the country, beating out Saw VI in its first week. It was a symbolic changing of the guard: Fright fans had rejected the latest Jigsaw installment for something new. The original Paranormal brought in $193 million, an enormous sum for such an inexpensive project masterminded by such an unlikely source. “I didn’t have any connections to Hollywood, or any hope that the movie would get any attention,” Peli said in 2015, “so to have it released by a major studio and to be successful was amazing.” 

Soon, Paramount was following the Saw template, pumping out Paranormal sequels for the next three Halloweens. From such a simple premise — a couple gets freaked out by an invisible demon — the follow-up films managed to expand on the world, fleshing out Katie’s backstory, introducing her sister (who’d also been tormented by the demon), and, in Paranormal Activity 3, even flashing back to their childhood to show how the whole nasty business started. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which failed to launch a franchise, Paranormal was a cash cow.

“[Paranormal Activity] really demonstrates how to do more with less,” Blum said in 2009, and it’s a lesson he’s never forgotten as he and Blumhouse have gone on to consistently produce hit horror films on small budgets. Blum and Peli quickly reunited to produce the Insidious movies — which, like Paranormal Activity, relied on the supernatural for their scares — and also turned into a hugely profitable film series. Nowadays, the Blumhouse logo at the start of a horror movie is basically a seal of approval for what you’re about to see. (And that’s to say nothing of Blum’s success as a producer of acclaimed non-horror movies such as Whiplash and BlacKkKlansman.)

“One of the things I always tell the filmmakers is, if you pull out the genre parts, does the movie stand on its own as a great dramatic story?” Blum said a few years ago. “Most horror movies don’t, but I like to think that our movies do. If you really dissect a lot of our movies, you’d see an indie movie in there. And I think that’s one of the reasons the audience responds to our movies — they feel different.”

Has it held up? It’s tough to recapture that initial fear you felt when watching Paranormal Activity — this time, you know how it’s all going to play out — but the original still stands up because of its simplicity. With found-footage movies, there’s always the challenge of justifying why, in the middle of being scared out of their minds, the characters would always have a camera. But Peli largely gets around the problem because Micah is so determined to prove that it’s not a ghost that he wants to make sure he’s filming at every moment.

Plus, the first film forever made the notion of an open door and a darkened empty hallway terrifying. Much of the appeal of Paranormal Activity comes from anxiously staring around the screen wondering what freaky thing will happen as Katie and Micah sleep. (“What’s really scary in the movie is a door closing half an inch,” DreamWorks executive Adam Goodman said at the time.) After the overblown bloody carnage of torture porn, Paranormal Activity made minimalism nerve-racking.

The series' most recent installments — Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension — weren’t as big as the first four chapters, suggesting that, like all franchises, Paranormal Activity eventually outlived its moment. But Paramount remains keen on doing another, planning a new sequel for 2022. (Ironically, the pandemic wouldn’t seem to be as much of a logistical challenge for a Paranormal movie as it would be for other franchises, since they mostly take place indoors.)

But whether or not there are any more films, the first Paranormal Activity is a reminder that what you can’t see can definitely hurt you. Also, much as with Nightmare on Elm Street, the notion that the terror can strike when you’re seemingly safe in your bed remains incredibly disturbing.

“I think one of the reasons it’s so effective is the concept of there being something around you and possibly attacking you while you’re asleep,” Peli once said. “That’s a primal fear, so even if you don’t necessarily believe in ghosts or demons it’s something that a lot of people can relate to.”

And having a video camera running the whole time won’t do anything to help.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.