Why Paranormal Activity will (really!) creep you out

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Either as an example of the simple effectiveness of classical filmmaking or just an alternative to the gag-inducing gore that constitutes the meat (no pun intended) of most contemporary horror flicks, Paranormal Activity is a really, really great movie. Writer-director Oren Peli, working in one location with a single camera, two actors and a shoestring budget, tells the story of a couple that is terrorized by an unseen apparition, in the process creating suspense out of thin air and evoking evil forces not merely scary, but haunting.

And while its low-budget aesthetic will automatically be referenced in the context of the granddaddy of first-person gimmick films, The Blair Witch Project, it's important to remember that the reason it's an immediate point of comparison is because for better or for worse, that film worked—and this one does even better.

Compiled of "found" footage, the film chronicles several days in the life of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), a couple who buys a video camera to record unexplained phenomena around their home. Much to her discomfort, Katie explains that since her earliest childhood, something has always seemed to follow her around, and her family was constantly beset by strange occurrences. Micah is perhaps typically skeptical, but after a few nights of filming, he captures some odd, convincing footage, and becomes determined to document more concrete proof of the spirit's existence, if not also hopefully get rid of it. But as the unseen force grows in power and makes it known that it wants Katie for itself, the couple slowly begins to lose control of their experiment, and decides to get out of the house before it's too late for either of them to escape its powerful grasp.

At 33 and having seen probably more than my share of cinematic boogeymen, there isn't a whole lot that really stays with me when I watch horror movies now; certainly when I was a kid, there were things that scared the hell out of me, kept me up nights, and had me thinking about the possibilities of paranormal activity in the real world, much less my bedroom closet. But Paranormal Activity is the first movie in probably a decade that truly lingered in my head after I finished watching it, and actually creeped me out for a few days afterward. Brilliantly, Peli sets up certain audience expectations by establishing a simple premise—a girl thinks she's being haunted—and then delivering on it in a delicate matter of degrees; but it's the patience and subtlety of the escalation of events that makes it seem believable, and eventually, genuinely terrifying.

For example, Micah sets up the camera each night before they go to bed, and time-lapse footage scrolls through each evening's events until the usually random and brief moment when something happens. During the first few nights, it's merely the sound of a set of keys falling onto the floor, or the unnatural creak of their bedroom door. But when Micah essentially starts antagonizing the force, things get significantly worse, but in a completely, unnervingly simple fashion, starting with louder noises and eventually indicators of the presence's power such as broken picture frames or found photos whose very existence seems impossible.

It would be interesting to know on a psychological level what it is about these sorts of events that makes people (myself included) so uneasy: is it merely the "not knowing" of what or how it happened? The pure sense of vulnerability we experience vicariously through these characters as they find their most intimate and otherwise comforting places threatened by someone or thing? Or even a response to some subconscious awareness but not quite understanding of forces greater than ourselves? To say Peli expertly preys upon all of these fears is not to suggest Paranormal Activity is in any way exploitative, but it definitely taps into something deeper and more powerful than our typical appetites when we watch other horror movies—which is also why its impact seems to last longer than the initial shock of seeing something we can't explain, much less escape.

If Paranormal Activity otherwise seems vaguely familiar even before you've seen it, it might be because the film debuted almost two years ago at Screamfest in Los Angeles, and has since enjoyed some complimentary write-ups by various outlets as a festival darling in dire need of wider distribution. Paramount Pictures is subsequently releasing it in a number of different markets across the country, hoping that word of mouth will make it into more of a hit. But as one of the lucky few who got to see the theatrical cut (which evidently differs from previous versions) in advance of its official release, not to mention without the cumbersome pressure of prior expectations, we can only suggest you don't go into it looking for more than is there—such as, say, the salvation of the horror genre as we know it—since its streamlined and comparatively unique approach seems destined to inspire well-deserved if effusive praise.

Because while the film is indeed an anomaly in the rest of contemporary horror's bloodstained, brutality-filled landscape, it's more accurately a throwback to atmospheric chamber pieces like The Haunting or The Shining, much less that grand finale of Blair Witch, recontextualized (if only mildly) in bland twentysomething suburbia. Ultimately, Peli seems to understand what's at the core of our collective fears, and examines that without obscuring it with obvious violence, much less providing any kind of conventional physical manifestation. In other words, Paranormal Activity takes all of the things that go bump in the night and gives you enough of a reason to think they might be real, which is also why you shouldn't be surprised if you're genuinely scared by the movie—both while you're watching it, and long after you've left the theater.