Watch It: Paranormal Activity
In the summer of 1999, I attended a screening of The Blair Witch Project. It was at the art house theatre where myself and at least half of Rochester’s under-employed creative types enjoyed part-time work. The projectionist had set up a midnight screening the night before the film’s official release, and we were all there. The buzz was immense for Blair Witch, so expectations were high. Mine were completely met; I had never been so scared by a film. I couldn’t sleep that night because I was afraid of what my dreams might bring, something no movie had done since my 7 year-old self was terrified by the half-man/half-dog in the 70′s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Yet at least a third of the audience that night responded with genuine disappointment: “That’s it? But nothing happened! They got lost, bitched and moaned and we never even saw the witch! What the Hell!”
A few people were saying that last night at the screening of Paranormal Activity I attended. Just like ten years ago, I wanted to smack them.
Paranormal Activity, like Blair Witch, is comprised entirely of fake ‘found footage’ of people trying to get to the bottom of a supernatural mystery. But the newer film has some significant differences: rather than a group of students, the people involved are a couple who live together; the woman in the couple has been haunted by a ghost off and on most of her life, and they’re dealing with an ‘on’ period. The skeptical, alpha-dude boyfriend tries filming themselves as they sleep at night, hoping to catch some evidence. Gradually, in fits and starts, evidence is found: loud footsteps, doors moving on their own, sheets being lifted, and so on. When possession comes into play, things really get bad. To give away any more would be cruel.
The tension builds steadily in this film. The stress of living with an unfriendly, invisible force takes its toll on the couple, giving a dramatic subtext to the elegantly simple scares provided by things moving on their own and the most ominous footsteps ever heard. But no, haters, you don’t see the monster. You see—and share—the effects of fear on an imperfect but ultimately sympathetic couple as their sense of what is real and possible slowly deteriorates. The ending is absolutely horrifying. But if you weren’t at all scared by that other little horror flick that could from ten years past, well, there’s always Saw VI. Have fun with that.