For the first of my Frightful Five, counting down between now and Halloween, I offer this found footage nightmare. Like many a horror film, this anomaly led to a franchise, and like many horror franchises, Paranormal Activity has now become a laughing stock. I remember the initial hype being quite striking, as TV spots included footage of cinema audiences, filmed with infra-red cameras, who jumped out of their seats. I saw the original Paranormal Activity in 2009, with a fairly rowdy cinema audience, but nonetheless I was suitably terrified – I came to understand the meaning of having the sh*t scared out of you as I thought my bowels were going to void (they didn’t). I was quite literally petrified and, upon getting home, looked carefully into all the shadowy corners.
Paranormal Activity’s premise is fiendishly simply – two people, in a house with something malevolent, and the self-filmed approach traps the viewer in the house with them. Curiously, some responses I have come across miss certain aspects, such as asking why the central characters had no jobs: Katie (Katie Featherstone) is a student and Micah (Micah Sloat) is a stock trader, who works from home and earns plenty of money. Another question is why they don’t simply leave – they are advised that it is not the house that is haunted, but Katie herself. Here is a crucial element of the film’s tension – they cannot escape, there is no running away from whatever it is, the danger is inextricable.
The film’s rudimentary approach facilitates the inescapability of the characters’ situation. The wide angles of the camera capture the ordinary environment and the extraordinary events within it. Long stationary takes increase the tension, as we spend what feels like ages waiting for something to happen, and when it does it emerges from the background, invading the mundane setting. The best instances of this come during the night, when the camera sits recording the couple sleeping. At one moment, footprints appear on the floor and the blanket is pulled back and Katie dragged out of bed by something invisible. In the film’s final, terrifying sequence, something happens just off-screen that culminates in Micah being hurled into the camera, before Katie appears again. Her shuffling gait demarks her as changed, and her final assault at the camera reveals something inhuman and horrifying, but not long enough for it to be understood. The banality of the events before us emphasises the horrific events – as Katie is dragged away screaming and something assaults both of them, the camera remains immobile, indifferently recording all that appears before it. There is no hope and no salvation, merely the passing of lives into the uncanny without so much as an explanation. Leave the lights on, for all the good it will do you.