It’s a horrible thing to be a horror filmmaker. You face decades of films that have abused and reused every gimmick, surprise, and twist to make audiences scream. Many “horror” films today are really just “gore-fests,” bathed in blood and special FXs. Yet there are a small few that do what all great horror films have done, and that is to tap into our collectives fear and display them in the routine features of our everyday lives. “The Shining” perverted our ideas of a vacation getaway. “Halloween” took home invasion and made it unstoppable. “The Ring” just took a videotape and put it in a TV. Today, we throw “Paranormal Activity” up against “The Blair Witch Project,” another shaky-cam “indie”-effort at bringing something new and authentic to the horror genre.
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“Paranormal Activity” took an odd road to theaters. Initially, Paramount released the independently-filmed feature to college towns, telling moviegoers to “demand” a national release via a viral website. Word spread of terrified audiences leaving the film early and within weeks America had “demanded” to see “Paranormal Activity.” The film follows young sweethearts Micah and Katie, who have just moved into their new San Diego home. Micah buys a hi-tech camera to film the ghost Katie believes has been haunting her since she was little. Micah is more amused than scared, not taking things seriously until strange night-noises terrorize the couple. Night after the night, the film slowly pulls audience into a demonic playground, leaving audiences as sleep deprived as poor Micah and Katie.
The Defending Champion
“The Blair Witch Project” is a film “assembled” from video taken by three students attempting to make a documentary on Maryland’s Blair Witch, a myth the filmmakers created and in fact sold as a true legend prior to the film’s release. As the three film students hike into the forests in search of ominous sites related to the Blair Witch, they become lost. As starvation and disorientation set in, strange sounds and mysterious “pranks” terrorize the students at night, forcing them to wonder if the Blair Witch is more than myth. This slow burning psychological horror eventually erupts into a chaotic climax which results in one of horror’s most disturbing final images.
Both these films are extremely different and yet, almost exactly alike. Both follow young protagonists who get in over their head while playing film-jockey with the paranormal. Both rely on boredom and delay to create suspense, ratcheting up the terror in the final moments to leave the audiences overwhelmed. And both use the familiar and the seemingly true as a landscape to sell their demonic, terrifying concepts.
Where I want to start is with the characters. In “Blair Witch,” the three students are just annoying. They seem to be those poorly-groomed, non-conformist types that frequent non-commercial coffee houses, smoke clove cigarettes, listen only to indie rock, and are always just trying to make “something reallllll.” And when they start bickering with one another, instead of finding a way out of the forest (and at times sabotaging those chances out of past resentments), the audience is sure to lose some sympathy, relax and enjoy them being murdered in the bed they made.
Whatever their flaws, the “Paranormal” couple is understandable. Katie is the most lovable, a vulnerable girl terrorized by a demon. Micah starts out as the good-looking boyfriend who’s protecting her, but quickly becomes an alpha-male who wants to cock-fight the demon. This is somewhat forgivable as we can understand being a bit cavalier toward a demon stalking your girlfriend if you just didn’t believe in spirits. Plus, by the end of the film, he does come around to taking things seriously — in a manner of speaking. Add an escalating cycle that ties the couple’s taxed relationship to the stakes of the film, whereby the demon grows stronger off negative energy like fighting, and “Paranormal”s character backbone proves awfully sophisticated for a horror film. It’s not “The Exorcist” or “The Shining,” but it works.
What really splits these films is how they hit the normal with the paranormal.
In “Paranormal Activity,” the approach is straight-forward. Everything from the couple to the house they live in seem authentic. Katie is the regular grad student, Micah the typical alpha-male day trader. The house reflects the awkward mishmash of manly tech-toys and girly decorations that characterize so many young couple’s first homes. The film milks this authenticity as it taps into one of our most central fears:
What happens at night when we close our eyes, fall asleep, and become vulnerable?
This is done by a simple device. Every night, the couple goes to bed and Micah mounts the camera on a tripod to record the ghost at night. The frame features only the bed and the adjacent doorway which permits a view of the dark hallway and staircase beyond. It’s a genius set-up for psychological horror, allowing audiences to watch with suspense every plane the frame sets up.
Now at first, nothing much happens. But then the noises start…and the couple remains asleep. Then the door slowly moves open and closed…and the couple remain asleep. A shadow passes along the white walls…and the couple remains asleep. It’s terrifying, watching helplessly as “something” lurks over the sleeping couple. What’s even worse is a mysteriously catatonic Katie rising at night and staring at her boyfriend as he sleeps…
Now for some, this may become boring, especially as the couple argues about the recorded occurrences during the daytime, boring scenes intended to create a sense of mundane routine. But when a psychic visits and suggests Katie is being stalked by a demon, and that Micah should put his toys away and take this seriously, things turn bad…very bad. The boredom and slow-burn of the first half of the film becomes a cruel joke serving only to put you in the right headspace for terror. It actually puts you in the same headspace as the main characters, who go from being nervous to downright horrified.
Now “Blair Witch” did this too. Who hasn’t been afraid of getting lost and not being able to find their way out? For anyone with some curiosity and a childhood, being in a quiet forest is a familiar experience, as is the fear of being outside “at night.” Add to these familiar landscapes some strange noises at night and yes…it is scary. But whereas “Paranormal” relies on the familiar ghost to mix up the horror, the “Blair Witch” had to invent a myth and actually market the myth virally prior to the film’s release. Many movie-goers went into the film believing not just that the Blair Witch was a real myth, but that these three students had actually gone missing. It was an elaborate viral prank that served to heighten the terror when you watched the film. However, in the end, it is an artificially-created trick existing outside of the film’s narrative and while a forest is familiar, it is not our home.
Aside from taking place in a regular home, the beauty of “Paranormal” is that ghosts or demons are universal myths existing since the beginning of mankind. And the simple terror of a spirit (nevermind a demon) stalking you requires very little set-up for most audiences. It exists already in our head, not manufactured by a gimmick. Now take this myth and turn it into a escalating occurrence in a home we’ve all seen before and it’s a bit overwhelming…
…as long as you believe! And that’s the one catch to “Paranormal.” The landscape is so real and authentic, that if you simply don’t believe in spirits (more specifically, demons), you’ll likely be bored by the incompatibility. But I applaud the filmmakers for not developing an elaborate prank to try to get me to believe, and instead rely on their audiences’ faith to take them to terror. I also applaud them for creating one of the most believable “ghost mediums” in cinema history. Just watch the scene.
The fact that both the home and the ordinary demon in “Paranormal” (as opposed to the forest and the elaborate gimmick in “Blair Witch”) prove more terrifying serves as a lesson to all horror filmmakers that the best type of horror is the type we’ve already created in our heads.
“The Blair Witch Project” has a lot going for it. But “Paranormal Acitivity” uses more familiar settings, characters, and myths to tap into our collective fear of nighttime vulnerability, leaving audiences afraid of returning to their home (and not their…forest?). At the end of the day, it’s “Paranormal Activity” that has me up at night, the nightlight on, curled on my couch watching DVR-ed reruns of Will & Grace and Family Guy. And that last part is horrific onto itself.