By using very little to rattle viewers an awful lot, the original Paranormal Activity holds up as one of the scariest films ever made.
So, where exactly do people stand on Paranormal Activity? Sure, over the years I kept hearing about how each new entry kept getting worse and worse, because that’s just the apparent law of non-Scream horror franchises. But is the original Paranormal Activity that started it all regarded very highly these days? Was it ever regarded that highly? Most critics seemed to like it at the time, but not to a huge degree. Audiences seem split even now, but the film still clearly has a following. Found footage horror is already a polarizing genre, but it’s one that I’ve grown an immense fondness for in the past few years.
Yet I’ve been completely blind to this franchise from the start. As in, I knew absolutely nothing about what actually happens in any of the movies, outside of some activity of the paranormal variety (call it a gut feeling). But this month, I finally sat down and watched the original Paranormal Activity with cautious optimism. I had my bets on liking the film … I did not expect it to be one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. But that’s exactly the experience I had, to an even greater degree than I think most people, even those who like the movie, have had.
Directed by Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity stars Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat as … well, Katie and Micah. They’ve just moved into a new house in San Diego, but Katie claims that some supernatural presence has haunted her since she was a child, so Micah sets up cameras around the house in order to get evidence. We then watch the footage as strange occurrences like loud banging and severe sleepwalking keep piling up over twenty-one nights, driving the two of them slowly towards madness and despair.
I’m sure found footage still has its detractors, but I get the sense that most have come around to at least respecting it as a legitimate subset of horror. What I love most about the medium is how, when done right, it brings you as close as any film can possibly bring you to feeling like you’re right there in the situation, and that the situation itself is totally real. That enhancement takes what would be a simplistic, generic scare in most horror films and makes it suddenly five times more unnerving, and this really shows in Paranormal Activity.
A large percentage of the film’s scares are just loud noises banging around the house. That’s about the cheapest, most braindead trick a horror film can possibly think of to get a rise out of the viewer. But because the film’s acting, lighting, sound mixing, and buildup are so relentlessly tangible, these usual gimmicks get the same reaction out of the viewer as if they were happening to them in real life. Oren Peli, who I’m shocked to see has never made another feature film, knew he couldn’t just show these simple anomalies and automatically get reactions from the audience. He knew exactly what to show, when to show it, how to let us linger in patient, long, agonizing silence, and where the camera needed to go to get us frantically looking around the room, searching for anything that’s off.
The repeated bedroom shots are probably the most iconic of the film, and for good reason: the open doorway into the pitch-black perfectly feeds off our primal fears of what’s just beyond a dark room’s borders, lurking where we can’t see. Any time something comes in or out of there, you’re on edge over what’s about to happen, if anything. And when you also have our vulnerable couple sleeping right next to it, sometimes in visible danger, sometimes totally safe, you’ve got a recipe for nail-biting tension the likes of which I’ve rarely ever felt watching a movie.
My favorite scare in the whole film involves Katie just standing up and watching Micah, over what the camera feed tells us is hours. Not only is nothing overtly supernatural in sight when this happens, but it took me a few seconds to even realize something was wrong, letting my stomach slowly drop. While more obvious scares are also used in Paranormal Activity and get great results, the many subtler moments like that are just as powerful. But on that note, because each scene ramps up the intensity in such an immersive way, the ending stretch earns its louder, more elevated frights. The slightest rustling and whimpering from the characters had me gripping my couch a little tighter each time, genuinely terrified and even starting to shake a bit.
This all leads up to the final shot, and … I don’t know if I’ve ever let out a yell that sounded as audibly real as when I watched this ending. In terms of what’s actually happening in the shot, it’s far from the scariest thing that’s ever been in a film. But as the masterfully built-up, jarringly brutal apex of the whole film, it got me so bad that I honestly took a few minutes after it was over to just sit there, take some deep breaths, and pull myself together. It helped that it was already late into the night when I watched Paranormal Activity (with nothing but my orange Halloween lights on), but still … I knew I wasn’t sleeping for the next few hours.
My only complaint towards the directing is the use of a very soft, droning sound that accompanies almost any overtly unsettling moment … but even that’s something I’m split on. I firmly believe that found footage is at its best when there’s no score at all, adding to the illusion that you’re watching actual found footage. But this “score” always advertises when something scary is about to happen. Had it been absent, I would have been even more on edge, because I’d have had no idea when the shoe would drop.
But on the other hand, if there had to be such accompanying sound, at least it’s the best I could imagine for the film: very simple and soft, slowly rising in volume, and more like sound design than a piece of “music.” Hell, there’s not even a credited composer, but I salute whomever created the sound. It put me greatly on edge every time it showed up alongside Peli’s cinematography, so despite my own reservations, it did its damn job.
… Oh yeah, there’s also a plot in here too! The writing is honestly where my expectations for Paranormal Activity were the most middling, just because I figured this would be a standard haunted house plot that’s probably just executed well. But while that’s mostly the case, I was still very pleasantly surprised by how effective the story ended up being. In short, Micah is almost the villain of the entire movie because of how transparently selfish his desire to film everything and capture evidence is. You could argue how unrealistic it is for him to film as much as he does, but that plays into his character because he clearly wants to be the big hero who tackles this problem himself.
Even when Katie insists that he ease up and just let her live with her haunting, her wishes are left unfulfilled, adding to her stress. It’s stated early on that demons supposedly feed off of negative energy to get stronger, which means Micah’s persistence and increasingly bitter spats with Katie over the issue are likely making the demon even stronger. It’s almost like Katie’s haunting is an extension of the dysfunctional relationship that’s smothering her until all of her agency is gone.
Katie’s performance as Katie is wince-inducingly pained, growing more urgent and explosive yet also defeated and hopeless as the film goes on. Micah’s also great as Micah. (Okay, seriously, could ten seconds not be spent coming up with different names?) His early enthusiasm for what he’s doing slowly gives way to his more audible blind motivation to prove himself. He’s someone you want to still be on board with, especially since it’s clear he does truly love and care for Katie. But he just keeps insisting on being both of their worst enemies. Both actors nail the earlier conversations that feel realistically casual, and then slide perfectly into the still-realistic explosions of screams and insults that come later. Nothing in Paranormal Activity ever feels like it’s coming from a movie.
Is it improbable just how committed to saving the day Micah is? Maybe. Should someone else have caught on to what’s happening and stepped in? I guess. But the commitment to every beat and my own desire to give into the illusion was all the fuel my suspension of disbelief needed. I’ve gone from being mildly curious about the Paranormal Activity franchise to now hoping to catch all of them. Even if I’m sure they’ll decline in quality, I feel like a fool to have let this one go unwatched for as long as I have, so I don’t plan on sleeping on this franchise again.
I wanted to talk about Paranormal Activity because I feel like its reputation is that of a fad. It was hugely popular in its time and got a slew of other found footage films going in its wake, but I don’t think it’s held with as much reverence today as I’m holding it in now. If you’re like me and have passed on it for any of those reasons, I think it’s obvious how much I recommend you change that. I’m absolutely not going to promise that you’ll have the same shell-shocked reaction as me, but I can’t be the only one to find it this scary. It was the perfect new Halloween movie for me to put on, and it gave me an experience I’m never going to forget.
Paranormal Activity is now available to watch on digital and on demand.