The golden age of horror: Paranormal Activity (2009)

Title The golden age of horror: Paranormal Activity (2009)
Author Chris Hornbostel and Rob Morton
Posted in Features
When October 21, 2014

Chris: If we know our horror movies, then it should be pretty easy to avoid ever living in a haunted house. For instance, we know that a haunted house needs an old, drafty abandoned place..

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This movie did nothing for me. Honestly, I thought it was stupid and the titular 'paranormal activity' was a bunch of dumb gags. "Oh god, she's standing in place for hours!" The only parallel between this and "The Blair Witch Project" was it was shot like a home movie. Otherwise, "Blair Witch" was the much better scary movie.

It feels like you've been waiting and waiting for days to post this comment. I have no idea why "she's standing in place for hours" would ever be someone's first takeaway from Paranormal Activity, but OK.

Well, she does stand in place for some hours, though they pass by quite rapidly in the movie. Wasn't this movie marketed as the move that will make you scared to stand in place for too long? But I agree, the Blair Witch had much less standing, and overall, standing is probably least scaring thing one can do while erect.

The Blair Witch Project also made it seem as if only those who were dumb enough to go into haunted woods with a suspect map and no outdoorsmanship were in danger. That's what makes Paranormal Activity so good: you can do everything right and still be in trouble. I think that's why it resonates for me. That "do everything right, still doomed" thing is a big part of what makes film noir tick, as well. We like to think we live in a well-ordered universe where if we make the right decisions over and over again, we'll come out just fine. Film noir in general and Paranormal Activity specifically say "No, not so much." Without stirring anything else into the mix, a movie like that has me on edge and uneasy right away.

I didn't see this one until years after its release, and I watched it in a dark room by myself. Have to admit it scared the crap out of me. Who knew a freaking condo could provide such a frightening setting?

I haven't actually, I saw the article, and was genuinely surprised to see this movie included in the 'Golden Age of Horror' list. It didn't register to me when I perused the list the first time.

The standing for hours scene stuck out to me because of how goofy it was. Sheets being removed, footprints appearing in powder dusted on the floor… it's so corny and obvious that the whole movie just didn't work for me. I am literally dumbfounded that anyone finds this frightening.

For weird shit primarily happening in a bedroom, nothing beats "The Exorcist". That movie still creeps me out.

I loved this film. What did it for me was that it used various devices and setups to unsettle and scare you. I'm a real sucker for horrors that have that sort of toolbox to reach into so you never really know what's coming. It's something I enjoyed about Julia's Eyes too.

Despite Applejack finding the standing-there-doing-nothing goofy, I thought it was really damn creepy. Strange how both Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity make standing-there-doing-nothing really creepy. The former relies on the context of the standing there in the corner (that is, the witch's ritual with the children) to unsettle you while the latter relies on the sheer length of time she spends doing it without ever knowing what the demon is up to.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Paranormal Activity is the sound though. That really low bass noise that is just on the brink of hearing unsettled me no end. "That rumbling that sounds like it comes from somewhere between downstairs and the depths of hell" is right on the money. When that sort of frequency is low enough it's almost something you don't physically hear, but feel. At the end of Leftfield's Leftism there's this low... kind of, 'stampede' or thumping of rumbles some time after the last track. I'd always forget about it and it would almost always catch me off guard. I'd be all 'What the hell is that? It feels like something is coming through the walls!' and then I'd be like 'Ah, it's Leftism'.

I haven't caught up with these articles or managed to watch many of the movies I haven't already seen on the list but big thanks for arranging all this and taking the time to chat about it -- some really insightful thoughts!

For what it's worth, I agree. It didn't do much for me either. I think my annoyance comes from the way the boyfriend reacts to everything. He has, at one point, literally seen shit fly around and do all sorts of spooky shit and he STILL DOESNT BELIEVE. It's like the X-Files level of infuriating with that crap.

I think maybe you're misremembering the movie, Jason. Micah isn't really skeptical at any point except maybe in the first act where he sort of teases Katie about the situation. But he DID buy the camera to get film proof before the movie even starts. He's the alpha male trying to protect his shelter and his mate. "You come into MY house?!"

Ah, great catch about Blair Witch and Paranormal both using characters standing motionless to create freaky moments.

I hope I'm not pooping on the found footage parade too much with my criticisms of the genre. What these movies lack in narrative, they can make up for in experiential terror. (That's why I find it so interesting that the box office jackpot seems to be directly tied to how deeply they can penetrate our primal instincts.) But I don't like that trade off. I want story first.

Maybe I am. It has been a long time since I've seen it

I thought it was an effective low budget, haunted house film. It's definitely a one trick pony for me, and not something that could create the same feeling in me on a second viewing, but I thought it created a few creep out moments the first time around that I hadn't experienced since Blair Witch. I certainly don't consider the film a failure by any means. As for too much standing in place, I have to wonder if adding a slight sway would've worked for those complaining about it? Or was it just a general lack of a reclining state that turned them off? What about a lean? Would a lean summon up more dread? It's KIND OF a recline.

Yeah, I'm with you that the standing-there-doing-nothing is definitely scary. I love that the core source of horror in this movie is one's complete vulnerability while sleeping. The basic idea that I have no idea what my partner is doing while I'm asleep is a really great thing to play on. That she could be possessed and spending the late hours standing over me and contemplating my death is a great, scary thought.

Now I have to add my (apparently required for almost every movie on the list) anecdote from when I first saw it, years ago. The marketing people behind this movie did some really interesting and innovative stuff with it before it saw wide release. They essentially took it on tour: screening it in a small number of cities, only for midnight showings for a couple nights, then moving on. If you wanted to see it, you had to register on their website and when it came to your town they'd alert you and you could get the tickets. Anyways, it did a lot to build word-of-mouth and stuff like that.

So I, of course, dutifully registered and when it came to San Diego (where I'm from) I grabbed my tickets and went and saw it. And then it turned out to be set in San Diego. And not just anywhere in San Diego, but a little suburb in Northern San Diego called Carlsbad.

I live in Carlsbad.

At the time, I thought it was a brilliant marketing decision. Since they were taking the movie on tour and all the locations in the movie could be just about anywhere in suburbia, I thought that each new city was getting a slightly different version where the text on the screen listed a small suburb in that city. Sadly, they weren't quite that savvy, but it would have been really smart of them.

He's pretty annoying in a lot of other ways, so I think your point stands. :)

You're right! That's a great idea, and there's nothing in the film that I can remember that gives it any real specificity of place. Now that we've figured out how good found footage movies work and how to market them creatively, our next step is to make one. Quick, what's another primal fear? Attacked by boars? Blindness? Pooping oneself?