Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007)
‘What happens when you sleep?’

So, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, still in the news right now for scaring the pants off audiences the world over, is the “scariest movie of the year” and it’s no surprise to learn that the digital camera has everything to do with its success. The film has been spooking, chilling and thrilling millions of us as we share helplessly in its first-person POV: whether locked off in its familiar position at the foot of the tormented couple’s bed, or as a constituent part of the action itself, the first “eye” so to speak into the loft and the first through the blinds downstairs registering the chill of night. Via our complete immersion in the reality of the home video, we become linked (again) to one character, one subjectivity, and we are asked to feel the loss of that character finally when he and the camera is abandoned; when the film abandons us.

For those who don’t know, Paranormal was produced for $15,000 by Blumhouse Productions, it was sold for $300,000 to Paramount, who then marketed and distributed the movie domestically at an estimated cost of $10 million. It was well-reported that by its fifth weekend the film had dispatched Lionsgate’s Saw VI at the box-office and grossed in the region of $62 million across 1,945 playdates. As a result, it’s gone on to accrue the status of a small cultural phenomenon, with many claiming that if you don't watch it in a crowded cinema then you shouldn't watch it at all. So, firstly, I declare I saw it late on a Saturday night in the heart of London’s Leicester Square, with a great audience that was clearly up for a lot of howling and derision. I note this from the outset because, unlike Sanchez and Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, there’s very little confusion, human agency or narrative jeopardy in Paranormal to trigger unease on the part of the viewer: I can imagine for instance that, when viewed in isolation, the experience of watching Paranormal Activity at home or on a computer is entirely banausic. Secondly, the film builds to a final dramatic movement which it intends as a rallying crowd-pleaser but which is also, surprisingly, genuinely interesting on reflection. The graphic image of Katie lying in bed in broad daylight, for instance, nearly comatose under the influence of whatever force now commands her, eerily recalls the obscure black and white photograph glimpsed earlier of her torpid “double,” long since deceased — a photograph that is discovered incidentally by Katie’s boyfriend on a website that looks as old as the web itself. And though the scenes in which Katie rocks back and forth for hours at the bedside are largely played for giggles, the sight of her body vanishing unceremoniously in the open doorway and into the darkness of the stairwell invariably recalls the highly staged and downright brilliant photography of FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922).

Katie (Katie Featherston) in Paranormal Activity (2009)

There’s been some commentary in the press about what precisely it is that affected audiences are taking away with them after a screening. Mark Kermode, for instance, is these days regularly questioning the film’s efficacy as horror (from a position of non-partisanship), asking why some viewers are taking its apparent jouissance so close to heart. That isn’t to say that the film’s pleasures are necessarily orgasmic of course, at least not in the traditional literary sense of a thumping, exploding, attainable pleasure that leaves you drained, tingling and sweetly enervated; no, rather the film comes closer I think to forging a (possibly intense) connection between the self and the diegesis, which the fantasy then propels beyond boundary. In other words, the filmmakers make us participants and scare us, but the film does something else — something less to do with horror, then, and more to do with the comforting zone, the behavioural routine, of domestic familiarity. It is true, admittedly, that horror (or “paranormal activity”) is the central pleasure here, given that we are aligned with characters who experience shocks, bangs and frights first-hand. Over the course of the film we’re presented not with the vision of a demon or apparition but the sensational affect of that demon. We hear its clumping (one presumes) hooves enter the bedroom, we see the powdery trail left in its wake (apparently testament to its corporeality, albeit in another dimension seemingly), we witness both its brutal attack on Katie and, in a manner reminiscent of Sidney J. Furie’s bulky 1981 horror The Entity, its salacious attempts to defile her when vulnerable. Those who read the film as a straightforward horror tract, unproblematically supernatural at its core, will see in Katie’s “possession” the creature’s influence clearly, not least in the film’s rousing final moments when she “kills off” her boyfriend’s annoying camera (as my viewing companion remarked at the time “it was worth the £10 just for that”).

For me, Paranormal Activity recalls Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a film in which the director’s roving eye ritually prowls the communal spaces of an American high school (hallways, canteen, library, football field) over and over again, until the institution feels properly “lived in,” as familiar as one’s own workplace. This same routine behaviour of the roving lens is evidenced in Paranormal, albeit less discreetly. If horror is the catalyst which moves the spectator beyond the self — if the “fantasy” breaks the boundary of self-control, permitting us to sample one of the possible delights of jouissance in the final reel — then importantly the warm domestic setting of the Katie and Micah household forges this connection from the outset. I suggest that affected audiences lament the loss of this connection in the aftermath of the film. I don’t think audiences are troubled by effects (neither aural nor visual), but rather by a sense of lack; what we lament “losing” is precisely this emotional connection which we forge with the domestic milieu, with the familiar. How many times, for instance, does the first-person camera, with which we are aligned, wander out into the hallway in order to see downstairs? Not surprisingly, the ritual leaves its mark on us, as participant-spectators. We glimpse the white teddybear at the end of the hall so often that it becomes imbued with personal history (the prize that Micah (the subjective “I”) won with Katie (“my girlfriend”) at the fair on a biting winter’s evening). And we see that big-screen TV so many times that its mystery, its attractive commodity glamour, inevitably fades like the formerly intoxicating appeal of an ex-lover. So we’re no longer simply transgressing our own spectatorial position of detachment (in which process we are aligned with the camera to mimic a POV), but we are beginning to “learn,” behaviourally, the lives of others, the rituals and routines of tangible characters as if we have lived in their place. There comes a point in the film when the camera (having been waved so many times around the kitchen and either deposited on a countertop or left in the living room watching from afar) becomes almost childlike in its voyeurism; we, too, mimic the POV, and so we begin to experience the house (or at least, the kitchen area) for a moment as the vulnerable child, tracing the contours of the kitchen units like a pranksterish sneak.

Importantly, then, the “surface” value of spectatorial mobility is supplanted by the first-person experience, by the ceremony and propriety of domestic ritual. The POV, therefore, is no longer about action, or story “event” as evidenced in Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008), nor is it necessarily “about” the documented quasi-reality of Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980), nor the promise of interactivity and mobility offered by The Blair Witch and [Rec.] (Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, 2007). Paranormal Activity is about lived experience. At its heart it is about the home, about our personal attachment to our homes, and our established customs in the home. That may seem like an obvious point to make, but it signifies nonetheless an interesting development in the aesthetic of handheld “found footage” movies. A first-person POV film that chimes with its audience on account of its depiction of ritual behaviour, and custom, is I think finally, demonstrably, tapping Jung’s conception of the collective unconscious.

6 December, 2009


Lauren Begley said...

Insightful review, Ian. What I think is particularly interesting about this film is the grassroots viral marketing campaign that brought the low-budget film to blockbuster status. I wrote more about this here:

ian said...

Thanks for the link Lauren. I'm with you in spirit about the online marketing, but perhaps just not on paper. :-) I mean, I wouldn't claim it "brought the low budget film to blockbuster status" as you contend (I'd say Paramount did that via old media ad spend) ... As far as I can see it, the online campaign was another (small) form of email marketing, the "social" element of which has been predictably overstated; "blockbuster" movies, for instance, pull far greater than 1 million "demands" or "votes" in their respective email campaigns: so Paranormal barely caused a flutter on the web. In the end, I'd agree with you, it is worth mentioning in an end of year wrap-up of advertising creative, but as an integrated campaign it's small-fry.

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