It’s taken me a long time to write about this movie, mostly because it’s hard to think of what to say. If you’re a fan of horror films and enjoy the enterprise of being scared you’ll most likely enjoy yourself for a majority of Paranormal Activity. If you’re skeptical about the premise (and believe me, I don’t blame you) then the movie probably won’t work for you on a fundamental level. There are barely any special effects to speak of, so you’re not going to be wowed by the technical brilliance of this film at any point. The acting ranges from passable improvisation to occasional charm. But is the movie genuinely scary? That’s for the audience to decide.
I’m a big advocate for seeing horror films in the theater. While Paranormal could work equally well on DVD in the comfort of your own home (possibly better, as the movie definitely plays up the fear of being home alone) I think there’s something to be said for the communal aspect of being scared. There’s something deeply human and communal about a good fright, in the same way that it’s oddly reassuring to hear the screams of the people ahead of you in a haunted house. Even if the worst is around the corner, you know you’re not the only one experiencing it. Call it Schadenfreude or safety in numbers, but it’s fun to know you’re not alone in feeling scared.
I lucked out because my theater was ready to be frightened. Even though there were relatively few people in the audience, that didn’t stop a nervous energy from creeping over all of us. My favorite moment of the movie was when a teenage girl shouted, “Oh damn!” at a particularly nerve-wracking moment. Everyone in the theater erupted in laughter, not at the inarticulate nature of the comment, but because we were all sitting there thinking the same thing. And it felt good to laugh, to be bonding with the other people in the audience on some human level. We paid to see a work of fiction. We sat in the theater like we’ve done countless times before. But rather than whispering quietly to the person next to us, we were unanimously joined in the gasps, shrieks, and yes, even the yawns of this picture. And regardless of the narrative quality of the film as a whole, the ability to elicit an emotional response from a group of people and unite them is something that should be greatly credited to this film, no matter what you think of it.
As for the story itself, it’s pretty straight-forward Amityville-style stuff. An unmarried couple moves in together. They hear creepy noises. They get a camera to document it. Spooky stuff happens. Then spookier stuff happens, and so on. I would call this the haunted house soul-sister to 2003’s Open Water, as both movies focus on a couple experiencing unpleasant things as captured on handicam. Unlike that movie, the characters in Paranormal are actually likable, which is a plus, but that doesn’t stop Paranormal from feeling painfully long and pointlessly dull at points even at a brisk 86 minutes.
I’ll admit that when I got back from the theater, I was relatively spooked by every normal house noise I heard, under the assumption that some post-movie ghost had followed me home Haunted Mansion-style. Like most ghosts, the feeling quickly evaporated. As far as lasting scares go I’d still place Orphan higher on the mantle than Paranormal. Sure, that movie was cheesy but it was three times more disturbing than Paranormal Activity ever even attempts to be. For most, this movie has the lasting value of a Communion wafer. You forget about it as soon as you leave the building. After the sixteenth time the couple went to bed and set up the camera to spot anything weird, the nuance of the trope was gone. By the time visibly horrifying things actually do happen in the movie (note: three minutes from the end) the result is less satisfying than it should be. It’s the equivalent of seeing the alien at the end of Signs. Sure, it’s nice to know what the creature looks like, but when we see it in broad daylight it kind of robs it of its natural power, like seeing a sleeping lion at the zoo. The ending of Paranormal is one of the biggest problems with the picture because there is no pay-off. Nothing that happens in those final moments is half as scary as the tension that preceded it, so you’re left wondering if any of it mattered at all. (Hint: It didn’t.) As you walk out of the theater, I challenge you to have a thought other than “that was kind of scary” or “that was kind of boring.” Much like the spirits in the movie, Paranormal Activity is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Apologies to both Shakespeare and Faulkner on this one.)