Paranormal Activity is the pseudo-documentary account of a series of demonic hauntings visited upon a young couple in the fall of 2006. In the style of The Blair Witch Project, all footage is captured by a consumer-brand hand-held camera operated by the two main characters, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, who play (versions of) themselves improvising dialogue according to an outline provided by Oren Peli, who made the bare bones horror film in his own home for just over ten thousand dollars. A couple other characters--a psychic and a best friend--appear briefly, but the bulk of the short film revolves around the cohabitating duo's daytime arguments and nocturnal frights, all captured by the constantly running camera.
The back story in Paranormal Activity is delightfully brief and ambiguous: in short, Katie has been visited periodically by a malevolent demon since she was eight years old. The demon may have been responsible for burning down her childhood home, but what the demon is or wants is never fully clarified. Now that Katie has moved in with her boyfriend, the being has reappeared with a resurgence of horrifying activity. A friendly, matter-of-fact psychic (Mark Fredrichs) explains that the entity likely feeds off of negative energy, but this dangerous news only sets off an intense cycle for the couple, who conflict over how to approach the situation. Katie, who has lived with the presence for over fifteen years and is not at all amused by it, would rather just ignore it, try to forget about it, and hope that it's influence eventually diminishes, which, according to the psychic, would likely be one of the safest paths to take. Micah, however, who has just recently found out about the entity, is intrigued by its supernatural novelty and believes that he can proactively negotiate the situation with the inhuman being. He brings paranormal technology and a Ouija board into the home trying to draw the presence out so that he can better understand it and be better prepared to deal with it. Interacting with it, however, just makes it stronger, and there is no normal means of negotiating with a satanic ghost. As the demon becomes stronger, much to Micah's fascination and Katie's dismay, their arguments intensify, the negative energy escalates, in turn making the demon scarier, which in turn makes them more afraid, hence increasing the negative energy further. The ending cannot possibly be happy.
The key scenes in the film are the time-progressed, night vision episodes of their sleeping, episodes which feature some basic special effects and some eerie sounds but which deliver the most effective terror through simple yet abnormal imagery. One night after a particularly ugly argument Katie sleepily rises from bed and stares at Micah. The time counter advances and we watch her as she stares, unmoving, in the darkness for almost two hours at her sleeping lover before finally disappearing down the dark stairs. The horror in Paranormal Activity is effective because it never distances itself from the viewer's own situation--there is no specific slasher who attacks in a particular neighborhood, no monster that haunts a particular locale, no far-fetched mythology to justify impossible occurrences. Paranormal Activity instead focuses on unfamiliar sounds, small but unnatural happenings (like a door closing when it shouldn't be), a couple fighting, and a girlfriend standing and staring for hours in the middle of the night when she should be in bed asleep. Everyone in the audience lives somewhere and everyone sleeps eventually, so it's easy to superimpose the frightening scenarios onto our own situations. It's easy to take the horror to bed with us, wondering exactly what we would do if our lovers should suddenly decide to sleep in the backyard at 3:30 on a cold morning.
This short, unnerving film is chillingly effective because it doesn't work too hard to be scary, instead trusting the viewer to use his own imagination and worst instincts to fill in the scariest details.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
d/w: Oren Peli
(Katie Featherston, Micah Sloane)