dir. Oren Peli
Bound by no earthly law—physical or otherwise—if a demon so chose, if he spun the roulette wheel designating you as his next victim, he could just come right out brandishing a sword made of syphilitic, flaming penises and go in for the kill, leaving you only with the retina-searing image of the dead-infant necklace dangling over his chest as he clove from you your head. Anything is within the realm of possibility as far as the supernatural is concerned: that’s what makes the supernatural supernatural. But no, in movie after movie, the devil is coy like a motherfucker. He’s gotta tease, he’s gotta spook you just a little: with a slight noise of scratching on the wall one night, a door moved slightly the next, and a dresser drawer left ajar the night after. Why does the devil care so for the earthly, the human concerns of slow-burning soul-chilling mounting dread? In essence, why are demons so fond of foreplay?
Granted, this is a critique not specific to Paranormal Activity, the ostensible focus of this piece, but it is something that I thought about while watching this found footage horror flick. And, honestly, it ain’t really a huge critique. After all, a horror movie wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if the demon came out straightaway and did away the protagonists. What would the remaining ninety minutes concern? I guess the demons could sit around a kitchen table and have buttered scones with tea, discussing their day, bitching about the toils of demoning. So yeah, my critique is pointless, and again, one not aimed directly at Paranormal Activity; but it is a concern, nonetheless, that I doubt would have come to light were it not for Paranormal Activity’s found footage format.
The primary virtue of this format—well, tertiary, I should say; cheapness and ease of production are the two biggest reasons studios have been so fond of late to produce these films—is that it lends a certain air of credibility to the proceedings. The cheap look and feel of the digital picture is associated in our collective unconscious with the real, with home movies (and sex tapes). And so, when a movie uses this format, it taps into something unspoken, just a general feeling we get when see these images: namely, what we are seeing is real. Which is a great boon to supernatural horror movies, whose sole purpose is to get us to believe (for ninety minutes, anyway), and thus be scared by that which we know is not real—you know, ghosts and demons and the devil and whatnot. (Of course, now that digital has so advanced, the distinctions between it and film are starting to fall by the wayside. And though I’m far behind on these found footage films, I would imagine that they will start to lose their power as the digital image makes greater strides toward emulating film.)
And where the found footage format creates the illusion of verisimilitude, subconsciously making as a “believe” that what we are seeing is real, thus eliciting a greater emotional response; it also works to reveal the flaws inherent in the genres it appropriates. Or, if not flaws, necessarily, then it forefronts the clichés of the genres it is used for. Yes, the shooting method may be different, but these films still tend to follow the beats we’re all familiar with from these pictures. So, as I was watching Paranormal Activity, as my brain was fooled by the digital image into believing what I was watching the real, I was also paradoxically made more aware of the supernatural conventions followed in all of these films; I kept being nagged by the question posed at the start of this piece: if the devil wanted to possess this woman, why didn’t he choose to come out of the gate swinging? What did he gain with his slow-burn method? Obviously, as horror viewers we know why filmmakers do this: slowly building, mounting dread is far more unsettling and more effectively scary than evil that announces itself in full form right from the get-go. The unknown is scarier than the known. And, for what it’s worth, I found Paranormal Activity extremely effective. It was a genuinely chilling movie. So yeah, my complaint has no merit.