You can admit it. It’s just the two of us here. This is a safe space, if you will. There was a small part of you that thought Paranormal Activity was a true story. I’m not judging you. Believe me, I fell for the same thing back in 1999 when I watched The Blair Witch Project for the first time. On the surface, you knew that it was “just a movie” and that there’s no way it could be real, but deep down in your soul, there was part of you that wasn’t quite so sure.
What was it about these movies, released a decade apart, that made us second-guess our beliefs and make us doubt our own sanity? Was it the found footage format? Was it the subject matter? Maybe it was the marketing campaigns? I blame my youth, naivety, and my deep, intense desire for monsters to be real for believing those kids really were lost in the woods near Burkittsville, but we really can’t use those excuses for Paranormal Activity.
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“…you knew that it was “just a movie” […] but deep down in your soul, there was part of you that wasn’t quite so sure.”
The world grew up in the 2000’s. By the time it was released in 2009, everyone had a smartphone in their pocket. The internet, and all the knowledge it contained, was at our fingertips. We were jaded by the War on Terror and had to attend funerals for our high school friends who died too early in the deserts of the Middle East. Monsters were very real, and they could be found on our television screens during the nightly news. So, what made this film about a demon haunting a loving couple seem like a documentary, and not the brilliantly executed horror film it was?
Dr. Fredrichs: Viewer Avatar
The reason for the effectiveness of Paranormal Activity rests in the inclusion of Dr. Fredrichs. I know what you’re thinking, how can the addition of a psychic into the spooky soup make the film more realistic? It’s not his psychic ability that makes it believable, it’s what he does with his abilities that drives the realism home.
Dr. Fredrichs, if you remember, was brought in by Katie to help her understand the problems tormenting her and her boyfriend. He sits down with them and, very lovingly, tells them that he is not the expert in her type of haunting. He deals with ghostly manifestations, or spirits that were once human, and what they are dealing is something very different. They are facing off with a demon, an evil entity whose only goal is the oppression and possession of Katie herself, not their home. He gives them the contact information of someone who is an expert in this area, and bids them good luck.
“Paranormal Activity is a nearly perfect film, but it’s the small contribution from Dr. Fredrichs that made it so believable.”
Later in the film, once things start to get really bad, they try to contact the person Dr. Fredrichs recommended. He, unfortunately, is out of the country, so Dr. Fredrichs agrees to come back over and see what he can do to help. In other possession films, this is where he would ride into the darkness and save Katie from the possessing demon. This is the point in the plot where the entity has no choice but to bend to the will of the man of faith, like Pazuzu in Friedkin’s The Exorcist or in The Conjuring universe. What happened next, however, helped set Paranormal Activity apart from these other films and created the sense of realism that made the movie a worldwide phenomenon.
Dr. Fredrichs, after spending about 10 seconds in the home, runs away. The shining knight of faith, and the last hope for Katie and Micah, bolts out the door. He bounces so quickly that he almost leaves a Fredrichs-shaped hole in the door. It’s a devastating moment for both the tormented couple and the viewers along for the ride. Once he proclaims that he cannot help them and jets, we know that there is no turning back and no way out of this mess.
“The good doctor’s departure gives the demon the victory it was looking for the entire time. It now has the hopelessly alone Katie right where it wants her.”
Not only did his reaction portend the doom of the couple, but it actually makes sense. The horror genre is fraught with characters making the worst decisions possible to advance the plot. Hell, even Micah falls into this category. This guy, with all his bravado and machismo, does everything wrong in his quest to document the ongoing activity in his home. He wants to be the one to protect Katie, and he scoffs at the idea of psychics coming in to help. He will do it, alone, and he is tough enough to get it done. Everything he does, from the cameras to the powder on the floor to the Ouija board, just makes things worse for Katie. Dr. Fredrichs, on the other hand, behaves like the vast majority of us would, and gets the hell out of there.
When Micah finally agrees to get Dr. Fredrichs back into the home, it’s his way of admitting defeat. He is saying to his girlfriend that he cannot, in fact, protect her and that he needs another person to come in to save the day. He relinquishes control (which is very difficult to do, let me tell you) and hands their fate over to an outsider. He is waving the white flag, hoping that his savior will come in and rescue the damsel he failed to save. Dr. Fredrich’s reaction when he enters their home destroys any hope of redemption. The good doctor’s departure gives the demon the victory it was looking for the entire time. It now has the hopelessly alone Katie right where it wants her. A nighttime dragging and a little nibble later, and she’s all his.
Paranormal Activity is a nearly perfect film, but it’s the small contribution from Dr. Fredrichs that made it so believable. If any of us where in his shoes, we would have done the same damn thing. I know that, personally, I would have left burn marks on their floor getting out of there. I think the majority of you reading this would have done the same. This refreshing role set the film apart from other movies in the found-footage sub-genre and helped make Paranormal Activity one of the scariest, and most realistic, horror films ever.
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