When we think of found footage our minds typically travel to one of two places: The dreaded Maryland woods of Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, or the painfully average home of Micah and Katie in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. The two conjure up images from a hand-held perspective giving viewers a unique first-person experience into an authentic plane of horror. Two different locations. Two different hauntings. Two different sets of victims. All caught on tape. Both are huge milestones in the horror genre as well as in film as a whole. What sets Paranormal Activity aside from other horror films, especially those of the found-footage angle, is the combination of its medium, its relatable subjects and environment, and the fact that it was made with less money than the average price of a used compact car.
Though may have lost some of its initial luster now that we’ve been exposed to more contemporary, higher budgeted, higher-browed visuals of horror, there is no denying the reign of simplistic scares Paranormal Activity supplied on the answers with for years. When we take a closer look at the film’s impact and financial success it is easier to see there are so many more terrifying factors to Paranormal Activity than its extreme found-footage perspective. Yes, the point-of-view is a huge contribution, but I can identify five more major reasons why Paranormal Activity is still scary… and always will be.
Shot with a true home video camera and no real script in just seven days, computer software programmer and extremely novice filmmaker Oren Peli set out to make a believable horror film with a plausible video recording reasoning. After moving into his suburban home alone and being disturbed by a few unexplained bumps in the night, Peli knew he could capture raw fear using the tormenting tricks of an empty house as the basis for his practical horror story plot. What if the sounds we hear or movements we feel are more than just our minds playing tricks on us? What if they turn into something worse than a few creaking doors or slight tugs at our bedsheets?
Paranormal Activity’s budget was a low $15,000. It was screened at the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival eventually finding a distributor when it caught the eye of a Miramax Films executive at the time, you know him as Jason Blum. Blum and Peli worked on editing Paranormal Activity before submitting it to the Sundance Film Festival where it was rejected. However, the film’s shopped DVD drew up a wave of recognition from DreamWorks executives, including Steven Spielberg himself, and was acquired under the plan to reshoot with a bigger budget. During a test screening of the original film, viewers began walking out, causing worry among the executives until they learned why the audience couldn’t stay in their seats: they were scared.
“During a test screening of the original film, viewers began walking out, causing worry among the executives until they learned why the audience couldn’t stay in their seats: they were scared.”
Obviously, the reshoot was scrapped and the original Paranormal Activity was marketed, limitedly, through Eventful online. Once eleven of twelve college theaters sold out for initial screenings and 33 additional screenings in 20 larger market cities sold out as well, Paramount Pictures (which had acquired DreamWorks) couldn’t help but push the low-budget indie horror film into a full limited release. An overwhelmingly positive reception demanded a worldwide domestic release in late October of 2007. Paranormal Activity grossed over $193 million at the box office. It is the most profitable film, not just as a horror film, but the most profitable one generally made in the history of cinema. The entire franchise has received over 30 times the series’ overall budget! Those humble beginnings and resulting numbers alone are impressive and scary.
$193,000,000 from $15,000.
Our subjected couple, Katie and Micah, Are the two characters we a company through the mounting paranormal experience. What makes them such special people is that there’s nothing special about them at all. Both Micah and Katie are the epitome of an average couple, old enough to be practical and mature and young enough to be naive and relative to the audience. They’re amateurs when it comes to the situation they find themselves in throughout Paranormal Activity and are completely helpless when the haunting kicks into overdrive.
“What makes them such special people is that there’s nothing special about them at all.”
This might be a factor that goes unnoticed, but is actually one of Paranormal Activity’s most important attributes. It puts the average viewer in the shoes of the average character experiencing the emotions and the scares. The simplicity of the scares hinge on the vulnerability of these very real people. Peli understood an important screenwriting rule of thumb starting with the simple profile of his two main, and pretty much only, characters: if the audience can identify with the characters, they can identify with the fear.
Back To Suburbia
Before the influx of new age haunted house and possession stories filled the horror genre to the brim, Paranormal Activity pulled a Poltergeist and brought the scares back to a more personal type of turf. Peli’s move into a typical suburban home ignited his creativity and set the eerily familiar stage for the realistic terror he was about to turn loose. Katie and Micah‘s home is one we all have visited, lived in, or may even aspire to find ourselves in one day in the future. It’s moderate and modest, the very picture of adult millennial suburbia – I’d recognize the cookie cutter beige walls and standard builder light fixtures anywhere. Peli puts the audience in a place of quaint comfort and then progressively turns the dial-up on the presence of Katie and Micah’s live-in demon.
Of course it’s not the first haunting to plague suburbia, but an expert choice for a beginner like Peli. It’s another organic factor a large majority of audiences can identify with. A lot of people have a home, to all degrees, but Peli’s neighborhood choice for Micah and Katie‘s growing paranormal issues serves as a major threat to add to Paranormal Activity’s scare factor. While the couple is surrounded by other homes in an average community, they are totally alone in their demonic battle. They reside in a familiar residence in a harmless environment, but when it comes to the dangerous presence they document within their house they find that they are completely vulnerable, helpless, and isolated no matter how many homes line in their street.
What We Don’t See
It has always been a struggle for filmmakers in the horror genre to create a perfect scare. Whether they show us what we’re dying to see or hide too much to keep the mystery going, fans are hard to please. What Paranormal Activity did so well was that it subtracted the visuals from the equation and relied heavily on everything viewers don’t see. Paranormal Activity’s jump scares have a more fluid feel to them courtesy of the camera point-of-view, the time jumps throughout the night add an uneasy sense of nerve, and all of the noises and movement heard in the secondary rooms create an ensemble of effortless terror.
The authenticity of Paranormal Activity is quite possibly the film’s greatest strength. By practicing restraint, and having a limited budget, Peli affectively toys with the mind of viewers by allowing their psyches to wander when it comes to everything they are not seeing. The greatest element contributing to this authenticity is the lack of score to alert audiences to the film’s tension. There is no score in real life hauntings, so Peli smartly utilizes the reality of Paranormal Activity’s found-footage medium to trap the audience in real surroundings. These are the types of scares we can experience ourselves, whether it’s just the wind or a developing demonic spirit.
Between The Blair Witch Project’s release in 1999 and Paranormal Activity’s released in 2007, you can see the trend in paranormal, supernatural hunting stories that audiences craved, but did not get a 100% product. Found-footage style films were dead, but as soon as Peli’s franchise took off there was a sudden boom in similar platforms (some great films and some horrible ones too). The pragmatic craft, separated from the exposure to big budget, big production style filming, helped to cement Paranormal Activity as a millennium classic.
Spawning four sequels (and one Japanese sequel), one prequel, and a handful of parodies, Paranormal Activity remains a juggernaut in the horror industry, reviving found-footage types of films by the dozen. The franchise speaks for itself, proving that audiences will line up at the theater to experience the workings of the paranormal in as close to a firsthand experience as they can get. The scariest thing about Paranormal Activity is that with all of these factors combined it still managed to turn itself into a modern age classic without gore, nudity, shock value, or even heavy themes of social commentary.
Whether you are one of the millions of fans of Paranormal Activity or the simple scares and low budget found-footage conventions don’t do it for you, there’s no way to deny the tremendous impact this independent film has had on the horror genre and community. Peli is born of such pure filmmaking standards that it’s obvious he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he doesn’t take his debut production too seriously either. It’s a fun film, one that we’re able to recommend to the non-horror folk. The multitude of effortless scares are appropriate for all levels of fans. It has influenced countless artists and filmmakers since its inspiring release and has deservedly grounded itself as a staple horror film with its beyond authentic scare tactics.
I mean, don’t you automatically think that your house and soul are haunted by a demon when you see your kitchen light slightly swinging on its own?
Were you frightened the first time you saw Paranormal Activity? What is still the scariest part of the film for you? Share your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!