There are certain movies that define an era of cinema.
Movies that prove to be such a big hit commercially – because Hollywood is not run on artistry, only the almighty dollar – can spawn entire genres, trends, and column inches that the question of whether they are any good becomes a largely unimportant one. Paranormal Activity is one of these movies. With examples such as Dracula kicking off years of Universal monster movies, to Halloween popularising and further defining the slasher, and the misrepresented Saw and overrepresented Hostel defining torture porn, horror is the perfect landscape to see this effect in action.
Paranormal Activity is a behemoth of a franchise, and a perfect encapsulation of how a small movie can run riot all over Hollywood. Despite its place as an icon of horror cinema, The Blair Witch Project didn’t cause the hostile takeover of the box office in the same way that it’s urban successor did, mainly because no-one was really equipped to copy it. It wasn’t until the rise of digital cameras and cheaper access to equipment in the mid-00s that right circumstances for the found footage boom happen. You didn’t have to get into the same type of debt to make a movie with your friends. You just need a good story and a way to shoot it that doesn’t call attention to the amateur behind the camera.
Paranormal Activity did this by using the idea that surveillance is comforting if you are the one in control. This is what happens when Katie and her boyfriend Mika start experiencing strange events in their house. Told in a time where we still felt like we could trust the eye of a camera, the couple record as much of the phenomenon as possible while unknowingly making the entity stronger through the attention they are giving it. It’s an eerie movie, one that works on me in the same way that Halloween does: this demonic spirit moves through Katie and Mika’s lives at will, much like Michael moves through the streets of Haddonfield. It’s a quietly effective slow-motion car crash, a ghost story that does what ghost stories should do: reveal painful truths. Then the sequels went bat-shit.
Paranormal Activity’s success must have been a dream come true to its studio. Here was a movie made for buttons that not only made hundreds of millions at the box office, it had enough hanging threads to make sequel after sequel. Low cost, low risk, high reward. Paranormal Activity is the horror version of Star Wars: A New Hope (wait, come back, this is relevant) in that its producers, writers, and directors use nearly every line of the script, or an iconic moment, and build a whole movie around it. It worked too.
Paranormal Activity 2 and 3 dig into the hints and portents of Katie’s upbringing: introducing her sisters family, which leads to a prequel where we see their upbringing, then The Ghost Dimension in which all of it comes to a slightly confusing conclusion. All of this centres around the machinations of a cult of witches led by Katie’s grandmother, as they orchestrate a decades long plan to give the franchise’s demon, Tobi, a corporeal body. The lore of the series is frustrating and vague. There is only a little more detail at the end of each movie but when I got to those little nuggets I was immediately on to the next one. Does that make them good movies? No, but they are solid examples of the genre and how compelling it can be.
That, I think, as well as the technology, is the appeal of these movies. Through our cameras, our security systems, even our Nintendo Wii’s, we are looking to see into the parts of the world and make them understandable. Except that’s where the monsters live. I think the most appropriate visual metaphor for the whole series is the tapes of Katie and her sister’s childhood. Not what’s on them, but the tapes themselves. Home movies promise to capture and detail good memories, but inside them are secrets that lurk behind the façade.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image via IMDB)