For better or worse, the 2009 Big Apple Comic Con featured just as many B-list celebrities as it did comic book creators. None the less, I was enthusiastic to meet Robb Demarest, host of the Syfy Channel’s original series, Ghost Hunters International. Demarest was both engaging and gregarious, and was more than willing to answer all of the questions I batted his way. But it didn’t take long for our conversation to move away from his reality show to the mock documentary, Paranormal Activity, a film that caused an undercurrent to buzz throughout the convention because of its nationwide release that very same weekend. Luckily, I had plans to see the movie the same night I talked with Demarest, and I promised him I’d report back before the convention ended to let him know if it was worth all of the hype.
Thankfully, Paranormal Activity is worth all of the attention it’s received, and much more. Not since The Blair Witch Project, a film I greatly admire to this day for its spooky originality, have I enjoyed a cinematic experience for both its savvy simplicity and the nail-biting terror it evokes. This movie isn’t just scary—it’s tormenting, filled with a haunting mood of existentialism that I have yet to shake off.
Paranormal Activity opens by introducing Micah and Katie, an attractive and charming couple that’s just recently settled into their new San Diego home. Micah (a day trader) and Katie (a college student) are two individuals that anyone would want to be friends with, as their youth and vigor are introduced to us via a series of video cameras set up around the couple’s home. Why are there cameras? Well, Katie suspects that she’s being haunted by a supernatural presence that’s stalked her since childhood, and Micah (more intrigued than concerned) is capitalizing on the opportunity to become an amateur filmmaker.
Events turn eerie as Micah begins setting up a camera on a tripod in the master bedroom every night. And as the couple sleeps, we become privy to everything they are not immediately aware of. Nothing of great significance happens at first; keys are misplaced, a chandelier gently swings when it should be still. But as each night passes, the paranormal occurrences escalate. Hoping to counteract the haunting, Katie enlists a psychic for help, but he’s of little use and only manages to further upset the situation. Micah, meanwhile, views everything as one big joke.
Night after night, the ghostly activity intensifies, and a careful eye will watch the time code in the right-hand corner. The occurrences always take place between 3 and 4 a.m. (a time believed by some to be the Witching Hour); it’s a clever trick on the part of director Oren Peli, who never calls attention to the detail during the course of the movie. And during this hour, unsettling events take place: lights flicker on and off, footsteps appear on the floor, doors slam shut, bed sheets move about, and a shadow lurks across the wall. The activity eventually manifests during the day, flaunting its evil before the terrified couple.
Paranormal Activity is a feat of masterful filmmaking, demonstrating why ghost stories are such cherished traditions. Such tales send a chilling whisper into the darkest corners of our imagination: how are we to protect against that which cannot be seen, battle against that which cannot be touched? Therein is the power of Paranormal Activity, as the most frightening sequences occur when Micah and Katie are fast asleep, unaware of all the happenings that we in the audience are witnessing.
There are scenes that are objectively designed to scare the audience more than others, but there are other happenings that are much subtler, much simpler, adding to the mystery of the film. Consider, for example, an occurrence where the light of a hallway closet turns on and off while the couple sleeps. This scene, more than any other one, left me off balance despite its simplicity. Of all the wickedness that happens throughout the movie, what’s the purpose of a ghost leaving a hallway light burning for minutes on end, only to mysteriously switch it off again? Questions like that raced through my mind as the film progressed, marking it as a truly engaging experience.
Without a doubt, Paranormal Activity demonstrates that all a filmmaker needs is creative integrity and a passion for the medium—not a bulging budget. The film not only delivers blood-chilling scares, but it’s smartly crafted, establishing a solid beat of plot progression from the very beginning up until the explosive end. As the paranormal activity increases, we see the couple deteriorate, and the house looses its modern beauty and turns into an ominous monument.
Before the finale of Big Apple Comic Con, I remained true to my word and returned to Robb Demarest to give him my thoughts on the film, telling him it was well worth his time both as a paranormal investigator and as a moviegoer. Encouraged by my recommendation, he asked me if the ending of the film was predictable. It was a difficult question to answer. In one respect, the objective ending is expected, but there was a subjective response in my heart to what transpired onscreen. “I’ll leave you with this,” I said to him. “There’s comes a point in the movie where you identify and care for the characters, and you only want the best for them. Yes, the final scene is expectedly scary, but it’s unexpectedly sad.”
This movie review originally appeared on Broken Frontier on 26 October 2009.