Pop 20: What’s next for paranormal pop culture

[5 November 2009]

By Aaron Sagers

When “New Moon,” the second film installment of “The Twilight Saga,” premieres on Nov. 20, the weekend and possibly a couple weeks after, will belong to vampires and werewolves. Immediately following the saga’s return to the top of the box office, countless new vamp projects will be greenlit, and much ink (and bytes) will be spent predicting the bloodsucking trend isn’t going away anytime soon.

That’s only partly true. Largely, the lasting vampire contenders are already in place. “Twilight” still has a couple years beneath its batty wings. “True Blood” has nailed the fun/sexy/over-the-top vampire niche for adults and “The Vampire Diaries” is a solid weekly vamp-opera for The CW set, and is a little less twee than “Twilight.”

But the glut of coffin-sleeper entertainment is already giving way to the next wave of paranormal pop culture, and the trend creeping around the corner belongs to, not werewolves or vampires, but the unknowable yet believable: ghosts.

The vampire trend has always been about sex with bad boys, forbidden love affairs and reminders of mortality. But even in their most threatening, blood-soaked depictions, modern vampires haven’t been scary because — aside from a handful of trenchcoat-wearing Goths in New Orleans — nobody believes they’re real. The fear of being slurped up by a Volturi, or by brain-eating zombies and howling-mad wolfmen for that matter, isn’t as spooky as the things we think might actually exist.

Enter “Paranormal Activity.” Like vampire flicks, the little-ghost-movie-that-could (made for only $15,000, starring a couple of unknowns, swooped up by Spielberg, yada, yada) shows victims in their most vulnerable state: While they’re sleeping. However, unlike vampire flicks, many people believe in ghosts.

The afterlife is the biggest unknown of human existence and most people try to pursue answers about it through membership in organized religions and spiritual groups. Perhaps that’s why ghost hunting is such big business on reality TV: Because for many, those disembodied souls seeking closure are directly connected to our own questions about the afterlife. But “Activity” has shown ghosts can be good for box office receipts along with reality TV ratings.

In their comforting forms, like the murdered Susie Salmon character in the upcoming “The Lovely Bones,” ghosts are watching over their families and want some cosmic resolution. Even in the new CGI-fest “A Christmas Carol,” the ghost of Jacob Marley along with the trio of seasonal spirits, may look freaky at times — as a “real” ghost might to the human eye — but they’re out to give Scrooge a charitable kick in the nightgown.

But other times, ghosts are just plain mean.

It’s fitting “Paranormal Activity” doesn’t star A-listers because it’s easier to see ourselves in the young couple on screen. Strange happenings occur in their home, and the machismo of the boyfriend — having seen a few too many episodes of “Paranormal State” — provokes, films and tries to interact with the nasty beast stalking their home.

Certainly ghost movies aren’t new. Even if they’ve not yet been labeled the current paranormal pop culture poster children like vampires, a new flick pops up every few months. “The Haunting in Connecticut,” wasn’t so successful in scaring (although the far superior, documentary “A Haunting in Connecticut” is downright disturbing), “The Unborn” and “Drag Me To Hell” are recent creeptastic examples of ghost stories. And just the trailer for “Ghosts Don’t Exist,” produced by Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley looks scary cool.

But what separates “Paranormal Activity” apart is how it ushers in a modern vibe within ghost stories of the under-seen, understated slow-burn of the unknown. We’ve all heard a creaky floorboard in the middle of the night, and had a temperamental light that switches off on its own. When it happens, and you’re under the covers in the dark, it’s not vampires that are far behind burglars and house-settling on the mental checklist of threats, it’s spectral spectators.

Or aliens. Much like ghosts, aliens and UFOs are more within the realm of the believable than the undead. The vastness of undiscovered country that is space leaves a lot of open room for other life — a possibility more than a few scientists allow for.

Beings that are smarter than us, peering into our homes and scoping us out for potential experiments, food sources or prime real estate make for the ultimate intruder nightmare. However, aside from some notable exceptions like “Signs” in 2002 and the “War of the Worlds” re-make in ‘05, aliens have been relatively quiet in pop culture lately (“District 9” doesn’t count since the humans were the monsters in that one). But if “V” is any good and the is-it-real (no, it’s not) “The Fourth Kind” makes bank, the otherworldly visitors will be joining ghosts in the next wave of go-to spooks.

While vampires will soon retreat to their coffins to rise another day (or night, as it were), it’s the things that might really be out there bumping around in the night that have staked their claim as pop culture’s next best haunts.

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Aaron Sagers writes about all things pop-culture each week, but you can follow him daily on Twitter under AaronSagers and on his site, www.paranormalpopculture.com. He can be contacted at sagers.aaron@gmail.com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/115815-pop-20-whats-next-for-paranormal-pop-culture/