“Paranormal Activity” and the Pinocchio Complex


Since The Blair Witch Project ten non-coincidental years ago, the horror audience, perhaps taking its lead from the non-fiction/memoir trend on the bookshelf or from the reality push on television — and, yes, from the success of Blair Witch itself — has been particularly susceptible to material with some vague claim to ‘truth.’ Any movie which can pretend to be based on a supposedly verifiable series of events already has a chance.

However, in the 40 years since The Amityville Horror, dramatizations of those supposedly-real events have gotten loose enough — special-effects laden enough, star-power re-packaged enough — that the audience no longer trusts the dramatization’s loyalty to the core story. Recent attempts like An American Haunting (2005), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and A Haunting in Connecticut (2009) have, due largely to their slickness, the high quality of their production, passed through the box office the same as Darkness (2002), say, or The Orphanage (2007), or Dark Water (2005), each of which did what they set out to do, but made no pretense at being ‘real’ in order to get it done, instead relying on the power and felt ‘truth’ of the wonderfully unverifiable story.

But of course this marketing technique, this scaring audiences by suggesting that, since this ‘really’ happened, it could ‘really’ happen to you as well — the Psycho audience knew full-well about Ed Gein — has been in play at least since William Castle and Robert Bloch’s 1964 Strait Jacket, and “it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie” was supposed to be the ward that would keep Last House on the Left (1972) from getting to you as it wanted. But saying this has the opposite effect, the repetition suggesting that you’re having to convince yourself. That you know better — that this footage is, in fact, as the character Max Parry wants you to believe in the videotape of The Last Horror Show (2003), ‘real.’ And does Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) not gain at least a shred of credibility when you learn that Wes Craven dreamed it up after reading a newspaper article about teens dying of fright in their sleep?

If it’s real, or even feels real, then that can be used against us. To scare us.

Paranormal Activity uses this tactic especially well.

Yes, though, like The Blair Witch Project — like The Wicksboro Incident (2003), like [Rec] and Cloverfield and District 9 more recently (2007, 2008, 2009) — Paranormal Activity is a ‘shaky cam’ movie, a handheld affair, a convention of this by-now sub-set of horror, perhaps owing its existence if not to the camera in Peeping Tom (1960), then at least to the unsteady, giallo-derived point-of-view shot that John Carpenter used to initially unsettle, dislocate, and then do what he wants with us in Halloween (1978). Only, here, the shaky camera isn’t meant to force an identification or to delay recognition, it’s meant to evoke the film’s amateurishness, its unintentional nature. The ‘rawness’ of the feed is specifically what’s supposed to authenticate the story, make it ‘real.’ A rhetorical device, yes. However, whereas people were taking motion-sickness tablets for Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity very cannily — as you see in the trailer — sets its handheld camera up on a tripod for most of the proceedings, thus maintaining the necessary ‘rawness’ while at the same time steadying the image for the queasy.

And that’s not its only smart move.

Where Paranormal Activity really comes into its own is its rhetoric of legitimacy — how it uses itself to authenticate itself, and thus furthers the pretence of being real. A Pinocchio Complex, indeed — following This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Man Bites Dog (1992), to name a couple of the groundbreakers, this movie doesn’t want to be a movie, but a documentary. It wants to have the same punch as, say, Capturing the Friedmans (2003), which also uses the ‘archival footage’ to maximum effect. As for these specific devices that Paranormal Activity makes such excellent use of — and without giving too much away; it’s the little stuff anyway, the stuff that’s not the focus of the shot that counts — consider how certain refrigerator magnets are blurred out early on, or how the phonebook is pixelized. The effect of this is to establish for us that whatever names or numbers are on those magnets or phonebooks, they’re not integral here, can be blurred out without losing any vital story element, can be blurred out to protect the innocent (unlike the blurring in music videos, which has more to do with brand association and product mis-placement). More importantly, though, the suggestion under that blurring is what we should be paying attention to: that those items are even there to be blurred out in the first place, that tells us that this isn’t staged, that no set or prop people agonized over this or that placement. It tells us that, as in reality, there’s going to be items in the background which don’t contribute at all.

This is how Pinocchio becomes a real boy, yes.

Another way is that, instead of using title cards or Trainspotting (1996) overlays to make a ‘this is that footage’/House of Leaves (2000) opening gambit, Paranormal Activity instead just drops us immediately into the first night, and then even numbers that night for us, thereby establishing what we know is going to be a cycle of nights, a series of events, culminating in . . . something, it doesn’t matter what. Just the existence of that cycle, that series, that numbering, it tells us that there’s a structure here, or at least a pretty reasonable substitute: a ticking clock, counting us down to some inexorable yet completely unguessable end. Clever. In addition, overlaying those title cards — Night One, Night Two, and on and on, like hammers falling behind us as we run, no fancy fonts or wipes, just the facts — stenciling those with finality over their respective scenes indicates the presence of some editor, or collator. And, of course, editors and collators, they’re not necessary unless the raw mass of footage needed some editing, right? Some collating, at least, if not some narrative selection in order to economize the story. What the implied presence of the editor does here, then, is essentially to hallow the footage, to attempt to put it beyond question. To make it again ‘real,’ and thus, exponentially scarier.

And, that scariness — it’s why you’re reading this in the first place, right?

Likely everyone you usually trust is telling you that Paranormal Activity is the scariest movie since Session 9 or Audition (2001, 1999), so you buy your ticket, partly for the slim chance of that roller-coaster kind of ‘approved’ or ‘safe’ rush you get from really good horror, partly because these cautionary tales that horror provides are critical to being human, and partly, maybe even mostly, to see if you can prove those critics wrong yet again.

As for this (non-)critic, anyway: yes, Paranormal Activity scares. At one level it’s due simply to the fun visual rhetoric I’ve been talking about, its Pinocchio Complex, but just as important, Paranormal Activity has that Sixth Sense (1999) kind of drawn-out, perpetually-delayed tension that finally, and seriously, pays off, such that what’s terrifying you, what’s making you cringe, it’s not some pinnacle of special effect or masterwork of framing a shot or feat of acting, it’s simply a door, moving some four or five inches. It literally leaves you gasping, both satisfying you immensely — it’s finally starting, hold on — and making you honestly nervous about what happens next. You’re both begging for more and begging for it to stop. It’s a wonderful ride, perhaps the most authentic kind.

Another very savvy move Paranormal Activity makes is that, like its cousin the slasher flick, it fully understands that the impulse to laugh and the impulse to scream each use exactly the same wiring diagram, such that until you actually hear yourself doing it, you’re not sure if you’re going to be shrieking with laughter or shrieking with terror. It’s funny, I mean, this Paranormal Activity. Which is not at all what you go in expecting. The way humor’s usually used in horror, it’s as a pressure-release valve; without it, the drama would escalate out of all control almost immediately. Here, though, the humor, while serving some of that purpose, is more importantly allowing us to identify with these characters, as they’re just as ridiculous and pathetic and petty (in the Mad About You way) as we, if we’re honest with ourselves, know we are. The effect of this is so, so important: if we can completely identify with Micah and Katie on-screen, then their actions and reactions become our (possible) actions and reactions, essentially projecting us up there into this closed-door haunted house story.

Very effective.

And, yes, by now you’ve likely skimmed enough of the hype about Paranormal Activity to know that this haunting, it’s less The Shining (1980), much more Sara Gran’s excellent Come Closer (novel, 2003) — it’s Jennifer’s Body (2009), really, when you reduce it down — but still, the single biggest strength of Paranormal Activity is that it masks its true nature so well. The haunted house conventions, though, they’re there, and are absolutely by-the-numbers. It’s got its Eleanor character (from The Haunting, 1963) to commune with and be targeted by the ‘evil.’ It’s got its skeptic and instigator and clown and seeming caretaker, all rolled into one. It’s got the medium who necessarily can’t actually help, as, if he did, the story would end there. It’s got the house, with all its dark corners, long shadows, and footsteps-as-heartbeats. It’s even got that dictum which, if the characters would ever just heed it in the first place, then none of this would ever happen: don’t poke sleeping dogs. And most importantly, what it’s got, as Eddie Murphy says in Delirious (1983), is a couple of white people who don’t know when to leave. Or, just as in the thoroughly-codified slasher film, it’s got people who continually do exactly what we’re calling up to the screen for them not to do.

And that’s an interesting dynamic.

Not that we both want the characters not to be stupid while at the same time needing them to be stupid, that’s a time-honored contradiction. No, what makes Paranormal Activity especially interesting is that mixing of conventions. I mean, in The Exorcist (1973) — in most possession films — we’re not calling up to Regan not to lay there, not to let the demon sneak across the ocean and infiltrate her. Really, as Paranormal Activity very wisely delineates for us in dialogue, the real power of possession stories is precisely that the victims are innocent, that the demon noticing them was a completely random thing — that it could have been anybody, even you, audience member. This is where possession stories get their scare from. Unlike the slasher, say, there’s not some initial prank or accident that kick-starts this cycle of justice, that wakes some lumbering behemoth to take a machete to the guilty. In a possession story, the possession just simply happens, for no reason at all, and you-the-victim can react, sure, but never effectively. Or, as in Paranormal Activity, never less effectively. Here, the characters go so far as to even, it would seem, deserve what they get, as with the smoking/drinking/horny/curfew-breaking teens Jason so loves to stalk. In Paranormal Activity, this couple seems to be asking for it. Which is, if not completely new, then at least not used this effectively before.

But don’t think that makes Paranormal Activity even a little bit less scary, either. No, just from one screening, from the shoulder-to-shoulder audience’s textbook reactions, I’m convinced that, with a wide release here in timely October, Paranormal Activity can be this generation’s Exorcist (especially cool is that the final frames of Paranormal Activity simply don’t work without the audience knowing The Exorcist).

Just as Psycho made showers less safe — or, just as Stephanie Meyer broke a lot of couples up by introducing the impossible standard of Edward — I wonder if the couples that managed to weather that comparison are now going to be looking at each other a touch more suspiciously after Paranormal Activity. Except that, yes, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.

The trick is to get yourself to believe that. To convince yourself that that ‘fact’ card at the end doesn’t make your theater’s parking garage any more scary than the open ending of Jennifer’s Body does.

I would highly, highly recommend seeing Paranormal Activity with a friend, or, better yet, a group. Not because you need forearms and thighs to clutch onto for the tense moments — though you will, and those tense moments? the whole movie — but because there’s a moment in here, I won’t say where, that’s every bit as pure as 1980 kid-Jason rising up from Crystal Lake in all his glory. And those moments, it’s best to have people to remember them with.

For that alone, too, that one moment that pushes the whole theater deeper into its seats, Paranormal Activity is worth the price of admission, is worth twice the price of admission. And yes, it’s completely possible that I’m saying this solely with Naomi Watts’ character’s intent in The Ring (2002): it could be that all I want to do here is push that VHS tape in for you, then back away slowly, not start running until I’m around the corner, so that you’re infected, not me.

I mean, I am writing this at four-thirty in the morning, the night I saw Paranormal Activity, and doing it longhand, simply because my computer’s all the dark way in the basement.

So please, yes, partake.

And don’t blame me if the shadows seem a little deeper, having seen this one. That creeping awareness that you’re not alone, either in your house or at the top of the food chain, or even in your own body, its maybe the most basic part of being human. Paranormal Activity reminds us of this maybe a little too well.

Stephen Graham Jones is seriously beginning to not trust his own word anymore. Back in the early ’80s, say, after The Omen and Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, he swore off these kinds of movies for good, as there comes a time when you want to go to sleep in a nice way, instead of collapsing in a corner after three days terrified. However, when The Ring came out, he couldn’t stay away, and made some serious oaths with and to himself, all of which were broken by the second Grudge, by which time he foolishly thought he was tough, and on and on and on (Emily Rose, anybody?), until suddenly here he is in the parking garage after Paranormal Activity, realizing that, since nobody here really knows what he drives, it’s cool if he takes a stroll or two around his car, to make sure Katie’s not in the backseat. But of course he’d have it no other way. As for his last horror novel, that’s Demon Theory, though there’s been Ledfeather and The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti since then. His next horror is the story collection The Ones That Almost Got Away, from Prime Books. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at The University of Colorado at Boulder. more at http://demontheory.net.