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Following its 2009 release, Paranormal Activity caused a boom of found footage films, a boom that just now appears to be ceasing, a decade later. The majority of these films have been terrible, hence it’s easy to look back at Paranormal Activity and think of it as nothing more than another mediocre found footage horror.
Now I’m not going to argue that Paranormal Activity is a horror masterpiece, but I will argue that it is effective and certainly one of the most decent horror films to come out in the last two decades.
The Build Up
The first act establishes the couple, their new home and the domestic, scientific reality they live in. The mentions of supernatural happenings and demons would seem abnormal in this world. However, after hearing some strange noises the couple call in a psychic.
The conversation they have with him is very well written as while the psychic interviews the couple and explains the difference between spirits and demons, we get an insight into a grounded, thought-out supernatural world. Most would think this exposition decreases the film’s tension but it actually increases it. The psychic reveals that the couple are being terrorized by a demon, a supernatural entity that is “not a person.”
Since the modern, everyday suburban setting, a world of science and reason, has been established earlier, this revelation is very unsettling. You think ‘what does a demon look? What are we going to see? Is it real?’
This set up makes the night scenes very intense because while we know what’s causing the terror, we don’t know how it’s going to occur.
As the first act draws to a close and the second begins, the night scenes become more eventful, depicting more violent activity ranging from doors swinging open by themselves to unknown audible growls. With the antagonism and context set up, when you’re in that room you immediately feel tense. Every time that room appears there’s a feeling of dreadful anticipation and the film is aware of that.
Paranormal Activity creates a sense of uneasiness in you and exploits it. There will be scenes with little to no activity taking place in the room, going against your expectations. In the following night scene however, completely new activity will occur, taking you by surprise. You never know if it’s going to be another quiet night or if something bigger and more monstrous is going to happen.
With this technique Paranormal Activity manages to sustain tension for long periods of time, a result not a lot of horror films have achieved.
For a film with such a basic concept the plot has a lot of beats. Like in any solid horror film, the antagonism slowly rises in momentum, gradually generating more fear and damage with each attack. Every time the ‘demon’ makes a move the couple try to avoid it, only to be struck again with more consequences.
Not all the horror takes place in the bedroom at night. During the day we see how the haunting affects the couple emotionally. They lose sleep, lash out at each other, they call in the psychic again only to receive no actual help, their relationship crumbles, they become paranoid in their own home all while the situation gets worse and worse.
This with the build-up and suspense makes Paranormal Activity a terrifying watch and definitely of more quality than most modern horrors.
So if you watch the film again this Halloween, try and watch it with someone who hasn’t seen it before because if you want to witness Paranormal Activity’s genius, watch it with someone seeing it for the first time.