31 Days of Fright: Paranormal Activity

Katie, not about to drop a bowling ball to show how comfortable her mattress is.

Katie, not about to drop a bowling ball to show how comfortable her mattress is.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! We kick things off with the found-footage sensation that became a cultural phenomenon: Paranormal Activity (2007), directed by Oren Peli. It was suggested by friend and former co-worker Christina Palassio, who was looking to recommend horror movies that don’t feature violence against women. Palassio was one of my mentors and work partners when I was publicist at Coach House Books, and now works at Community Food Centres Canada, an organization that aims to bring together people to grow, cook, and share good, healthy food in communities across Canada. I rented Paranormal Activity from my local, Queen Video.

What happens:

Paranormal Activity certainly wasn’t the first found-footage horror movie. The extremely nasty Cannibal Holocaust (1980) usually gets credit for that, though the effective Blair Witch Project (1999) was probably the first of the sub-genre to find widespread success. And horror films since Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages have claimed to be documentary realism. But Paranormal Activity was the movie that turned allegedly found footage into a supremely successful horror movie franchise. (To date there are six movies under the Paranormal Activity banner.)

The film opens with a thanks to Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston, and the San Diego Police Department, so we can assume things are not going to end well. The first clip dates from September 18, 2006, and the events of the movie will take viewers through October 10, all while maintaining the artifice that film subjects Micah and Katie are real people who were the victims of some sort of paranormal event.

Katie arrives home to find herself being filmed by her boyfriend with an elaborately large video camera. Why does Micah have such a complicated camera? To record all the paranormal activity that either has or hasn’t been going on, of course. Their house is fairly large (and even comes with a swimming pool), so when Micah mentions the camera costs half what he makes in a day, we know we’re dealing with a baller. While preparing dinner, Micah outlines the plot to the movie – that he’s going to set up the recording equipment in their bedroom to record overnight, so he can have proof of the supernatural phenomena Katie claims to have experienced – all while haphazardly brandishing a kitchen knife. (Foreshadowing?)

The crafty Katie (we see her both knitting and making jewelry) would prefer no more paranormal activity to happen in the house, but Micah thinks it would be cool to obtain evidence. He’s also keen on having a camera so he can attempt to pressure his girlfriend into on-camera stripteases. (He’s unsuccessful.) The first night, nothing much happens, save a few weird sounds after 2 a.m. In the morning, Katie finds her keys were tossed onto the kitchen floor. (Are you scared yet?) They decide to invite over a psychic, Dr. Frederichs, dressed in his best Ralph Lauren business casual. He learns a bit about the couple: they’ve been together for three years, she’s a student, he’s a day trader, etc. He also learns that Katie has been visited by spirits since age 8, when a shadowy figure would stand at the foot of her bed and she’d be unable to move. (This is textbook sleep paralysis.) The presence has followed her from house to house ever since. After the psychic is given a tour of their digs, as if in an episode of Haunted Cribs, he warns, “These hauntings feed off negative energy.”

An in-depth conversation regarding the differences between ghosts and demons follows, with the psychic deciding what Micah and Katie has is probably the latter. And demon-based stuff is not his wheelhouse. He recommends a demonologist, Dr. Johann Averies, to call if things get worse and makes his exit. But not before warning Micah not to try to communicate with the demon in any way. Later that night, the bedroom door opens and closes on its own volition around two. The next day Micah shows Katie the evidence, and he slowly starts to buy into the idea of a world beyond ours.

Micah is a day trader and plays guitar. Just when we’re pretty sure he can’t get any worse, he reads a book in bed on the occult and mansplains demons to his girlfriend. (Thanks, doofus, for reiterating what the psychic told you last night.) Katie says she’s through messing around with this demon, but Micah, playing literal Devil’s advocate, is of another mind. Plus, he argues, Katie never told him about her demon problem before they moved in together, so he should have some say in how they handle it.

Things get more paranormal. Audio recorded overnight seems to reveal an unnatural sound. Micah theorizes whatever is in their house is trying to communicate with them; he suggests using a Ouija board to communicate with it. Katie, completely freaked out, begs him to promise he won’t buy a Ouija board and will instead leave this demon thing alone. A few nights later (Night #13), the couple is awakened by a loud thump, which is then followed by a mighty roar downstairs. They go to investigate, but only see the living-room chandelier swinging all on its own. (No Sia required.) Katie begins to suspect the camera equipment is worsening the increased paranormal activity.

Micah, demonstrating how NewMusic videographers of old used to work.

Micah, demonstrating how NewMusic videographers of old used to work.

On Night #15, Katie bolts up in bed at 1:30, then stands and stares at the sleeping Micah for two hours straight (which does not, thankfully, run in real-time) before leaving the room. When Micah awakes, he finds Katie shivering in a swing chair beside the pool. As he coaxes her inside, they hear a massive bang. Something turned the television in their bedroom on to play loud static. Katie remembers none of the previous night’s events when she awakes the next morning.

Against Katie’s express wishes, Micah brings in the most demonic-looking Ouija board I’ve ever seen, explaining, “I didn’t buy a Ouija board; I borrowed it.” Because he’s terrible. This leads to a massive argument before the couple leaves for a night out. While they’re gone, the camera records the planchette of the Ouija board (which Micah calls a ‘cursor,’ like a noob) moving of its own accord before setting the board aflame. (That’s a loaner board, demon!) When they return, Micah tries to show his girlfriend what happened to the board, but Katie (who sounds very Texan when agitated), just screams at him to “get out!” “I think she’s upset,” the man-child, Micah, giggles.

He’s able to patch things up by swearing, in front of the camera, to abide by Katie’s rules and not purposely offend the entity, but Micah also endeavours to figure out what the entity was trying to spell on his borrowed Ouija board. Katie thinks things have gone far enough and wants to call the demonologist, but Micah remains opposed to inviting this Johann Averies into his house. Instead, he sprinkles baby powder all over the second-floor landing to see if something might walk through it. On Night #17 at 3:15, footsteps appear in the baby powder and wake Micah up. The footsteps lead back to a hallway closet, where Micah and Katie discover a ceiling panel has been left slightly ajar!

Micah sets up a ladder and ascends into the attic crawlspace with his camera. Digging through a pile of messy insulation, he discovers an old photo, burned along the edges. He shows the photo to Katie: it’s her as a child, in the driveway of her first house. Katie didn’t even know the photo still existed! She’s reached a breaking point, so she finally calls Averies, who is currently out of town. Desperate, she tries the original psychic, Dr. Fredrichs, again. But before he can visit, more poltergeisty events occur: their bedroom door slams and won’t let them escape one night, Katie feels a presence breathing on her, and a photo of the couple is smashed by an unseen force, with only Micah’s face suffering damage.

Dr. Frederichs eventually returns – this time, with glasses! – and provides no help whatsoever. He panics in the presence of the demonic entity, telling Katie he has to leave immediately, as he’s probably aggravating it. But Dr. Averies should be back in a few days, he assures her. The fitful nights begin to take their toll on the couple, who argue more. (Watch that negative energy, you crazy kids!) Katie frequently breaks into tears. On Night #19, something enters their bedroom and lifts the covers from their bodies.

Micah finds a website in which a ‘Diane’ (a possible name that the Ouija board might have spelled that night) recounts similar experiences that happened to her in the 1960s. (I’m curious as to the Google search that yielded that result.) The following night, Katie is literally pulled out of her bed by one leg and dragged out of the room by an unseen presence, which closes the door behind them. Micah makes chase and eventually rescues her, but Katie is understandably shaken. Furthermore, the entity has left a strange welt or bite on her side.

Plans are made to flee to a hotel, but are stymied by (a) Katie being found unconscious with a crucifix squeezed so tightly in her hand it draws blood, and (b) Katie (with a slightly demonic inflection in her voice) deciding it would be better if they stayed in the house. On Night #21 – the final night – Katie bolts awake again, stares at Micah for a couple hours, then goes downstairs. She starts screaming bloody murder on the first floor, and Micah leaps out of bed to find her. Once downstairs, he also begins to scream. We then hear footsteps on the stairs, and Micah’s lifeless body is suddenly hurled at the camera. Katie then enters in a trance, shirt covered in blood. She stoops to sniff at Micah’s corpse, then crawls over to the camera and lunges at the lens. Following this final shot, end credits reveal Micah’s body was found the next day, but Katie has been missing ever since.

For all the help this psychic was, he might as well have been wearing a red shirt.

For all the help this psychic was, he might as well have been wearing a red shirt.

Takeaway points:

  • Found footage has become something of a tired cliché in horror film, but there’s a reason it often works. The grainy footage of security cameras or camcorders mimics the look of local news broadcasts, making the scary bits more realistic. This is the same reason I maintain the scariest movies were shot in the 1970s: the film stock looks like real life. Modern film stock (or digital recording) makes everything look so detailed and shiny that it becomes ultra-real. Almost fantastical. The night-time video recordings of the couple in their bedroom are cousins to the genuinely creepy security cam footage of Elisa Lam and other such subjects of eerie urban legends. But too often this power of found footage is squandered on substandard jump scares, as is the case in Paranormal Activity.
  • One theme of this film is, as they might say on Twitter, #masculinitysofragile you won’t call a demonologist. Though Paranormal Activity clearly features a malevolent demon of some kind, is the real monster the insecurity of the male sex? Time and time again, the couple decides against calling noted demon expert, Dr. Johann Averies, all because Micah is uncomfortable having Averies in his home. He assures himself (and Katie) he can solve this paranormal problem on his own, as if a call for aid from another man would emasculate him. When the demonic entity strikes out at them, Micah responds with testosterone-laced vocal threats and angry tirades. Everything from the size of his pool to the size of his video camera defines Micah as a man insecure in his masculinity. And if Paranormal Activity shows us anything, it shows us the deadly consequences a fragile masculinity can have.
  • Likewise, Micah’s constant refusal to seek aid from Dr. Johann Averies – as well as his need to personally record evidence of the paranormal activity his girlfriend claims is happening (instead of just believing her) – mirrors certain segments of the political right’s ongoing war against expertise. Climate change? I don’t need to hear what some meteorologist says; I personally felt cold this past winter. When he reads up on demons in bed, re-learning what the psychic already told him, Micah demonstrates he won’t accept any information unless he learned or observed it himself. This is not unlike certain relatives of yours on Facebook, am I right?
  • Call the Demonologist sounds like an amazing, alternate-reality BBC answer to the show, Call the Midwife.
  • Prior to one night of paranormal hijinks, Katie is filmed applying deodorant before bed. Is this a thing people do? I have been putting on deodorant at the entirely wrong time of day?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Paranormal Activity is not a terrible movie, but neither is it terrifying. The film is most akin to a parlour trick, which might shock and surprise in the moment, but has no lingering feelings of terror, no ongoing sense of unease. Do fans rewatch the Paranormal Activity movies? I’d sooner believe in Ouija boards spontaneously combusting.

Micah Sloat Club Essentials, available now from International Clothiers.

Micah Sloat Club Essentials, available now from International Clothiers.

Best outfit: The wardrobe in Paranormal Activity is normcore to the max, so it’s unthinkable to reward any of it with the title of ‘Best Outfit.’ I suppose the idea is that Katie and Micah are just regular folks like you and me – this paranormal activity could happen to anyone! – so they costume them as generically as possible. If I had to pick a standout look, it would be Micah’s “going-out” outfit, which will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a straight white man hit the clubs: collared shirt with vertical stripes (top couple buttons open), baggy designer jeans, boxy dress shoes. It’s the official uniform of men in Toronto’s Entertainment District, and just may have been the scariest thing in Paranormal Activity.

Best line: ‘Not a single thing you’ve done has helped.’ – Katie, with a pretty fair assessment of Micah

Best kill: There is literally only one murder in this movie, so, by default, it takes the prize. But as far as horror movie murders go, screaming off-screen then throwing a corpse into a camera is not going to make it into the Horror Hall of Fame.

Unexpected cameo: The cast is almost entirely unknowns, but Mark Fredrichs, who plays ineffectual psychic Dr. Frederichs, kind of looks like George W. Bush when he used to clear sagebrush on Casual Fridays.

Unexpected lesson learned: If you have the number of a reputable demonologist, do not sit on that. Call early, call often.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: APB Experiment #1

Next up: The Wicker Man (2006).