Over the weekend, Paranormal Activity 3 took in $52 million at the U.S. box office, the best September/October opening in history and the highest ever for a horror movie. Some fans of the series have cried foul that the movie’s trailer relies heavily on scenes that are not in the film, but for the Paranormal Activity franchise, selling the sizzle over the steak is a venerable tradition. The trailer for the first movie contained only flashes of the film itself. The real selling point was green-tinged night-vision footage of an audience watching the film, clutching each other in fearful anticipation and jolting at the sight of unseen shocks.
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That first trailer neatly précised the franchise’s appeal. In an era when studios are desperate to find gimmicks that will lure audiences off their couches and into the multiplex, the Paranormal Activity movies thrive on the old-fashioned appeal of communal experience. Part of the fun of watching them is sitting in the midst of a breathless crowd, feeling the collective tension mount until something jumps out and says, “Boo!” From the vantage point of a living-room couch, the movies can seem threadbare and nakedly manipulative.
In the theater, the audience gives up control, which is key to a series that’s ostensibly captured on the infinitely manipulable medium of home video. The first Paranormal Activity established a template that its successors have closely followed: It’s comprised of footage shot by day trader Micah Sloat after his girlfriend, Katie Featherstone, begins to suspect their house is haunted. (The actors and their characters share names as if they were playing themselves.) Micah’s aim is to quell Katie’s suspicions, but once his cameras begin to record inexplicable phenomena, he becomes obsessed with getting the ghost on tape, essentially taunting it into greater and more dangerous displays. As the episodes grow more aggressive, Katie recalls a feeling of being watched that stretches back to childhood, and it becomes clear that the spirit means to abduct her. An invisible force knocks her down and drags her toward an attic crawlspace, which seems to be where the spirit it makes its home. At the film’s climax, an apparently possessed Katie lures Micah out of their bedroom and murders him offscreen, then hurls him at the camera in their bedroom before vanishing forever.
The second and third films extend and overlap with the first, creating an expanding mythology that still has plenty of room to grow. In 2, which takes place at the same time as the first movie, the scene shifts to the home of Katie’s sister, Kristi, her husband, and their two children—a teenage daughter and a toddler son—the former from a previous relationship. The haunting begins in the same way, with the rumble of offscreen noises and the precipitous slamming of doors, but this time the locus is Kristi’s son, Hunter. After some research, and with help from a spiritually connected Mexican maid, it’s intimated that Katie and Kristi’s great-great-grandmother may have made a deal with the devil, and that Hunter, as the family’s first male child in four generations, represents its long-overdue payment. Through a makeshift occult ritual, the family attempts to shift the demon’s attentions to Kristi’s sister, thus laying the groundwork for the first film, but by the end, Hunter’s parents are dead, and he’s spirited away by the possessed Katie.
Paranormal 3 flashes back to Katie and Kristi’s childhood, the era of VHS tapes and 10-pound cameras, where 6-year-old Kristi forges her initial relationship with an unseen presence she calls Toby. Their mother’s boyfriend again sets up cameras to document the proceedings, and the film settles into the now-familiar rhythm of escalating manifestations, spaced by title cards reading “Night #1,” “Night #7,” and so on. This time, though, it becomes clear that the girls are complicit in the haunting, so that it’s no longer clear whether we should be afraid for them, or of them. After Toby makes his displeasure violently known, the family decamps to the house of creepy grandma Lois, who turns out to be a practitioner of the black arts. Mom gets her neck snapped, boyfriend is folded in two with a satisfying crunch, and the girls and their nana head upstairs for more fun with ghosts.
In substance, the Paranormal Activity films are unabashedly old-hat, full of creaking floorboards, shattered picture frames, and things that go bump in the night. It’s the way they’re put together that makes them work, combining overt artlessness with an underlying formal rigor. The first movie was, for the most part, a standard-issue faux documentary in the post-Blair Witch mode, but its signature shot tapped a wellspring from which the following films have drunk copiously. In order to capture the goings-on in the couple’s room as they sleep, Micah sets a camera on a tripod and leaves it running, with the time stamp in the lower right-hand corner keeping track of the passing hours. On the last night, Katie rises from bed and stands at Micah’s side, silently watching him, and then suddenly, the footage shifts into fast-forward. The minutes race by and turn into hours, but her body barely moves, suggesting an inhuman fixation on the man she, or the demon who possesses her, will shortly murder.
In the second and third installments, the static cameras multiply: 2 relies on security cams mounted in the family’s home after what they believe to be a break-in; 3 employs static cameras set up in the house’s two bedrooms, plus a third mounted to the base of an oscillating fan. The effect is to generate tension in open space, without the use of the manipulative techniques to which audiences have largely become inured. As familiar tableaux recur, it’s up to the viewer to search the scene for what’s out of place, an adrenalized take on those “What’s wrong with this picture?” cartoons. The wider the shot and the longer it’s held, the more intently our eyes scan the frame. In the theater, you can feel the people around you engaged in the same fervent hunt, almost competing to see who can spot it first.
Perhaps unintentionally, the Paranormal Activity movies mirror the works of structuralist filmmakers like Michael Snow, whose mechanized cameras move through space with bloodless, implacable logic. As 3’s “fan-cam” sweeps from side to side, recalling Snow’s <—> (Back and Forth), your eyes stay pressed to the edge of the frame, helplessly wedded to its lazy arc. (Needless to say, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost exploit the effect to the max, staging actions at the apex of the pendulum’s swing.) In an era when we’re accustomed to watching images with a finger poised on the fast-forward button, the wait is agonizing, and oddly thrilling. It’s often been said that the scariest monsters are the ones you only imagine. The Paranormal Activity movies take it one step further: The scariest movie is the one you make yourself.