[All this week, leading up to our top ten horror films on Halloween, the staff at Flixist will be presenting ‘Scared Flixist.’ Here we will be talking about movies that really, truly scared us. There’s plenty of great horror out there, but a movie that truly gets into your head and creeps you out for years to come is a rare creature. These are those movies.]
Prior to seeing Paranormal Activity, I had never seen a real horror movie in theaters, nor have I seen one since. I remember the buzz it got, and I also remember those weird commercials where you didn’t actually see anything from the film. For whatever reason, I decided that I had to see it. I don’t know if it was a matter of trying to prove something to myself/others, or if it was just some kind of curiosity, but I went and requested that it be shown in my town (or the closest one with a movie theater). Four days later, a friend told me that it was already slated to come. Clearly I hadn’t actually paid much attention.
From that point on, I ignored all talk about it (even walking out of my Film Studies class when one of the kids brought the film up in class). In fact, I didn’t even know it had to do with something being haunted until I was in the process of leaving. I went in as dark as I could, but I had some friends with me there to cling to in case it was actually that scary. Did I end up clinging to them? I honestly don’t remember, but Paranormal Activity definitely scared the hell out of me.
It also made me cry.
I don’t believe in ghosts, goblins, spirits, demons, possession, witchcraft, or anything of that sort, so it probably seems a bit strange that the film affected me so deeply, but the reality of the film was never a question in my mind. It didn’t happen that way, couldn’t have happened that way, but none of that mattered to the dark recesses of my mind. It wasn’t the demon that disturbed me, but the idea of something coming into my house and fucking with me.
I’m scared of the dark. The idea that I can’t see what’s in front of me or around me terrifies me, and my imagination, which is completely useless most of the time, becomes hyper-active. I imagine all sorts of horrific things (most of which I don’t believe exist at all), so I tend to stay out of the darkness. I can’t stop darkness, however, and that’s when home invasions happen. Nothing scares me more than that. Because of this, I tend to believe that I go out of my way to ignore home invasion films, although the fact that I have watched Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, two August Underground movies (for which, fun fact, Henry was the inspiration), Funny Games, and various others of that ilk makes me realize I haven’t done a very good job. Regardless, there are films I know I will never see. Among them is The Strangers, released in 2008, because I know it would give me nightmares for weeks if not months if not years.
So I look at Paranormal Activity as a movie about home invasion, something made much worse by the fact that, on the whole, the invader doesn’t really do a whole lot. For most of the film, it’s all subtle, terrifying stuff. Moving a door, banging walls, leaving footprints. Nothing about these things is inherently dangerous, which makes it so much worse. The tension is there, slowly building, because you know that something will eventually happen. So this invader is there, biding its time, messing with the characters while one of them freaks out and the other laughs it off.
Now for some more context. I was a senior in High School when the film hit theaters, and I ended up going to see it with three friends. I was 17 at the time, which I had recently learned meant I could not buy tickets for anyone but myself. Given that two of the others were 18, this was not an issue. I only bring it up because that night I learned that young kids try to bribe adults in line to buy them tickets to the theater. I had never seen that before, and it shocked me a little bit.
I have unpleasantly sensitive ears, so the whirring of projectors at the theater is a constant source of irritation to me. For this reason more than any other, I try my absolute best to sit towards the front of the theater. The theaters near me are a set of four rows on the floor followed by a wide opening followed by proper theater-like rising seats. We got there early enough that the second front row was open, and we sat down, awaiting what would come.
None of us really knew what to expect. There was me, was my then-girlfriend, my friend Mike, and a German foreign-exchange student. Mike wasn’t expecting much of anything, then-girlfriend was expecting to be scared, and foreign-exchange student was freaking out the entire time the previews were happening. I was a bit apprehensive. It was a pretty big screen, and it doesn’t take much to make me jump, but I was there and, goddamn it, I was going to make it through!
Unfortunately, we chose to go Saturday night, the day after it came out. The theater was packed, and seated directly behind us was a pair of stereotypes. They started talking during the previews themselves, and never let up, and it wasn’t just them. In the same row (the second row, mind you), a group of teenagers were enjoying their “witty” banter throughout the film. Then, about three quarters of the way through the film, two teenage girls wandered in and sat in front of us (in front of pretty much the entire theater), and spent the rest of the film on their phones. I don’t think they looked at the screen once. Not wanting to be confrontational, I didn’t say anything. In the wake of that experience, I have no problem telling people to turn off their phones and shut up. On this night, no one else felt like shutting these people up either. In fact, many of them joined in (though to a much lesser extent).
The stereotypes behind me essentially narrated the film and gave some commentary of their own. Some examples:
“Oh shiiit man… the door just moved.”
“Shiit son, that thing is making footprints!”
“She gonna cut him!”
“I would be cryin’ in the fucking corner man.”
“He should beat that bitch up!”
“It’s got a foot fetish!” (as a side note, one of the teenagers repeated this about 45 seconds later, much more loudly to uproarious laughter)
This continued throughout the film, and every single time I wanted to whip around and tell them to shut the fuck up… but I didn’t. The rest of the babble was obnoxious, but was not as consistent nor as notable as theirs was (at least until the end).
Despite all that, the film got to me. The movement of that door, the footprints, everything about it made me feel a bit of a chill. I’ve written at great length about my hatred of CGI, and Paranormal Activity‘s refusal to use computers to create the effects makes the whole thing much scarier. Everything looked real. Mix this with the lack of cheap scares and you have a film that succeeds as perhaps the best example of found footage horror. This illusion was helped by the fact that the film is not beautifully framed or particularly cinematic. It looked nice, but the only visual clue that this could be anything more than some obnoxious guy’s home movie was the quality of the camera they were using, and that’s just barely legitimate.
The turning point of the film for me was the scene where the TV was on upstairs and they went to investigate. It was just noise, and was literally something out of my nightmares. I have been terrified of TVs looking like that since I was a kid. I’m always convinced that a just-noise TV in a dark room is going to suddenly show a face and start talking to me. And I don’t want that to happen. Ever. And so there’s TV noise, and I hear it, and I freak out, and it ends up okay… but from that point I knew the film had beaten me. By the time Katie is possessed and just sitting there, cross cutting into her hand, I was legitimately in tears.
When the ending came, I don’t think anybody in the theater expected it. In fact, even my friend Mike jumped when it happened. The body came flying at the screen and we all freaked out. Those obnoxious teenagers I told you about? One of them literally stood up and started shouting, “GAY! THAT IS GAY! THAT IS SO GAY! GAAAYYYY!” at the screen.
Then the film ended, and we all went outside into a downpour. Though not like Paranormal Activity specifically, it was the kind of weather you’d expect to see in a horror film. It made driving home all the more unpleasant. We were all freaked out a bit, and I was imagining things the entire time we drove through an empty park with no streetlights. The rain was so bad that we could not actually get down the foreign-exchange student’s driveway. It took us about half an hour to figure out how to get her home. Eventually she did, and so did everyone else. For the first time in years, I slept with my lights on.
I’ve spent a long time debating whether or not I should see the sequels. I feel like I should. I’m sure it would be nice to experience one of the films without that horrible audience fighting my emotional investment every step of the way. I do know, however, that I will never in my life see another horror movie in theaters.