Since “The Blair Witch Project,” scary movies that incorporate the camera into the story have become pretty common. There was “Cloverfield,” with its incredibly annoying camera operator, and “Quarantine,” where the camera actually becomes a weapon, not to mention the inevitable sequels to those films (they are horror films, after all) and probably some others I’ve missed. “Paranormal Activity” falls squarely into this small sub-category, but feels more scary and less gimmicky than most of them.
Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat are a typical, perhaps even boring, young couple. She’s an English literature grad student and he’s a day trader; they clearly have enough money that they don’t have to think about money. Case in point: the film begins with Micah (pronounced, for some reason, Mee-kah) unpacking a new video camera he has just purchased to document the night disturbances that have been bothering Katie. The camera is professional-grade, the kind many documentary filmmakers use, and can’t possibly cost less that $5,000. There’s no reason your typical, $400-500 camera wouldn’t suit Micah’s purposes. He buys the expensive camera because he can.
Katie and Micah live in a big house that looks brand new. So does the furniture. One would guess these two have been in the house months, not years, and that they moved in shortly after the house was built. This is significant, maybe, because the house is haunted, and usually haunted houses are big, old, and gothic, not newly constructed suburban housing development types. There’s no way that anything sufficiently dark or tragic or secret has happened in this house to justify the presence of ghosts.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, the entire movie is seen through the lens of that camera Micah bought, and the director has gone to great lengths to maintain the illusion that this is “found footage.” There are no credits at the beginning or end of the film. The characters’ names are the same as the actors’ names. The director, Oren Peli, must be pretty confident that you’ll look him up on imdb.com (or read reviews like this one,) because his name is never on the screen.
Katie and Micah set up the camera in their bedroom to capture the strange disturbances that occur while they’re sleeping. And we do see some freaky things. Peli has a strong sense of how to build suspense — he knows that it’s better start with a door slamming on its own, and build from there. Between the creepy, monochrome night scenes are daytime scenes, as the young couple try to figure out what’s going on. They call in an expert on ghosts, who determines that it’s a demon, not a ghost, and outside of his area of expertise. Katie wants to call the demonologist he recommends, but Micah insists he can handle this on his own.
And here’s the most interesting thing about “Paranormal Activity” to me — Micah’s way of handling this presence in their house is to document it. Hence the camera, and a successful attempt to capture its footprints by spreading baby powder on the floor of their hallway. This is interesting to me because nobody in the movie doubts the presence of something weird in Micah and Katie’s house. Their friends believe. The “experts” confirm. No one calls them crazy. There really is no need to document it. And yet Micah seems obsessed with doing so, as if proving its existence will somehow give him power over it. This seems to me like a particularly modern way of fighting a spiritual battle; Micah thinks Logic and Reason will defeat a demon.
It doesn’t. As “Paranormal Activity” progresses, the demon grows stronger, or bolder, or both, and Katie grows more and more impatient with Micah and his video camera. There are some attempts to explain why this entity is bothering Katie and Micah, but they’re pretty weak, and I think they’re intended to be. The movie ends gruesomely, and without much explanation or resolution. I think the point of it all(beyond just being a fairly well-executed horror flick) is that the spiritual realm operates according to its own set of rules, which may seem arbitrary or nonexistent to us. And unless we put down the tools of science and figure out how to combat evil with spiritual weapons, we don’t stand a chance.