What Makes the Paranormal Activity Movies So Scary?

by JoHarrington

The Paranormal Activity films are some of the best selling horror movies of all time. Having watched them back to back, I can see why.

Sometimes what you don't see is so much worse than what you do.

The human imagination is primed for discerning horrors. This is particularly in a world where domestic danger is hammered home every day, on the news and in most advertizements. Our instincts are to react to the slightest abnormal sound with suspicion and anxiety.

'Paranormal Activity' (and all its sequels) capitalizes brilliantly on this. It lets the audience produce 90% of the scares within the confines of their own minds. That's what makes it so terrifying.

Paranormal Activity Trilogy Gift Set

This collection omits the fourth in the series, but personally I feel that isn't too great a loss. It was the first three which stunned me.

Paranormal Activity Takes its Audience into the Haunting

There is no fourth wall in this horror movie. We're right there with those experiencing the terror first hand.

Image: Katie in Paranormal ActivityI'm a little late to the party, when it comes to the Paranormal Activity movies. I've not been immune to the hype of each of them coming out, but never thought of actually watching them.

I finally saw the first one two nights ago and I was stunned. Within an hour, I was scrambling to find the second. Yesterday, I completed the set with Paranormal Activity 3 and 4.

Now I can see what all of the fuss was about. This is the found footage genre at its best.

There were scenes which left me genuinely scared. I felt like I was there, peering through open doors monitoring darkened rooms beyond. I spent a great deal of these movies scanning the background for shadows or anything swaying out of turn.

That's part of the pure genius of Paranormal Activity. Much of the horror comes from watching the footage, and we are watching the footage. In that regard, we are there.

The most mundane things take on a terrible significance. See the image of a young woman watching her boyfriend sleep?  That's downright iconic now. It was creepy as Hell to see happening at the time.

I defy anyone with an ounce of imagination not to find at least the first one scary. To my mind, the second was the most frightening of all. The third had its moments, but by then we were becoming desensitized to the devices.

The fourth wasn't a bad film, but it shouldn't have been shot as found footage. That made it unbelievable, as it was trying to tell a wider story. I spent half of the movie thinking, "But why would anyone film this?"

Not to mention that it appeared to have forgotten what made the previous three so utterly terrifying.

Official Trailer for Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity on Amazon Instant Video

After a young, middle class couple move into what seems like a typical suburban "starter" tract house, they become increasingly disturbed by a presence...

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Paranormal Activity on DVD

This intense edge-of-your seat horror film follows a young suburban couple who record the sinister disturbances in their home while they sleep – even as the domestic haunting be...

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Paranormal Activity's Subtle Horror

These movies don't feed you the scary material. You have to work things out for yourself and then shrink from your own conclusions.

Image: Hunter in Paranormal Activity 2The reason that I put off watching Paranormal Activity for so long was that I'd grown disenchanted with American horror films.

There was a long period there where everything seemed to follow a formula. All that was coming out of Hollywood was of the ilk so hilariously parodied in the Scary Movie series.

I found that I no longer cared for screaming people making impractical decisions, in order for the film industry to tell the same story over and over again.

Paranormal Activity came at me from left field. It was nothing like any of that. The horror wasn't in your face. Much of it was left to the imagination. It appears that my imagination is a terrible place from which to view a movie.

The difference could well be in the fact that the brains behind the film was not a Hollywood executive. Oren Peli spent his life savings (between $12,000 and $15,000, depending on who's telling the story) on making his movie. The set is his own house.

It took just seven days for Oren (and his girlfriend, along with a couple of good friends) to film the scenes. They couldn't afford known actors, so Katie Featherston and Micah Stoat came from an advertizement in the paper. Most of the script was improvised on the spot.

Then Oren sat there with hours of footage and whittled it down to mostly what we see today. He wasn't even a trained movie-maker. He was just a man with a good idea.

Without access to a massive budget and a special effects department, the indie film-maker relied instead on the power of what you don't see. So much of the action in Paranormal Activity occurs off camera. We witness the reactions of the cast, right at the moment when we're reacting in the same way.

It's all a very powerful lesson in human nature.  Fear is much more scary than the cause of it.

Official Trailer for Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 2 on DVD

"Paranormal Activity 2 is as groundbreaking as the original."* Just as Dan and Kristi welcome a newborn baby into their home, a demonic presence begins terrorizing them, tearing...

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Paranormal Activity 2 on Amazon Instant Video

"Paranormal Activity 2 is as groundbreaking as the original."* Just as Dan and Kristi welcome a newborn baby into their home, a demonic presence...

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How Paranormal Activity Plays Upon Primal Fears

All human beings are vulnerable. Even the toughest amongst us has to fall asleep. We were all once babies. In our vulnerability there is fear.

Image: Katie in Paranormal ActivityOren Peli had the idea for Paranormal Activity when he moved into a detached home for the first time.

Suddenly he couldn't hear his neighbors. Instead, he could hear every creak of the house settling. While he could rationalize every sound away, his late night musing made him at least consider a supernatural origin.

As a geek, he also fell to sleep contemplating how he'd capture evidence of the paranormal in his home. By the time he woke up again, he had the premise of a great movie in his mind.

What if he had set up a camera and it actually showed something weird? What if it carried on capturing incontrovertible proof of the paranormal?

Paranormal Activity is all about sounds occurring in the middle of the night. Things that defy rational explanation and therefore cannot be easily confronted. That sort of thing has frightened all of us in real life. At least once, we must have all lain awake wondering what on Earth was causing that bang.

In these movies, just about every primal, defensive fear is pinged. The need to protect our loved ones, while they (and we) lie vulnerable in sleep, is a biggie.

Every time we lock our doors and set an alarm, we're defending our homes against intruders. But what if the intruder is already inside? What if it's peering down upon us, as we sleep?  What if it's in our bathrooms, while we bathe? How about the basement or the attic, and any number of cupboards?  Anything could be behind a closed door, when we consider it.

So many of our defenses are learned in childhood. We're safe beneath the bedsheets (until the bedsheets are pulled off).  We are fine as long as the light is on (until the light switches off).  We alright while the door is shut (most of the people in these movies seem intent upon leaving each and every door open).

The defensive actions taken by these families aren't about brandishing weapons. They are the primal instincts being subverted. Now THAT is scary.

Official Trailer for Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 3 on DVD

Paranormal Activity 3 takes you back to where it all began and the activity is more intense than ever. The cameras are on and recording the chilling moments when evil begins to ...

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Paranormal Activity 3 on Amazon Instant Video

Paranormal Activity 3 takes you back to where it all began. The cameras are on and recording the chilling moments when evil begins to terrorize young sisters Katie and Kristi for the first time. Brace yourself for...

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Turning the Ordinary into Horror in Paranormal Activity

I don't think I've ever been so unnerved by a saucepan. This was a study in how everyday items can frighten in a certain context.

Image: Ali and Brad in Paranormal ActivityBecause most of the action happens on the peripheries, Paranormal Activity is one of the few movies where I barely watched the main cast.

Two days later, I'm still looking beyond Brad and Ali on a ouija board, in order to scan the room beyond them. Is there anything going on in either of those doorways?

Are they getting any good messages from the Otherworld?  To be frank, I don't care!  I'm mostly fretting on whether I want Ali to move or not, because sitting there, she's blocking out a good chunk of the kitchen area.

Never in the history of movie making has the set seemed as important, and as ordinary, as it was in the Paranormal Activity films.

Each installment took place inside the home of a regular family. People live their lives, just as we would. They cook, they eat, they do the housework. Half of the time, the activity is so subtle that those present haven't even noticed. But we do, and there's nothing we can do about it.

On other occasions, the activity is out of view or the audio scope of the equipment. Then it's us watching the individuals there reacting to something that we haven't even discerned. Personally, I found that most frightening of all.

Most of the time, nothing is occurring. If it was constant, then we'd quickly become immune to it. The tension is ramped up because we're looking for that moment when it does.  (This is something that the fourth movie failed to deliver. By then, 9/10ths of the time, something was there. It drastically lessened the impact.)

This subtlety is what makes these movies worth repeat viewing. Since watching them, I've read websites which make it clear that I missed half of what was there to see!

Just as an aside, I'm a British viewer. American homes are amazing!  Even when I was merely scanning a paranormal inactive background, I was enjoying myself.

These are not the houses that I'm used to. Forget the horror, how big was that fourth kitchen?! Did they regularly cater for an army or something? And look at the view from that second house! Wow!  When do I get to visit?!


On second thoughts...

Official Trailer for Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity 4: Unrated Edition on DVD

Five years after the events of Paranormal Activity, a woman and her strange, young son have moved into Henderson, NV. Their teenage neighbor captures bizarre happenings on her webcam.

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Paranormal Activity 4 - Unrated on Amazon Instant Video

All of the activity has led to this! A mysterious boy and a young woman, who's ready to target new victims with her demonic rage.

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Unusual Camera Angles Ramping up the Fear

Each installment does it and does it well. There will be something about how the footage is filmed that makes it unnerving.

Image: Robbie in Paranormal Activity 4I would love to see what a Film Studies graduate made of the way in which cameras are used in Paranormal Activity.

Even a novice like myself could tell that the positioning added much to the overall tension of the situation.

In Paranormal Activity, there is only one camera. This means that most of the house is not being covered by it. The fear of the unknown was titillated as a matter of course. In addition, it was mostly pointed at a sleeping couple in bed, and an open doorway. You could only see part of the landing and stairwell through it.

I found myself wishing that I could see the whole of either of them. A partial viewing just made the routes clear, without highlighting anything actually on them, until it was too late.

In Paranormal Activity 2, the cameras focused upon the whole house.  We could flit from room to room with full coverage. Unfortunately (or fortunately, given your point of view), the downstairs was largely open plan. This gave us a lot of background to be constantly watching.

The unsettling thing about these cameras was that they were all in high corners. We were voyeurs looking down upon every scene. It made it subtly feel like something was perched, ready to pounce.

In terms of fear inducement, the oscillating camera in Paranormal Activity 3 took the prize for me. It would regularly turn to film one room, then slowly move across to face another, then back again.

I found myself holding my breath!  The potential for something to leap out was immense, but worse still was wanting a closer look at something glimpsed in the instant that the camera moved away. Pure brilliance!

For the internet generation, Paranormal Activity 4 held all of the scares. Here things glimpsed in the background of a webcam, during a Skype call, was all. I could so identify! I spend most of my evenings staring at friends with their backs to a room. In fact, I'm doing it right now, as I type. Why don't any of us sit with our backs to a wall, while we're on the computer?!

However, the genius camera footage in this movie came from the XBox Kinect. The gaming console comes complete with tracking devices, designed to pick up any movement in a room. That's great when you're ducking, jumping and dancing your way through a game. Not so brilliant when there's not supposed to be anyone in a room, and the sensor picks up a form.

Unfortunately, this was the movie which left me with a sour taste regarding other filming methods. The plot seemed to rely upon the fact that modern teenagers will film anything, at any time. I don't think that they do, particularly when fighting for their lives.

Even if they did find evidence of paranormal activity in those circumstances, the denizens of YouTube and Reddit would cry fake. Every teenager knows that you need a reason to have been filming in the first place, if you're going to accidentally capture something supernatural. The internet can be a very unforgiving place otherwise.

And so can cinema audiences.  Hopefully Paranormal Activity 5 - due in October 2014 - will see a return to its roots, or will ditch the found footage genre for straight story telling. Otherwise, it risks losing all that made this series amongst the scariest horror movies to date.

Paranormal Activity Movie Posters

Updated: 07/07/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 11/15/2013


cmoneyspinner on 11/15/2013

There are no scary people amongst the Wizzley-ites. :) lol x2

JoHarrington on 11/15/2013

LOL They can be. But they're pussy-cats underneath. Do the denizens of Wizzley sound scary too?

cmoneyspinner on 11/15/2013

Learned a new word. "denizen". "the denizens of YouTube and Reddit"? WHooooo! They sound scary! :)

JoHarrington on 10/28/2013

In that case, I'm glad that I was able to say the right thing in context! Stay beautiful.

Fargy on 10/28/2013

But I am very positive. I love people and life in general, I am, perhaps unbelievably, much into happiness and laughter. It's just that my sense of commitment to a cause can be a little overwhelming. It was getting a little damaging.

So thanks again. :)

JoHarrington on 10/28/2013

You're welcome. Though I have a confession to make. I was talking about positivity in general. >.>

Fargy on 10/28/2013

Thanks for suggesting I should take a kinder line.

JoHarrington on 10/28/2013

Wow! Nice one! :)

Fargy on 10/28/2013

You might want to read another too. :) It has some replies from Mod Ash, he asked me to put it on forums, I said he'd have to unban me first. That was funny. 420 views so far.


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