By all accounts, Paranormal Activity and (even more so) Paranormal Activity 2 should be Hollywood clunkers that cause us all to lament the death of the horror genre as we know it. Two films that rely on Dolby scares to freak out the film’s protagonists who spend each film’s length splitting up (“Jesus, stay together!”), investigating strange noises in the dark (“Turn on the light!”), and peering around half-opened doors (I’m not sure what I’d yell here. Maybe something like, “I’m coming in, bitch!” as I kick open the door and, again, turn on the light. That’d be pretty funny.). We’ve seen it all. In other movies we knock the film’s final grade down a few points for relying on the Dolby scare, a loud, sudden noise that makes you jump out of your seat from the sheer fact that a noise you weren’t expecting suddenly exploded through the speakers, and for falling back on what are now the standard horror clichés. So why the exception for Paranormal Activity and it’s successor, Paranormal Activity 2, which basically runs through the same plot points and scares as the first film?
Because make no mistake, these movies do work as horror movies. They’re scary, they’re full of dread and anticipation, and it is all heightened by the “reality” approach to the film making, having cameras set up throughout the house or having one of the main characters walking around taping the eerie events as they unfold. And I posit that the success of these films is exactly because we know what to expect out of them. Both Paranormal Activities basically act like a film version of a haunted house. (This is enhanced by the fact that the films are actually about a house that is haunted. Whoa. Meta.) Remember back in the day when Halloween would roll around and a Spooky World would come into a town and set up a haunted hayride, or the town would put together a haunted house where local volunteers would dress up as mummies, look like statues, and as you were walking by, they would jump out at you? This is exactly how the Paranormal Activity films work. Walking in to each film, you concede as a viewer that you’re going to be scared first by what you anticipate will happen with all of the dead space. Like walking through the door to a new room in a haunted house, each new scene in the films sends the imagination into overdrive as the eyes scan the static camera shot to find what’s “off”, to see if they can find what is inevitably out of place before a door flies open or a pan falls from to the floor. We know something is coming. It has to. That’s the point of the movies, to scare us by surprising us. Just like the haunted house, we know something has to happen and the tension is built up by trying to figure out what will happen before it does.
Once that anticipation has been built, there needs to be a release. Imagine going through that haunted house, anticipating that each statue is going to jump out at you, only to leave the room without anything happening. The first few times will probably just ratchet up the tension because, again, something has to happen. And if you were to walk through the last door into the gift shop selling treats and Tiny Tim CDs without any actual scares, you’d probably demand your money back. Because you walked in for the purpose of being scared. That’s the payoff. The Paranormal Activity movies are the same way. A few tension building scenes are put out there to ratchet things up, and then there’s the payoff: a Dolby scare tears through the speakers and we, the audience, jump. We knew something was coming, but the fun isn’t knowing that, the fun is the surprise as to when and how, the same as guessing which mummy will come to life and reach out at you.
Are the Paranormal Activity films great films? No, they’re not. If you want to put your critic hat on, you can pretty easily break down each film to its stock of clichés and wave it off. But that’s not the point of them. I don’t think they’re setting out to be great films, just like I don’t think haunted houses are setting out to be great open houses. The Paranormal Activity films are setting out to be great haunted houses, and in that, they succeed. We enter knowing what to expect, and are gleefully excited when we get our payoff. The show ends, we all get up and move on for another year, hearts racing and smiling.