I’m sorry that I watched Paranormal Activity (2006; dir. Oren Peli) alone. The film gradually raises tension, suspense, and fear through the most traditional and formulaic of horror-film techniques, but it does so artfully and inexorably. It shook me up. Afterwards, I regained my composure, ate a cracker, and settled down, but this film does what it’s supposed to do. With virtually no special effects, relatively amateurish actors, and a budget that was (supposedly) $11,000, the filmmakers used a video camera and ingenuity to build this tale of a young couple whose house has been invaded by an unwanted spirit—probably, as the psychic phenomena expert they consult explains, a demon.
This is not a film in which the supernatural phenomena are expressions of a character’s imagination. This is not The Others (2001) or The Turn of the Screw. The spirit is real. We see it at work via a craftily employed device: a video camera the boyfriend sets up in the bedroom to record any paranormal activity that takes place at night. He reviews each night’s activities the next morning. When something happens, we see it through the recording camera’s lens, and the effect is chilling objectivity. When things start to happen, they can’t be explained away—we see them.
The bedroom camera offers an interesting perspective. The bedroom is the center of the intimate life of a young couple, but there is only the suggestion of sex here. Rather than voyeuristic entry into the sex lives of these characters, the bedroom camera gives us access to the supernatural. It also makes us voyeurs, a role that gives the film a certain off-putting power. It disorients us, leaving us more open and vulnerable to the visitations that occur.
The setting of the film is tightly focused. All the action occurs in the couple’s apartment, most of it in the bedroom. The sense of constriction, even claustrophobia, that results contributes to the tension the film evokes.
The man is initially skeptical when the woman tells him about the visitations that have affected her since childhood. He sets up the camera in the bedroom to prove to her, and perhaps to himself, that she is imagining things. But what the camera does record convinces him. The woman fears the spirit that has attached itself to her. She is afraid of what might happen, of what it might do to her. The man takes a logical, rationalist approach. He is certain that he can figure out what is happening and find a way to combat it. His can-do attitude grows increasingly brittle as the film moves along, and as he continues to dismiss the woman’s fears. Though she begs and orders him not to try to communicate with the spirit, he can’t resist—sometimes he speaks to it aloud; and he brings in a Ouija board to try to communicate.
The husband is a brash and controlling personality. Although the spirit that invades their lives seems real, the way he tries to deal with it suggests problems in the relationship that might have consequences later on. He largely dismisses his girlfriend’s warnings, and those of the paranormal expert, about trying to communicate with the spirit. He’s more interested in outwitting the spirit than in the woman’s fears. His bumbling aggressiveness makes the couple more vulnerable and has a direct link to the outcome of the story.
In Paranormal Activity the rational and the irrational collide--the world we believe we know and the one that is threatening, irrational, and beyond our control.