Everyone, at some point in their lives, has heard a loud noise in the middle of the night, and in turn, experienced the subsequent rush of fear that accompanies the uncertainty of what may be around the corner. The manipulation of this feeling is what led to the 2009 film ‘Paranormal Activity’, which inspired a slew of sequels and a new horror film franchise that decade. The film focuses on the idea that the monsters that go bump in the night are right there next to you, and you may not even see them. ‘Paranormal Activity’ capitalizes this dynamic of the very real feeling of paranoia and lack of control that one gets in the middle of the night when darkness is all one can see, through the use of subtlety and simplicity.
The focus of this film is two characters in a relationship, named Micah and Katie. Katie has been having eerie occurrences since childhood. They seem to only manifest themselves every several years. With these experiences having increased in duration and intensity, Micah decides to set up a camera to record the activities. The film uses the recordings that Micah took as a form of “found footage.” This idea is where the film really shines. The camera work and camera angles are set up so that corners, alleys, doorways, and even the camera focuses are potentially obscured. At one point when Katie is bitten, we do not actually see the bite take place. We only hear the screams from Katie coming from the hallway. The disembodied scream and obstruction of sight lends to a feeling of realistic paranoia among the audience. The audience sees only what the cameras see, and in turn feels what the characters are feeling, as they also do not see the full manifestation of the monster. The lack of the monster's physical appearance, portrayed by the demon, causes the audience to personally interpret what the monster may look like. This allows the audience to make their own judgements of how truly horrible the monster may be.
This feeling of paranoia also lends to the feeling of loss of control. Within the film, we see Micah attempting callously to take control of the situation. Micah is a day trader, and is not well versed in any form of supernatural occurrences. Ultimately, it is the same feeling of paranoia that drives him to attempt to defeat whatever it is they are facing. This same drive is what makes things worse for the couple. At one point in the film, a professional psychic mentions that the demon feeds off negative energy. Micah seems to have a certain sense of misogyny and toxic masculinity that creates negative energy for the demon to feed off. Micah ignores Katie’s requests to get professional help and brushes her concerns aside. Micah chooses to go against the advice that the professional suggests and decides to use a Ouija board to communicate with the demon. This conflict creates animosity between Katie and Micah, allowing the demon to get stronger, and the situation to get further out of Micah’s control. Micah reiterates that he will “handle it” and that he is “in control” several times. This egocentric focus on control that Micah has is what leads to his death at the end of the film.
‘Paranormal Activity’ makes the mundane and the average, like a good night’s sleep, horrific. It makes an empty room become filled with dread. It makes the idea that something unseen is right next to you very realistic. Like a kid woken from a nightmare, this feeling of unsteady unrest lingers long after the film has ended. As audience members walk to their cars, they make sure to look behind them, perhaps sensing the monster breathing down their necks as well.
If you are looking for something to watch post-Halloween, in between classes, enjoy the feeling of being scared, or are a horror film fanatic, watch 'Paranormal Activity' available for rent, purchase, or stream on Paramount+, AppleTV, and Amazon Prime Video.
Berto Millan (he/him) is a junior majoring in Applied Theatre, Film, And Television. He is a writer, film critic, and film historian for The Campus Citizen.