Despite its use of time-worn horror conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity (2007) manages to instill the creeps and dish out the scares.
Director Oren Peli’s ultra-low-budget film features a supernatural haunting by a demon in a home footage/amateur documentary format. Originally shot for $15,000, it’s “the most profitable film ever made, based on return on investment” (“Paranormal Activity”).
This movie touches all the bases for a supernatural horror flick and checks off a number of what many consider are tired genre tropes. Yet it still scares the crap out of viewers.
Tropes and conventions
Here are a few conventions and tropes in this first of the Paranormal Activity series.
Boyfriend who’s a jerk
Micah and Katie live together in his nice two-story house. She’s still a student; he’s a day trader with a thing for electronics.
Throughout the story, Micah demonstrates his dickishness by scorning Katie’s caution (respect) for the supernatural presence, her trust in experts (a psychic and a demonologist), and her disdain for contacting the presence using a spirit board. Later, he throws in her face that she’s the one who’s brought the malevolent presence into his house, using it as leverage to get his way in dealing with the spirit.
Throughout, he pooh-poohs the experts and instead wants to “take care of it,” “solve the problem” himself, but exhausts his plans to deal with the menace.
His disregard of Katie’s wishes by bringing home a spirit board shows his disrespect for his girlfriend and the demonic presence. His bravado makes the situation worse.
Micah’s character does double duty in also playing the part of the “over-reacher” who pursues occult knowledge to destruction (Carroll).
Making contact with a forbidden spirit board
This trope appears in many stories. Most notably in Blatty’s The Exorcist, where “the Ouija board was depicted as a mystical device that lured the demon Pazuzu to possess and otherwise plague Regan McNeil” (“Ouija Board”).
So, this has been done before (see “Horror Movies Featuring the Ouija Board”). But it does its job in Paranormal Activity in an omniscient scene where the camera is left running while no characters are present to witness the planchette moving and the board spontaneously catching fire. Micah’s obstinance about using the board—despite Katie’s fear and insistence against it—produces the negative energy that Dr. Fredrichs cautioned them about.
Occult experts and book research
We’ve got both in Paranormal Activity. Dr. Fredrichs is a psychic who’s not particularly woo-woo but instead asks questions to eliminate natural causes for the phenomena the young couple is experiencing.
Dr. Averies is a demonologist who, because of Katie’s hesitation in contacting him (due to Micah’s recalcitrance), is unable to help them because he’s out of the country.
Wanting to tackle the problem himself, Micah does research from books about ghosts and demons. We see shots of their pages with lurid etchings and drawings of demonic entities. Standard fare in many movies about the occult. These authorities provide “expert” information about what’s going on and constrict the parameters of Micah and Katie’s situation: “Leaving the house won’t help” (thus locking them into the setting where the spirit rules).
Carroll’s over-reacher plot
As mentioned above, Micah plays the part of the over-reacher, whom Noël Carroll describes as a “central character… in search of forbidden knowledge—scientific, magical, or occult” (Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, 118).
Paranormal Activity employs the over-reacher plot in which this “discovered knowledge is tested by an experiment or incantation of evil forces” (118). It progresses through these stages:
- Preparing for the experiment:
- Practical preparation: Micah buys the camera and other equipment needed to capture the paranormal activity so that it can be analyzed.
- Philosophical preparation: Dr. Fredrichs’ explanation and Micah’s research (through books and Diane’s website) provide background information and justification for the experiment.
- Preparations provide time and coverage to include setting, other characters (Katie’s sister), and Micah and Katie’s relationship dynamics. Carroll notes that during this stage, characters may resist the experiment. Katie does this with her disgust over the camera and the Ouija board.
- Conducting the experiment:
- Early attempts may fail. This happens when Katie finds her keys on the kitchen floor. And early footage of their sleep provides nothing conclusive.
- The experiment succeeds and makes things worse. It unleashes dangerous, uncontrollable forces which usually destroy those nearest and dearest to the experimenter (Carroll). This happens after Micah brings the spirit board home. Katie is dragged out of bed. Inhuman, three-toed footprints show up on the powdered floor.
- The entity’s destruction leads the experimenter to come to his senses and recant. Or not. Micah finds himself in too deep to fix things. Instead of coming to his senses, he doubles down by burning the cross Katie has cut herself with.
- Confronting the supernatural entity:
- First attempt(s) may fail. Micah tries to get Katie away from the house to a hotel, but she no longer wants to. They remain in the house for the…
- “All-or-nothing battle with a climax.” Katie becomes possessed. I won’t spoil the ending. But I will say the climax is effective.
This plot demonstrates the theme that some knowledge is better left unpursued (Carroll 118).
Despite its use of time-worn conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity manages to depict characters you can care about and creates suspense, horror, and terror to carry a series still making installments fifteen years later. I enjoyed the flick. Gave me a good scare.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1990.