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.
The Others (2001), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is one of my favorite supernatural horror/psychological thriller movies. It’s got everything I love: horror, the supernatural, the afterlife, mystery, suspense, Christianity, and Spiritualism. It shows what a haunting is like from “the other side.”
I could approach this film in so many ways. But I want to point out some things about darkness and blindness.
While the screen is still dark before the opening credits, a voiceover begins in which a woman says, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” This is the first instance of information coming from darkness that can be taken two ways: as a mother telling her children a bedtime story (beginning with Genesis chapter 1, where God says, “Let there be light”), or a medium beginning a séance with a table full of sitters.
Grace lives with Anne and Nicholas in her island manse which she keeps in perpetual darkness because the children are photosensitive and will die if exposed to strong light. Yet light in the darkness is exactly what they all need.
It’s 1945, and Grace, played by Nichole Kidman, is still waiting for her husband Charles to return from the war. The previous house servants abandoned their positions some time ago. The children bemoan the fact that, like Daddy, everyone disappears and doesn’t return.
Because they cannot leave the house, Grace homeschools the children using a religious curriculum. She’s a devout Catholic who spends much time indoctrinating the youngsters about such subjects as the four hells, notably limbo for children. As a Christian, she believes in the afterlife. But her rigid doctrine blinds her to the reality that they’re all dead. Their experience fails to align with her beliefs, so she cannot understand the nature of their plight. How and when will the light dawn?
Grace tells Mrs. Mills, the head housekeeper, that she doesn’t like fantasies or “strange ideas,” which she says the children entertain. But the children are closer to the truth—Anne, especially—than their mother is. Anne hears and sees “others” in the house, including a boy named Victor. Yet even the girl is in the dark about the reality of the afterlife.
Who are they? “Ghosts?” her little brother asks. She tells him they’re not ghosts. “Ghosts aren’t like that,” meaning people—like the kids, mother, and servants. Rather, ghosts “go about in white sheets and carry chains.” This is simply more misinformation that blinds them to what the afterlife and spirits really are like.
When Grace herself hears evidence of others in the house, she rushes into the “junk room,” where everything, like ghosts, are covered with sheets. She finds a Victorian photo album of the dead, its subjects all with closed eyes, and begins to see the light.
Grace determines to leave the house for town to fetch the priest, but on her way, she becomes lost in a fog so thick she cannot see where she’s going. Miraculously, she meets Charles returning from battle. Because he is so shell-shocked, he’s unable to shed any light on their situation—until Anne tells him the truth. Although viewers are still kept in the dark about this secret, the result is that Charles departs.
Things come to a head when Grace awakes in horror to find that all the draperies in the house have been removed, spirited away. The house is filled with light, ghastly light. The “others” are forcing her to see the light. Upon searching the house, she discovers a photograph in the servants’ quarters. All three of the servants are dead. She’s been entertaining departed spirits.
During the climax, Grace and the children at last find the “others” sitting in an upstairs room. The old woman, the “witch” that Anne sketched, is engaged in automatic writing, scribbling words she hears from the other side. Words that Grace and her children are screaming: “We’re not dead!” This is a primary tenet of Spiritualism: the dead are only so-called, for “We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death” (https://nsac.org/what-we-believe/principles/).
I love how the books and movies required for my MFA course are tying into everything I’ve studied. I’m impressed with the writers’ knowledge of Spiritualism. For example, when Anne is dressed in her communion gown (looking like a ghost), her change into the blind old woman is a reference to trance mediumship and the Spiritualist phenomenon of transfiguration. This scene foreshadows the end in which the séance reveals “the other side of the story.”
Although the medium is blind to the physical, she sees in Spirit. Because of her contact with the other side on behalf of the living, Grace and the children do see the light. But only concerning their current state: they are dead, this is what ghosts are like, and the house belongs to them. Instead of allowing the light of their new understanding to enable them to move on like Charles, they determine they will never leave. The final shot of the gates being chained indicates that what remains within are only ghosts.
To disembodied souls, the “soul body” is just as physical and solid to them as their physical bodies were, and instead of moving on (because they don’t know they’re supposed to), they remain on the earth plane among people who are still physically embodied.
The only problem is that disembodied souls usually cannot make themselves seen or heard by those still living. When loved ones and helpers in the spirit world come to escort them away from the physical realm, they refuse to go because they don’t believe they are “dead” (physically) and have no concept or belief in an afterlife.
The danger for these souls is becoming stuck on the earth plane instead of progressing to the joys of life in the higher astral realms.
Lee Allen Howard, How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted
Antichrist (2009), by controversial director Lars von Trier, is the most disturbing horror film I’ve ever seen.
It opens with one of the most horrifying scenes in any movie I’ve watched. The ending scenes are even more excruciating. I won’t go into details to avoid blunting the shock factor, but consider yourself forewarned.
After the death of their toddler (“Nic,” played by Storm Acheche Sahlstrom), a couple who remain unnamed throughout the movie (Willem Dafoe as “He” and Charlotte Gainsbourg as “She”) deal with Her atypical grief over this heartbreaking loss. After She is hospitalized for a month, He, a psychotherapist, transports Her to their wilderness cabin, which harks back to the Garden of Eden and is in fact named “Eden.” There, they embark on psychotherapeutic exercises to help Her overcome Her grief and fear.
They seem to make progress, but His strange encounters with dead and dying animals—the Three Beggars: Grief, Pain, and Despair—coincide with Her descent into madness. He discovers Her thesis notes on “gynocide” that have degenerated over time into incoherent scribbles. He realizes She’s not as good a mother as He supposed.
She tells Him at one point, “Women do not control their own bodies; Nature does. … Nature is Satan’s church.” She demonstrates when she begins to terrorize him.
Fearing He will leave Her, She’s convinced He has become the enemy and intervenes violently to prevent abandonment. These climactic scenes are unbearably intense, gory, and sexually explicit. (Several scenes should have earned the movie an NC-17 rating, so beware.)
Von Trier’s perverse film is not for the squeamish. He developed it during a severe depression (which I admire because I’ve been unable to write while depressed), and his mental and emotional state during the writing and filming leach through to infect the mind and soul of viewers.
At the cabin, She renounces Her thesis and tells Him She believes that women are evil. Is the movie misogynistic? That depends on your point of view. Von Trier’s female characters are often abused, and NPR paints Him like male characters in von Trier’s other works as “a smug, sententious fool.”
While this film is sinister and unpleasant, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is gorgeous—especially the black-and-white scenes, the close-ups, and out-of-focus shots.
The acting is exceptional. Dafoe, who played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), always gives a good performance, and Gainsbourg (Claire in von Trier’s Melancholia ) is stellar.
The movie deals with biblical themes about Satan, the Fall, and the nature of evil. But I couldn’t understand why the film was titled “Antichrist”; it had nothing to do with the man of lawlessness. When the handwritten credits rolled, I found out why: the director is billed as “Lars von Trier Antichrist.”
You will either love or hate this film. But as a study in dramatic horror, it’s a must-see for film students and enthusiasts alike. 4.7 stars.
I’m a little late to the show for this one, but if a movie fuels my imagination, even if it’s eight years old, I’ll review it. I felt this way about HOUSE OF WAX, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and released in 2005.
Synopsis: Six friends are traveling to a football game. They camp out for the night and plan to continue driving the next morning. But after discovering car trouble, two of them accept a stranger’s ride into the small, out-of-the-way town of Ambrose, where the main attraction is the House of Wax. But something’s strange about this town. Save for the wax figures, the town is deserted—except for two serial-killing twin brothers. The friends must fight to survive and escape from being the next exhibits. (Adapted from IMDB.)
I’ve always loved wax museums and think they’re fascinating as well as creepy. (A great combination for me.) I love the concept of not just a wax museum, not just a house, but an entire town made of wax. This village is cut off from everything and full of wax figures—any of which could be one of the deadly brothers—a situation that generates plenty of suspense. The awesome set makes for some genuinely creepy moments. And there are plenty of adrenaline-jolting scares from loud sound effects (cheap thrills, nonetheless effective).
The twins are the perfect killing franchise: one is the artist, the entertainer, and the other is the businessman, the salesman. Their only redeeming quality may be that they love their mother. The artist twin works with flesh, wax—and cutlery.
Protagonists are fraternal twins Carly and Nick Jones, played by spunky Elisha Cuthbert and brooding hottie Chad Michael Murray. The acting is unexceptional, but it’s not terrible either, except perhaps for Paris Hilton, who plays part of Paige Edwards. And other than the roadkill picker-upper (Damon Herriman), none of them is hard to look at. Even the mangled twin keeps himself hid behind a nice wax mask (Brian Van Holt). He’s a scary sonofabitch, this vicious killing artist.
There’s loads of violence and gore in this flick, but the set and cinematography are visually rich and satisfying, something I like in horror, although these can’t redeem bad logic or shitty plotting.
HOUSE OF WAX suffers from some typical stupid horror movie moments. Why chase after the smell of rotting flesh? Why split up to search in a dangerous place? Must we have an explanatory info dump at the end? And gas at the filling station is $1.19—totally threw me out of the story. (Was it ever that cheap?) 😉
Favorite parts: Paris Hilton getting pegged. (It was her finest scene.) Catching a clip of Bette Davis crooning to Victor Buono’s ivory tickling in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, which plays nightly to a theater full of wax-covered corpses. And how the film used symbolism and tied in thematic elements at the climax.
HOUSE OF WAX isn’t as brilliant as CHAINED, but all in all, it’s not a bad view. The biggest problem with a house made of wax? Like an enormous candle, it melts. I’ll leave a few surprises for your viewing pleasure.
HOUSE OF WAX was written by Charles Belden (writer credited for the original story of the 1954 Vincent Price version) and TWIN brothers Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes (screenplay). 113 minutes. Rated R.
“Brilliant!” That was my exclamation after watching CHAINED (2012), dark crime thriller directed by Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David Lynch).
Bob is a taxi-driving serial killer who abducts women, rapes and kills them, and buries them on his property. But one day he picks up Sarah and her nine-year-old son Tim. After doing his schtick on Mom, Bob raises the boy as his own. “Rabbit,” as Bob calls him, must do as he says: eat his leftovers, clean the house, and bury the dead.
Although the house is inescapable, Rabbit is chained to the daybed in the kitchen. As he grows older, “Dad” assigns an anatomy textbook for his protegé’s education, expecting Rabbit to follow in his footsteps whether he wants to or not.
Shot in just 14 days, there are no spectacular special effects in this film. Just intense drama, keen suspense, and fascinating characterization.
Although I don’t like looking at Vincent D’Onofrio, he’s an incredible actor and, like his performance in THE CELL, delivers a convincing—and chilling—performance as Bob. The lovely Eamon Farren portrays Rabbit with sympathy. I hope to see more of him in coming years.
While this movie is not for the faint of heart because of its violence, it’s worth studying for its writing and characterization. And there are shocking surprises you won’t want to miss.
John is down on his luck, so he moves into grimy little apartment house #24 where the paint is stained, the water drips, and all the tenants share a bathroom. But his situation is only temporary, until he finds a job and gets back on his feet.
The landlord says the place is fully occupied, but the only neighbor John sees is a wanton old woman who counsels him to accept that he cannot leave. All the other tenants, she says, are dead. “They’re all dead. Simple as that.”
When John’s ex-girlfriend Veronica disappears into the little black and white television from which only hostile faces stare, John realizes he cannot escape the building or his fate. There’s a grave in the backyard with a stone engraved with “Lie Still.” And the man in the photo he cannot destroy is the man in the basement, the original owner of the house, who eventually comes to visit him.
There’s no all-star cast, no fantastic makeup, no dazzling special effects in #24. But what this British horror flick does have is loads of atmosphere, disquieting despair, and a mounting level of apprehension reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
Is apartment #24 real, or is John mad? What he comes to realize is just what the old woman tells him: “There’s no help here. No friendly neighbors. No one at all. No one lives here. No one to help you. No one. Why fight it?”
This movie disturbed me like the short stories of Ramsey Campbell. Its ghosts will stalk the corridors of my mind for some time. 3.7/5.0 stars.
The Haunting of 24 was originally release in the UK as Lie Still in 2005. Written and directed by Sean Hogan. Starring Stuart Laing, Nina Sosanya, Robert Blythe, Susan Engel, and Granville Saxton.