'Paranormal Activity' Is Still This Generations Most Influential Horror Film
Horror has had a lot of influential films, but for this generation, the found-footage classic that is 'Paranormal Activity' is still king.
I have always been intrigued by the paranormal and unexplainable horror of the world. The anxiety that it presents and chills that you get from watching movies, TV, or even amateur videos was always fun for me growing up and still remains to this day as one of my favorite types of media.
Horror itself contains so many different styles that whether the films are good or bad, there is always a unique angle to the specific film. That being said, there is one type of horror that has always scared me more than others, demonic horror.
The reason being, I grew up a Christian in the south, so the idea of evil and demons was so taboo to me growing up. I wasn’t sheltered by any means, but my family was not the type to explore the dark side of the Christian faith. So, to me, that was the most horrifying and realistic idea that Hollywood ever put in my head.
There was one film that implanted this into my psyche for what I expect to be the rest of my life; that is the 2009 found-footage classic Paranormal Activity.
Now, I know that this film’s reputation has been diluted due to the endless amount of bad to subpar sequels and spinoffs that it has produced. Sequels should never take away from an original no matter what film series is being discussed. It is a fact that Paranormal Activity impacted the next ten years of horror filmmaking and in doing that changed the horror game.
Found-footage and demonic horror were not new concepts in 2009 when this film was released. The Blair Witch Project and The Exorcist are the main sources of inspiration for Paranormal Activity. Paranormal Activity combined both these ideas and created something that had never been done before and studios would attempt to replicate an endless amount of times, but never reproduce the same results.
Creating the Hype:
This film has such an interesting origin story. The director, writer, and producer Oren Peli came up with the premise from hearing odd and unexplained creaks and moans in his new house. He took that and ran with it. That’s what’s funny about this film, it is so bare-bones basic, the plot itself is nothing we haven’t seen before, but the way it was made is what lifts it to such high status in the horror industry.
Oren Peli took this simple concept, a home video camera, inexperienced actors, all for $15,000, and revolutionized the way movies scared their audience. Scares weren’t strictly jumpscares, and even when there were jumpscares, how Peli decided to shoot them in home video format gave them a sense of uncontrollable fear. There was something happening that we couldn’t see and had to wait and find out with the characters what had happened.
Everything about this film was unique, even the script; mainly because there was no script. Oren Peli gave his actors Katie Featherson and Micah Sloat the situation on hand and had every moment improvised. This leads to some genuine reactions in the film, and while on a rewatch you can see some of the acting woes, the reactions themselves are incredibly realistic and how Katie and Micah react to these situations is exactly how any normal person would.
The horror in this film was so unique that audiences genuinely were unaware if it was real or not. Back in 1999 when The Blair Witch Project came out, it was easier to fool people without the social media presence that didn’t exist yet. By 2009 audiences should’ve been smart enough to know not to get tricked again, but because of Peli’s ingenuity, they pulled it off.
The horror in this film was the sole reason why whenever a big distributor like Paramount Pictures picked up the film, they planned to remake and reshoot the entire movie with bigger name actors and a bigger budget. However, Peli insisted thanks to a clause in the distribution contract that the original film gets one test screening. This was Peli’s attempt to show that his original creation was good enough for a wide release.
The testing started out horrible because audience members began walking out of the theatre midway through. Peli assumed that was the nail in the coffin for his original creation. To the shock of Paramount and Peli, they found out that while the audience members who left were being interviewed, they claimed they were too terrified to continue watching the film. Those who remained echoed the same vigor for the horror of the film.
Paramount Pictures greenlit the wide release of the original $15,000 film. They spent an additional $215,000 on marketing and made $193.4 million.
In 2009 I was fifteen years old and I remember seeing commercials for Paranormal Activity and I thought it was odd that they hardly showed any of the movie itself. Instead, they were showing the audience horrified reactions to the movie and ended the commercial by asking for viewers to request their local theatre to show the film. It was a marketing tactic I had never seen before and intrigued me to no end. I needed to see what this movie was about.
My girlfriend, some buddies, and I hopped in the back of a pickup truck - again, I live in the south - and drove to our local theatre who had just started showing the film. My experience in that theatre was unlike anything I had ever experienced and still to this day I have not had the same chilling feeling that originally watching this movie gave me.
The realistic setting and how we could see these crazy events happening with frightening reactions from the characters. There were the simple haunts like keys falling on the floor or a door opening and closing. Then there comes the true stuff of nightmares like seeing a ouija board catch fire or watching the entity physically interfere with Katie and Micah.
Peak fear came from something so simple though. Whenever Micah sprinkles baby powder on the floor in order to catch the entity walking through their house. While you watch this your thinking, “of course a demon isn’t stupid enough to just walk through the powder.” But, whenever you see these disfigured footprints stomp towards the bed it makes your spine stiff. Then you come to the realization with the characters that it wanted them to see its footprints, it didn’t care that they would see them, it wanted them to see them.
Whether it be simple scares or some of the most horrifying scenes in the film, they are all accompanied by brilliantly simple sound design. A low rumbling that lets you know that the camera was being interfered with as the entity began it’s haunting. You constantly look throughout the screen to see where this invisible force is and you can only guess what it’s about to do.
After the movie, I hopped back in the truck bed and the whole ride home I was entranced in a fear I had never experienced. I was sitting in the back of the truck listening to the cold October air whipping past my ear and it was this eerie feeling that I can only explain as my entire world being expanded.
I’m not proud to admit this, but I had a new fear of nighttime after watching this. I had trouble sleeping for almost two months. To the point where I started falling asleep in class because I struggled to sleep at night.
I know how overdramatic this all sounds. Trust me, I’m not proud to be typing this, but you have to understand my frame of mind at that point. I had heard of ghosts and monsters, but the idea of demons was new to me. I could get into my bed at night knowing I had never experienced a ghost haunting in my home so wasn’t worried about that. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, or any other kind of horror monster were too unrealistic for me to believe.
Demons though, that was real for a kid who grew up Christian and knowing if there was a Heaven there had to be a Hell. If there were angels there had to be demons. Not only that, but Paranormal Activity presented it in such a horrifically realistic way. Even when I realized this was not really found footage, it didn’t change my fear because by then I had already started researching the fact that people actually had experiences like this.
See, unlike a ghost haunting that generally revolves around a location, Paranormal Activity presented audiences with the fact that demonic activity can take place and attach itself to any individual. Not only that, but there is always malicious intent.
Having this new perspective and how Oren Peli presented it in a “what happens while you sleep” story really got to me and it took me a long time to find peace of mind. But, the fact is that this film had a major impact on my life and my outlook on horror movies, religion, and real life. It made me fear evil beyond human comprehension.
I’m not sure if the film had that same kind of impact on other people individually, but the impact it had on the horror genre was just as deep. Obviously, found-footage was a thing, but Paranormal Activity started a trend that Hollywood overused in the early 2010s. Studios tried to recreate the effect, but part of what made the film so scary was its simplicity and the mystery behind it. Once you start to burn out an audience on plots like that, it becomes impossible to introduce anything new with it.
To me, Paranormal Activity is the best version of a found-footage horror film. When I look at what came after it, including the sequels nothing comes close. But, if you look at what came before it, the pioneer of the found-footage genre The Blair Witch Project; I think Paranormal Activity took that premise and pumped steroids into it.
When I watched The Blair Witch Project I was so let down because I had heard people talk about this being a revolutionary horror film, but there was hardly any horror in the film itself. So, to me, Paranormal Activity makes good on the found-footage trope. I respect that The Blair Witch Project was trying to dive really heavy into a realistic idea of found-footage, but it left a lot to be desired.
Outside of kickstarting the found-footage movement, I credit Paranormal Activity with revolutionizing jump scares. Movies before would rely on constant jump scares, Paranormal Activity started to push films towards a more subtle form of horror. Still, jump scares, but more sophisticated than a monster popping up on your screen quickly.
The impact this movie had on individual moviegoers and the horror genre is what puts this film at the top of my list. This is my generations The Exorcist. This is the horror movie that my kids may someday say “this isn’t that scary” and I’m going to tell them that this movie is the reason why your horror movies are so terrifying.