If there is ever a sleeper hit in 2009, Paranormal Activity is it. Accompanied with a lackluster visual marketing campaign (lame poster, lamer trailer), the years-long shelved film is now encountering success by an intense and calculated word-of-mouth, demanding a wider release through online petitions and an exponentially increasing per-theater average to an astonishing total this weekend in the #5 spot with $7 million in only 160 theaters. The film works with its rather simple, straightforward idea of amping up the creepiness slowly and with as minimal revealing material possible (rarely these days do horror films get so much out of so little). The device this movie uses to achieve its creepiness is also simple and is becoming an increasingly familiar way to make horror films, framing the film as an archive of home-video footage made by the victims themselves.
This approach to horror arguably started with The Blair Witch Project and has been since reawakened with more recent films like Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, [Rec], its US remake Quarantine, [Rec] 2, and now Paranormal. Blair Witch ten years ago (yes, it really is ten years old) relied on a shrewd marketing campaign taking place on both the grassroots (it takes the disputed title as the first movie hyped up by the Internet) and professional levels (its trailer did accompany The Phantom Menace, after all). It also used the hype of its notoriously creepy Sundance screening to bankroll into its mainstream success. This, however, occurred when there was still a conversation going on regarding whether or not the footage was real, a conversation that ended shortly after the film’s commercial release. Inevitably, a huge backlash occurred, as many attested that believing the footage was real was integral to its effectiveness as a horror movie—without that, all you had left was nauseating camerawork and an ineffective gimmick of a concept.
As with many sleeper hits, a similar backlash will no doubt occur with Paranormal Activity, but the film seems to operate effectively as a scary movie whether or not one is duped into thinking it’s real, and it seems nobody involved with this film is trying to sell it as found footage. This I believe is indicative of a significant change in how we view fictional media objects posing as nonfiction, evidential, or found footage, and why a movie like Paranormal Activity can be released ten years after Blair Witch and use the same conceit to a much better effect.
While Blair Witch may represent progressive DIY marketing as much as it does clever (if still gimmicky) DIY filmmaking, its use of 16mm and home video footage is indicative of its status as part and parcel of a dial-up era still making the transition to the digital global neighborhood we know today. Blair Witch was part of Web 1.0, existing before YouTube, blogging and vlogging, or the many social networking sites that we use every day, enabling us to potentially express our random thoughts to people all around the globe.
Leading up to 2009 we’ve seen the collapse of grassroots and corporate worlds, lines blurred between amateur and professional sources of web content as the professionals have become able to convincingly imitate the amateurs, or the fake and staged being able to imitate what we previously accepted as real (e.g., lonelygirl15). We’re used to seeing talking heads on websites spouting varied opinions on subjects ranging from the Iran elections to Obama’s birthplace to whether or not Britney should be left alone. This remains a culture in which we’ve felt invited to turn the camera on ourselves, where our daily thoughts are worthy of dissemination as long as they don’t exceed 140 characters. Occasionally we take interest in the rare people out there documenting themselves who either have something important to say or say nothing in a compelling way—the problem is, we can’t always know where they’re coming from. Is this the puppet of a lobbyist, or is this a normal Joe just feeling the need to put his words in the ether of cyberspace? Am I being friended or followed by a person or a robot? At some point it simply doesn’t matter, as the compelling degree of the content trumps the validity or merits of the source.
We’ve done the same with documentaries, interrogating every detail and being aware of how the camera (both ideologically and aesthetically) frames an issue or the way a filmmaker stages events. Where audiences simply took the benefit of the doubt in decades before, blindly assuming that documentaries were objective documents of reality, audiences now are far keener (in healthy and in nitpicking ways) to question every little detail and seek out the documentarian’s agenda. Even Errol Morris—the anti-Michael Moore—was accused of agenda-driven filmmaking when admitting that he paid his interview subjects for last year’s Standard Operating Procedure, which is actually common practice in nonfiction filmmaking. On the other hand, we also consume narratives that are obviously fiction existing in the guise of nonfiction, as faux-doc shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation structure their laughs through shaky-camera immediacy and direct address, a format which would have been distracting for the sitcom format fifteen years ago.
There’s no way Blair Witch would have been successful today. The film would have been dismissed as fake immediately, or its veracity would have been so questioned or debated over as to render it irrelevant or label it untrustworthy. Telling a 21st century audience “this is real” simply won’t work anymore. Why Paranormal Activity works is that it remains an effective piece of filmmaking whether or not one believes it to be a document. The “San Diego Police Dept.” header at the film’s beginning does not serve as forged evidence trying to convince the audience that the film is something it’s not (unlike the forged evidence on Blair Witch’s website), rather it simply exists to be consistent with the overall aesthetic. Paranormal Activity plugs into our culture’s acceptance that effectively pulling off the illusion of the real is not the same thing as passively accepting something as real. This film works off the notion that we’re used to normal people around the world turning the camera onto their own faces while we don’t know nor care whether or not it’s real or fake—the aesthetic is now so familiar and the content so compelling that it’s effective nonetheless. And the requirement of compelling content is probably why this approach has been so popular recently in the horror genre—there’s something exciting about the extraordinary posing as the mundane.