The Paranormal Activity franchise is like the Ikea furniture of film: they’re minimalist, functional, and completely disposable. Even when it’s not the greatest thing in the world, it works. My former roommate and I went to see the 4th installment last night at the Alamo Drafthouse. Back when we lived together, we watched the 2nd and 3rd in the series, and now that she’s visiting town for Halloween, we saw the latest for old time’s sake.
There’s a big difference between watching these movies at home and watching them in the theater. Watching at home, I was hyper-aware of the movie’s generic, domestic interiors because we were also surrounded by drab walls, cabinets, closet doors, the cookie-cutter accoutrements of modern living. My roommate and I huddled on the sofa, covering our faces with blankets when we knew something scary was going to happen.
Watching the movie in the theater was scarier in some ways; the big screen is more immersive, but when surrounded by other movie-goers, you also have your pride to consider. I will not jump, cry out, or cower, so I steel myself extra hard. On the other hand, in the theater I lost that sense of identification between my home and the home on the screen. Also, it’s hard to be too scared when you’re eating pizza. That’s just science, folks.
Architecture has always been an important component of horror movies and fear itself. I grew up in a very old house (pre-Civil War era), and as a girl who was often afraid of her own shadow, it was like living in a real-life horror movie sometimes. So many dark corners and hidden spaces: attics, chimneys, crawl spaces, hollow walls. It makes sense that the traditional haunted house is a very old one that creaks at night. The older a home is, the more likely that someone died there. It also makes sense that ghosts, demons and evil forces would attach themselves to older structures, that ancient beings would feel a kinship to homes with history.
So it’s interesting, then, that so much horror of the last few decades has been set in shiny, anonymous suburban homes. I have a weakness for movies that play with this juxtaposition of the old (evil forces) and the new (tract housing) even though I have never lived in the suburbs, myself. This is part of the reason why I liked Ringu and Ju-on so much; there wasn’t anything inherently creepy about the plain and modern-looking Japanese homes, but the setting threw the horrific images of the ghosts into sharp relief. (As a side note on effective juxtapositions, I also have mad respect for films that set their scariest sequences in broad daylight.) As I’ve mentioned before, Poltergeist was my favorite movie when I was a kid. Maybe it wasn’t the first house-built-on-an-Indian-burial-ground film, but I think it’s had a large influence on how horror films deal with the tension between modernity and antiquity.
I just watched The Gate, a 1987 movie about a couple of kids who discover a portal to hell when their favorite tree is cut down. It ticks off all the Poltergeist boxes: suburban home, underground evil, magic tree, creature under the bed, people trapped in the walls. I liked the movie a lot. People have complained about how cheesy-looking the demons are, and they are somewhat comical but the movie was still unnerving due to a weird dream-logic that pervades every scene.
Another movie that’s a blatant rip-off of Poltergeist is the 2010 movie Insidious, although it seems to be more loving and knowing homage than shameless forgery. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series also belongs on a list of suburban horror; Joss Whedon went to great lengths to contrast the sunny California neighborhoods and the typical American high school against the torments unleashed by the underground Hellmouth.
In suburban horror, we see the uncanny at work. The dilapidated old mansion is scary because of its otherness; we don’t necessarily recognize our lives or routines in its vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors, or vintage wallpaper. But when evil spirits invade our modern houses, the cozy and familiar places we call home suddenly become unfamiliar.
Home is where Hell is.
Not all scary movies can be classified as horror, and not all horror movies are scary. Horror of the non-scary variety can have a multitude of thrills outside the fear factor: action, humor, colorful characters, bizarre locations, blood and guts, campiness, group dynamics, social commentary and general entertaining wackiness.
But what is “scary?”
I used to measure the value of a horror film by how many chills and jumps it produced. However, there are so few movies that make me legitimately afraid, either because I’ve developed a high tolerance or because only specific things frighten me. I’ve recently figured out that the one kind of film that really gets under my skin is a good ghost story. On an intellectual level, I don’t believe in ghosts, but although I try to keep that in mind, I’ve spent a few sleepless nights staring at the odd shadows in the corner of my bedroom.
Ghosts scare me because you can’t fight them or run away. You can’t stop yourself seeing the spirit if it wants to be seen. The ghost doesn’t really have an inner life of its own; it exists solely to scare the shit out of you. Why? Who knows? Spirits don’t always have the clearest motives, nor do they always have a focused target for their haunting. They haunt indiscriminately, even if you haven’t done anything to deserve their wrath. At least 99% of what makes a ghost movie scary is anticipation. You know the spook is going to pop up at some point — that’s a given, but you don’t know when or where.
The success of the Paranormal Activity movies relies on a mostly stationary camera that, in each sequence, gives us a view of a single room. In that shot, we can see doorways, corners, furniture, hallways, and staircases, all excellent locations from which a shadow can emerge. We want to keep an eye on everything so the ghost will not catch us unawares, but it’s not possible; there are too many corners to keep in our gazes. We want to peek down hallways, under the furniture, or around corners, but the camera does not move, showing us too much and not enough at the same time. We don’t get to control where we look.
Ghosts scare me in the movies, but they also scare me after the fact. Much like Samara in The Ring (or, if you prefer, Sadako in Ringu) the power of a ghost lies in its image. Once the image of the ghost has imprinted itself upon my mind, I have a hard time shaking it off. This doesn’t happen to me with zombies, slashers, or monsters. But those are physical things. They can be sliced and diced. Ghosts appeal to my fear of powerlessness because I cannot exert my will over them. They have won simply by existing. If I see them, they have won. For a ghost, causing fear is the ultimate goal – not killing, maiming, or giving chase.
So why do I do this to myself? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it’s about wanting to feel something different, a little surge of adrenaline. Or it’s a weird way of proving to myself that I’m a tough girl (I’m not tough). I don’t watch ghost movies very often because I know how much they creep me out, and when I do watch them, I try not to do it alone. Or before bedtime.
Here’s a handful of ghost movies I have found effective:
J-horror got played out pretty quickly, but I liked the contrast in sensibility between Japanese and American ghosts. American ghosts seem to have a bit more method in their haunting; they are either seeking to avenge their deaths or they have some unfinished business to attend to. The protagonists of the story will fix this ghost’s “issues” so that the spirit can finally move on to the other side and stop scaring people. I don’t know if this is a symptom of our Western therapy-obsessed culture, or what. Japanese ghosts, on the other hand, seem to be relentless, single-minded and completely unforgiving in their pursuit of causing crap-your-pants terror. They don’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice, and trying to help them sort out their issues will get you just as dead as all the victims before you. Facing such an irrational and unstoppable force is scary. It doesn’t hurt that these two movies have some heart-stopping sensory details: the clicking death rattle and rigor mortis movement of the woman crawling down the stairs, the black hair spilling out of the screen as the dead girl emerges from the television set…
The Devil’s Backbone
If you haven’t seen this movie, stop what you are doing and watch it right now. I should probably re-watch it since I saw it years ago, but it’s one of Guillermo del Toro’s earlier films and it’s fabulous. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it is set during the Spanish Civil War and uses the setting as much to make social commentary as it does to tell a good ghost story.
I really like Ti West’s old school approach to making a horror movie here, as well as his other acclaimed film, The House of the Devil. I even enjoyed ¾ of Cabin Fever 2, with its retro-pastiche silliness. The Innkeepers is a relatively straightforward ghost story that makes full use of its setting in an empty, old hotel that’s about to be shut down. The two leads, hotel employees who do a little paranormal investigation on the side, are charming and have a good rapport that makes for a nice tension reliever between the spooky scenes.
Paranormal Activity 1, 2 & 3
These movies are so simple. And almost nothing happens! And yet… My roommate and I spent most of 2 and 3 peeking through our fingers or over a blanket. As I said above, the way the shots are framed makes it hard to know where to look. The houses where the films take place are so normal, so suburban, it’s easy to put yourself in the characters’ places. And the way the films seem to waste time, with whole sequences in which nothing happens, makes the anticipation burn just a bit more. By the time there are only 20 minutes left, you know shit has to happen and it has to happen fast. Looking forward to number four.
What ghost movies have you found effective?