[Some broad spoilers below]
I’ve said it before: these days, seeing certain movies means coming to the endpoint of an experience, rather than its beginning; closing a door rather than opening it. Think of how something like Star Wars in 1977 seeded an entire universe of story (and franchise) possibilities, or how The Rocky Horror Picture Show ignited a subculture of ritual performance and camp remixes of genre chestnuts. By contrast, a new kind of movie, exemplified currently by Paranormal Activity, hits theaters with a conclusive thump, like the punchline of a joke or the ending of a whodunit. After you’ve watched it, there is little more to say.
Such movies sail toward us on a sea of buzz, phantom vessels that hang maddeningly at the horizon of visibility, of knowability. Experienced fannish spotters stand with their spyglasses, picking out details in the mist and relaying their interpretations back to the rest of us. Insiders leak morsels of information about the ship’s construction and configuration. Old salts grumble about the good old days. It’s the modern cinematic equivalent of augury: awaiting the movie’s arrival is like awaiting a predestined fate, and we gaze into the abyss of our own inevitable future with a mixture of horror and appetite.
It sounds like I didn’t care for Paranormal Activity, but in fact I did; it’s as spare and spooky as promised, with a core of unexpected sweetness (due mainly to the performance of Katie Featherston) and consequently a sense of loss, even tragedy, at the end. It occurs to me that we are seeing another phenomenon in low-budget, buzz-driven, scary filmmaking: a trend toward annihiliation narratives. The Blair Witch Project, Open Water, Cloverfield, now Paranormal Activity — these are stories in which no one survives, and their biggest twist is that they disobey a fundamental rule of horror and suspense storytelling by which we understand that no matter how bad things get, at least one person, the hero, will make it through the gauntlet. With this principle guiding our expectations, we can affix our identifications to one or more figures, trusting them to safely convey us through the charnelhouse, evading the claws of monsters or razor-edged deathtraps.
No such comfort in the annihilation narrative, which blends the downbeat endings of early-70s New Hollywood with the clinical finality of the snuff film or autopsy report. Such brutal endings are encouraged by the casting of unknown or non-actors, whose public and intertextual lives presumably won’t be harmed by seeing them dispatched onscreen — though the more important factor, I suspect, is the blurring of the line between the character’s ontological existence and their own.
The usual symptom of this is identical first names: Daniel Travis plays Daniel Kintner in Open Water; Heather, Josh, and Michael are all “themselves” in Blair Witch; Paranormal‘s Katie and Micah are played by actors named Katie and Micah. There is, in other words, no supervening celebrity identity, no star persona, to yank us out of the fiction, to remind us simply by gravitational necessity that there must be a reality outside the fiction. The collapse of actor and character corresponds to the mockumentary mode that all these films share — a mode that itself depends on handheld cameras, recognizable, nonexotic settings, and an absence of standard continuity editing and background scoring.
Taken together, these factors (no-name actors, conscientiously unadorned and “unprofessional” filmmaking) would seem to recall Italian neorealism. But this being Hollywood, the goal is to tell stories that fit into familiar genres while reinventing them: horror seems to be the order of the day. A more subtle point is that, with the exception of Cloverfield‘s sophisticated matchmoving of digital monsters into shakycammed cityscapes, movies in this emerging genre cost almost nothing to make. The budget for Paranormal Activity was $11,000, a datum I didn’t even have to look up, because it’s been foregrounded so relentlessly in the film’s publicity. Oddly, these facts of the film’s manufacture don’t seem to detract from the envelope of “reality” in which its thrills are delivered; for all the textual (non)labor that goes into assuring us this really happened, we are just as entertained by the saga of scrappy Oren Peli and his sudden success as by the thumpings and scarrings inflicted on poor Micah and Katie.
And we are entertained, I think, by our own entertainment — the way in which we willingly give ourselves over to a machine whose cold operations we understand very well. I certainly felt this way as I took my seat at one of the few remaining non-multiplexed moviehouses in Ann Arbor, the tawdry but venerable State Theater. The 7 p.m. crowd was a throng of University of Michigan students, a few clusters of friends packed in with lots and lots of couples. Paranormal Activity is the kind of movie where you want to be able to clutch somebody. More to the point, it’s a genuine group experience: scares are amplified by a factor of ten when people around you are screaming.
Which brings me back to my opening point: we all knew what we were there for, even as the movie’s central mysteries — from the exact nature of its big bad to the specific escalating sequence of its scares — awaited discovery like painted eggs on an Easter-day hunt. (The film’s discretely doled-out shocks, which get us watching the screen with hypnotic attentiveness, are reminiscent of the animated GIFs one finds on the /x/ board of 4chan.) We were there for the movie, certainly, but we were also there for each other, enjoying the echo chamber of each others’ emotions and performative displays of fear. And we were there for ourselves, reverberating happily within the layers of our knowing and not-knowing, our simultaneous awareness of the film as cunning construct and as rivetingly believable bedtime story, our innocence and cynicism so expertly shaped by months of hype and misdirection, viral marketing, rumors and debunkings, word of mouth.
All of which constitutes, of course, the real paranormal activity: a mediascape that haunts and taunts us, foreshadowing our worst fears as well as our fiercest pleasures.