“Paranormal Activity” makes you imagine what’s lurking in the shadows

Alex Williams

For movie buffs, the month of October means one thing: 31 days of horror movies. With tons of horror flicks to choose from, The Daily Texan is going to provide a daily horror recommendation. Whether you prefer ghosts, zombies or stark explorations of the human condition, we’ll be featuring horror films of all flavors. Check back every evening for the movie of the day. Today, “Paranormal Activity” makes you sleep with your lights on for a week.

Horror has always been one of my favorite genres because of how fun it is to be scared in a dark theater and shake it off once you exit into the bright light of day. “Paranormal Activity” is one of the only films to follow me home afterward, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent two weeks of my senior year of high school sleeping with my closet light on after seeing it for the first time, unable to close my eyes without imagining the horrible things that could happen while I sleep.

The film stuck with me to such a degree not because of the scares on-screen, but because of what it didn’t show me. “Jaws” famously keeps the shark off-screen until halfway through the film, and films like “The Thing” and “Insidious” skillfully build suspense before showing you what’s pulling the strings. “Paranormal Activity” takes this a step further, letting us see the actions that its invisible, demonic entity performs without ever showing the monster itself. I’m a creative type, and my overactive imagination ensured that I’d simply picture the most terrifying monster possible, which is more effective than anything the filmmakers could come up with. What’s scarier — knowing that there’s a solid, visible monster hiding behind a corner, or suspecting that something truly malevolent could be hiding in every shadow, waiting for the perfect moment to strike?

“Paranormal Activity” was a bonafide phenomenon when it was released, packing midnight screenings and inspiring a gross upwards of $100 million (along with three sequels). The film tracks Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), a couple living in domestic bliss until strange events begin to occur in their sleep. In an attempt to track the abnormalities, Micah buys a camera to set up while they sleep.

The lead characters are just relatable enough, and Micah’s gung-ho approach to solving the problem will seem familiar to any guy who's ever attempted to fix their own plumbing or refused to ask for directions. Micah may act like the typical idiotic horror movie character at times, but he’s coming from such a recognizable place of macho bluster that it’s hard to fault him. The rapport between Micah and Katie is natural and easy, and while neither of them give monumental dramatic performances, both powerfully portray the tangible strain the demonic activity puts on their relationship.

The familiarity of the main characters just makes the movie’s structure all the more effective. The film strikes a clear contrast between the nighttime scenes, which are often punctuated by increasingly terrifying events, and the daytime scenes, where the reeling characters try to process what’s happening to them. The sense of dread that sets in every time it cuts to the couple getting into bed at night only gets worse as the film proceeds, but “Paranormal Activity” truly succeeds as it starts to strip away every layer of defense the characters — and the audience — have.

First, the safety of the daytime disappears, as the demon’s breath moves Katie’s hair one terrifying afternoon. But at least it can’t touch you, right? Until Katie is dragged down the hallway in one of the film’s most viscerally terrifying moments. Shortly, the film strips away the characters’ free will, and, in a memorably chilling final shot, tears down the fourth wall between the demon and the audience.

Although “Paranormal Activity” inspired a franchise, the sequels have never topped the authentic panic that sets in as the first film wraps up. You’re not aware you’re watching the final sequence of the film until it’s too late, and the authenticity of the characters only makes the inevitable conclusion even scarier. As the franchise’s narrative has gotten more convoluted, the films have varied in quality. While the third film is easily the best in the franchise, packed with memorable jump scares and excellent moments, its Hollywood polish keeps it from achieving the same visceral, edge-of-your-seat horror as the original, one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen.