So I watched Paranormal Activity recently on DVD. You’ve probably heard how original and clever it is and how refreshing it is to see a no-budget film beating the studio system when it comes to making the hair stand on the back of the viewer’s neck. (So rarely that we get these little satisfactions from horror films of late). But when I thought back on the film, what I was really struck by was that here was a movie that provided a close up of a couple in a way that very few others have done in recent years. True, they are not a married couple but they are ‘engaged to be engaged’. And they seem to spend most of their spare time in their house. Now, maybe this is just a commitment-phobic single man talking, but I wonder if that is the real horror of the film – spending your life with same person trapped in the same house (which is the same as every other house on the estate) that you will both spend the prime of your lives paying for?
Because for me that house is like a character in the film. It is like a character precisely because it lacks character. From what we see of it, it looks as though everything is in place – some of the furniture even looks new. It is like this couple have gone out and bought the bed and the tables and the chairs and assembled them all together and are now ready to play house. But something is missing. And they want to avoid acknowledging that there is a hole at the centre of their lives. So, as Freud might say, they repress this inconvenient truth. But the repressed thought does not go away. It bubbles there in the unconscious, linking up with other repressed and forgotten items, forming bizarre chains of meaning that surface only at night, when our defences are down, in the shape of dreams ... or nightmares ... (If I was clever enough with the computer, I would be able to cue up some Gothic organ music right about now).
The other terrifying thing about the film is how uncultured the couple are. They are ‘well-educated’: he is a day trader and she is studying some unspecified subject. The fact that her topic remains unnamed, coupled with a shot of a typical ‘textbook’ which she is trying to mentally ingest, summons up the horror that is our modern educational system – consume the knowledge and regurgitate it. No wonder this woman can’t sleep – she has alien material inside her. Contrast this with the beauty of Fahrenheit 451 where, eventually, each person became identified with a book, a masterpiece, a work of art. Now we have a ‘day trader’ and a girl with a generic textbook.
Whether it is tongue-in-cheek or not the whole ‘not a ghost but a demon’ motif is frightening on two levels. Within the context of the movie it makes the bad guy a more formidable enemy. At the level of the critical spectator we gasp at the naiveté of the couple and the way they receive this information – as if, ‘oh sure, there are definite, distinct classifications of spiritual beings and, just like any other commodity, you can buy a single easy-to-read book that will bring you up to speed on matters cosmological’. How far we have come from the days of The Exorcist where the arrival of the demon upscuttled the world views of both character and viewer (well, this viewer anyway).
But this guy, Oren Peli, who did just about every job behind the camera, is a highly clever and inventive filmmaker. Like Hitchcock he knows that overlapping the everyday and the uncanny makes the experience all the more frightening. Thus those little sounds that you can’t quite identify at night or the ‘I thought I turned that light off’ moment are unbearably intense in the context which Peli skilfully creates. He is playing on that thing that all of us most resist bringing into awareness – the fact that I doubt myself. In fact, it may be preferable to believe in ghosts and demons, and perhaps even perceive them, than to admit the fact that my ego is a creation designed to keep my true desires imprisoned in the unconscious. Come to think of it, if I did admit that, my ego would be the turkey that voted for Christmas.
Whatever about my ego, Paranormal Activity is certainly no turkey. The film-within-a-film structure allows the characters to watch their nocturnal ‘activity’ and to be frightened by what the camera reveals of experiences that they have actually lived through in their sleep. And it allows us to watch them watching themselves and thereby puts us literally in a similar position as them and forces us to identify unconsciously with them. Who is watching the watcher? Or am I the ghost in this movie? Maybe that’s why they call them horror films – because underneath it all, we all have demonic capacity. Ha ha ha ha ha, Ah ha ha ha ha ha.