Now that Paranormal Activity’s been out for two weeks, it’s a good time to do some fact-checks on how true to life some of its content is. (Spoiler Alert!! If you haven’t seen this movie, just read the first half of this article, you’ll be warned again before spoiler details appear in the second section.)
First, a review of Paranormal Activity; it’s an entertaining, scary film. More than that, it genuinely gets under your skin. This film isn’t for fans of what’s become known as the “torture porn” genre – the films of the ‘Hostel’ and ‘Saw’ franchise. There’s hardly any gore in Paranormal Activity, and if you’re a fan of slasher films, the movie might not be for you. Paranormal Activity’s story is bound tightly within the confines of a simple plot: Micah and Katie, a young couple, have discovered that their house might be haunted. Micah, who’s also a videophile, decides to walk around with his camera in a semi-permanent state of ‘record.’ Katie’s none too thrilled, but agrees to Micah’s deep curiosity about what may be haunting their home. Micah sets up the camera in night vision mode, and over the course of several nights, tapes their bedroom while they’re asleep. From an innocuous incident on the first night, the film spirals deeper and deeper into an extremely scary encounter with an entity. The film is now a sleeper hit in the theatres, and for the same good reasons that the low-budgeted District 9 was a sleeper hit a few months ago as well – tight plot, good acting and no frills to detract from a central theme and tone. Paranormal Activity was shot in what’s become known as ‘video verite’, where everything is seen through a a seemingly unstaged and improvised setup. But don’t be fooled. The style, while pioneered by the filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project, has been honed and polished by director Oren Peli for Paranormal Activity. What adds a heart-stopping rich layer of texture is the sound design. This is one of the few films which maximizes silence simply for the purpose of making you cringe at the slightest squeak of wood or creak of a door hinge. Video verite, while in danger of being overdone, still has that effect of audiovisual immediacy. It’s the paradox of our entertainment conditioning to automatically assign a veracity to something that doesn’t have filmic bells and whistles. But the main point to be made in a strictly filmmaking methodology -- kudos have to be given to the people who made this low-budget film. While being streamlined in plot and presentation, the movie succeeds admirably for really, really creeping you out.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen Paranormal Activity, read no further.)
As it turns out, the entity in this movie isn’t a ghost; we learn early on that it’s a demonic entity, one which has stalked Katie since she was a child. There are anecdotes of people having entities accompany them from childhood into adulthood, but these are extremely rare. For the most part, a ‘demonic’ entity can run the gamut of poltergeist phenomenon to spirit hauntings that sometimes veer into physical abuse of the person being tormented. Exorcists who are trained and sanctioned by the Catholic Church (at least in the United States) concentrate their time more on cases of behavior-influencing rather than location specific paranormal phenomenon. And before a case of possession can be verified (by the exorcist) rigorous steps are taken to make sure the person isn’t suffering from strictly psychological issues.
In the movie, a ouija board plays a pivotal role, and it’s strongly implied that Micah using the board is an open invitation to the entity to make its presence even more felt. The history of the ouija board is far from sinister - it was originally made for for parlor amusements in the late 19th Century. None of the stories about ouija boards leading to either possession or increased spirit hauntings can be verified. But amongst occultists and spiritualists today, the ouija board is the equivalent of plutonium; it has a reputation for channeling into the spirit-world equivalent of skid row, with very unpleasant entities picking up the phone on the other end. Most mediums hate ouija boards.
And as for the demonic entity itself, Paranormal Activity does stick to most of the ground rules. It’s formless, it does cast a dark shadow, and demonic entities are known for knocks, bangs and physically abusive phenomenon to the victim. As for the final possession itself, there aren’t any modern verified cases where a victim of possession kills someone. In situations where a possession results in a fatality, it’s invariably the possessed victim itself. The only sense of the entity’s partial physical shape that we get to see are the three-toed prints on the floor. While this may imply the popular characterization of the devil as walking with cloven hooves, most people these days pooh-pooh that old image of a creature with horns and a pointed tail.
However, an interesting bit of trivia: On the morning of February 10, 1854 in the English county of Devon, villagers across five parishes awoke to find a mysterious set of footprints in the snow that appeared to have been made by an upright biped on cloven hooves. The horseshoe-shaped prints were 4 inches long, 2 ¾ inches wide, and 8 inches apart. The hoofprints meandered for 100 miles over fields, imprinted themselves into rock-hard ice, and one point seemingly went through a six-inch hole in a shed, leaving prints on either side. Dogs brought in to track the creature reportedly tucked their tails and slunk away, howling miserably.
And so, in this bucolic pre-industrial patch of England was born the dark myth that the devil had walked the Devon countryside that cold winter night. It’s a disquieting tale, much like Paranormal Activity. After seeing this movie, you might not want to be alone in the dark. Much like that cold night in Devon in 1854.