By Cultural Analyst Jeff Koch [see Contributors]

First, a word of warning: Do not watch any trailers for Paranormal Activity if you intend to see it. They give away too many of the scares and too many of the surprises (one even shows a clip from the shocking final scene). A movie like this is dependent on the audience walking the same anxiety and tension filled path as the characters, and knowing too much about it beforehand can totally ruin the experience.

The story of how Paranormal Activity came to be is a feel-good one (you can read about it here []). The story of Paranormal Activity, however, is anything but. A young couple (Micah and Katie) is living together in a suburban San Diego home. As the movie opens, Micah has just bought an elaborate camera and microphone set up to record their bedroom at night, determined to get to the bottom of some strange sounds they’ve been hearing while sleeping. Katie is convinced that it is something supernatural; Micah is skeptical. Katie has called in a psychic to help them understand the situation. In the scene between Katie and the psychic, we learn that Katie has been troubled by nocturnal nuisances her entire life; and that this entity is not a ghost, but rather a demon that is haunting Katie specifically, and may have more sinister things in mind than just plain nuisance.

And that is about all that you need to know plot-wise (and about all that you should know) before you see it. The rest of the movie alternates between herky jerky handheld shots of Micah and Katie interacting during the day and before bed (the entire movie is shot from the perspective of Micah’s camera, like home movies) and a tripod camera focused on them in bed asleep at night, shot in the eerie glow of night vision. It’s these latter shots that provide the meat of the story and the bulk of the scares.

I saw this movie in the theater with 4 friends. At the movie’s conclusion, every single one of my friends said something disparaging. Other viewers were calling for their money back. The overall reaction was overwhelmingly negative. And the movie certainly leaves a lot to be desired. While the two leads are convincing and never seem to be acting, due to the nature of the movie, the dialogue is overly repetitive and fairly mundane without ever advancing character or plot. And neither of the characters is terribly likeable or very bright (Micah’s boasts that he is going to take care of his girlfriend in the face of being terrorized by a demon are particularly laughable). Most of the handheld camera scenes shot during the day are listless and seem to drag unnecessarily (and the movie clocks in at under 90 minutes). The scenes with the psychic are too expository, and he offers very little other than to let us all know that it is indeed a demon (and in a too brief, out of place later scene, to let us know that yes, the demon is indeed angry). And the plot has some major sticking points.

But perhaps the biggest issue with the movie is pacing. The movie starts out slow, especially some of the unwatchable daytime scenes. But the tension is being built very deliberately and very carefully. Every single one of the night time scenes is tense and frightening in either what is happening or the expectation of what could be happening. It takes a few nights before the first visually noticeable thing happens, and even then it’s very subtle. And this building of tension works very well, infusing every sleeping scene with a sense of dread. But they build too slowly, saving the truly frightening stuff for too long, and then throwing it all in too quickly. By the time the first shockingly scary thing happens, the movie is almost over, and there isn’t enough time to build anything truly frightening that will stick with you once you walk out of the theater.

Despite all of that, the last 15 minutes of the movie almost make up for its obvious flaws. Shot on a shoestring budget, the director was able to get some surprisingly spooky effects in there that I still can’t figure out how they did. Night 20 especially will leave you in awed terror. And the final scene is one for the horror movie ages, perfectly mixing creepiness, tension, and shock (plus a subtle homage to The Blair Witch Project, a movie it owes a lot to) into one last memorable shot (just please ignore the very last second of the movie).

Ultimately, a great horror movie should stick with you. Paranormal Activity both succeeds and fails on this count. It succeeds in that despite all of the intellectual problems with the movie, it physically gets to you. About an hour after the movie my stomach ached like I had been doing sit-ups, no doubt the cause of constantly catching my breath and worrying in anticipation of what might be coming. It fails in that there was no lasting dread, no residual fear. After watching a movie in which a couple is terrorized by a demon while they sleep, I had absolutely no worries about going home and going straight to bed.

Rating: 6.5 / 10Wait for it on DVD and watch it at home. I think the movie suffers from viewing with a large audience. It would be far more terrifying viewed in the intimacy of your home, giving a little too much familiarity to the scenes in the movie.




About bensten

Teacher, writer, blogger and spiritual practitioner. Managing editor of

3 responses »

  1. bensten says:

    Sounds very cool, JP. My son and I have recently gotten into the show “Ghost Lab.” They arean outfit out of San Antonio that leans toward cutting edge technology to find the ghosts. They pickup a lot of EVPs.

  2. JP Scogan says:

    I also recently visited Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The Crescent Hotel that sits on a hill above the city is supposedly haunted. Search on youtube for ‘Ghost Hunters & Ghostly Soldier medium house’. There several short clips that make up the entire episode. Good stuff.

  3. JP Scogan says:

    This post made me think of the scary movies that I love. I can name a few off the top that really got me. Ghost Story, Ghostbusters (not really scary but great), and the Ring come to mind as all time favorites.

    Does anyone else have any to list? This review made me interested in watching a creepy flick.

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