Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity proved a point that I always try to make in my creative writing classes: form must have function, form is not the same thing as story, and (finally) form should be used in service of story and not the other way around.

Here’s what I mean by that. Paranormal Activity is an extremely frightening movie that (much like Blair Witch Project) uses the gimmick/form of hand-held camcorders to tell the story of a young couple terrorized at night by some sort of paranormal activity. They set up cameras in the house to observe what happens when they fall asleep. The result is absolutely chilling, and the movie is brilliant in how it develops each of its scares. We watch minute after minute of…well…nothing. People sleeping. But the dread comes from a sense of inevitability, that something will happen to this couple, and that they (asleep) are powerless to prevent it or even to act upon it. Even when it’s just a door closing, the use of silence, build-up, and character vulnerability are all exploited to amazing results. The format of camcorder footage also prevents the audience from ever leaving the scene, too, so we can’t go outside and catch a breather; we’re stuck in the bedroom, or in the house, at all times.

But there also comes a time in this film when form is no longer necessary, and when it actually prevents us from concluding the story in a satisfying way. The same was true of Blair Witch. At some point, if we are to resolve the conflict and we are to come to a non-manipulative and honest conclusion to the story being told, we need to put the cameras down. But this film makes the stubborn choice of putting form over function in the last five minutes, continuing to use the camcorders when it would be more helpful for the story if they hadn’t. The result is a terrible ending (like Blair Witch) that doesn’t seem true to the story that came before. It changes or ignores the rules set earlier in the movie about the paranormal activity itself, and concocts a cheap final scare to simply distract us from questioning the internal logic. (If you’ve seen the movie, answer this question: if “possession” and death were the ultimate goals for the demon, why spend a full month working up to that point? Hell, why spend an entire lifetime haunting someone only to possess them one random night, out of the blue?)

The same was also true of Cloverfield, which killed its characters in the final frame. It’s a lazy ending to an otherwise skilled and scary movie.

To see how someone uses form in service of story, but then changes form when the story demands it, see Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which begins with the same camcorder gimmick, then zooms out in the final act to show all the things that the camcorders wouldn’t pick up. Brilliant.

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