Friday, November 6, 2009

Paranormal Activity, Mockumentary Horror, and Simulated PTSD

I saw Paranormal Activity a couple weeks ago and, despite my reservations about all the hype, it seriously got to me. I think it's great that this whole "mockumentary horror" thing has become its own genre and we can no longer just dismiss them as Blair Witch knock-offs (see Cloverfield, Rec, Diary of the Dead). It's an extremely effective method of immersing the audience in a horror scenario and using their imagination against them. When done well, they can reach classic status, as we've seen, though they can be incredibly divisive films.

I've heard people coming out of the theater saying things like, "I want my money back," or, "That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen," and I can't understand it. Well, actually, I can understand it, I just can't agree. People see this being called the "scariest movie of all time" and go in expecting it to fail. Their expectations are so unreasonable they feel they don't need to do anything to engage themselves in the experience. A movie like this needs you to be willing get lost in it. If you fight it at all, it doesn't work. Sure, the same could be said for any movie, but with these, in particular, the fact that they try to simulate reality with a method that inherently carries the association of being "real" (handheld camerawork, improvised dialog, etc.) we tend to be even more critical of its verisimilitude than we would with a more traditional movie.

Personally, I don't really have to try very hard to suspend my disbelief for something like this. I've been a horror movie buff for as long as I can remember, and when I see something like this, I want to be scared. I enjoy the thrill of a simulated feeling of danger, so I put myself on the edge of the proverbial cliff, intentionally. All the movie has to do is give me that little shove and down I go. Though this does not mean that I'll fall for anything that calls itself "horror." The torture porn craze (Saw, Hostel, etc) lasted for about three movies for me, and even that was two too many. And the seemingly endless, over-budgeted wave of remakes (House on Haunted Hill, House of Wax, Last House on the Left) hardly get a passing glance.

The bottom line is, if all the elements are in place and it's a well-crafted piece of filmmaking, I will submit myself to its powers with vigor.

Paranormal Activity had all the elements in place. Aside from a few moments when the actors underplayed or overplayed scenes, this was an extremely well-crafted entry into the mockumentary horror genre. This much, I hoped for. What I did not expect, however, was the lingering fear that ended up ruining my night. I was jumpy and anxious, wary of dark spaces and couldn't be left alone without nearly being overwhelmed with panic. It sounds ridiculous, but on a purely physical level, it makes sense: when you're stuck in a dark room, staring intently at a screen for almost two hours, reacting to every strange sound, movement or reaction from the characters, you're guaranteed to be in that state of mind for a little while afterward. It's like an extremely mild, temporary form of post traumatic stress disorder.

Of course, having a wild imagination helps, and there are scenes in Paranormal Activity that leave much to the imagination; things you hear but don't see. These things did a number on me, too, because I just couldn't stop thinking about what those things could've been or what could've actually happened. It was hard to shake.

So if the natural progression of horror films over the years has led to the creation of the mockumentary horror genre, what is the next logical step? Will it rely on an entirely new technology to become more immersive? It seems so. What more could be done with a film or video camera to make a movie seem more real than this? The only thing I can think of would be sort of a Candid Camera, reality-TV kind of scenario; the people in the movie wouldn't know they were in a movie. But then there's all kinds of liability issues which would push producers to manipulate events and feign reality (just like the reality-TV shows of today) so that concept is out the window.

I can't even begin to guess what the next big technological leap in filmmaking will be. Some form of virtual reality? Probably. For the time being, though, a well done mocku-horror-mentary will do just fine.


  1. It will probably go to the less is more phase that videogaming seems to be going through (as Paranormal Activity is an indication of). The more you offer on the experience as a whole, the less production (if I may say that word) is needed. It was hard to get completely lost in it, mostly cause I was hanging with a friend and had to read up on it so I could decide whether or not to suggest it, but I certainly threw myself into it for the time being. Also, I sleep with the TV on so I wasn't bothered.

    2 last thoughts: Why do all the remakes necessitate "House" be in the title? and what about Quarantine?

  2. Haha, I think the "House" thing was just a coincidence. All the remakes I could think of right off the bat where "House" movies.

    And Quarantine is a remake of a Spanish film called REC. True to form, I've heard great things about REC, but not so great things about Quarantine.