An unassuming little horror film has become one of the breakout hits of the fall season. Reportedly filmed for around $20,000, Paranormal Activity has made more than $30 million over a three-week rollout, with midnight screenings and a viral marketing campaign. The movie is about a young couple who film eerie occurrences at night with a home video recorder — and it's just the latest in a string of films proving that a blurry, low-budget style can sometimes make movies scarier.
There may be earlier examples of "do it yourself" horror films, but it was The Blair Witch Project that made it a mini-genre: Take young people, add a hand-held camera and a mysterious supernatural entity, roll sound, and ... action.
Of course, Blair Witch was a pseudo-documentary, the story of three student filmmakers whose trip to the woods becomes a fantastic argument against hanging out in haunted Maryland forests. The home video helped lend the film a sense of authenticity.
"I do think there's something horribly creepy about the shaky hand-held camera," says Judith Halberstam, who literally wrote the book about horror and technology. "It comes so close."
That shakiness pulls you right into the film. Think of the sequence in The Silence of the Lambs where the killer uses night-vision goggles to stalk Jodie Foster's heroine in a basement. Or the movie Cloverfield, in which a guy at a party videotapes a giant mutant monster. The idea, it seems, is that the fourth wall has somehow sprung a leak.
"If the person shooting the film is about to get it, what about the person watching the film?" Halberstam asks.
There's been a recent horror-verite trend in movie theaters. Take the surprise summer hit District Nine, about aliens quarantined in a South African ghetto. Like Paranormal Activity and the upcoming thriller The Fourth Kind — about UFOs and alien abduction — it's got a jumpy, urgent, naturalistic aesthetic.
Halberstam says that raw look and feel resonates in a culture where surveillance cameras in every major store and city street create a kind of unconscious expectation: "If we just keep taping and taping, we'll see something that surprises us," she says. "Something really creepy is going to flit across the screen."
Handmade-looking films like Paranormal Activity tend to be cheap, so Hollywood's willing to gamble on them. And they're often better precisely because they don't depend on slick effects — or tired old franchisees named Freddy or Jason. Instead, these homegrown horror movies engage horror's most crucial element: the imagination.
"If everything is shown, and nothing is left to the imagination," Halberstam argues, "it falls flat."
This kind of scary movie is unvarnished. The actors seem like people, not movie stars. In that way it echoes reality TV, says Halberstam: The horror lies not in seeing monsters but in watching — up close — as human relationships disintegrate.