Benjamin Wollmuth is a lover of literature who enjoys sharing his thoughts on everything from movies and video games to books and music.
The "Paranormal Activity" Problem
Around a year ago, I posted a review of a found-footage horror film called Digging Up the Marrow, which I gave a pretty mediocre rating. In the review, I mentioned how the subgenre has hugely dropped in popularity over the years. I want to dig more into that here by talking about what is possibly the most famous found-footage franchise, Paranormal Activity.
I first started watching this franchise when I was around 15, an age that may seem quite young to be watching horror movies. But I enjoyed them, and I wasn’t really prone to having extreme nightmares that could lead my parents to not let me watch them. They didn’t really affect me. At 15, however, my critical eye for films was not yet refined. So, I found the Paranormal Activity films enjoyable. A few months ago, I discovered that some of my friends had never seen them, and I owned the collection––because I compulsively buy movies, especially if they’re reasonably priced––so ultimately, we decided to watch the entire 6-film franchise.
And oh, boy. It's more of a mess than I remember.
I don’t know why, but I vividly remember the trailers for the first Paranormal Activity film: an audience sitting in a dark theater, recorded with night vision cameras, watching the film and screaming every time something scary happened. I, of course, saw this trailer years after the film was released because I was too young at the time (2007) to be watching stuff like that, but I do think that those original trailers now symbolize exactly what this franchise became: a cheap way to scare people. This last watch-through of all six movies solidified that idea for me.
I used to really enjoy found footage movies, and I acknowledge that they are cheap and easy ways to let wannabe filmmakers live out their dreams. Nowadays, I completely understand why this subgenre’s popularity diminished and why so many big-budget film studios are so hesitant to release these movies in theaters. I’d even say that my original liking for them has almost completely vanished. I’ve watched so many, meaning that I’ve seen the same shit over and over and over again. Because, while they are easy and cheap to make, they were overdone. They were wrung out to the point where they became completely dry. No matter what originality a filmmaker tried to add to a film of this format, it still ended up with the same gimmicks, tropes, and characters with no likable qualities. They were all the same––completely mundane.
Here, I am stating my claim that the Paranormal Activity franchise is the epitome of this mundanity and the main source of the problem. Bold claim?
Let me explain.
The Basics of "Paranormal Activity"
Paranormal Activity by no means started the subgenre of found footage. Heck, this subgenre has been kicking since 1961's The Connection, although the 1980 exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust is often cited as the first official found footage movie. Paranormal Activity only seemed to start a craze that would die out after about a decade––a craze that gave filmmakers a low-budget way of making a movie. And I only say Paranormal Activity started this craze because the most notable found footage movies came after it. The movies released between The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are not really notable at all.
But I digress.
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The basic premise behind Paranormal Activity is this:
An old woman, a member of a coven of witches, attaches a demon to her two grandchildren––sisters––and tells them that the youngest, Kristi, will give birth to a son who will become the host body of this demon. By the time Kristi and her sister, Katie, are older, however, they have blocked the whole thing out of their minds. Cue the first movie! As the films progress, we see Katie get possessed by this demon (Toby), kill her sister and her family, and steal her sister's baby, Hunter, who is being prepared to be the new host of Toby. We see Toby get adopted––even though the films never explain why Katie gave him away in the first place––and then be reacquired by Katie later. Then we discover that time travel is a thing for some dumb fucking reason and we see that Hunter was brought back in time to seemingly become a host. Does that make sense?
A lot of the major problems with this franchise don't stem from the genre itself, but rather from the story it tries to tell. Or should I say, the lack of good storytelling it tries so hard to have. The weird plot twists and turns, along with the general progression of them all, are often used for shock factor rather than to actually add something compelling to the story. The first and second films are the only films where this idea kind of works because we barely know the characters that the story follows. After that, the twists––like Hunter being adopted or time travel existing––just feel unnecessary. And as I rewatched these films, I realized why: the films cared more about scaring the audience rather than telling a good story. These twists weren't included to make the story brilliant, they were added to scare the audience. These movies are like haunted attractions: designed to scare without focusing on a decent plot that makes sense.
This is why found footage films have always worked best as horror movies:
They allow for more scares to be had because the audience is getting a first-person view of the horror that is happening. Jump scares are easy, shakiness allows for disorientation, and suspense can be built because filmmakers can better hide whatever is doing the scaring (and bad CGI). Paranormal Activity embraced that idea and led to so many other films of its kind following in its footsteps. That is where things go wrong: almost no one tried to change the format. The first Paranormal Activity movie––and The Blair Witch Project for that matter––did this thing where they would build suspense all the way up until the last 10 minutes or so, where the plot would explode into night vision and bad CGI-filled chaos where the shakiness allowed almost nothing to be comprehended, and that was deemed scary. Audiences seemed to love it, and Paranormal Activity's sequels, along with almost every other found footage film that came out after, would follow suit. That itself is a big issue.
But here's where the mundanity comes in.
Because filmmakers wanted the last 10-15 minutes to be an explosive and hectic scare-fest that would almost always end with no one surviving, the "suspense" leading up to it could not surpass it. Therefore, the build-up is extremely slow and––you guessed it––mundane as hell. It relies heavily on quick little jump scares to keep you engaged, things being moved to show you something is there, and noises being made to attract the characters so you don't forget they are there. These films don't include good character development because they would rather be scaring than telling and they don't include proper storytelling because the revelations need to be scary and nothing else. They almost all fall into this same hole of mundane build-up to an explosive ending that does nothing to bring the plot to any compelling conclusion whatsoever.
And I blame Paranormal Activity because its sequels did nothing to change the format and kept making money, prompting other found-footage filmmakers to keep doing what they were doing. It wasn't until 2015's Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension that, I believe, people began to realize the subgenre was running dry (and this idea is solely based on the box office intake this film had). The mundanity had sucked all of the life out of the once flowing river of opportunity. Nowadays, found footage films just aren't made. I think filmmakers finally realized the lack of creativity they encompassed––that almost every found footage movie was the same. The subgenre died because the single, one-sided view allowed for almost nothing to be seen, nothing to be felt, and nothing to be comprehended. It may have been scary for a little bit... but scares stop being scary when they have been overdone.
Now, there is an argument to be made here.
Some could ask, "Don't all horror movies follow the same tropes and gimmicks?" And the answer would be yes, most do. However, non-found-footage horror movies aren't locked to one handheld camera or one perspective. And, while they do have build-up (as all movies do), they allow for better character development to be had and better story elements to be introduced within that build-up. What happens is essential to the story (most of the time). Plus, normal horrors don't need to give us a poor excuse as to why someone is filming every damn thing that is happening. Most found footage films just didn't seem to care about building character or creating a decent plot, and it's obvious that found footage filmmakers never had the want to try and do anything different. Obvious to me, at least. And Paranormal Activity and its sequels helped me see that.
No, I don't dislike every found footage movie. I really enjoy V/H/S and V/H/S 2, Creep 1 and 2, and especially Cloverfield. Those films, while somewhat following the same found-footage format, do it right, because they actually try to develop proper characters and plot instead of just trying to scare you.
And yes, this is just my opinion. You may really like found footage movies, and good for you. I have just grown to hate the format they have stuck to for so many years that includes the same mundane build-up, cheap scares, and endings that are over-the-top just to be over-the-top. Will this subgenre make a resurgence? I doubt it. Will I support it if it does? I will try my best, but I will have my doubts as to if the new films will be any different from the old ones. Because, as I said before, the first-person, one-sided view doesn't allow for much to be seen, and the format built heavily on slow build-up with no intriguing developments just leaves me yawning.
© 2021 Benjamin Wollmuth