When Paranormal Activity burst onto the scene, it felt as big as The Blair Witch Project. In fact, it was the same movie of that type that I’d seen since Blair Witch, except for a few straight-to-video flicks that immediately followed in the former film’s wake. Ten years later, in 2009, the mania surrounding Blair Witch was all but forgotten, allowing a new feature to go in and recreate the same kind of storm.
The only difference was that nobody actually believed Paranormal Activity was real. That was never called into question. Everyone knew that this was a movie going in, not a documentary. Still, it looked real and felt real. It was something filmmakers immediately gravitated toward because it achieved so much with so little. There are virtually no special effects. It cost virtually nothing to make, especially at the time.
When I first saw Paranormal Activity in theaters, it was an unforgettably scary experience. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and when it ended the theater shut the lights down for thirty seconds, so that the audience was just left in darkness and silence as soon as the experience was over.
It had never occurred to me to give it another watch, even as the sequels started coming out. I had enjoyed the second one, mostly for the mythology it introduced, but felt that its bigger budget hindered it being as scary as the original. It felt like it was trying too hard to recapture something that was pretty much lightning in a bottle the first time.
Rewatching Paranormal Activity, it struck me right out of the gate that it didn’t look real anymore. It didn’t look like anything but a found footage feature. That is certainly not the film’s fault. It’s due to the huge surplus of found footage fare that followed in Paranormal Activity’s wake. Oren Peli still made the best thing he could make with the limited resources he had.
I had also forgotten just how annoying Micah was. Somehow, I felt as if I related to him on some level when I watched it for the first time as a teenager. All of that feeling was absolutely gone this time around. Micah does not do one thing to better the situation throughout that entire movie and it is ultimately his arrogance and his inability to handle the situation that causes the deaths of both characters by the end of the film. While the sequel may contradict that, it’s absolutely how the original narrative reads. That’s interesting from a story perspective, but still makes it hard to suffer this character for ninety minutes.
Where the film succeeds, however, is in the performance of Katie Featherston. She’s gotten some credit for not looking like she’s in a horror feature, for not looking like a typical horror actress, but that’s honestly a little shallow—I think it’s much more commendable that she doesn’t feel like a horror actress. It doesn’t feel like she’s acting. The movie around her might feel staged, but she doesn’t and that’s something that’s incredibly hard to pull off.
When it comes down to whether or not Paranormal Activity holds up, the question is really about whether or not it is still scary. Many films, even great ones, lose their scare factor almost immediately. This really comes down to the viewer. Nothing is scary to everyone all the time. It’s not even a matter of preference, necessarily. It’s just gut reaction.
For me, I can honestly say it’s still scary. I remembered some of the bigger moments, but I’d forgotten exactly how and where they happened. A well executed scare is always well executed, even if it eventually stops resonating on the same level. The big moments in Paranormal Activity still had me on the edge of my seat—and at least one even got me out of my seat.
There’s no better way to prove that a movie holds up than that. Even after the tidal wave of found footage flicks that followed, there’s something special about Paranormal Activity. There’s an element of craft to it that some other things that followed didn’t quite have.
I’m not sure if this strength about the film will always endure, if Paranormal Activity will still be just as strong in another eight or ten years—but I know that, for me, it’s still a surprisingly strong viewing experience. I know that even if I can dismiss it after its over, if I wake up around 3am, I might suspect just for a moment that something could drag me out of that bed. If anything could suggest a feature will stick in the public consciousness for years to come, it’s that.