‘Paranormal Activity’ and How I Learned About Horror Movie Hype

It seems like every couple of years or so, there’s a big horror release that gets by on word-of-mouth alone. Some small, low-budget little movie that takes the public by storm, and unleashes a torrent of hush-hush, “oh my gosh, that was so scary!” conversations in school cafeterias, by office water-coolers, and now, on internet chat forums like Reddit. In the late 90s you had The Blair Witch Project, which everyone was convinced was real, and was the most terrifying thing that they had ever seen up to that point. Later, you had stuff like The Sixth Sense, which came out of nowhere and catapulted M. Night Shyamalan to stardom overnight. These movies are smash-successes and huge pop-culture anchor points, dominating pop culture for their fifteen minutes of fame before another film comes along and knocks to the back-burner.

The one that I remember most from my own childhood is Paranormal Activity. Released in 2007, so I would have been around 11 at the time, that film was everywhere. No one could have predicted just how massive and utterly unstoppable that little movie would end up being at the box office, raking in an unheard-of nearly $200 million in ticket sales on a $15,000 initial budget. I remember everyone at school and on TV talking about how scary it was, how real it felt, and how they couldn’t sleep when after they saw it.

The one thing you have to understand about little me is this: I was a coward. Seriously, I was terrified by everything horror. The trailer alone for something like The Ring or The Grudge was enough to send me running from the room. And don’t even get me started on Chucky. That little ginger-haired bastard had me more scared for my life than anything else on the planet. In stark contrast with my now-obsessive fascination with the genre (which would ultimately come about in my teenage years), I avoided horror like the plague.

So when I heard all this talk about how horrifying Paranormal Activity was, I immediately added it to my mental list of “Things to Never See.” Which, at the time, included everything from Scream to the 1989 Howie Mandel/Fred Savage comedy Little Monsters. I had absolutely no interest in exploring something that was deemed scary even by the braver people I knew at the time (which, you know, were also kids). I decidedly ignored all advertising for the film I could, and, I don’t know, promptly returned to watching The Phantom Menace for the 1000th time.

I had great taste.

Three years roll by, and Paranormal Activity 2 releases in theaters, to equally excitable praise and discussion. By this point, I’m in my early teens, and had begun to consume horror content with a degree of regularity that I’m sure mildly concerned my mother. And yet, I’m still a wuss as heart, having yet to fully conquer my fears of that psychotic killer doll from the Child’s Play franchise, and am still prone to watching scary scenes in movies with my hands placed squarely over my eyes. So the prospect of seeing Paranormal Activity, or any horror film for that matter, in a theater, was out of the question.

But then, about a year later, I’m in a store and I see both Paranormal Activity films packaged together for something like $5. The fact that both of these movies were already relegated to the bargain bin should probably have been a clear enough sign that they may have been slightly less stellar than I had been led to believe, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about that. I beg a parent or a grandparent to buy it for me, an easy task since they both have an inherent love for horror like I would come to adopt as well, and we go home. I’m both excited and terrified at the notion of finally being able to see this thing that had scared the living daylights out of so many of my friends. This would be my moment to prove to myself that I wasn’t a scared child anymore, that I could handle anything that a horror movie could throw at me. This was my trial by fire. After this, I would be a man.

And so I proceeded to watch Paranormal Activity. Ten minutes go by, and I’ve steeled my nerves. I have a blanket at the ready to hide if it gets too hairy. I’m nervous, but optimistic.

Twenty minutes in, and I’m still suspicious. Nothing’s happened yet, but I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by movies before. I’m not letting my guard down.

Thirty minutes. Still nothing happening. Some cabinets have opened. I no longer have the blanket prepped to hide behind.

An hour. I’m confused now. I was under the impression that this was supposed to be a balls-to-the-wall, adrenaline-inducing experience. And yet, I’m almost bored.

The credits roll. I stare at the screen for a minute or two. Save for a cheap jump scare there at the end, Paranormal Activity wasn’t the masterfully-crafted nightmare I was led to believe. It’s tense at times, sure, but scary? Not really. Was I lied to? What the hell happened?

Okay, I think to myself, maybe the first one isn’t the scary one. Maybe the sequel is the one that everyone was so worked up about. So I start Paranormal Activity 2.

Same thing. An hour and a half of mild ghostly shenanigans, followed by maybe five minutes of actual, you know, Activity.

At this point, I’m completely and utterly baffled. Why were people acting like this was such a brazen assault on the senses? They’re fun, sure, and they occasionally build to some pretty decent atmosphere and tension, but nothing I would ever really describe as “scary.” Could people just be… wrong? Surely not?

Don’t get me wrong, Paranormal Activity is not a bad movie, by any means. It’s an impressively-crafted film, especially given its miniscule budget, and it really is an effectively suspenseful horror experience. It has tension like no other film of that style from its era, and its first couple of sequels hold that tension remarkably well. It’s also loads of fun. And I want to stress that, despite the reaction that my teenage self had to the film, it’s not boring at all. But I think I had built up it’s power so much in my mind that no film could have possibly held up to the anxiety and fear that I brought with me into the film.

Paranormal Activity was a turning point for me. At school, at a young age, the power of myth is strong. Everything is hyperbole at that stage in life. Things are either “the best” or “the worst,” with no room for middle-ground or nuance. That’s just how kids talk. Coincidentally, that’s also how the media talks as well. I suddenly realized after watching these two films that the consensus, whether positive or negative, wasn’t necessarily the reality. So I started watching other movies that were alleged to be “the scariest” or “the bloodiest” or “the craziest.” It’s a revelation that finally let me dive headfirst into the genre in earnest, actively seeking out these supposedly horrifying pieces of cinema that would, more often than not, prove to be simply the product of exaggeration by word-of-mouth.

And that’s largely held true even well into my adulthood. I remember finally seeing It Follows, expecting again for it to be some horrifying, revelatory experience, and once again finding myself somewhat disappointed. It was a great film, and I’ve rewatched it several times since then and loved it, but it didn’t really scare me. Same thing with The Babadook and The Orphanage. Great films, just massively over-hyped. If not by the general public, then by my own self, my own sense of anticipation, certainly.

I suppose the lesson to this long-winded story is two-fold: One, just generally speaking, don’t let a film’s overall consensus in the public eye be your guiding hand. If something seems interesting to you, watch it. If it doesn’t, don’t. Don’t buy into exaggerated claims of greatness or failure. Form an opinion for yourself. Some of my favorite movies were considered terrible at the time of release, and some of the most critically-lauded films in history are ones that I personally haven’t enjoyed. The public isn’t always right.

About most things, really.

And two, for horror specifically: Don’t be afraid to dive into a movie just because you’ve heard how supposedly scary it is. Odds are, it’s been blown wildly out of proportion. Granted, there are exceptions to that rule. Hereditary is every bit as disturbing as it purports to be. But for the most part, this isn’t the case. Again, most media and most interpersonal discussion is completely lacking in analysis on any sort of gradual spectrum. It either has to be one or the other, good or bad, fun or boring. Scary or not scary. The truth is, things can fall somewhere in between.

I like Paranormal Activity, for the most part. At least the first few films in the franchise, before there were witches and time travel. They’re cleverly made and entertaining. Great popcorn horror. But I just don’t find them to be as remarkably frightening as I was led to believe as a kid. So don’t be afraid to give a movie a chance just based on its reputation. You might be surprised at how little there is to be worried about.

Or you might accidentally stumble into something that scars you for life. It’s 50/50, really.

What about you? Is there a horror film that failed to live up to your own expectations? Think another horror legend isn’t all that scary after all? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

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