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Be Prepared To Use Your Imagination
on November 26, 2009
A well-written review of any film should never label its subject "good" or "bad". Rather, it should give you an idea of whether or not you can expect to enjoy it, based on your own preferences and expectations. Paranormal Activity is a particularly controversial film when it comes to the potency of its terror. Most reviews either complain, with great disdain, "I hated it - it wasn't scary at all" or exclaim in total satisfaction, "It scared the pants off me - I loved it". There seems to be little in-between.
I saw the film today, having read enough reviews to know pretty much what to expect. But before I reveal my own reaction to Paranormal Activity, I would like to offer a few ideas that those who know little about this film may find helpful.
Alfred Hitchcock, the celebrated director who was known as "The Master of Suspense" held many interesting theories about what frightens an audience. Hitchcock believed that, when properly stimulated, the viewer's imagination was far more powerful - and far scarier - than many direct images that may or may not frighten the average viewer. Directly depicting a ghost, a monster or a demon for example, even with today's special effects, may scare many viewers, but that will depend solely on the quality of the effects. And even if well done, many viewers may find the images unconvincing or downright laughable, for they may have other ideas about what a ghost, monster or demon should look like.
However, if the filmmaker merely implies that a supernatural event is taking place, and sets up the situation with enough skill, the viewer's imagination can take over and sometimes yield a far more frightening experience than any vivid imagery ever will. After all, people go to horror films to be frightened, and what could be more frightening than unseen terrors from one's own imagination? By setting the mood with dark rooms, low lighting, eerie shadows and other effects that many people will associate with their greatest fears, an innocent image of two people peacefully sleeping, unaware of what may be going on about them or to them, can become very frightening indeed, even if few special effects are used. This is especially true if the moviegoer has developed enough empathy with the characters to place themselves in the same situation.
Many modern horror films rely on blood, gore and violence, with horrible creatures conjured up by special effects and vivid scenes involving battles with ugly demons or manic killers in order to provide thrills. That can be a lot of fun, and certainly very scary. But it can also be argued that, as CGI effects advance and become more vivid and frighteningly realistic, many viewers become inured to violence, blood and "creatures" while depending less and less on their own imagination, and in the process, they will sometimes forgo a far scarier experience. I know that no special effect ever came close to my own nightmares, because my nightmares are stirred by the things I fear most, and not the things that I've been conditioned to find scary. In short, no amount of vivid terrors can match the human imagination, provided that the imagination is properly stimulated.
Well, this is the basic idea behind Paranormal Activity. Largely on a shoestring budget, the writers/director/actors of Paranormal Activity have managed to create an old-fashioned thriller that relies almost exclusively on the viewer's imagination. Those who like their "scary movies" full of CGI, monsters, blood and violence are warned; you will probably be extremely disappointed. But if you have enough respect for your own imagination, and can allow yourself to be frightened not by what you see, but by what you think is there, you just may find Paranormal Activity to be every bit as frightening and well done as many people say it is.
By the way, I saw it with a friend. He did not find it frightening at all. On the other hand, I definitely expect to have trouble sleeping tonight. Whether or not you will agree may depend on how effective your own imagination can be.