A friend (thanks Kristen!) recently clued me in on the indie horror release, Paranormal Activity. The premise: a couple that believes their house to be haunted sets up cameras to record the ghosts during the night. Eerie stirrings occur throughout the night, gradually escalating over the course of the film. According to Dennis Harvey’s review in Variety the film lacks “explicit violence” and never fully resolves the mysteries it explores.
These elements–the pseudo documentary, the open-ending, and the emphasis on atmospheric chills over graphic violence–have become relatively common for indie horror in the past decade. In fact, it’s been about ten years since The Blair Witch Project’s phenomenal success with the concept. Here’s the trailer:
By now, we should all know the film’s Cinderella story. A low-budget project, the filmmakers cleverly marketed the film as if the events it portrayed actually occurred. For instance, websites emerged that seemed to document the history of the legends explored in the film. Supposedly, some fans believed the footage (described as found in the trailer above as well is the film) to be real, as exemplified by FAQs such as this one that address the question of whether BWP was fiction or non-fiction. Not only did the campaign draw fan interest, but media-attention as well. The result was major distribution and one of the most profitable films per dollar invested in history.
I remember seeing the film in the theater. My dad, brother, and I traveled to the next town over, we had such a hankering to see it. While I knew going into the film that the events depicted were fake, the buzz impacted my experience nonetheless. More than anything, the media discussion of the film made the film-going experience an event as did the newness of the concept and the time my family invested to see it.
Paranormal Activity is striving for a similar event status. The New York Times (again, props to Kristen) reports that the film will be released this Friday in a select number of smaller, genre-savvy markets (i.e. college towns) like Austin, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. From there, the film will be screened in subsequent cities based on an online vote through the film’s website. Online trailers, such as the one below, also point viewers to this site where they can “demand it!”
Notice the trailer also plays up the event by showing the audience’s reactions to the film. The critics’ quotes reinforce the audience’s responses with statements like “people were physically shaken.” Again, the marketers from Paranormal Activity use an old trick of horror film advertising, exemplified by the tv spot for When a Stranger Calls (1979) below:
And, of course, there’s the standard tactic of waiting for audience members to exit the screening so you can get their first reactions to the film. Here’s some footage from screenings of The Exorcist (1973):
Because the experience of viewing horror ideally provokes a bodily reaction (i.e. screaming, shaking, jumping, crying), this marketing proves effective by showing actual viewers in a state of terror. This contrasts the marketing tactics of BWP, which instead blur the line between narrative fiction and documentary. Paranormal Activity’s use of both ploys cleverly heightens the sense that attending a screening of the film is both a special and visceral experience.