How ‘Paranormal Activity’ Delivers a Pitch-Perfect Scary Moment With Utter Simplicity

How ‘Paranormal Activity’ Delivers a Pitch-Perfect Scary Moment With Utter Simplicity

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: one of the scariest scenes in Paranormal Activity is like…a caprese salad.)

Say what you will about the horror’s found footage boom, but do not deny Paranormal Activity its rightful accolades as one of the most influential genre releases post-millennium. Oren Peli helped forever shape Jason Blum’s desire to generate box-office-profitable horror on capped budgets, and everyone from the biggest studio to the smallest indie troupes wanted to make their overnight culture shocker. Paranormal Activity is to a decade of imitators as Saw is to the post-911 “torture porn” craze, both born from 2000s franchises that defined mainstream horror trends. There’s a reason why Paranormal Activity remains one of the undisputed found footage success stories over a decade since Toby cursed our mortal realm.

With so many scares to mine in the first film alone, I direct my attention not towards the in-your-face finale. The scene that still interrupts my fleeting attempts to manage a healthy sleep pattern? When Katie stands over Micah, while the latter slumbers blissfully unaware. 

Why? 

My biggest fear is the unknown. What I can’t see, what I can’t sense, what I can’t outright rationalize thanks to physical evidence. Jason Voorhees charging towards campers with a machete doesn’t spike my anxieties as much as, say, a possessed woman who hovers over her unconscious lover for hours as he dreams sweet fantasies without any alert to his impending doom.

I’ll just live with insomnia, thank you very much.

The Setup

Oren Peli introduces viewers to Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), a San Diego couple dealing with an unusual problem — Katie believes a demon from her childhood threatens their life together. It’s suggested that the entity feeds off negative energy and requires a proper demonologist assessment. Micah ignores warnings and believes he can solve the problem with a surveillance camcorder that captures whatever inexplicable weirdness happens when the moon rises. To no shock, Katie’s interactions with whatever visits each night escalate as the romantic roommates bicker about their supernatural situation. Sounds like a breeding ground for negativity, eh?

The Story So Far

As with most ghost stories, Paranormal Activity hinges on one party’s disbelief while a victim tries to convey their genuine alarm without reciprocal compassion (at first). Katie introduces the idea of an apparition to Micah, but he’s more interested in coaxing Katie into recording a sex tape with his new videographer’s toy. A psychic (Mark Fredrichs) suggests Katie and Micah enlist the help of occult professionals, which falls on Micah’s deaf ears since he puffs his chest as Katie’s protector. 

Micah ain’t afraid of no ghosts.

As nights pass, the footage starts to reveal odd happenings that might or might not be optical illusions on grainy feeds. Maybe house keys get relocated. Perhaps their bedroom door moves forward or backward at random. After a short while, the signs become more forceful — their bedroom door slams and audible screeches or groans assert an unwanted guest has taken residence. Micah’s defiant attitude begins to wane ever-so-slightly, even if his actions become more moronic as he willfully attempts to interact with the possibly (presumably) malevolent invader. Then we reach the scare in question that proves, without a doubt, that Katie indeed is not herself anymore.

The Scene

Night #15. October 2nd, 2006. 1:35 AM (and 52 seconds for those purists). 

The camera frames Micah and Katie, asleep on their spacious mattress and Katie lackadaisically awakens. She seems confused about her surroundings, darting half-closed eyes to the sheets around her immediate self, almost as if she’s somewhere foreign and unrecognizable. The blueish overlay hue of night vision simulation adds a chilling coldness to the scene, despite how Katie looks like she might just be heading downstairs for a midnight snack.

Spoiler alert: she’s got other plans.

Katie’s feet thud against the hardwood as she stands in her bedroom, still in a sleepwalker’s haze. She maneuvers in a circle, taking in the modest surroundings, until laying eyes on Micah. It becomes clear now that Katie is possessed because the man she lays next to every night causes a bit of a double-take if you watch closely. Katie’s vision all but passes a tucked-in Micah and then shifts focus right back to his curled body, piercing through the darkness like her glare shoots daggers. There is no notion of romance or affection, as Katie stares toward Micah with palpable tension.

At this point, the footage fast-forwards for what seems like a two-hour eternity. Katie’s body sways back and forth, never breaking her direct gaze, while Micah tosses and turns in fits of weight redistribution on the mattress. Around 3:30 AM, the viewing speed returns to normal, and Katie saunters downstairs without any apparent motive. At this exact moment, we’re not sure what Katie might unknowingly do next — a bit of foreshadowing in terms of the theatrical ending. 

What a masterclass in sustaining suspense mixed with incalculable dread using nothing more than a statuesque creeper frozen in place for an extreme duration of time. One simple sequence bastardized the phrase “comforts of home” or “home sweet home.”

The Impact (Ariel’s Take)

Just reading Matt’s breakdown made the hairs stand up on my arms and my skin go cold. I know we’re writers, and our specialty is horror, but I’m not being hyperbolic. 

I remember seeing Paranormal Activity just after it made waves on the festival circuit following its initial release. I thought that watching it in broad daylight on my laptop while tucked into bed (a common pose for a relatively new film critic) would protect me from what was about to happen. Kind of like your blanket is absolutely, 100%, unquestionably a defense against monsters in the night. 

No? Just me? Come on! 

Anyways! The point is that I was so very wrong. I was not safe, and this movie got under my skin faster than a quick-absorbing body lotion for sensitive skin. While there are many scenes in this movie that gave me the chills, this is the one that shouldn’t have. Like Matt, I, too, fear the unknown. The paranormal is what tends to give me a run for my terrified money when it comes to horror efficacy (among several other things, let’s be honest). But this scene seemed too simple at first. 

“She’s just standing there,” I thought to myself. “Why are you shrinking? Wait, what’s going on here?!” 

It’s the type of subtle, slow boil that hits you on the side of the head when you think you’ve got your balance, utterly decimating you. It catches you off guard with its simplicity only to steadily amplify the sense of unease. There’s something about Katie, and if you had any doubts before…boy oh boy you’ve got none left now! 

Frankly, it’s simple scenes like this that I enjoy most, kind of like Italian cooking: good quality ingredients simply prepared. The result is almost always a deceptively huge impact for something created with only a few elements. 

To me, Katie standing over Micah is like Caprese salad — it doesn’t require much to be one of my favorite dishes. 

Or, in this case, to scare the absolute shit out of me.  

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