Horror! Paranormal Activity and Visual Codes

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey

A mash up of visual textures, cues and codes propels a low budget postmodern nightmare into legendary status at the box office.

The raison d’etre of this blog initially had been special effects but we veer a bit off topic now and again to subjects convened under the headings of Film Technique and occasionally Film Theory and Film History. In this entry we’ll take a slightly different approach to cinematic effects. Too often, writing about special effects focuses on the how and neglects the why. Why are special effects employed in films? Why use them at all? I would suggest that two recurring answers might be “to make things that don’t exist look real” or “ to create an event that could be real but to do it without the necessary destruction or threat of damage, injury, and loss of life that would attend an actual event of that nature.” In other words, to use technology and a combination of practical and digital effects to help the audience suspend their natural disbelief. Oh, and not get anybody killed in the process.
Here then is the question I have after watching an unusual film this week:
Do you believe in the paranormal? You know, ghosts, goblins, demons, and things that go bump in the night? Maybe not, but at some point in your life I’ll bet you at least entertained the idea that SOMETHING was under your bed or in your closet or in the basement or up in the attic; sitting—no, squatting—right above you, over your bed. Or worse: right next to you under the covers.
John Henry Fuseli's painting Nightmare. Who knows what's in that scary closet? No matter how innocuous the contents, your mind can easily transform it into something weird and frightening. Something under the bed? Better not to look.....
That is some scary stuff.
The mechanism that helps us suspend our disbelief is the greatest special effects system ever devised: your mind. Nothing compares. No special effects mavens armed with arrays of server farms and the most intricate and clever rendering algorithms can match what is inscribed in your imagination. Sherlock Holmes, in the novel A Study in Scarlet, confides to Dr. Watson that there is no horror without imagination; a cogent comment from the premiere character of detective fiction--a genre invented by a gentleman named Edgar Allan Poe.
No reality can trump what you think you see or what you think you know; which is in some systems itself a form of reality, solipsistic though it might be. This is the sort of thing that has kept philosophers occupied since Socrates. And things get complicated quickly. How do we know what we know? Can we believe what we think we know? How can we be sure that we aren’t in the middle of a dream and that everything we see is part of an extended hallucination? Beginning to get the picture?
But since this conundrum seems to recur regularly in the horror genre, wherefrom emanate all manner of unbelievable but nonetheless disturbing phenomena, let’s poll the experts.
We can only know so much, says Plato. There are ideal forms abroad in the universe whose presence we can only sense but those are the things we (should) strive for by living an examined life. Descartes asked how we can know if anything is real and decided that we know, at least, that we exist because we think. His concentration on what he thought he knew in his head created a huge separation between the experience of the mind and the experience of the body; a rift so dramatic that we still refer to it as Cartesian Dualism. That view of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) led David Hume to reconsider where we get the raw material for the ideas in our heads. Hume suggests that the impressions we receive from the world create those ideas. Thus, the physical world and our bodies—and emotions--are important after all in determining what we know. Kant picks up the ball and calls a timeout, asking if there might not be limits on what we can know through purely rational methods. He explores the mysteries of what’s beyond the metaphysical curtain. How do we know things like right and wrong, for instance? Where does morality come from? In the twentieth century, Pragmatists push all this aside maintaining that what’s important are results. Analytical philosophy becomes a parlor game at best. What is the ultimate effect on us as humans?
Rationalist Rene Descartes, German Idealist Immanuel Kant, and Pragmatist Richard Rorty all have tackled the questions of epistemology, the nature of knowledge.
So, the questions remain. How do we know what we know? Can we trust what our senses tell us? What if our brain says one thing and our emotions say something else?
First time director Oren Peli doesn’t try to answer the first two questions. He does however take advantage of the problem raised in the last question. And here’s where it gets interesting. If we believe something to be true, “reality” is a moot point. But that will get us into a whole big Belief versus Knowledge megillah—is belief different than knowledge? Is knowledge a form of belief?—and so we’ll get off at this station and walk around a bit.
We are now in the world of Paranormal Activity.
I went into this movie with only a slight idea of what it was about and that, it turns out, was a great way to see it so I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum. The plot revolves around a woman, Katie, who has experienced paranormal events since she was a young girl. After moving into a house in San Diego with her boyfriend (they are “engaged to be engaged”) strange things begin happening again. The boyfriend, Micah, comes up with a plan to document these occurrences on video in an attempt to understand the nature of what’s going on in the house and to try and stop it. Even the most casual horror fan knows the chances of that. It ranks up there with all the standard “don’ts” in horror movies that are never heeded: Don’t Open That Door. Don’t Go into That House. Don’t Go Out Alone. Don’t Piss Off the Monster. Outcomes for all such transgressions are assured. Not only assured, but expected. And they ain’t pretty.
The creator of detective fiction and perhaps the most influential author of horror fiction, Edgar Allan Poe. Arthur Conan Doyle (center) based his famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, on a Scottish doctor, Joseph Bell and borrowed a number of devices and character traits from Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin. No stranger to supernatural investigations, Conan Doyle spent much of his later life trying to contact his dead son from beyond the grave. A bespectacled Robert Downey, Jr. joins the long line of actors portraying Holmes.
Horror contains elements of detective fiction as alluded to in the earlier references to Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe. Like Poe's detective, Auguste Dupin, Katie and Micah attempt to solve a locked room mystery. Unlike Dupin, who brilliantly solves The Murders in the Rue Morgue, they are not dealing with obscure but determinable facts shrouded by a veneer of the supernatural. They seek answers where there may be none. Or at least none that make sense. This is where horror deviates from straight mystery fiction. The answer, if there is one, may be worse than the horrifying situation from which the questions arise.
Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston at the start of their investigations into paranormal activity.  Director Oren Peli.
But like detective fiction, horror films frequently adopt fairly standardized narrative guidelines. Characters in horror films routinely do things only an idiot would do in real life. But then again, if the four drunken teenagers didn’t stop the car to check out that bloody body surrounded by blue light at the side of the road, there wouldn’t be a movie. “Oh…yeah, we saw that body but we decided to hit the gas and get outta there as fast as possible.” Too bad. End of movie. We need those kids to stop. We expect it. And we expect that the boyfriend in Paranormal Activity will, contrary to explicit instructions from a psychic called in for consultation, continue to harass and annoy whatever it is that is stalking his girlfriend. Bad, bad, bad. But then again, he wants to be sure of what he thinks he knows (that epistemology stuff is a killer!).
Things don't look good for characters in Prom Night and Friday the13th. Transgressions of any of the many laws of logic in horror narratives almost always invite messy outcomes.
The film displays other hallmarks of the horror genre, unexplained events, shocking discoveries, faceless evil, impending doom, and other elements of paranormal storylines. What makes Paranormal Activity so effective and allows it to squeeze the most out of these narrative benchmarks without falling under its own wheels is a minimalist approach: an understated, unadorned style of shooting, acting, lighting, and even dialogue. Nothing is overwrought. Nothing over the top. Events build slowly but inevitably, gathering momentum. And no obviously special effects to distract the audience. RKO producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur pulled off a similar feat with the very effective horror film Cat People in 1942. Most of the terror came from suggestion, imagination, atmospheric lighting and a good storyline rather than big budget special effects. Cat People, made for an extremely modest $134,000 became RKO's biggest hit that year, earning over $4 million at the box office. Paranormal Activity's budget was so modest as to barely exist but its success has set the mark for the most lucrative independent film in history. As of this writing it has taken in over $100 million.
Things start to get out of hand for Katie Featherston in Paranormal Activity. Jane Randolph takes refuge in a swimming pool from the shadow stalking her in Cat People. Both films make the most of minimal effects. The creepiness of the pool scene in Cat People comes from smart direction, atmospheric lighting and the audience's imagination.
A little background first. The film, made on a few strands of a shoestring budget ($15,000, or $11,000 according to some sources—either way a pitiful amount of money, about what a major studio production spends on feeding the crew for a couple of days), was sent around to the studios and finally ended up in Steven Spielberg’s hands. After watching a DVD of Peli’s original cut Spielberg wanted to give it the full Hollywood treatment, a full-blown remake done the “right way” with million dollar special effects and A-list stars. But first a test audience was called in to watch the film as it was. Halfway through the movie studio execs saw people walking out. They figured they had a stinker. Until they asked why people were leaving. They weren’t leaving because it stunk. They were leaving because they were scared. And they hadn’t even gotten to the really horrifying stuff yet!
The original film was released with a different ending but Peli’s film was saved from special effects hell. It already had all the special effects it needed. The effects were playing out in the mind’s eye of each member of the audience. Because the film is put together from “found” video clips shot by Micah and Katie over their three week ordeal, a lot of time is taken up with long tripod shots of the couple sleeping. But in the dead of night strange things happen; at first, just noises, a chandelier swinging back and forth, objects moved around. But then the thing in the house comes into the bedroom for a visit. And things get out of hand.
The shadow comes to visit. Paranormal Activity.                                                                                                          
I won’t give away exactly what, but I do want to comment on the combination of clever stylistic choices and directorial decisions that amplify the terror and allow it to escalate even when nothing is happening (because no director can conjure up something that will frighten you more than what you come up with yourself; letting the audience fill in the blanks forces each viewer to envision horrific possibilities. So we do get to that solipsistic place after all, where we all confront what we each fear most). Even the handheld shots are cleverly done. Films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield that rely on a similar shtick (found video shot in a handheld style by amateurs) feel a bit like films shot by professionals trying to look amateurish by shaking the camera too much. Oren Peli clearly made a decision to take advantage of the handheld code but employs it with less obviousness. The actor/character doing most of the shooting, Micah Sloat, worked as a cameraman for his college TV station so his shots strike a balance between amateurish and carefully composed takes. The value of less shaky imagery is to not distract viewers from the storyline. There were times, while watching Cloverfield when I thought, "Okay, enough already with the shaky camera. We get it." One strength of PA is its singleminded attention to the story. Nothing distracts you from what might happen next. Technique never calls so much attention to itself that you stop watching the movie to admire a cool effect. What special effects are employed in the film are mostly practical effects (created in the real world rather than digitally).
Discussing the effects in detail would give away some of the best scenes so I will stop here but some of the practical effects, things moving apparently on their own, can be accomplished with wires and replacement of plates to cover any unwanted image artifacts or devices. There are very few effects that are clearly digital although some digital clean-up was probably done to assist the practical effects.
Handheld visual codes play a large role in both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. The shaking camera reads as "shot by an amateur" which provides these films with a more documentary, slice of life feel. The code, even if undercut by our knowledge that these films are professionally shot, supports a reading of the film that offers increased authenticity precisely because of the presence of "amateur" footage.
The shaky handheld camera effect does have its own (minimal) value by relying on visual codes that we associate with amateur video shot by non-professionals, family members or friends, and that brings with it its own sense of reality. It doesn’t look “Hollywood” so it must be real. It looks like the stuff Uncle Bill shot at graduation. In the same way, WWII movies shot in black and white often feel more realistic than color films because the bulk of our filmic experience of that war is associated with black and white combat footage and black and white Hollywood films released during and right after the war. (This is, perhaps, why recent successful WWII films shot in color such as Band of Brothers episodes and Flags of Our Fathers strip out the color by desaturating the image.) Films like Inglorious Basterds don’t come under this heading since that film is more fantasy fulfillment than a traditionally inspired historical narrative, despite Tarantino’s understanding of the many cinematic tropes that direct the flow and visual storytelling of an enormous number of B-level war movies. Tarantino could have done the whole thing with the color saturation at 120% and no one would have cared (except for the labs tasked with keeping the dupe negatives within specs).
Black and white photography works as a visual code in many WWII films. Van Johnson and John Hodiak in Battleground, 1949, directed by William Wellman, an account of the Battle of the Bulge. US airborne infantry troops in the forests around Bastogne,  December, 1944. The lack of color operates as a sign that lends authority to the imagery.
Films like Flags of Our Fathers rely on color desaturation to invoke the black and white authority of more typical WWII imagery like that in Battleground (above) and newsreel footage from island fighting in the Pacific. Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds has no need of such color codes since its goal is not realistic depiction of war but that of fantasy revenge narrative.
These codes have a number of corollaries originating in video imagery that has been mined effectively by smart DPs, directors and effects people. For example, another intriguing use of video codes is the type of effect that imbued scenes from The Ring with such memorable ghastliness. The (let’s call it) drifting-analog-video signal effect within which the psycho-killer little girl Samara stutters around as if she is a figure who has come straight off the television screen (which, in fact, she has) complete with flickering horizontal drift, scan-line static, image distortion and that blue-green cathode tube tincture that is less and less in evidence these days (due to displacement of CRTs by LCD or plasma screens) but still reads as “video”. The overall effect is one of an electrically charged, unbalanced image. The fact that it has stepped off the screen makes it even more horrifying because it recalls that old “what if” question: “what if the crazy monster in this movie were real?” Well, here it is. Right there in your living (or dying) room.
As a special treat, crazy Samara will visit you in your very own living room. Video codes come right off the screen to great effect in The Ring.  The flickering, static-laced images and the blue-green CRT coloration make of her an electricfying visage.
The other, perhaps even more disquieting aspect of this effect, is the realization that a form of communication that we have always thought of as one-way (we see them but they can’t see us) has suddenly become reciprocal—a reflexive device used in the final shot of Paranormal Activity to turn the action back on the audience. The image of a television powered up with nothing but static on the screen also has frightening implications. If it’s on, who turned it on? Another idea employed to great effect in Paranormal Activity.
The television comes on by itself. If that's not scary enough for you, consider the way the characters in David Cronenberg's 1983 horror film, Videodrome, become immersed in their television screens. The ultimate interactive nightmare. Television imagery has played a role in our collective consciousness since its inception. The seminal work of early cyber fiction, William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, recalls the starkness of such imagery in the book's opening line: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
Video codes appear in many contemporary film and television texts(one could say here, fairly, that everything we see onscreen is an extension of some form of visual code which, while true, is not what I’m getting at here. I’m concerned here with codes extracted from some other area or facet of the video universe injected in unexpected ways into the overarching narrative structure). A new ABC series Fast Forward, (shameless plug alert) which can be seen here on WBKO on Thursday nights, uses as a narrative device images caught on security cameras to track a shadowy character that remained conscious while the rest of the planet had slipped into a coma for two minutes and seventeen seconds. This is a clever use of the security camera code. These images remind us that someone or something is always watching. And it is this sense of focused voyeurism that infects Paranormal Activity with a good deal of its unnerving suspense. We watch and we can’t turn away because the camera never sleeps. That iris is always open; it never closes, never misses anything. Even the phrase “caught on camera” calls to mind a trap, something from which there is no escape.
Security camera imagery plays a prominent role in ABC's Flash Forward. The look of surveillance camera footage is employed as a distinctive visual code for the unsettling bedroom scenes in Paranormal Activity.
Because of the ubiquity of security camera imagery (we see it on nightly newscasts depicting, with its grainy, fish-eyed authority, convenience store robberies, bank heists, and parking lot accidents and in the most chilling scenes, child abductions) and because of the kind of psychological refraction we typically extract from those sources, we associate this visual code with terrible events in the real world. We experience these images as more “real” than high quality images shot and lit by Hollywood professionals. That’s because that visual code, the major studio release look, has its own set of associations, ones that invoke a fictional realm. As soon as Paranormal Activity begins, you realize this does not look like a major studio release. So, what is it? PA benefits from its less than professional look by giving the audience pause before trying to assign it a slot based on the visual and aural codes they receive. Audio codes work in its favor as well because there is no music, no ADR, no heavy handed Foley effects. The sound has all the earmarks (pun intended) of ambient audio recorded off a cheap camera mic. As with the visuals, low audio quality suggests authenticity, reality, believability.
The grainy, unblinking security camera images depicting robberies, highway chases, and abductions create an entirely new visual code whose strength emanates from its authority as an unmediated transmission of real world terror.
Film scholar Noel Carroll makes the case for horror films’ appeal originating in the patent un-reality of these storylines, or in the extreme unlikelihood of such things ever coming to pass. This is not the case in PA since the codes employed and the narrative style all tend to subvert this kind of reading.
Paranormal Activity adopts a postmodern approach to horror. That means that styles and genres tend to be blurred. Surveillance imagery and what appears to be slice of life cinema verite slide seamlessly into the horror genre but without a typical over the top, baroque rendering of events common to more traditional horror films. The ending too has a postmodern feel to it in that there is no closure. There is no resolution, no final answer, unlike franchise horror movies such as the Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween films whose endings function as a link to the next in the series. At least in those films there is the sense that this particular story line has been brought to a satisfying conclusion. Not so with PA. We know exactly as much about the thing that haunts Katie in the last frame as we did in the opening minute of the film. We’ve been watching the detectives and they’ve been overcome by their…..imagination? And that’s a jarring note on which to end this tale. We go back to the real world with more than a remnant of bad feelings. The kinds that don’t go away by the time you get to your car.
What's next? Paranormal Activity gives its characters and its audience plenty of opportunity to consider the most terrifying possibilities. Anticipation, the suspense of the wait, drives this film better than any graphic and bloody payoff. Clever use of visual codes and signification assist this process. Katie Featherston ponders her fate. Audience members watching a preview of PA. The PA trailer takes full advantage of audience reaction shots. Another way of ramping up tension by showing potential viewers reactions to events in the film rather than the events themselves.
And isn’t that the holy grail of horror?
Next time we return to finish up Classic Hollywood Studio logos; but the horror genre offers many possibilities for a blog interested in effects, history, technique and theory so we will revisit this theme again in the near future.
In the meantime, I would love to hear what readers think. Do you have favorite films or ideas from the world of special effects you’d like to hear more about? Drop me a line. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And thanks for reading.
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