The makers of the Paranormal Activity films may be too embarrassed to use numbers in their titles any more, but the latest instalment, Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension, is the sixth in the series – and that means that there have been six whole films in which the characters just happen to use video cameras to record the spooky goings-on in their respective haunted houses.
In other words, Paranormal Activity and its sequels are ‘found-footage’ horror films: what we’re seeing is presented as if it hasn’t been scripted, filmed and edited by professionals, but shot on the hoof by the people on screen. It’s not the most original of conceits. Even if you discount Paranormal Activity, found-footage horror movies come along with exhausting regularity, from the Spanish zombie hit, REC, and its American remake, Quarantine, to George Romero’s Diary of the Dead and Barry Levinson’s The Bay.
“I see 100 a year and they’re all the same,” sighs Alan Jones, a leading British horror authority, and an organiser of the FrightFest horror festivals. “There’s an hour of bumps in the night, and then the last two minutes are where the shock and excitement happen. Whenever we show a found-footage horror film at Frightfest, a collective groan goes up.”
The film which is usually thanked and/or blamed for this trend is The Blair Witch Project. Released in October 1999, it wasn’t the first found-footage horror movie – that honour is accorded to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust – but it was certainly the first that mainstream audiences had seen, and it is invariably credited with opening the faux-documentary floodgates. Whether it deserves that accolade is another matter. In many ways, Blair Witch is a one-off. Rather than being the template for Paranormal Activity and the like, it is a unique, unrepeatable entity that stands apart from every found-footage horror movie that followed.
“It seems crazy now,” says Jamie Graham, Editor at Large of the UK’s Total Film magazine, “but there was some confusion over whether Blair Witch was a real documentary when it came out. And even those who knew it was a mockumentary were sucked into the authenticity of its grainy, seesawing images. The word-of-mouth was phenomenal, and, for British horror fans, the whispers coming out of the US piqued curiosity to almost unbearable levels. What was this thing? Was it a snuff film? It was a film you had to