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The most terrifying moments for me in Paranormal Activity (2007) are not when the film goes “bump”. The audience can expect something to happen when the digital camera’s timer stops moving in fast forward and each second becomes newly weighted with suspense. They may not know what is going to occur but a bed sheet inevitably blows and a door inevitably closes on its own.
Instead, the scariest shots are to be found in the pauses, in the moments when first-time writer and director Oren Peli decides to let his scene linger. Take the shot of Katie (Katie Featherston) lying in bed:
The audience can only see her head, which is positioned just to the left of the centre of the frame, as her body is covered by a beige quilt and surrounded by a black headboard. Most of the frame is taken up by this combined blank space. The balance of composition in this shot is similar to that in Ford Madox Brown’s painting Take Your Son, Sir! (1851- 6) which is also dominated by the flat white of cloth:
In both images, the viewer is forced to gaze at the faces of the figures. The unnamed woman in the painting has a face which is white and emaciated, presumably physically drained after childbirth. Her expression is ghostly and glazed. Katie’s face is also glazed and seems changed; her words are delivered in a monotonous manner, as if she is in a trance. Her sentiment confuses: she suddenly decides she wants to stay in the house, despite her earlier decision to remain with Micah (Micah Sloat). Peli allows the camera to linger for an uncomfortable few moments once she has finished her speech. She just sits and gazes glassy-eyed into the distance while the audience is forced to contemplate the disturbed figure in front of them.
I came away from the film not too affected but over the intervening weeks it has become increasingly thought provoking. It is the gradual deterioration of Katie’s mind that is retrospectively alarming. The titular paranormal activity is not the cause of the film’s effectiveness: it is instead the visible actions of the human puppets with which the invisible demon chooses to play. A slamming door and a scratched photograph are nothing when compared to the deterioration of the couple’s relationship, the lingering shot of Katie in bed and her somnambulant towering over a sleeping Micah.