Paranormal Activity and the Joy of Fear

Last night my friend Andrea and I went to see the movie Paranormal Activity. It was the scariest movie I ever saw. I watched the final scenes while peering through my fingers as I held my hands over my face. It's like I was fending off a looming physical threat, protecting my psyche with my hands.

I thought Paranormal Activity was going to be a ghost movie. It's actually about a demon. You can think of the movie as a cross between Blair Witch and The Exorcist. It's like Blair Witch in that it is a low budget independent film that uses a first person style. That is, the filming is done by the people in the movie. We, as viewers, watch the recovered film left behind. Paranormal Activity is like The Exorcist in that the film is rooted in one location, a house, with most of the action occurring in a bedroom. And, like The Exorcist, the issue is a girl and a demonic possession (or haunting).

It was a very effective film. Andrea and I were both pretty freaked out. On the way home she asked me, "Why do people like going to scary movies?" I didn't have a great answer. The two I floated were:

  1. Physiological: We like physiological arousal. So we ski, ride rollercoasters, drive fast, take risks gambling and go to suspenseful or scary movies.
  2. Psychodynamic: We like to confront death or the uncanny. We like to confront and process our fears.
I don't know if those answers are right. So I thought I'd float the question: Why do we like going to scary movies?

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3 thoughts on “Paranormal Activity and the Joy of Fear”

  1. I enjoy, for one thing, the intensity of emotion. Days at the office are pretty boring, so I'd like a little vicarious excitement.

    But I think the bigger reason is that if we had personal experience with a ghost or persistent demon, it would provide CONFIRMATION of the things we merely believe. If we came home and dishes were being thrown out of a kitchen cabinet, it would be fairly decisive proof that the materialist schema of the universe is not merely inadequate but, in fact, wrong. While it would be terrifying to be targetted by an enemy who exists in the spiritual realm, it would also have a tiny nugget of relief: the world really IS as we believe it to be, death really ISN'T the end.

  2. Stephen King says the following in his "Danse Macabre":

    "Never mind the philosophical implications of death or the religious possibilities inherent in the idea of survival: the horror film suggests we just have a good close look at the physical artifact of death. Let us be children masquerading as pathologists. We will, perhaps, link hands like children in a circle, and sing the song we all know in our hearts: time is short, no one is really OK, life is quick and dead is dead...Yet the ultimate subtext that underlies all good horror films is, 'But not yet. Not this time.' Because in the final sense, the horror movie is the celebration of those who feel they can examine death because it does not yet live in their hearts." (pp.198-199)

  3. hello,

    i think we like scary movies because the topics often cross evolutionary boundaries between folk-domains while giving the hyper-active agent detector in our brains a good hard zap to kick it in overdrive. the agent detecting can be seen in the use of that movies showing of a spider early on... trying to get us to continually think about lurking predators (Agents) throughout the situation. the folk-domains aren't always as obvious, but usually are exploited, such as demons that dont have bodies but do have intentions (thus violating folkpsychology and folkphysics, ie that bodies have intentions).

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