18 November 2011

Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity"

The 2007 movie poster.
It's hard re-watching this film after seeing Paranormal Activity 3 in theaters a few weeks ago... My brother and I decided to see it after we saw that Entertainment Weekly gave the movie an A- (and it's rare to see anything with an A grade anymore, even with a wee little minus attached to it).

So, going back to the first film that started it all, it's difficult not to compare this one with the newest movie release. Both PA films stick to the formulas established in the series, but PA3 is a sleeker, glossier (and creepier) version, complete with an 80s retro vibe (I can't believe the decade in which I was born is officially retro!!) that made the film more personally appealing to me.

That, and they got Bloody Mary right. Ah, summer camp slumber party memories. *Sigh*

Anyway, before I go off on a nostalgic tangent I'm going to get back on track by talking about Paranormal Activity's formula. Now, I've only seen the first and third films, and the formula seems to work for both...so, know this--I HAVEN'T SEEN THE SECOND MOVIE so if it defies the formula I will be rendered gobsmacked and hereby apologize in advance to all PA film fans, including my brother.

The magical elements in a PA film:
  •  Mysterious events (supernatural in nature) warrant documentation, investigation, and proof.
  • The video camera and related technology (computer, audio equipment, etc) is introduced as means to provide documentation, investigation, and proof.
  • There is a direct correlation between the level of investigation and the intensity of the haunting. Efforts made to document, capture, or clarify manifestations are interpreted as provocations and activity worsens.
  • Additional research is conducted (most often by the person filming the haunting) and sources on folklore, religions, and the occult are consulted in order to bolster (or create) an explanation for the haunting to exist.
  • Although the manifestations may be witnessed by multiple parties, the haunting tends to center around a specific individual, aka a "target."
  • The person who doubts or underestimates the forces behind the haunting (most often the person filming and recording the events) tends to get a ghostly/demonic comeuppance (killed in a nasty way right in front of their very own video camera. That'll teach you, doubters!)
As an added bonus, two more unofficial clauses in the PA film contract:
  • The person documenting the haunting will set the camcorder up in the bedroom and casually ask his girlfriend if he can film them having sex ("Wanna make a home movie? tee hee").
  • At some point, someone will be dragged backward across the floor by the ankles, face turned towards the camera, screaming.
Aside from the goofiness of those last two bullet points, the above formula is the promise the PA film series makes to its viewers (kind of like the reader-author contract for genre fiction!); these qualifiers are a big reason why these films have been so successful.

Now, some context:

Paranormal Activity came out in 2007 and it's safe to say that ghost-hunting (amateur or otherwise) has been firmly ensconced in popular culture as its own separate genre. To be honest, this niche has been around well before the Naughty Aughties. When I was in high school (97-01) it wasn't uncommon to find ghost hunting/paranormal documentary shows on MTV, ABC Family, Syfy, A&E, TLC, Discovery, etc...not to mention all of the fun ghost-hunting marathons they'd run on Halloween (Scariest Places on Earth, for example). I also can't help but mention the game changer, The Blair Witch Project, which was considered innovative at its time (people believed it was real!) as a compilation of discovered documentary footage providing evidence of a haunting (again, not real, but it sure fooled a ton of people). 

And maybe it's even more important to mention that this time also signaled the birth and rise of social networking sites, You Tube, etc....so this is the generation of people who literally see it to believe it and believe it when they see it. This is the "Broadcast Yourself" culture, where anyone and everyone documents everything. This is a hard generation to scare, I think (yup, I'm a part of it, those lovely Millennials attracting a lot of attention in the media for being "failures" at the moment, or just being "jerky and self- entitled") because we've seen everything, even if we haven't. The articles are apt to call us a "plugged-in generation;" it's 100% true. So think about it....this is a culture that documents everything, is big on the prefix "self", and tends to lump "amateur" and "professional" together in the same sentence (if it's the same work and skill set, there's no distinction, right?)....the audience is full of experts (with or without quotation marks) that you have to win over. And experts are hard to impress.

So...given the nature of its multitasking, plugged-in audience, Paranormal Activity has to multitask and keep its audience plugged in. Ha! I'm so creative, see how I spun that? Please, tell me I'm perfect because I already think I am and I need validation cause I'm a Millennial (Sorry, couldn't resist).

The foundation of Paranormal Activity is the good old-fashioned haunting (without this you have no film, period): objects move by themselves, there are strange noises (banging, humming, breathing, growling), strange shadows and shifting shapes, and of course things get even more intense when the supernatural forces are underestimated. Without question PA has to get this part right because it is a horror film and a ghost story first. The technology and documentation only serve as a means to relate the story to the audience. It still has to be done right, since this is the mode, but it is secondary in importance to the story (At least that's my opinion. I'm not a filmmaker--but maybe the mode is primary in function because it is a film, and then the story closely behind? I don't know. But movies that treat stories as secondary in importance tend to suck. So there you go.).

When it comes to both aspects of PA--the ghost story and the documentary--I think the movie pulls this off well for the most part. Some of the footage was pretty hokey at times (the spinnerooney Ouija board anyone? Keep it classy and subtle by having it catch fire at the end of the planchette dance. Yeah.) but there are genuinely creepy moments here and there. The best evidence of haunting captured on video had to be the things you can easily overlook: the curtains rustling, the light fixtures swinging, etc. These little details are ignored while Micah and Katie wait for the BIG BAD SCARY to happen,which is their mistake--they don't realize the depth of the trouble they are in until it's too late.

The scariest things sneak up on you. Standing over the edge of a cliff is much scarier and engrossing than jumping off of one. When the PA films understand this principle, the movies work--you meet the horror criteria and the documentary (realism) criteria. But when the movie overdoes it, blehhh. Case in point, and yes, SPOILERS:
  • Katie getting pulled out of bed and onto the floor by an invisible force YES!! // Katie getting dragged backward across the floor and down the hallway NO!!! (This is a stupid cliche and I've seen it in tons of horror and sci-fi films and trailers. HOLLYWOOD, STOP DOING THIS!)
  • Micah's body slamming into the camera YES!!! // Katie crawling over Micah's body and sniffing his corpse  MAYBE... // Katie looking directly into the camera, her face transforming, scream-growling NO!!
Don't get me wrong, despite these little qualms I do like the PA films; they're fun and entertaining (and yeah, I'd say No. 3 was pretty good!). But if they keep making more PA movies, and they want to convince the audience that this very well could be "found footage,"then it would be better to walk the line instead of cross it...you know, be a little more subtle. You don't have to show us everything. We can fill in the blanks on our own, trust us! We'll make it real, we'll make it scary.

If you give your audience a 10, you bet they'll make it an 11. That's the reward for keeping your promise to them.

Paranormal Activity. Dir. Oren Peli. Perf. Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat. Paramount Pictures, 2007. Streamed via Netflix.

12 November 2011

Elaine Mercado's "Grave's End"

The 2001 cover.
So...it's 11pm and I am writing this blog essay one hour before it's due. I totally suck! I've been in a mode for the past few weeks where I've become easily distracted and have waited until the last minute to complete any and all tasks. Bad dog! I need to break this habit fast!

The good news is that a lot of my brain's wanderlust has been devoted to the novel I'm working on, but unfortunately at the expense of other things. And I read Grave's End last weekend and had plenty of time to draft a sound, critical essay. But, no. I've been overly ponderous. And instead of being a good student, today I devoted eight hours to my good friend Drew, where we discussed the mysteries of the cosmos. Of course, this was all for the sake of my novel (which becomes more and more esoteric and mystical as I plot the rest of it) and I've got the gears working, so I'm confident it'll be a while before I smash into another dreaded writer's block.

Because I spent the last eight hours asking all of those BIG QUESTIONS with Drew, my brain is still in epic ponderous philosophical mode. So I'm going to spin this into my reading of Grave's End and focus on Elaine Mercado's own BIG QUESTIONS.

When we try to uncover the truth, there are several ways of looking at it. Elaine Mercado dealt with a long, consistent haunting that spanned many years, experienced by her own family and witnessed occasionally by people outside of it. This story is labeled as a "true ghost story."

There's truth, and then TRUTH! This story could be false because there are no such things as ghosts, or a spiritual realm, or unseen sentient forces we cannot control (no proof anyway). There's never been consistent evidence to validate things of this nature; but they live on and are discussed because it is the beliefs of others (their faith, or perceptions) that makes these things real.

Elaine's story sounds real. I don't know if every single thing happened exactly as she wrote it down (memory distorts actual events; word choice and syntax can change the meaning of her sentences; she still has to tell a story even though it's a recounting of actual occurrences), but I do think she truly experienced these strange events. Because she believes, 100%, that they did happen.

This story is ELAINE'S TRUTH. But is it THE TRUTH?  There's a difference between the two, and the key is perception.

The biggest reason why I think Elaine's story is more believable than something like, oh, I don't know, the Amityville Horror, is that she really seems to struggle with her belief systems and comprehension of the events. She seeks THE TRUTH throughout the entire story, by enrolling in college courses about parapsychology and the paranormal, by asking for help and validation by people outside the tight family unit, and most importantly, by asking THE BIG QUESTION (right after the house is "cleaned" of its spirits):

"[Was]...the phenomena [...] really gone, or [did] ...we just perceive it as gone?" (Mercado 164). A few pages later, and after some exploration and reflection on the haunting, Elaine dives in a little bit more: "What if our ability to perceive the paranormal had been impaired? What if everything was still going on, but we couldn't see it, hear it, or feel it?"

Of course I can start right off the bat and go, "What if you perceived your house to be haunted and it actually wasn't?" But we'll skip over that. The house is pretty consistent with its manifestations, and exhibits some "common" symptoms of hauntings. Even the "suffocating dreams" Elaine and her family has is a documented phenomena (look up the Night Hag in Great Britain. Freaky). The things that happened in the house were weird and random, but they didn't seem like things someone plucked out of the air, or from 30 different B-horror films (ahem, Amityville and your green slime marching band demon pig madness). You've got the bad dreams, the feeling of being watched, the balls of light, the Mist, audible voices, etc. Classic haunted house stuff.

Even if Elaine decided to research classic haunted houses and then spin a "true story" that exhibited classic haunted house behavior, the fact that it went on for YEARS (versus 28 days), and the number of people who experienced strange things to corroborate the events, and the fact that she didn't right away attribute the hauntings to god or the devil--the faith struggle came AFTER the house was cleaned....it just seems more plausible. And you can't fake that type of emotional response. Especially because Elaine spends so much time trying to process what actually happened once they're free and clear.

The point is she expresses doubt for a lot of these events. She questions her perceptions, if the "cleansing" was actually a type of paranormal placebo, if there is a logical explanation, if these hauntings are TRUTH that there is something beyond life and the world we live in now.

She's a lot more endearing and sympathetic to me because she isn't sure exactly about everything that's going on or what it all means. She has her truth, which she can verify because these things actually happened to her, she perceived these things while they happened and experienced the outcome of the each paranormal event. She's content with her truth, and doesn't need to understand TRUTH itself.

This really spoke to me because it falls under the issue of perception creating truth, but not necessarily the actual truth. My research paper for this class focuses on this idea, as well as my novel itself!

You've got one end of the spectrum, where perceptions can manifest the haunting. This is in the form of preknowledge...a classic case where people know the history of the haunted house, and then they go into the haunted house and the paranormal events happen to perfectly coincide with the backstory.

The human mind wants to establish connections to everything it perceives.

If I go into a house, and I'm told that for a fact an axe murderer chopped up seven people and it's "haunted," you bet I'm going to be looking for axes in the corners, and pieces of people in the fridge. The idea has been planted. I perceive the story I've just been told as fact, and even if strange phenomena occurs that doesn't seem linked to the axe murderer story, my brain will find a way to establish a logical connection to it anyway just to keep me from going insane. Hooray defense mechanisms!

But what if I go into that same house, still confirmed haunted, and I don't know what's waiting there for me?  Will I perceive the strange occurrences just for what they are--strange occurrences? What if someone just says, "that house is spooky?" and that's all I've got before I go inside? Will I see weapons and dead bodies? Will I hear noises? Will I see "orbs" because I've watched too many paranormal investigations shows? What will I try to do to rationalize all of this?

My character Lily in my novel, The Name and the Key, asks these same questions when she experiences some bizarre events. She is told not to look in mirrors after someone dies, because it's a window to evil spirits. She looks into a mirror and wham, evil spirit. Her friend Andresh tells her not to keep anything that belonged to her dead mother, because if she holds onto it, she actually carries the dead with her. So guess who follows her around because she "hasn't let go?"

But the interesting thing is that Lily has never encountered this belief system (based on Roma and how they deal with death, mulo, and the unclean) before until she met Andresh. Andresh tells her what will happen if she doesn't do X, she doesn't do X and it happens exactly as Andresh says it will. Would she have come up with any of these manifestations if Andresh hadn't planted the seed in her brain?

In Grave's End, this swings in the other direction for Elaine when she questions whether or not the house is still haunted after the "cleansing" is done. Is the house clean because these experts told her they cleaned it, and went through a time-consuming series of "rituals" to purge the house and "redirect" the spirits? If the paranormal investigators kicked them out of the house, did the cleansing on their own, and then let the family back in without a single word, would Elaine still perceive the house as haunted because she didn't witness the cleansing (she has to take their word for it)?

It reminds me of a shamanic healing ceremony I went to in the spring. I'd never gone to anything like it before and I was invited to go because my sister is badass, has trained to be a healer, and this is part of her belief system. I'm still struggling with my belief system, but I was game for it anyway because I thought it was all really neat. My brother refused to go because he is skeptical of many, many things and thought the whole thing was kinda crazy sounding. I think he and my sister are both right and true.

When I left the healing ceremony, I did feel lighter and better about myself and I tried to explain it logically to my brother. I said, "I don't know if what they did literally helped me; if these healers saw the things they said they saw; or if it's just random images that popped in their heads that they perceived as real...the point is, I went into a room full of people who just wanted to help me, to make me a better, stronger person, and for nothing in return. Just that alone was enough to make me feel healthier after all was said and done. Of course I left the room happy; I was with a group of people who really loved what they did, believed it with all their hearts, and believed that they were there to help me."

Sometimes that's really all you need to know. It's okay to ask the big questions....I walked out of that shamanic ceremony with my truth, but not necessarily THE TRUTH. And in the end, I felt better, and that was the point of the ceremony.

It doesn't matter if Elaine's house is still haunted or not, and if they can still perceive spirits or not. The point is, they're no longer afraid or trying to fight their experiences. It happened to them, they perceived it as really happening, so who's to say it isn't true (even if it's not TRUE)? Elaine met people who spent hours of their time (granted, for $250) with the intent to help not only the house's residents, but to help the spirits who were for whatever reason stuck there. She doesn't need to know the answers to her questions about perception, because the end result is what matters. She perceived the house to be clean, and it's what she wanted, and she met good people. So...the house is clean.

I enjoyed reading this book precisely because all of the connections I made to it on many personal levels. And I like the idea of asking questions, and experiencing doubt, and wondering about the nature of things...but sometimes, you don't need all of that. You can still get a positive outcome without having solved life's mysteries.

As I continue writing my novel I'll bear all that in mind. Good stuff to think about! yeah!

Mercado, Elaine. Grave's End: A True Ghost Story. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2001. Print.

05 November 2011

Jay Anson's "The Amityville Horror"

The 2005 cover.

The tag on the cover says, "This book will scare the hell out of you." Kansas City Star, we need to have an intervention. I understand that life in the 70s is different than our lives today, but come on. Hell House was a billion times scarier than this, and that came from the 70s, too.

Oh, wait. This book is supposed to be scary because IT REALLY HAPPENED, right? Nothing is scarier than the truth, is that the idea? So that means the author can take a break from creating fear and tension and let the story tell itself, right? Um...yeah.

The big thing about the Amityville Horror is that it's supposedly a true haunting. (Um....) 112 Ocean Avenue belonged to the De Feos, who were all shot in their sleep by the son, Ronald, who later got life terms for each family member he killed. Then the house went on the market, and the Lutzes moved in, and they only lasted 28 days in the house because some freaky stuff happened there. Flies and blackened toilets and angel pigs and marching bands and green slime and mood disorders and invisible hugs and temperature discrepancies and....stuff. 

First of all, it's hard for me to take anything the book has to say seriously. What really hurts the credibility is the quality of the writing. Personally I find many of the events that occurred at the house hard to believe, even when I actually do believe in ghosts and hauntings. Even if the book was written by someone like Dave Cullen, the Lutzes' account is still hard to swallow.  And the quality of the Anson's prose doesn't do the Lutzes any favors.

Some examples:

"He had been a bear all day, and by eleven o'clock that night, when it was time to go to bed, Kathy was ready to crown him" (Anson 29). I have no idea what this means. And I don't have sympathy for the excuse that "this was how people talked in 1977." It doesn't matter. This sentence doesn't tell me anything concrete, and if I take it literally, it makes no sense, except to say that the author thinks George Lutz is the Grizzly King. 

It's always best to pick solid, straightforward words to convey meaning, and to use words that have mileage to them. By mileage, I mean words that have been consistently used for hundreds of years, with no sign of an expiration date. The printed word is permanent, and authors need to make sure that someone thirty-four years into the future will still be able to understand what they've written.

"She began to gag at the sour smell, but couldn't retreat from the sight of the crucifix--now hanging upside down!" (Anson 43) or "[...] Missy's little chair was rocking slowly back and forth!" (Anson 55) or "It was only six in the evening and Harry was fast asleep!" (Anson 68) or "[...] He was stunned to find the two hundred and fifty pound wooden front door wrenched wide open, hanging from one hinge!" (Anson 37). !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The exclamation point has been overused so many times in this book that if I tried to do a running count (just like I did with the breast tally in an earlier post) I'd go insane. So for simplicity's sake let's say that the author used exclamation points 942 times.  As I've said before, anytime you overdo something (a word, a phrase, an action), you render it meaningless.  If the exclamation point was used to signify importance, then right at page 18 things no longer mattered. Because if EVERYTHING you read is important, then it means that NOTHING is. 

And...I thought the exclamation points were insulting to the reader, actually. The only way the reader is able to distinguish the supernatural from the mundane is to ascribe an exclamation point to every single unexplainable event! If there are no exclamation points, how can you tell that ghosts or the Devil are behind the phenomenon, and not something that can be rationally explained?!?!  If there are no exclamation points, how can you believe what I'm telling you is true?!?!

What if my head explodes?!?!?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

I'm also going to harp on the inclusion of mundane or unnecessary information to suggest that everything being presented is factual.  A lot of sentences contain details down to the exact temperature it was outside, the exact time something occurred, the exact day blah blah blah....because the author is being so specific, that means everything that happened has to be true, because it's been so completely and thoroughly documented!

The book doesn't need forewords from priests, or copies of the house's floor plans, or Missy's drawing of Demon Piggly Wiggly  (Jodie, the angel pig). This is just extra crap thrown in to make it seem like the story can be corroborated by others. It's like, this priest is here to tell you the history of human civilization and how man has grappled for eons to understand forces beyond himself! Since man has grappled with outside forces, outside forces must exist, and I'm a priest, so believe me! And wow! 112 Ocean Avenue is a real house! If you don't believe me, here is the floor plan! Missy drew a barely intelligible picture of an animal! It must be Jodie! And George Lutz also saw a pig, and if Missy saw it, that means more than one person saw it, so it's real! And Missy drew it, so she saw it! It's real!

Lastly, what pisses me off the most is the book's message that they ram down your throat over and over again. The preface from Rev. John Nicola rambles on about the three ways people believe or interpret phenomenon (scientifically, superstitiously, and religiously = irrelevant), but the point that he's making is that you still need to believe in forces that are beyond your control, because if you don't believe that these things are real, then you're in danger: "I, as a believer in science and in religion, would be remiss not to warn readers against the dangers both of an arrogance that professes a grasp of the unknown and of a bravado that boasts a control of the transcendent" (Nicola x). George Lutz himself "hope[s] that those who hear his story will understand how dangerous negative entities can be to the unwary--to the unbelieving. 'They are real,' George insists, 'and they do inflict evil when the opportunity presents itself'" (Anson 232).

Because the book tries so hard to pass itself off as a true story (you're pummeled with it all over the book jackets, in the preface and afterward), I don't see any of those quotes as a general push for the reader to acknowledge things beyond themselves...the preface, afterward, and George Lutz's final commentary all seem like bully tactics to me. It comes across like, BELIEVE THIS BOOK. IT'S A TRUE STORY. IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE THIS BOOK...THEN YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN GOD! AND THAT'S THE WORST KIND OF PERSON TO BE, YOU NON-BELIEVER!

If the book was devoid of all the problems I listed above, then maybe, just maybe, I would actually stop and wonder if the events in this story were true, or plausible. I consider myself to be pretty open- minded about the unexplainable and God and the "forces beyond myself" (because I do believe in these things). But since I have a hard time believing the Amityville Horror, then I guess my bravado and arrogance have condemned me to certain dangers anyway. I guess I've been warned. Thank you, Jay, George, and John!

Anson, Jay. The Amityville Horror. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977. Print.