“Paranormal Activity,” a horror film now in limited release across the country, tells the story of a young couple who move into a typical suburban house but are soon disturbed by a supernatural entity that delights in scaring them in the middle of the night. The pair (one a skeptic and one a believer, in true “X-Files” fashion) use a video camera aimed at their bed to document the strange forces that disturb them when they are trying to sleep.
The micro-budget 2007 movie features a small cast of unknown actors. Much like “The Blair Witch Project,” to which the film is being compared, “Paranormal Activity” trades on its cinéma vérité realism, the conceit that you are seeing real documentary footage of what happened– scary scenes and all.
“Real” ghosts aside, the film is realistic in some ways.
The reality of night terrors
The film’s tag line, “What happens when you sleep?” is especially appropriate. Ghosts, abducting aliens, and other mysterious entities are often experienced at home at night and in bed — not during your lunch hour while buying cat food and ground beef at the supermarket.
There’s a psychological reason why these experiences often happen at night: We are more likely to be tired, drowsy, and sleeping. Medications, and even simple fatigue, can create mild hallucinations, what psychologists call waking dreams and hypnagogic experiences. They are harmless and common (especially as we drift to sleep), but can impair our perceptions and create experiences that never happened.
I have personally encountered this phenomenon many times.
For example, during one haunted house investigation I conducted in Buffalo, New York, a man told me that a ghost had kicked his bed as he fell asleep. He had no other explanation, and firmly believed he had been attacked by a ghost. My investigation revealed that the “kicking” he experienced was actually his leg twitching as his body entered the first stages of sleep. He was completely unaware of this, and when awoken by his leg spasm, he interpreted the jerk as a ghost kicking his bed.
The film is also realistic in its depiction of how people come to believe their house is haunted. For much of the film, the “paranormal activity” that the couple experience consists mostly of minor household disturbances: doors open on their own; pictures fall off the wall; lights turn on or off, etc.
While these things can seem mysterious, there may be perfectly rational explanations: breezes can slam doors, vibrations or soft drywall can send hung pictures crashing to the floor, electrical problems can turn lights on and off, and so on [My editor presently has a vexing problem with a newly installed, complexly wired fan/light in his home office that turns off mysteriously, but can be turned back on, in an otherwise ghost-free home].
Hoaxing is also a problem; many instances of “paranormal activity” have been traced to pranking children or troubled teenagers seeking attention.
The film is very typical of “real” hauntings, in which the ghosts never do anything obviously paranormal or unexplainable. This of course raises an interesting question: If ghosts (or demons or other undead entities) exist, why can’t they make their presence more obvious? Why do they limit themselves to mundane phenomena that can be explained by ordinary means, instead of doing something spectacular and unmistakably supernatural? Especially in a movie!
Why isn’t paranormal activity clear and obvious? Like the White House suddenly turning into marshmallow goo in front of the world. Or an amputee’s limb growing back. Or a person being able to turn invisible at will. These would be verifiably paranormal events, completely without scientific explanation.
Floors creaking, lights flickering, and doorknobs rattling? Not so much.
Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and has researched the unexplained and paranormal for over a decade. His book on conducting investigation will be published in 2010. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on Live Science.