Virginia Woolf eloquently describes how Dr Caligari (1920) affected her in a way that one would acknowledge in contemporary film theory as being a phenomenological reading of a film. Describing the effectiveness of a shadow in a scene in Dr Caligari she writes, ‘the monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’’ (Woolf 1920:174).
The horror film was one of the first genres to evolve from the moving picture, captivating and exciting, the horror film embodies ‘glimpses of something within’ (Woolf 1920:176). Evidently Woolf was ahead of her time and had noticed the power of the horror film as being like ‘a symbolic form of human communication’ rather than merely a representation on screen(Sobchack 1992:5). Instead, Dr Caligari ‘marked [Woolf] by the way in which significance and the act of signifying [were] directly felt [and] sensuously available to the viewer’ (Sobchack 1992:8). Horror films often encourage spectators to align themselves with a protagonist thus stimulating questions for the viewer such as; what would I do if I were in that situation?
Active viewing of a horror film has been understood as being a ‘cathartic’ process. Aristotle, described when watching a tragedy, ‘a spectator experiences pity and terror, and therefore has a beneficial ‘purgation’ of emotions which is necessary and purifying’ (Wells 2000:22). In Paranormal Activity, Katie (Katie Featherston), undergoes a series of increased suffering, the paranormal demon thrashes her body, torturingly whispers her name and takes over her bodily functions, physically and mentally draining her. We view the suffering through a night camera set up by Katie’s partner Micah (Micah Sloat). For Aristotle, our distance from the
screened events enables us to experience Katie’s suffering, through a cognitive experiment whereby the viewer is able to think through the emotional turmoil without physically undergoing the torture the protagonists endures. Aristotle’s cognitive approach to horror can be compared to the medical practice of hypnotherapy, whereby a patient is induced into a sleep-state and concentrates on imagining their fear. Through imagining the fear rather than literally experiencing it, the patient should hypothetically feel they have literally combatted their fear.
For Aristotle, the horror film can be suggested to offer the viewer this cognitive experiment as the viewer is able to think through the protagonist without undergoing the literal torture on screen. However, I will argue that Paranormal Activity offers no form of cathartic relief, instead, the open-ended narrative lingers on the mind of the spectator and the idea that the paranormal being could be real prompts the viewer to question, as the tagline suggests ‘what happens when you sleep?’ (IMDB). The mythology of the film seeps into our everyday reality. Paranormal blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact. Instead of the viewer feelings relief, the film threatens the idea that we are safe.