In the commentary track for Ghostbusters, director Ivan Reitman explains his strategy for getting the audience on board with a fairly ridiculous concept while still managing to maintain the movie’s realism. He calls it his “domino theory of reality,” explaining, “As long as you took the [audience] step by step through a series of credible choices, you could start to believe this sort of stuff could happen.” There’s an alternate theory, a sort of opposite to the domino theory of reality, that I would like to put forth: the crescendo theory of unreality. Most horror movies that strive to maintain a sense of verisimilitude operate on this theory. Found footage horror films, in particular, rely upon the crescendo in order to create a plausibly real enough situation that both the viewer and the characters on screen find it easy — and realistic — to believe in the otherwise totally implausible situation that’s occurring.
The crescendo theory: Just as Reitman sets up a series of credible choices that gradually lead the viewer into what should be an unbelievable situation without losing the trust of that audience, horror film directors must often set up a series of events that start relatively mundane but gradually intensify as they usher viewers from reality to the unreality of the film’s supernatural subject.
That’s an awfully long sentence to communicate a simple idea: People ain’t gonna believe the shit you throw at them if you throw the super crazy shit first. Start with the simple shit, though, and gradually get crazier, and people will follow right along. There are lots of great examples of this method, but Paranormal Activity provides a classic demonstration.
Protagonists Katie and Micah are already in the midst of whatever’s troubling them when the film opens. Katie claims to have been bothered by strange occurrences — whispering voices, flickering lights — and a psychic who pays the couple a visit explains to them that what they’re experiencing is probably demonic activity, not a haunting. But all of this is talk, and talk is cheap, and easily disregarded. The director’s not yet asking you to believe something you’re seeing with your own eyes, and so as a viewer, it’s easy to either take what’s said at face value, or dismiss it.
Since Katie and Micah have already been experiencing strange phenomena, in the world of the movie, it wouldn’t be surprising for something really unsettling to happen once Micah sets up his camera to catch what’s going on while he and Katie are asleep. But director Oren Peli knows you can’t just throw a demon onto the screen or start dragging characters out of bed right off the bat. It’s too much to ask a viewer to jump with both feet into that unreality right away. Instead, Micah and Katie’s first night is fairly uneventful, and subsequent nights reveal only minor disturbances: There are strange noises, the door opens and closes by itself. Katie and Micah are weirded out, but not terrified, and the audience feels the same.
But then things start to escalate. In the world of the movie, the psychic has warned Micah, especially, that antagonizing the demon will only make it more active. Micah being Micah, he pretty much immediately starts taunting the demon and fooling around with a friend's Ouija board. So not only does Peli gradually intensify the strange happenings, he gives the audience a reason for why things start to escalate, thus easing us into belief in the paranormal. Something ruffles the sheets as Katie and Micah sleep. Katie begins to act as though she’s possessed. Then we see the actual footsteps of the demon as it walks through a baby-powder booby trap set up by Micah. By the time an invisible something is dragging Katie out of bed in the middle of the night, we’re fully on board with the new reality the movie presents. Demons are, in fact, real — as long as we’re watching this film.
The crescendo theory isn’t complicated, but it has always pretty essential for getting buy-in from an audience, especially as found footage became popular, starting with The Blair Witch Project. That’s another film that’s set in “reality”; the shaky cam, the poorly framed shots, the accidental recordings all combine to make us feel like the world of the movie is the real world. Gradually inserting the paranormal into that real world invites the viewer to believe, no matter how unbelievable the strange goings-on become.
- In preparation for the upcoming release of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, which is the fifth (I know!) movie of this franchise, I'm going to be rewatching all the Paranormal Activity movies. But I probably won't write separate posts about every single one -- I may double up on a couple, especially the latter ones, which I imagine I won't have much to say about.
- If you, like me, are planning on seeing The Ghost Dimension when it comes out but you don't feel like watching the other four movies, here's a nice primer on the main things you need to remember going in to The Ghost Dimension.
- Here's a pretty good article about Oren Peli's inspiration and how he made this film on a shoestring budget (and in his own house, to boot).
- According to Wikipedia, Oren Peli was super-impressed with the chemistry between actors Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat. (He reportedly said, "If you saw the [audition] footage, you would've thought they had known each other for years.") This is one more facet that really drives home the reality of the film; not only do the actors have great chemistry, but they're totally believable, normal people individually.