(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: This blood-curdling scene in Paranormal Activity 3 creates palpable tension with the advent of a new horror technique.)
Horror filmmakers use any tools and tricks they can to scare their audience. That’s the central goal of a scary movie, after all. Thanks to the success of The Blair Witch Project, the found footage approach became a prevalent technique among studios and filmmakers hoping to achieve similar success. – so much so that its overuse means the phrase “found footage” now tends to be met with groans. Still, when it’s done well, few things evoke terror as well as found footage. See Shudder’s Host for a recent example – or better yet, look to the subgenre’s largest and longest-running franchise, the Paranormal Activity series.
With six films released so far and another installment on the way, the franchise about a family haunted by a demonic entity keeps audiences coming back for more. Mythology aside, the Paranormal Activity films showcase what found footage excels at: an ingenuity and effectiveness in scare crafting. The series has delivered no shortage of memorable scares and chilling scenes, but the utter cleverness of an oscillating camera in Paranormal Activity 3 might be the pinnacle of blood-curdling chills.
A prequel to the previous two installments, Paranormal Activity 3 opens with a scene set in 2005. Paranormal Activity’s protagonist Katie (Katie Featherston) delivers a box of old family cassettes to her sister, Paranormal Activity 2’s Kristi (Sprague Grayden). One year later, Kristi’s home is ransacked, and those tapes go missing. This prequel tells the story captured on those tapes: the sisters’ first encounter with the demon Toby during their childhood.
The Story So Far
It’s 1988, young sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) live with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). The newness of Dennis and Julie living together coincides with the emergence of Kristi’s new imaginary friend, Toby. Her subtle changes, like isolating herself during Katie’s birthday party, initially concerns Dennis, but Julie dismisses it as normal child behavior that’ll pass quickly. When Dennis attempts to make a sex tape with Julie, they’re interrupted by an earthquake. Going over the footage, however, reveals dust settling on an unseen figure in the room. It prompts Dennis to use his wedding videography equipment to install cameras in the master bedroom, the children’s room upstairs, and a camera rigged to an oscillating fan that captures the downstairs living spaces.
First, the cameras capture small things, like Kristi whispering to her imaginary friend in the corner. Soon enough, they pick up strange activity that increases each night. Lights turn on by themselves, weird symbols are scrawled in the girls’ closet, Kristi eerily gets up and wanders the house in the dark, and a light in the adjacent room shatters itself when Julie is getting a midnight snack in the kitchen. Shortly after Katie is locked in the closet by Toby, Dennis and Julie head out for the night and leave the girls at home with a babysitter, Lisa (Johanna Braddy).
Tucking the girls into bed, Lisa offers to tell them a story. At the request of a ghost story, Lisa heads off screen then comes back wearing a white sheet and making spooky sounds. She tickles the girls, bids them goodnight, puts the sheet back, and heads downstairs. Dennis’s oscillating camera then captures Lisa in the kitchen, having a glass of water. As it pans to the living room and back to an empty kitchen, Lisa jumps in front of the camera with a fake-out scare intended for Dennis, then settles at the kitchen table to do her homework.
The camera continues to move back and forth between rooms in utter quiet, with Lisa’s back facing the living room. After multiple rotations, a small figure in a sheet appears in the farthest corner of the frame by the front door. It pans slowly back to the kitchen, pausing momentarily on Lisa, before panning back again. This time, the room is empty. As it shifts back to the kitchen, the ghostly figure is standing right behind Lisa. Just as the camera starts its sweep back to the living room, the figure deflates, resulting in a confused Lisa looking at a sheet crumpled on the floor.
Coming in at the halfway mark, this scene creates a smart new way of building suspense courtesy of the innovative oscillating camera — one wholly appropriate of the ’80s setting. Instead of providing a wide angle which shows all of the downstairs, the camera’s slow panning motion only shows the audience half of the frame at a time. The limited range of vision and the methodical pacing creates an unsettling tension as the audience is forced to wait to see what happens next.
That this scare happens right on the heels of Lisa giving the camera a false “boo” moment, and that she used the sheet to goof around with the girls, keeps the viewer off-kilter. The second the small ghostly figure enters the frame, the presumption is that it’s Kristi under the sheet, emulating her babysitter. Up until this point, Kristi has been shown to get up past bedtime to frolic throughout the house. An earlier scene, in which Julie jumped out at Dennis while wearing a mask, supports the idea that this is setting us up for another fake scare.
The blocking of this scene is also crucial: there’s an instant vulnerability evoked in having Lisa sit at the far right of the frame with her back exposed to so much open space. The audience watches on in horror as she’s oblivious that someone is sneaking up behind her. The silence in this scene keeps you breathless in anticipation for Kristi’s moment to frighten Lisa, and hints that perhaps there’s something a little more sinister about it.
It’s the expectation of what’s under the sheet, Lisa’s positioning in the frame, and the oscillating camera’s forced anticipation that makes the reveal so potent. The silent, immobile figure simply vanishes beneath the sheet, delivering a terrifying jolt of realization: it wasn’t a child soundlessly stalking the babysitter at all, but something inhuman. Lisa never even realizes what’s transpired, but she doesn’t need to. That scare was solely for the audience, and it succeeded with impressive efficiency.
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