Why Are We So Drawn To These Horror Films?

In 2007, audiences everywhere were introduced to a relatively new genre of horror film. Not a huge fan of horror myself, I had heard rumors about the fear that Paranormal Activity instilled in the hearts of moviegoers across the world. The film, written and directed by Oren Peli, contained a below $15,000 budget yet miraculously grossed over $194,000,000 overall. Now it is widely accepted that this low-budget horror flick is the most profitable film ever made.

In trailers for the first, of many, films, you could see audiences freaking out about this new "found footage," increasing the believability and plausibility of the actual events, sort of like an homage to classic horror film The Blaire Witch Project. I remember hearing friends talk about how it was the scariest film of all time, simply due to the realistic way in which it was shot, as though the main characters shot the film themselves. Instead of going for the typical blood and gore, Peli chose silence and waiting, which Robert Ebert praised in his review of the film:

"It illustrates one of my favorite points, that silence and waiting can be more entertaining than frantic fast-cutting and berserk f/x. For extended periods here, nothing at all is happening, and believe me, you won't be bored."

This weekend the FIFTH installment (well actually a spin-off but still), of the original Paranormal Activity was released into theaters this weekend and grossed over $1.2 million in late night showings on Thursday night. Its weekend total, decreased due to serious weather issues across the Midwest and East Coast, reached a solid $18.2 million, in comparison to its $6 million budget. My question is, why do these films keep churning out? And why do people still flock to be scared out of their minds?

With this most recent reboot, Paramount is looking to cater to Latino audiences, who have traditionally come out in droves to support the franchise's previous films. In fact, Paramount estimates that Latinos made up 19% of moviegoers for the last installment in the franchise, Paranormal Activity 4 (even though this one was thought of pretty much universally as terrible). The newest film focuses heavily on Latino characters and mythology, a deliberate and fresh transition from the white middle class characters of prior films.

The Marked Ones represents a detachment from previous story lines, fixating on possession and moving the scene from suburbia to the barrio. The film centers on high school graduate Jesse, played by Andrew Jacobs, and his friends, whose exploration of a murder in the apartment below them lead to a series of increasingly unfortunate events for the main characters. While many ardent fans will recognize similarities and references to mythology of previous installments, the fresh take on the tried and true "found footage" seems to keep movie-goers coming back for more.

"From Day One, it was always intended to be distinct from 'Paranormal Activity' — it is its own unique movie. It was critical that this was a different experience." — President of Paramount Group Adam Goodman in an interview with the Los Angeles Times

The franchise has grossed over $720 million worldwide overall, making it one of the most successful horror franchises of all time, especially given the low-budgets that are characteristic of all the series' films. Why change something that seems to be working well? The creators of Paranormal Activity seem to be getting something right. Audiences love to be scared, this is an established fact. But this series has continued to make millions because it does so in an innovative and realistic way. Gone are the days when merely guts and gore could frighten an audience. The lasting power of Paranormal Activity derives from the films' abilities to scare in a clever, realistic, and surprising way.

Image: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures