Hollywood Psych: Paranormal Activity

By Sean Collier

October 19, 2009

The bed really looks more comfortable, miss.

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A bit of a story: I never grew out of haunted houses. Still love them – even bad ones – and spend a significant amount of my December income on the right to be startled by masked adolescents in rickety wooden structures. My good friend Manni shares a similar appreciation, so we resolved to travel a bit in search of bigger and better thrills this October.

I have something of a busy schedule, though, so we had to set aside some dates. Our first shot was October 3rd, a couple Saturdays ago. I was leaning towards Strinestown, PA's fabulous Halloween Park – the world's only interactive haunted house – but Manni had different plans.

"Remember that movie Paranormal Activity I told you about?"

"Yeah." I had read some of the hype, but wasn't really sure what it was about. And I was sure it wasn't the world's only interactive haunted house. "Is it playing?"

"Well, yeah, but at Penn State." Three hours away. "We should go. They have this demand-it thing on the Web site, but Pittsburgh's like 17th on the list. I have to see this movie."

So, quite unexpectedly, I found myself packing up the car for a midnight screening of a horror movie, to be seen only through 150 miles of Pennsylvania highway.


This is what strong buzz looks like.

Paranormal Activity was originally seen as little more than a trial run for a big-budget remake. The $15,000 film impressed Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Production Chief Adam Goodman, who pushed for novice director Oren Peli to remake the film with a bigger budget; when audiences started fleeing test screenings in terror, they realized they might have something special on their hands.

This is the point when Paranormal Activity became a gold mine. Buzz was building around the film – the initial screening at Slamdance was extraordinarily well received, and a apocryphal story about Steven Spielberg becoming so frightened that he believed his DVD to be haunted rattled around the web. The film's official Web site was posted, with the trailer focusing on terrified audience reactions.

People were talking about Paranormal Activity, and it still wasn't clear that the film would receive a release. Every showing, meanwhile, sold out. The Demand It! web service, usually used for concerts and other live performance, was employed; the appearance was that only the cities with the most demand would receive the film.

Two final trials were ahead. The first weekend in October, Paranormal Activity was released to a handful of theaters in large college towns – the screening I saw, in State College, PA, was one of these. Not only did nearly every showtime – and there were only a few per town – sell out, but it wasn't just me driving through the night to get to the movie. Word-of-mouth spread throughout the country (a nice side effect of releasing the film to colleges – college kids tell their friends back home, and you've got people in every neighboring city talking.)

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