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Paranormal Activity: What the Movie Got Right... and Wrong


Paranormal Activity

How much of the activity is accurate?

DreamWorks Pictures / Paramount Pictures

A close look at the hit movie, Paranormal Activity, what the filmmakers got right and got wrong with regard to a real haunting, and what the characters did right and wrong.

THE FILM Paranormal Activity has become a phenomenal sensation around the country, primarily because many viewers found the low-budget movie with no big-name stars so effective. Some thought it did not live up to the hype generated around it, but it continues to make big money and an enormous return on its initial investment of less than $20,000.

One question I've been asked by people who have seen the film is: Can stuff like that really happen?

The answer is: Yes, many of the phenomena that are depicted in the film can and do happen to people. Some of it was faithfully rendered in the film. There were many things that the characters did correctly in that situation. On the other hand, there were things that the film did not get quite right - they were exaggerated (it's a piece of entertainment after all; we can't fault them for that) - and the characters did some things that are not recommended by paranormal researchers.

So here's an examination of what the film got right and wrong. SPOILER WARNING: This article divulges elements of the plot that you might not want to know about if you haven't seen the film. If so, return here after you've seen the film.


Types of poltergeist activity. For the most part, the film accurately depicted the kinds of phenomena that occur with a poltergeist or haunting:

  • Lights and appliances going off and on by themselves.
  • Unexplained noises, such as bangs and raps on the walls, that cannot be accounted for by natural means. Very often, the location of these noises is hard to pinpoint.
  • Mysterious voices and whispering.
  • Covers and sheets being pulled off a sleeping person.

Escalation of poltergeist activity. As happens in the film, poltergeist activity most often starts slowly, even with subtlety. It might start with a few mild unexplained noises every once in a while. Then they become more frequent and louder. Then the peculiarities with the lights, TVs and other appliances might kick in. This can then be followed by shadows and even voices. In some rare cases, things can get much worse (worse than even happens in the film).

Paranormal focus. Paranormal Activity was also correct in indicating that such activity very often centers around an individual - the woman, in the case of the film - rather than a place. So she was correct in telling her boyfriend that it probably would not have mattered if they fled their apartment; the activity would have stayed with her.

Activity at night. Most of the paranormal activity in the movie occurs at night, and essentially this is very often the case. Poltergeist and haunting activity certainly does take place during daylight hours, but it seems to happen more often at night. I say "seems" because I'm not sure there's much data to support this. It may very well be that it's merely perception that it occurs more often at night: People are often away from their homes during the day (things could be happening while they're away); the night is quieter, when people may be more likely to notice odd noises; unexplained shadows might be more noticeable in the night's artificial lighting.

Shadow forms. In the movie, a person-shaped shadow is seen passing across the couple's bedroom door. The sightings of such "shadow people," as they have come to be known, are becoming more and more common. Shadow people are not always connected to poltergeist and haunting activity, but they can be. And, as the film depicts, they can manifest as fleeting shadow forms across a door or wall, but they can also have far scarier shapes. There are reports of these shadow people appearing to be opaque or even solid-looking black masses that stand or move in an open space, such as a hallway or the middle of a room. In other words, in these cases, they don't seem to be shadows cast on a surface; they seem to be three-dimensional shadows!

Next page: What the film got wrong

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