On a cold, dark London evening, I had the chance to experience Tod Williams’ Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) – released on DVD this coming Monday (28 February) – in the scariest environment imaginable: the downstairs of a South London pub.
This special screening of the film was preceded by a spooky stroll around London’s shadow-filled streets. Led by ghost aficionado Richard Jones (of Most Haunted Live and Haunted History fame), the tour passed through a number of ghoulish historical locations, from the back alleyways around Bank to London Bridge, divulging the dark secrets of a number of haunted houses along the way.
“Location is important in a ghost story,” explains Richard once we’d retreated to the safety of the pub:
“The scariest place I’ve been two is Rait Castle, in Inverness. It’s a ruin in the middle of a field. I was there on a bright summer’s morning and I was underneath this staircase and could hear footsteps. But there was a wall there and no way anyone could be up on the stairs. Then it all suddenly went cold and I could hear something moving around. It’s the only time in my life I’ve been absolutely terrified. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why. I’ve never found an explanation.”
The unexplained is a big part of what makes things terrifying. Paranormal Activity 2 is a prequel of sorts to Oren Peli’s low budget box office hit Paranormal Activity (2007). Continuing the visual style of the original film, we follow the story of Ali Rey (Molly Ephraim) and her family. After what seems like a standard break-in (though nothing is actually taken), they fill the house with CCTV cameras to record anything else that decides to go bump in the night.
Soon enough, kitchen cupboards spontaneously fly open, front doors lock themselves without warning and the swimming pool cleaner starts doing some very odd things. No wonder superstitious nanny Martine (Vivis Cortex) wants to start lighting incense and saying her prayers before going to bed (consequently, she ends up getting fired the next morning).
Paranormal Activity 2 is presented in the now-familiar found footage format. We’re meant to buy into the whole ‘real life’ concept (and the improvised performances do make things feel more natural) yet for all its efforts, it’s not quite as unsettling as Oren Peli’s original horror.
Ghost hunter Richard Jones likes the Paranormal Activity series, precisely because it’s so believable. He warns of true paranormal activity on his ghost walks around the capital:
“I talk to people all the time who hear voices in their house, or they’re woken up by chattering in the night. Some people bring recorders on the walks to pick up EVP. Once, someone waited behind and actually recorded a voice. It’s on YouTube now. Things like that,” he shudders, “they make you think.”
The key to the success of the original Paranormal Activity is in its use of stationary cameras, which forces you to search the static screen for something to make you jump. It’s an involving technique that charges everything with a tension, even though not much really happens. “Ghost stories, in essence, aren’t very eventful,” agrees Jones. “Something was there, then it wasn’t… You think you hear something, or smell something…”
Inviting us into the position of voyeur, Paranormal Activity 2 once again makes you confront events directly, but once you’ve already experienced the idea, it loses some of its impact. To try and keep the stakes high, Williams adds in a baby and a dog; you the spend the next 100 minutes waiting for one of them to get it.
For Jones, dogs can be scary in themselves. He tells me his favourite ghost story:
“There’s this church in Kent. A group of ghost hunters go into the church for the night. They take in all their equipment, set it all up, and the priest locks them in. They wait all night and nothing happens. In the morning, the priest comes in and says ‘What happened?’ And they say: ‘Nothing. The only thing that stopped us getting bored was your dog trotting past.’ And the priest says: ‘I haven’t got a dog…’”
For fans of the Paranormal Activity franchise, the sequel is a one-trick pony that should give you the odd shiver, but will ultimately leave you wishing that it possessed a little more originality. Still, watch Paranormal Activity 2 before taking a stroll around night-time London and you’re guaranteed to get spooked. Just don’t take a dog with you.
Paranormal Activity 2 is released on Monday 28th February.