By Landon Evanson
There were screams coming from all directions. To my left there was a young woman with her knees tucked to her chest and a jacket pulled over her face hoping that if she didn’t look, it would go away. A glance to the right revealed a group of three gasping for breath, and through the darkness I glimpsed out at a mass of humanity to see eyes and mouths covered with trembling hands. Despite the chaotic churning of voices, I distinctly heard “Ohhh shit!” and “Oh my God!” as heads shook in disbelief.
A portrait of sheer terror had been painted before my very eyes simply because Katie Featherston made the mistake of falling asleep with a leg dangling off her bed.
That chilly October night nearly eight years ago provided a clear truth – the money I dropped for admission to Paranormal Activity (2007) would be the best eight bucks I’d ever spent.
I’ll never forget the feeling I had the first time I watched Teri McMinn plopped onto a meat hook or witnessed Linda Blair spider-walk down a flight of stairs; nor can I erase the surge that ran through me as Featherston was dragged from her slumber, left to unleash a desperate, blood-curdling call to her boyfriend (Micah Sloat) as she vanished into the night.
The greatest experience a horror fan can ever hope for is to settle in at a theatre filled with like-minded individuals and lay eyes on a scene that while never communicated, is inherently understood by every soul in the room that what they just saw would stand the test of time. One of those rare moments when each cosmic tumbler clicks into place and you are offered the briefest of glimpses at nirvana.
Years before I took my seat in that theatre, writer and director Oren Peli heard a loud thump in his home, the very dwelling where Paranormal Activity was filmed over 10 days in 2006. Peli discovered that a large box of laundry detergent had fallen from its shelf onto the floor. It had been tucked back too far against the wall for it to have tipped on its own, and no one had been in the room to knock it from its perch. A seed was planted that would blossom into one of the most lucrative horror franchises in history.
The fruition of that inspiration led to Paranormal Activity, which intrigued a frenzied audience eager to be frightened, and compelled me to join them that very evening. Tumblers.
I’d never experienced such a moment before Paranormal Activity, nor since. And make no mistake, for a film that made nearly 7,200 times its estimated $15,000 budget, the dragging scene not only proved a moment that would stay with viewers forever, but guaranteed a sequel. Several to put a finer point on it.
The film resonated so deeply that when one of its distributors (DreamWorks) had Steven Spielberg watch it, he couldn’t finish it that night because the intensity was that strong. Spielberg required the comforts of sunlight to finish it the following day. The master filmmaker isn’t exactly unfamiliar with fright with titles including Jaws (1975) and Poltergeist (1982) under his belt, but Paranormal Activity struck a chord that tested Spielberg’s terror tolerance.
Shadows cast from nothingness and footprints embedded in baby powder were unnerving, and certainly in keeping with the mood and atmosphere of the picture, but Featherston’s dragging was what elevated Paranormal Activity from solid flick into the rarified air of elite franchise.
Whenever that scene resurfaces, I find my body tensing, my breathing quickened and my pulse racing; but I also wear a devilish grin on my face because I can hear the uneasy clamoring of the crowd in my head as the payoff draws near. That I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, I can relive that moment again and again. Even now, I can’t wait.
As Featherston begins to slowly slide off the mattress, memories of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s (1974) hook and The Exorcist’s (1973) spider-walk shower over me, but truth be told, those classics are simply no match for the personal power of Paranormal Activity’s dragging scene.
The best eight bucks I ever spent.