In this series of articles we look at thematic links between Doctor Who and other television series or films, and influences that often run both ways. In this October Halloween special, let’s take a look at a highly influential film series from the psychological horror genre, Paranormal Activity. As always, we’ll start by looking at the most superficial of links: actors who crossed over:
There, that’s done. Seriously, though, I would have been amazed if I had found any connections between a British television series and an American film series that utilised unknown actors. However, after a lot of research I did find one behind-the-scenes connection that I am actually quite chuffed about: Matthew Clark was a graphic designer on the two most recent series of Doctor Who, and was also the art director for the Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones trailer. A bit tenuous, I know, but I don’t think that’s a bad effort! If anyone knows of any other connections, please make use of the comments section.
Paranormal Activity revolutionised the horror film industry. Every so often a film comes along that is a game-changer, and this was one of those occasions. It made a fortune at the box office despite having a miniscule budget, and that was bound to make people take notice. Like Doctor Who, that first film proved that you can achieve great things with very little money. Necessity is the mother of invention.
The way it revolutionised the industry was by borrowing a technique from a previous hit, the disconcerting handheld camera work of The Blair Witch Project and then doing that a whole lot better, added to locked off camera angles which were really the key to its success. But there is more to it than that. It really plays on the viewer’s fears in a couple of clever ways. Firstly it pretends to be real. This was the reason for hiring unknown actors and using their own names. It left the viewers unsure if they were actually watching something that had happened in real life, and that was played on in the film’s promotion. As soon as you put a recognisable face into a film that is pretending to be found footage you spoil the illusion so the actors had to be unknowns. So this was where the found footage genre really got started, although the trick of pretending a work of fiction is real was not a completely new invention. In fact, the BBC had almost done a near-identical thing in 1992 with the magnificent Ghostwatch, before bottling out of it and sticking a writer’s credit at the start. Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds tried a similar trick: this was the radio version of “found footage” with fictional news bulletins presented as reality.
The other way in which Paranormal Activity plays with our fears is to interact strongly with the camera. Like the Doctor Who episode Blink (where the Angels can’t move if we are looking at them), the viewer feels like a part of the narrative, with the ghost in Paranormal Activity reacting to the camera by escalating the activity. By the end of the first film it almost feels like being in the room, and the moment Micah is thrown at the camera is like an attack on the audience and a stunning way to end a film. The first film, and most of the subsequent ones, build up the activity very slowly. It is a long time before anything happens and then it starts very small-scale with just the movement of a door. But before that we have locked off camera footage where nothing happens, and that’s the clever bit. It plays with our expectations so by the time things start happening we are already on edge.
The first film in the series debuted in 2007 and in the intervening decade has been an influence on Doctor Who to a fairly limited degree. Some of the tricks used in the film have been adopted for various episodes of Doctor Who such as The God Complex, but most notably Sleep No More is a very strong homage to Paranormal Activity, complete with the audience being drawn right into the middle of things at the conclusion. Of course, the theme of possession is one that has always been regularly utilised in Doctor Who, in stories as wide-ranging as Terror of the Autons, Kinda and The Impossible Planet.
The Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who has often experimented with storytelling techniques beyond the point-a-camera-at-a-stage-play approach, which is what television has nearly always been. The influence of Paranormal Activity on the psychological horror genre has played a part in that evolution, and deserves to continue to be an influence on Doctor Who in future. I for one would welcome a few more attempts at the “found footage” approach to Doctor Who. Because if you want Doctor Who to be really scary, then you will struggle to find a better way to achieve it than that. RP