ANOKS: Haunted Houses

Every locality has an old house or hotel – dilapidated and empty in which strange happenings  were rumored to occur.  When I was growing up, it was the old converted mansion that served as our local library.  Never would want to be caught in there after closing time, let me tell you.

Haunted houses like that are great.  You can drive by them and get a shiver, or be stupid teens and try and one-up one another by seeing who can spend the longest time in it before getting the willies and fleeing.  You can go visit the otherworldly inhabitants, but leave them there when you’re ready to go.

But what happens when the ghosts come to you?

Two of this week’s ANOKS movies (“Poltergeist” and “Paranormal Activity”) share this basic premise:  nice suburban family is beset by a series of unexplained occurrences.  They try to figure out what’s going on.  They call in mediums and investigators.  Bad Things start to escalate, threatening the family.

Now I will easily call “Poltergeist” one of my favorite movies of my teenage years.  Earlier in the summer of 1982, Steven Spielberg had released “E.T.” – to near-universal praise.  One of the things that worked so well in that story was that the family in it didn’t look like a “movie” family; they looked like a normal suburban family.  Their house was a mess.  The kids bickered.  There was a “naturalness” to them.  Spielberg and Tobe Hooper channeled that same suburban-reality into “Poltergeist”, where a typical suburban California family finds out they’re living in the wrong house.

They're heeeeeere....

I mean, I know this movie’s been copied and spoofed so many times that it’s hard to disassociate it and remember how good (and scary) the original is.  Man – a static-snowfield on a tv STILL creeps me out.  The tree, the horrible creepy clown doll, the moving-steak-maggots, JoBeth Williams being tossed around like a ragdoll.  Still these days, when I want to express manic incredulous faux-anger (which happens more often than you might think…) I will rage, “YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEAD STONES! YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEAD STONES!”  Great movie.  9 stars.

I hear you knocking

Almost 30 years later, evil spirits again descended on a suburban California home.  In “Paranormal Activity”, a young couple starts hearing strange things and sets up video cameras to see if they can catch what’s going on.   As you might guess, things begin to get worse.  A lot worse.  In “Poltergeist”, the evil spirits wanted to steal and use the daughter in their other dimension.  Here, they seem bent on using the home (and the couple) to manifest themselves in this dimension.  Now, “Paranormal Activity” utilizes the same conventions as “The Blair Witch Project” – low budget, handheld cameras, actors you don’t know, and the plot device of “here’s the footage we found afterward”.  At least since the cameras were mounted, they didn’t shake around the whole time.

What Is That?

The film does a really good job of building tension, even without explicit effects and really any “action”.  The horror and tension are all built in the viewer’s imagination.  For me, I was a little extra creeped out because the house that “Paranormal Activity” was filmed in is about a mile and half from our home and looks pretty darn similar.  So yeah, sometimes I get a little spooked if I hear something from somewhere else in the house.  8 stars.

16 thoughts on “ANOKS: Haunted Houses

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  2. I remember ET like it was yesterday. That movie had a lasting impact. I somewhat remember Poltergeist, but not nearly as well as I remember ET. My kids might want to watch “Paranormal Activity.” I like suspense in some of the TV shows I watch but not in movies. I cannot handle suspense as well as I could in days gone by.

  3. I agree, what is profoundly creepy about both movies is the ordinariness of their settings. I think “Paranormal Activity” is the more frightening because of its long moments of silence, followed by something unexpected and freaky. (Japanese ghost movies also use silence to good effect. “Kwaidan,” which I’m planning to watch for Halloween, has several almost unbearable moments where a character sits in the dark, getting ready to go to bed, when suddenly they hear a slight noise, or an odd light appears in a corner, and your heart stops, waiting for the other shoe to drop.)

    I liked “Poltergeist” when it first came out, but the spectacular, all-stops-pulled-out ending ruined the film for me. It stopped being scary at that point and felt more like a carnival ride where you’re just holding on, waiting for the coaster to stop. The first two thirds of the film are when I’m hiding behind a pillow: the family gets all these warning signs which would have sent me packing, but they remain incredulous until the ghosts manifest themselves in horrible, horrible ways.

    I also can’t stand having a TV set with nothing but snow on the screen since watching “Poltergeist.” It got worst when the movie “White Noise” came out: I found out that some paranormal investigators actually use white noise/snow to try to communicate with ghosts. I don’t want ghosts to talk to me, even if they are trying to save my life or whatever. So the radio and TV stay off after a certain hour in my house.

    • I agree that in horror movies, less can really be more. It’s a lot better to engage the viewer’s imagination than overwhelm their senses. And yes, “Poltergeist” went for the “big” ending that they might not have had to (though I still found it fun).

      Eddie Murphy did a great monologue back in his SNL days where he went on about he couldn’t understand “white people” in Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, b/c “black folks” would have been out of those places so fast your head would spin…

      • LMAO – I hadn’t seen that monologue. I just looked it up:

        Hilarious! “She was only six years old, they couldn’t have been too attached to her!”

        I didn’t start watching movies until I was an adult. I can’t imagine how these would have freaked me out when I was a kid, they make me a jumpy twitchy thing just thinking about them, let alone watching them. And yet … there’s something I can’t resist, and now I want to watch Paranormal Activity.

        • LOM — I’m so glad you found that! I really loved that bit. :)

          I had gotten my introduction into horror movies watching them on Saturday afternoons with my mom (there was a local station that played a “creature feature”). From there I graduated into scarier fare. :)

  4. I saw ‘Poltergeist’ in the theater, when it first came out…people were SHRIEKING in terror and enjoyment. I also saw ‘The Exorcist’ in the theater – again when it first came out and people were fainting in the aisles: I wasn’t shrieking, I wasn’t enjoying it, but I was terrorized for weeks.

    • I think “The Exorcist” is easily the scariest movie of my youth. I was really disturbed when I saw that (I was a much better Catholic then than I am now). Poltergeist doesn’t reach disturbing, just a great thrill ride.

  5. Pingback: Book Review: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson | Stevil

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