It’s an undeniable fact that Hollywood films tend to follow trends. Once a concept or genre is proven to be viable and capable of making money then production companies will jump on it like lions on a wounded antelope. This is especially true for horror films, which seem to go through these trends more than any other genre. The latest obsession is with paranormal horror films such as Annabelle and The Haunting in Connecticut, which emphasise that their narratives are supposedly based on supposedly real-life paranormal events. Some even go so far as to incorporate a found-footage style of filmmaking to increase their believability. It’s an interesting occurrence that begs the question: why does the genre evolve so rapidly, and why do we, as an audience, have such an obsession with the paranormal?
There’s a theory knocking around which states that ‘the simplest metaphor for genre change is that derived from evolution’. As noted, genres go through stages. Initially they start as something new and rare, à la 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which popularised found-footage films and subsequently helped to champion the move towards supernatural phenomenon caught on camera as its own genre, one that was further established with 2007’s Paranormal Activity.
As the theory goes, the genre will eventually reach a state where it reaches classic status, often containing the genre’s finest moments. However, this phase will ultimately pass, leaving the genre void of originality until it reaches the final stage and simply becomes a parody of itself.
In the case of paranormal films, the genre appears to be somewhere in its second, classic stage, with films such as REC and the aforementioned Blair Witch Project coming to be considered the best of the genre, even being tipped as future classics, in a similar way to how Halloween and Friday the 13th are now considered classics of the slasher genre (the top trend in horror films during the 1980s).
Yet, at the same time, the genre seems to be showing signs of entering the final stage with films like Paranormal Entity and A Haunted House beginning to parody the genre and the common tropes found within its films.
In less than a decade since paranormal films rose to prominence, the genre appears to have almost completed its cycle as the dominant horror sub-genre. It seems the paranormal might be heading in the same direction as the ‘torture-porn’ genre that emerged earlier in the 2000s, with films like Saw, that now appears to have disappeared entirely. However, it might be completely outlandish to assume that paranormal horror will die out and become virtually non-existent in the coming years like its predecessor. Instead, it is possible that the genre will in fact simply be replaced by a new dominant sub-genre, but will continue to operate on the periphery of the mainstream, just as the slasher genre has done with its incessant remakes over the last few years. Maybe we will see shaky film footage make the recent slasher move to television for several of the more famous franchises.
The reason for the paranormal horror genre possibly maintaining its presence in the future is the exact same reason why the genre has been able to enthral audiences so quickly in recent years. It’s not really horror. It bases itself in terror rather than horror. Saw prided itself on scenes of torturous gore which horrified audiences with such stark visuals, and because it was something that had never really been done before. Unfortunately there is only a limited scope for such films – especially ones where the unique selling point is the graphic violence, as the audience will eventually become desensitised to said violence and leaving them bored and the concept dead in the water.
A film like Paranormal Activity on the other hand concerns itself with terrifying the audience, and while it is possible for such a film to exasperate itself with clichés and become tiresome, it can remain engaging with audiences by modifying the formula. After all, that is how genres evolve in the first place, by taking the original design and putting a fresh twist on it. The modification made by paranormal horror films was the heavy basis on real-life events, thereby adding a sense of realism to the genre, suggesting that the horror could happen to anyone, the usually formless antagonist only acts to heighten the terror felt by the viewer as it plays greatly on their own paranoia, something that has proven to be popular amongst modern audiences, and filmmakers in other sub-genres of horror.
So while paranormal horror may soon be usurped as the most popular trend within its genre, there’s little doubt that its presence will soon come to haunt horror cinema for a while to come.