This contains no spoilers, even though I assume that anyone with an interest in seeing Paranormal Activity has done so already.
Among obnoxiously pedantic board game enthusiasts (a group of which I am a founding member), a distinction is made between “games” and “activities”.
A game, you see, is one in which the players compete against one another and, on average, the most skillful or experienced player emerges as the winner. In other words, while the playing of the game might be fun, the winning is the goal (or, at the least, it’s important for the players to at least pretend that winning is the goal, if the game is to work). Chess is a game, as is Scrabble or Go.
At the end of an activity, on the other hand, the determination and declaration of a winner is largely unimportant, and sometimes skipped entirely. Think Cranium, or Taboo, or any party game really. An activity is all journey, no destination. It’s as important for players to not care about winning in an activity (or, at the least, pretend to not care) as is for players to earnestly compete in a game.
Given those definitions, Paranormal Activity is aptly titled.
I saw PA in the Neptune theater in Seattle, on Halloween Eve, and can think of no better venue. The cinema, with its creepy pelagic decor and location blocks away from the University of Washington, provided the perfect atmosphere and audience for this film. Specifically, the seats were filled with young and quick-to-startle college students, at least during those moments when said kids were not several feet above the seats and screaming bloody murder.
Set in a haunted house (of sorts), and presenting itself as a faux-documentary of the Blair Witch ilk, the film alternates between the day (during which anxious but largely uneventful discussions take place amongst the protagonists) and the night (during which Bad Things Happen). Each nocturnal chapter is incrementally more pants-crapping that the one prior. By the end of the film, folks in the Neptune were vocal and sincere about their displeasure in not having fled the theater before. “Oh god no,” They would say, as the scene switched to the owners of the house sleeping peacefully in bed. “No no no no god no please no more.”
The ending of Paranormal Activity, like that of all activities, is not the point. The ending just signals that the festivities have ended. Knowing this ahead of time is probably essential to truly enjoying the film. (I did not, and thus left somewhat disappointed).
And although I would normally encourage people to see a film of this cinematographic caliber on DVD rather than ponying up for a movie ticket, I’ll make an exception for PA. If you are going to see it at all, see it in a theater, preferably one as packed as possible. The fun in the film is in the watching–both the watching of the film, and the watching of those around you watching the film. Approaching Paranormal Activity any other way is like trying to play chess on a Cranium board.