Hi there. I’m the one unimpressed by a spade of recent horror hits. Despite the overwhelming accolades, I was bored by The Witch, underwhelmed by It Follows and annoyed at Don’t Breathe. So what does this horror fanatic do when theatrical terror is letting her down? I turn to SYFY’s seriously spooky series Paranormal Witness, and buckle in an episode sure to leave me shivering. Recounting tales of paranormal activity from the witnesses who lived them, this doc series delivers ghost stories tweaked for taut tension and yelp-snatching jump scares.
The biggest recurring plot line of Paranormal Witness is that of a family moving into a new house. Sometimes, they are happy, just thrilled to find a home they could afford to make their own! Sometimes they are already aching from tragedy, like the widow of a firefighter lost in the line of duty. But always this new home was meant to be a great new start. Then comes the first sign of trouble: Strange symbols on the walls. Footsteps in the attic. Whispers in the dark. Faces in the windows. Bones in the backyard. The Paranormal Witness directors know the beats, and they play them perfectly.
Often the young child senses the spirit first, chatting with “imaginary friends” who lure them out of bed at night or warn them to avoid the evil that lurks in the attic/basement/crawl space. Of course, the parents think their kid is just creative, or adjusting, definitely not speaking to the dead or the demonic. And then something happens, some vicious turning point. It’s the scare SYFY will tease relentlessly in the trailer. It hits after the third commercial break. It’s the one that gets me every damn time.
Sure, on one level, these shows are laughable with their low production values and schmacty acting. The re-enactors are too eager as they screech out lines like, “What do you mean your imaginary friend broke my vase?” Interviews with those who lived it often feel undercooked. When a stoic witness say things like “I just knew something was different. It was really weird down there,” you can practically hear the producer leaning in and entreating, “Weird how? Give us details!” But there’s a sly flip side to these interviews that makes them uniquely chilling.
These people know you think they’re crazy or lying. They were like you once. But they need you to understand. And their need is riveting, their remembered terror nerve-racking as they recount the moment when they knew it wasn’t a prank or their imagination. Something was there. And something was angry.
Mothers cry as they recall fearing for their children’s safety. Fathers blush with shame recounting their smug skepticism before things turned dangerous. But my favorite parts of these talking head segments are when someone says something so distinctive you get the sense you know their whole story, like the firefighter called in to check out the creepy basement. As a friend of the widow’s late husband, he felt he owed her aid, and he knew she was scared. But he thought she was being ridiculous. He went into her basement without a worry, explaining, “The only thing that scares me is my father and my dentist.” When this guy bolts from the scene, you know something wicked this way comes.
Paranormal Witness knows just how to build the dreadful anticipation of its ghastly reveals. Intro the lovable family, followed quick by that strange thing you would ignore in real life. But here a menacing score punctuating each terrible reveal alerts us to creeping danger. The music makes even a small child talking to an empty chair chilling. And the stings send chills down your spine, while simple practical effects are stealthily combined with speed ramps to terrify us with screaming children hurled across rooms and demons thrust out from the darkness. If you freeze frame, you can scoff at the Halloween shop quality of the costumes. But in the moment, you’re living up to the show’s subtitle: “True Terror.”
The finales of these eps are typically forgettable. Something horrible happens and either the spirit is banished or—more often—the family flees, never to return to the haunted house again. But with such a tight runtime, these hasty conclusions aren’t the point. It’s all about that creepy climax. Each story boasts one great reveal. A ghost girl with a “hollow face.” A demon with hoofed feet and a head burnt black. A wandering woman in white with a skeletal jaw. And you know it’s coming. The music and story build to the commercial break telegraphs it with glee. Yet each time, I jump. I feel my heart hammering in my chest. I feel my skin ripple with goosebumps as my eyes shoot to the door of the living room, confirming I’m still alone. Still safe. For now.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful that theatrical horror is relishing in variety (for Babadook or worse). Variety is the spice of life. What’s good for the genre(’s bankability) is good for its fans. Etc. Etc. But, while new horror auteurs are making me yawn, I relish that SYFY is keeping things reliably scary one terror-streaked “true story” at a time.