The Paranormal Activity franchise wants to feel real: the cameras are fuzzy, the houses are messy, and the actors look like people you've seen at the mall. But how realistic are the actual hauntings? We've consulted Stephen Robinson, a cameraman who searched for spirits in 26 countries for the reality show Ghost Hunters International. He's an expert in how to shoot the supernatural—so does he think Paranormal Activity 4 gets it right?
Movies.com: Can cameras really record ghosts?
Stephen Robinson: Yes, cameras can record paranormal activity—it's hard to say “ghosts”—but paranormal activity for sure. You'll see faces, outlines of figures. Sometimes they'll seem well-defined, other times you'll see reflections and shadows, which is what they call “matrixing.” Then there's orbs, but a lot of times those turn out to be dust. Full manifestations—moving and clearly defined—are very rare. I don't know anyone who's been able to catch a real and true ghost like the kind you'd think of, but they can catch unexplained things for sure.
Movies.com: Paranormal Activity 4 introduces a new technique: using infrared dots from the kids' Xbox Kinect. Is that actual new ghost-hunting technology?
Robinson: It's newer, like five or six years new. That's what we would use a lot of time when we were shooting on the show. Infrared, ultraviolet, thermal—all those spectrums have been able to pick up paranormal activity. A thermal camera can pick up a heat signature when there's nothing there, or find hot and cold spots that shouldn't exist. Infrared and ultraviolet get outlines and movement. With infrared cameras, you can submerse yourself into almost pitch-black darkness, which they say helps because your eyes acclimate to the dark and it doesn’t emit visible light, so you can see and record without disturbing your surroundings.
Movies.com: Do ghosts know when they're being recorded? Do they like attention?
Robinson: Some do and some don't. There are two types of hauntings. One is called a residual haunting, where people will report the same thing in the same area doing the same motions. It's kind of like a song on repeat. You could try to interact with them, but they won't. The other is called an intelligent haunting, when the spirit is very aware that you're there. That was a part of our show, was trying to figure out whether or not they were friendly, upset, aggressive. Sometimes they'll make you very aware that they're there. Other times they'll mess with you and you'll chase them.
Movies.com: That's been in several Paranormal Activitiy movies: people chasing a ghost with a camera. Are the ghosts, like, running ahead of you?
Robinson: That's happened before. You'll hear a knock, so you'll go investigate. And then you hear another knock and another knock—it starts to move. It could be accompanied with a voice in the same area, or you might see something, so in order to capture real evidence, we'd chase it. You've got it, and you run and try to capture it. Whether or not you get it is always hit or miss because they're almost playing with you.
Movies.com: How important are knocks? In the movies, the spirits almost always first show up as a sound.
Robinson: Yup. They say that it takes an intense amount of energy for a ghost to actually bring itself to make itself visible. Most of the time, if anything, you're going to get a sound. The idea is that when you go into a room, you let the room settle and get quiet. Then you'll begin to ask questions and if you hear a knock or a sound, that can be a direct response. It's the easiest way to first reach out. You want to try to force that spirit to try to make itself present so that you can document it and have physical evidence.
Movies.com: Wouldn't moving something take even more energy? Here, the paranormal beings do that pretty often.
Robinson: There's been only a few instances where an object has actually moved—but it has happened. One instance, there was a children's room with a bunch of little stuffed animals and toys scattered across the ground. There were stories of balls being rolled and the stuff just moving around, so we left a camera in there and one of the dolls on the shelf just toppled to the side. It was flat up against the back of the wall and it could have just fallen, but the way it looked on the video, it was forced like someone pushed it.
Movies.com: Actually, in Paranormal 4, a ball does roll down the stairs.
Robinson: Really? Trippy, yeah.
Movies.com: And in almost every Paranormal movie, they also mess with the lights and chandeliers.
Robinson: Lights are a very common thing. They say they draw from electrical energy. We'd see that. Our equipment would just stop working. We'd put new batteries in and they'd be dead within minutes when normally they'd last hours. There'd be certain rooms we could never get a clear picture in—that happened a few times.
Movies.com: In PA4, there's also as many hauntings during the day as there are at night. Is that true in real life?
Robinson: Actually, no. That was always one of my questions, too, because we always did investigations at night. Only once or twice did anyone have a personal experience during the day, but it wasn't anything they saw—a couple people went in to the same room and got sick.
Movies.com: Wait, what?
Robinson: We were on a tour where the client shows you the building and reports what they or other people have seen. A camera guy went in and got really sick all of a sudden. We pulled him out and he was fine. We were like, “Okay, no big deal.” So we went back to shoot some B-roll and the camera assistant went in and got immediately sick also. Then when we pulled him out, he was fine. But at night, that never happened again. Weird stuff.
Movies.com: There's a cat and a dog in the Paranormal 4 house, and at times they both seem freaked out. Are they susceptible to seeing spirits?
Robinson: Animals are just like children: they're more sensitive to paranormal activity. We've actually used dogs a few times. There's been situations where animals won't go into certain rooms—they'll sit there and bark. Dogs seem to be more sensitive than cats in my experience. Cats just aren't even tripping. Some lady said her bird just kept saying the name of someone who didn't live there, but I was like, “Is that really evidence?”
Movies.com: Haunted kids are a big part of Paranormal Activity 3 and 4. Have you met any creepy children?
Robinson: Oh yeah. There was this one girl in Peru. She didn't really speak much, but she'd report seeing these figures, these people, and then you'd actually catch her talking to someone that wasn't there. I remember she came up to me and she was like, “They're watching you.” “Who's watching me?!” She said, “You're okay,” and then she just turned and peeled out.
Movies.com: Can evil spirits really possess people?
Robinson: I've never experienced a full-on possession, but I was there when one guy claimed a possession which was pretty convincing to me. We were at the Black Horse Pub & Inn in England and patrons would always say that they saw an old man sitting there drinking. He'd play jokes on people like pull women's hair while they were sitting at the bar. So one of our cast members sat there in the same exact spot where the apparition would be seen and began asking questions. He starts holding his stomach like he's not really feeling too well, but he kept asking questions. And then he was like, “No! No! Are you trying to possess me!?” Full-on yelling. His hands were pressed down where he was sitting like he was trying to get up but couldn't, and then he just peeled out and refused to go back in. What he said was that he felt pressure on his shoulders almost like someone was grabbing him and forcing their way into him. He said he'd had possessions happen to him before and this was the same thing, but he got loose. That's the only time I've experienced anything like that.
Movies.com: After people watch Paranormal Activity 4, if they go home and start hearing noises, are they justified in freaking out?
Robinson: I wouldn't tell anyone to be afraid of evilness, ghosts that are out to hurt somebody. There are those stories, but in my experience there were only a few times when anything seemed malicious. Even after everything I've seen, I could not tell someone that they should legitimately be afraid of the paranormal.
Movies.com: But if they're still freaked out enough to record their own house, do you have any camera advice?
Robinson: They really can use any camera as long as it can register infrared light. And most prosumer [a cross between consumer grade and professional grade] cameras can, all the way down to your soccer mom's camera. Just set that up and fill the room with infrared light and hit record and you'll be able to see the whole room in pitch black.
Movies.com: Do you still get scared when you watch the Paranormal Activity movies?
Robinson: I get so scared when I watch that sh*t. I love it. I try to act all tough because I've been in those situations and little stuff has happened, but if I ever saw something as massive as what happens in the Paranormal movies, I'd freak out.