Audience reaction movie trailers and the Paranormal Activity franchise

Alexander Swanson

Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article addresses the concept and growing practice of audience reaction movie trailers, specifically for films in the horror genre. Popularized by the Paranormal Activity series of films, these trailers primarily utilize green night-vision video footage of a movie theater audience reacting to the film being advertised, yet also consist of webcam recordings of screaming fans, documentary-style B-roll footage of audiences filing into preview screenings with high levels of anticipation, and close-up shots of spectator facial expressions, accompanied by no footage whatsoever from the film being advertised. In analyzing these audience-centric promotional paratexts, my aim is to reveal them as attempting to sell and legitimize the experiential, communal, and social qualities of the theatrical movie viewing experience while at the same time calling for increased fan investment in both physical and online spaces. Through the analysis of audience reaction trailers, this article hopes to both join and engender conversations about horror fan participation, the nature of anticipatory texts as manipulative, and the current state of horror gimmickry in the form of the promotional paratext.

[0.2] Keywords—Anticipatory texts; Fan participation; Gimmicks; Horror

Swanson, Alexander. 2015. "Audience Reaction Movie Trailers and the Paranormal Activity Franchise." In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Popularized over the past five years by the Paranormal Activity series of found footage horror films (produced by Paramount, Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions, and series creator Oren Peli), audience reaction movie trailers have become a key marketing tool for horror producers and filmmakers looking to generate viral buzz and get bodies into theater seats. They have grown from an aesthetic oddity to an increasingly pervasive genre of promotional paratext, used for films as diverse as the tech obsessed, low budget Paranormal franchise, the spooky Hammer period piece The Woman in Black (Watkins, 2012), and the Brad Pitt-led zombie actioner World War Z (Forster, 2013). We can define these particular audience reaction trailers as promotional cinematic paratexts (note 1) that primarily feature shots of an engrossed theatrical audience watching the film being advertised, typically at a special advance screening in a major market city like Los Angeles or New York. Created with digital video and made as much for Web exhibition and viral dissemination as they are for actual movie theaters, such paratexts are trailers for the social media and ever-evolving media convergence age; these texts break down our notions of what constitutes a trailer and stress the participatory power (and, of course, the potential purchasing power) of the mass audience. Audience reaction trailers are also typically part of larger marketing campaigns to bring the film to the audiences' home cities first (with calls to "Want It!" or "Demand It" appearing at the end of the trailers). This interactive, participatory feature is often located on the film's official Web site (which is usually featured quite prominently at the end of the trailer as well), or facilitated by social media sites like Facebook. With a focus on the social and a push to make legitimate the theatergoing experience, audience reaction trailers place heavy emphasis on the spectator and the notion of inclusion, often favoring the recorded reactions of audience members and hype about fan voting practices over actual footage from the film itself, save for a few brief, glitched-out flashes of mysterious and/or horrific imagery to get the blood pumping and raise the interest level.

[1.2] These trailers also buy into and exploit "the myth of initial terror" (Gunning 2004, 863) that supposedly ran through early cinema audiences, who, as oft-told legend has it, fled theaters in horror from such projected sights as locomotives approaching the camera (and, as imagined, possessing enough force to rupture the screen and harm the audience). That the images on screen could be palpable, tangible, and real are fears touched upon—however playfully—by the Paranormal Activity series of audience reaction trailers. This myth conjuring and blurring of spectatorial reality and diegetic cinematic space also taps into a simultaneous fear of and desire for the unknown. As Benson-Allott explains in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens:

[1.3] Paranormal Activity's marketing ploy emphasizes the horror of low-resolution digital video…Through editing and digital compositing, the trailer seamlessly blends murky green reaction shots with nocturnal footage from the actual movie, obscuring the line between text and paratext for Paranormal Activity. In other words audience reactions in the trailer actually enforce the realism of the movie itself…The audiences' reactions seem so patently at odds with the minimalist clips of sheets billowing, doors closing on their own, and off-screen thumps and thuds that their fear enhances the mystery of the movie. Indeed, they seem to be responses to the medium itself. (Benson-Allott 2013, 188–189)

[1.4] That the space of the movie theater can be defamiliarized and made to be mysterious or unknown is important—it makes the concept of going to the movies exciting, intriguing, and entirely different from the perhaps more familiar, everyday spaces of the home theater or mobile viewing experience. The Paranormal Activity films are not just mysterious; their blurring of lines between reality and artifice transforms the everyday act of watching a screen into a moment of difference, oddity, incoherence, and chance. The trailers work to sell this point, and in doing so, also further the narrative and promotional claims that Paranormal Activity is more than just a movie: it is found footage; it is reality.

[1.5] I propose then that the audience reaction trailer as utilized to promote horror films is significant for two unique yet intersecting reasons. First, movie trailers of the horror genre have a history of addressing the audience and a penchant for self-awareness and metatextuality in regards to the viewing experience and the physiological aspects of horror reception (a framework that will be established in this piece through a brief analysis of the historical precedent for gimmick and spectacle set, in part, by the American horror films of the 1950s—particularly the work of William Castle). I see the marketing teams and production studios behind these ghoulish paratexts as in tune with horror fans' interests, desires, and shared genre knowledge. With industry and audience in sync, we encounter a complex web of potential pros and cons: on one hand, the needs of an experience-seeking audience and of a genre-specific fan base are being addressed and quite often met with gusto. Befitting of a great deal of popular discourse, Richard Whittaker of the Austin Chronicle labeled series producer Jason Blum (who also produced horror hits such as Sinister [2012] and Insidious [2010]) as "the modern William G. Castle: Master of the crowd-pleasing horror" (Whittaker 2014). On the other hand, such crowd-pleasing gestures are inherently exploitative, often making use of unpaid fan labor via social media to saturate the market with gimmicky, Hollywood-approved frights. Both sides of the situation must be recognized and understood as legitimate, and I feel that a negotiation between the two can be found in the understanding of not only Castle-era production and marketing practices, but also in their analysis and theorization within recent scholarly work. I hope that applying such academic work to the current trends in audience reaction paratexts will open up the possibilities of engaging with current marketing texts and concepts moving forward. Second, the aesthetic design and ultimate implementation of the trailers is key—here, I understand the audience as implicated as being both a part of the film being advertised (as their bodies are primarily being used to sell the film in these instances, and not the bodies of stars) and as a key factor in the advertising process via social media. These trailers seem to insist that the Paranormal Activity films simply won't be as fun or engaging if you don't see them in a theatrical setting, and that they also won't exist (outside of home video at a much later and less preferable date) if you don't join in the voting process and help bring them to your local theater.

[1.6] This article analyzes and works through the audience reaction trailers and associated direct marketing tactics created for the Paranormal Activity series of films (with five in the franchise) as a means to address broader questions of audience participation, horror gimmickry, and the state of film advertising in the form of the trailer. A series with a total worldwide gross of just over $800 million (astounding, considering the collective series budget of just over $18 million), the Paranormal Activity franchise has clearly been successful from a marketing standpoint, and in doing so has provided a template for ad campaigns that are delightfully schlocky, engaging, sharable, and in line with modern horror fans' desire for spectacle, meta-awareness, inclusion, and physiological arousal. Though I use this article as a space to draw connections between past and present practices of horror marketing (to make sense of the audience reaction trailer as a paratext rooted in genre and industry history), and as a way to point to current industry and audience conditions as engendering the popularity and legitimacy of these types of ad campaigns, I also want to question the role that the audience reaction trailer plays in opening up possibilities for spectator involvement and the creation of unified horror fan communities. It has yet to be seen if audience reaction trailers, social media voting campaigns, and Webcam gimmickry produce more than just fan labor, free advertising, and high profits (thus exploiting the ever-evolving gift economies of fandoms). However, as mobile technology becomes more pervasive in the theater space (not to mention incorporated into marketing campaigns), and as marketing for the Paranormal Activity series works to legitimize and champion not just the theatrical or home video experience, but the very presence and necessity of fan bodies inhabiting those spaces, I would argue that the inclusion of audience reactions in horror marketing leaves open more potential for participation and collaboration than it forecloses.

[1.7] While the ultimate merits and outcomes of fan participation are certainly debatable, audience reaction trailers and their associated social media campaigns nonetheless position spectators as active, necessary components of a film's financial success, cultural uptake, and emotional impact. To say that spectators are considered and sought after by and within industry discourse and practices is not to say the barriers between consumer and producer are officially broken. There is indeed an economic benefit to media producers here that far exceeds that accrued by fans. However, the barriers are—to varying degrees—increasingly blurred, and such uncertainty and overlap within a constantly evolving media landscape leaves more room for contestation and negotiation than it does top-down, unforgivingly exploitative dominance.

2. Audience reactions

[2.1] Found footage horror films like the Paranormal Activity franchise are visually simplistic; washed-out, grainy tones, minimal atmospherics, and long, static shots constitute the majority of these films' running times, only to be punctuated by spooky gimmicks and body-shaking jump scares at cleverly planned moments. With this in mind, it makes sense that such films would be so well-suited for the audience reaction trailer treatment; in placing visual emphasis on the spectators, marketers can avoid having to include the boring bits (a trailer would lose any semblance of rhythm if it lingered on dead-silent, stagnant bedrooms, kitchens, and swimming pools the way the Paranormal Activity films do), and they can also work around revealing any of the shocks and surprises the film may have in store for its audience. The very nature of movie trailers as anticipatory texts makes the near-exclusion of narrative information or key visual moments palatable; as Lisa Kernan points out, trailers "need no resolution. For all the weightiness of their narrational pronouncements and the booming sound effects of their cataclysmic imagery, they are breathless, liminal and ephemeral" (2004, 8–9).

[2.2] Rather than showing a character get dragged away by a demonic force, or inviting audiences to watch in horror as major plot points get visually teased out, these green-tinged, night-vision reaction shots—which include shrieks, blood-curdling screams, nervous laughter, collective awe, and a great deal of silence saturated by tension—give us all the details we need via decontextualized narrative audio, audience facial expressions, and ear-piercing yelps, as can be found in an "Experience It" TV spot for the first Paranormal Activity film (video 1).

Video 1. Audience reaction trailer for the first film in the Paranormal Activity franchise.

[2.3] Often combined with or supplemented by more traditional theater lobby interviews, or by the growing trend of fan reaction shots—captured via webcam—that record spectators watching a version of the film trailer online from the comfort of their own homes, these trailers leave a great deal to the imagination. They urge you to experience it for yourself, and in doing so, audience reaction trailers aim to encourage the trailer-viewing audience desire to become the idealized, theatergoing audience as seen on screen.

[2.4] The use of terms such as "event," "experience," and "only in cinemas" are expected in trailers that emphasize the audience, and thus the experiential qualities of cinema viewed en masse. However, they bring to mind a nagging question: can these feelings not be had with a small group of friends in a living room or a den? Can the film not be experienced alone? Though a late-night DVD or streaming video-viewing of the latest found-footage horror flick—screened from the comfort of one's own home—may not exactly be worthy of the bold title of "event," these arguably more intimate processes of spectatorship can still engender communal bonding, intense, immediate physical responses, and lingering arousal (Staiger 2005). However, one factor of the in-home or mobile viewing experience that seems to support marketers' tenuous claims of movie-house superiority is the lack of control over both the film being screened and the viewing environment. While watching a film at home, I can pause to use the bathroom, skip past the lackluster or visually uninteresting bits to the biggest scares or goriest kills (note 2), leave the room for a brief moment to grab a snack, or stop the film altogether if I find it to be too frightening, unbearably shaky (as ill-conceived found footage is notorious for being), or just flat-out tiresome. Audience reaction trailers position the audience as captured, possessed, entranced, and beholden to the glow of the screen. Naturally, this is a representation of an ideal audience—a spooky fiction carved out of what were most likely much lengthier passages of digital video recordings that conceivably showed audience members fidgeting, looking disinterested, talking to a friend, using their mobile device, sleeping, or even leaving the auditorium. However, these trailers work to bypass such complex notions of attention and body language, favoring a simplified and alluring performance of entrancement that firmly ties the concept of event to the already present concept of horror as spectacle and as a genre particular to jolting the audience between active and passive attention (Hanich 2010, 54).

[2.5] Wavering between equally emotive bodily performances of creeping tension and vocal fright, the imagined, potential audience (which is also advertised as being a real audience at a high-profile preview screening) is shown within the diegesis of the first (and subsequent) Paranormal Activity audience reaction trailer as being a crucial part of the cinematic experience in multiple respects. The audience members are an engaged and thoroughly entertained group; they are desired spectators, an audience that the marketers want us to crave being a part of. These ads are purposefully designed to make us see our potential selves in the bodies and actions onscreen. These bodies are ideal, appearing on screen completely devoted to the cinematic experience, performing their spectatorship and fandom in a manner that comes across as energetic, satisfied, and ultimately (and perhaps most importantly) communal—public enough to be approachable (and thus repeatable), and intimate enough to still be regarded as a unique interaction that one can (supposedly) only find in a sold-out movie theater. The members of the audience on-screen are living, screaming props; as presented within the context of the trailer, they are tools of a marketing campaign that works to accentuate, legitimize, and make legible the tensions, scares, and successes of the film being sold. They also make a readily apparent argument that the film will not be as satisfying if viewed alone or on a smaller screen.

3. Historical context

[3.1] The reactions, thoughts, and desires of the audience have been overtly factored into and expressed through specific cinematic marketing campaigns for decades, and marketing campaigns for horror films have for years fashioned direct address and usage of the theatrical audience into spooky, rousing gimmickry intended to get spectators into seats. A horror cinema of exploitation and spectacle was born out of the 1950s, with giant monster chillers and other assorted creature-features populating local cinemas and drive-in theaters. Such films possessed a gimmick obsession, utilizing techniques like 3-D, Smell-O-Vision, and Percepto (for films such as William Castle's The Tingler (1959), whose audience-addressing trailer can be seen below) to mobilize adjacent senses and create an enhanced sense of spectacle.

Video 2. William Castle's The Tingler (1959) implicates the audience in its scares.

[3.2] As Kevin Heffernan points out, the rise of such techniques and technologies were driven in part by economic concerns:

[3.3] Because of demographic changes in the film audience as well as perceptions within the industry that its own advertising and promotional techniques were behind the times, the 1950s saw the growth of ad campaigns, exploitable titles, and poster art that preceded the casting or even scripting of the films. These efforts were the result both of the industry's desperation to recapture a dwindling audience staying at home in increasing numbers and of the need to draw a more downscale but still lucrative audience of juveniles and adolescents. (Heffernan 2004, 64–65)

[3.4] Keith M. Johnston also points out that "Hollywood's attitude toward new technology in the 1950s was invariably reactive. They saw technology as a new (or at least improved) audience lure, coaxing people back into movie theaters and away from new pursuits—the rival technology of television, the move to the suburbs, and the expansion of leisure activities" (2009, 28). Alluding to the economic boost, crowd-drawing power and sexual energy brought forth by the monster mashes of the 1950s, David J. Skal quotes a manager of a prominent drive-in theater in San Francisco, California:

[3.5] Thank God for the horror pictures…They've saved us. Before this kick we were thinking of shutting down two nights a week; now, with all the monster stuff, the place starts filling up at three o'clock. The kids go for it. The girls yell and hang on to the boys and sometimes you've really got to keep an eye on those cars. (Skal 1993, 261)

[3.6] As evidenced by The Tingler trailer, marketing was, as it is still, a key component of alerting spectators about the arrival and wonder of new cinematic technologies. As Johnston points out, these technologies of the 1950s "were weapons that attempted to turn the cinema screen itself into a site of difference…each process emphasizing new experiential qualities of size, depth, smell, hearing or touch. In order to display the unique attributes of each technology, and to educate and excite audiences over the latest screen 'improvement' the studios relied on their favorite method for differentiating competitive products: the film trailer" (2009, 28). The trailer for the Warner Bros. cult horror favorite, 1953's House of Wax (another Vincent Price vehicle), is a prime, though near-comical, example of how far studios would go to push their 3-D technology and the notion of theatrical experience on the audience. A completely text-based trailer devoid of any film footage, the ad seen below promises "1001 high tension thrills in vivid WarnerColor," that "come off the screen—right at you!" and that the "third dimension" is the way the film was "meant to be seen."

Video 3. Warner Bros. House of Wax (1953) marketing campaign focused heavily on new 3-D and color technology to market an experience, rather than letting the film alone sell itself.

[3.7] The Paranormal Activity series of audience reaction trailers both continues and reconfigures this differentiating process by making claim to the supposed social and physiological benefits of a live audience and a theatrical setting. Here, the site of difference is found on not just the diegetic screen, but primarily in the audience, with each spectatorial body being a locus for the advertisement of experience (scares, screams, tension, and laughter) that can arguably only be had in the theatrical setting. Rather than hawking some new technological advancement or unique way of consuming cinema (such as the 3-D of both the 1950s and today), an active spectatorial experience is promised here as the upgrade from home viewing and the lure of digital, mobile platforms. For an audience (particularly younger viewers) exposed to an increasingly fragmented range of media options (DVD, Blu-Ray, mobile devices, Web-based content), going to the movies (especially when it is a packed house) may indeed be understood and sold as a new, different, and enticing experience.

4. The activity in the aisles continues

[4.1] Here, we can draw strong connections between the gimmick obsession of the 1950s and its prominence in the 2000s and 2010s in the form of audience reaction trailers. It seems quite evident that the tactic of using audience reactions in ads strongly attempts to validate the moviegoing experience, gain audience attention, and boost box office receipts. This is an era of both declining and fluctuating ticket sales, where the ever-contentious threats of both piracy and, more generally, free content are always looming, and competition (or collaboration) with other screen media abounds. Therefore, the current climate is one in which it makes sense for these audience reaction trailers to come to the fore and find their footing. According to a 2012 study by Bonnie Wilcox:

[4.2] With declining DVD sales, studios look to make back all of their money and more during theatrical runs. But with movie theater attendance down to its lowest in 16 years, many studios are trying to cut back on budgets (The Numbers, 2012). Although blockbuster box office receipts are always desirable, some are re-focusing their efforts to secure large profit margins. Low-budget movies have much to gain. By determining the most effective methods to increase attendance and profits, studios will be able to have more successes and reduce the fear of losing money on a project, keeping them in business and the entertainment industry alive. (Wilcox 2012, 1)

[4.3] The effective methods in the case of the Paranormal Activity franchise rest in their locating of both desire and participatory power in the audience. In attempting to legitimize and salvage the moviegoing tradition (as preferred mode of cinematic storytelling, institution of sociocultural importance, and viable economic practice), the audience reaction trailers place the authority of creating and initiating the in-theater experience in the hands of the audience. The idea of audiences using social media sites like Facebook to ask for and demand the film can be understood as the marketing-driven production of (and user-generated display of) audience reactions online, where buzz can spread virally. Once again, the marketers of the Paranormal Activity series are not necessarily engaging social media users with content from the film being advertised, but are instead prompting users to create excited chatter about a film they have never seen. The promotion of the theatrical event, of something experiential promised in the audience reaction trailers, is furthered by the social media campaign. As argued by the campaign, the film then must be seen—not just because it is scary or unique, but because it is a social event, with the theater acting as a place to be seen, and the social media sphere a space to proclaim the user's future attendance and performance as spectator.

[4.4] These heightened levels of spectatorial performativity and experience, as encouraged through marketing and the specific paratext of the audience reaction trailer, are also quite interestingly tied to audience engagement with the found footage genre itself. As Benson-Allott suggests:

[4.5] Faux footage spectators experience themselves as objects (specifically cameras) within its diegesis rather than detached observers of its story…These movies put the viewer in touch with her position in the motion picture apparatus, with her role as an object in a machine of meaning…The (fictional) primary filmmaker may have been recording footage about a supernatural event, but the secondary filmmakers can use it to make another point about cinema, especially about the role of the spectator in contemporary movie culture. (Benson-Allott 2013, 193)

[4.6] The trailers indicate that the spectator is needed as both a body in the movie theater and in front of the computer/mobile screen. They champion the theatrical experience as the ultimate event, while positioning the audience members in the diegesis as ideal and model viewers—spectators who paid for their tickets and are excited to be mass consumers. Essentially, they are primed and willing to be a crucial part of the motion picture apparatus. Of course, attendance at the early midnight preview screenings could not occur without potential spectators demanding the film first through social media; through a series of clicks, likes and shares, fans create their own test markets, emphasize the communal sway of fandoms, and enable Paramount and Blumhouse to reap the lucrative benefits of low-budget marketing and old-fashioned word of mouth.

5. Random selections and embodied interactions

[5.1] In a recent interview with Ad Age about the first Paranormal Activity movie, Amy Powell, Paramount's executive VP of interactive marketing strategy and production stated: "Rather than having a wide release or product-launch strategy, why not invert the funnel, democratize the process and let consumers tell you where to go first?…Winning over your fans and letting them feel included in the process is instrumental in the marketing of any film, it's just a matter of how far you take that notion" (Hampp 2010) (note 3). Though Powell is indeed right in stating that a typical wide theatrical release of Paranormal Activity was not a part of Paramount's initial strategy, the studio did however conduct a highly organized series of coordinated, simultaneous preview screenings and assorted free midnight screenings to both test the film in major theatrical markets and foster fan excitement (especially via Web and social media platforms). Writing for (a science fiction and fantasy news/publishing site with a heavy emphasis on fandoms) around the release of the first Paranormal Activity film, Mike Sargent informed readers of the site that Paramount had offered (as it did across the Internet) " readers five pairs of tickets to [a] special preview screening in New York City" and that all readers had to do to win was "leave a comment on this post (once—duplicates won't count) and we will randomly select the 5 lucky people…Additionally we have 25 pairs of first-come first-served pairs of passes. Those names will also be chosen at random from your comments" (Sargent 2009).

[5.2] This randomness and selectivity was (and remains) quite pervasive throughout these marketing campaigns. Searching back to 2009 on Paranormal Activity's Facebook page reveals a video post of the first audience reaction trailer, uploaded three days before the film was set to screen in select cities on September 25, 2009. The video's description provides a link to the Eventful page ( for fans to demand the film if they do not see it listed as screening in their area (note 4). The comments from potential audience members are mainly ones of intense excitement, anticipation, and even jealousy and mild confusion (over why the film was not playing in the commenter's specific town or city). From this page, Facebook users then had extra incentive to share the trailer (and other assorted media) on their own pages and with friends; the video is not just spread around virally because, as many commenters put it, the movie looks cool, but because it is part of a nationwide contest to win an exclusive, inclusive experience.

[5.3] This inclusionary act is shown in the trailers as both promoting and producing an emotional, reactionary, and near-circus-like atmosphere in the theater. This is not merely intended to be a byproduct of a singular, limited encounter with the film trailer and the accompanying audience; rather, the trailers promise that the creation of such an atmosphere is the intended goal of the entire movie being advertised. Quite importantly for Paramount, Blumhouse, and other studios that emulate the tactics of the audience reaction trailer, the cinematic experience here is presented as an event, a happening with the potential for surprise, shock, and the shaking of habitual practices of vocal silence and bodily stillness that audiences are so frequently asked to adhere to within the very same cycle of previews, ads, and warnings that typically precede a feature film. Such screenings could also be the site for what Matt Hills might call embodied interactions amongst fans, which he sees as "the key to generating and sustaining high levels of subcultural capital, since the fan can say 'I was there' or they can relay to other fans—the relevant beholders for this fan status—their experiences" of not just seeing the film in a theater, but especially of being one of the lucky fans who was able to successfully demand and get privileged access to the film (via social media and Eventful) at a midnight screening (2010, 89).

[5.4] The more current trailers pertinent to this article can be understood as both the progeny of Castle's carnivalesque hokum, and as responses to economic unease, with direct audience involvement and immersion (a tenuous concept, though one that is incessantly hawked by marketers and studios) remaining key components of the ever-changing sites of horror movie marketing, distribution, exhibition, and consumption. Audiences (or, real spectators mediatized and recontextualized as ideal and highly desirable audience members) are here being made a part of the promotional narratives of the films being advertised, given an elevated, participatory status as essential to not only the monetary success of the films, but to the full realization of the gratifications and use-values being advertised, and are being used to sell not just a movie, but a collective, physiological, emotional, and memorable experience. As Lisa Kernan states in her analysis of the power of trailers:

[5.5] The physical effects of spectacle and attractions on audiences are assumed across genres to be desired as part of the movie-going experience, and such trailers promote spectacle by rhetorically implying that the boundary between the screen and the audience might be crossed through spectatorship. (Kernan 2004, 22)

[5.6] That boundary is implied as being crossed here, and as being desired by the audience; the testing and perceived rupturing of the boundary between spatial/temporal reality and the artifice of the screen space is perhaps most evident in the recent UK trailer for Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.

Video 4. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones TV spot, "breaking the barrier between horrific fantasy and nightmarish reality."

[5.7] Taking the concepts of both Webcam display and the surveillance-style audience footage popularized by the initial trailers in the series, and blending them with the in-theater, spooky spectacle of 1950s horror gimmickry, the UK trailer morphs from advertisement to mini-movie. It continues the demonic possession narrative of the Paranormal Activity films, winkingly implying that the mass audience has fallen under the spell of the film (emphasized by text reading, "We are all marked"). In many ways, this trailer takes Amy Powell's aforementioned notion of including fans in the marketing process to new and fascinating heights, positioning the collective audience reaction not just as a tool of studio self-approval or review-like praise, but as a source of entertainment and, potentially, terror. While earlier audience reaction trailers and featurettes seem to feature footage of real audience members from publicly searchable midnight/advance screenings, the UK trailer turns the concept of the reaction trailer into its own fictionalized found footage mini-film, crafting a horror narrative out of real audience experiences. The promise of a scary, enjoyable time is here made good by the attendance of a theatrical audience (whose very presence in the trailer itself makes the ad its own piece of viral horror entertainment). There is also something to be read here in the thrill of possession that points to what makes the Paranormal Activity films such hits in the first place (and, in turn, what enables marketers to comically position fans as cult-like in their devotion); in Alexandra Heller-Nicholas's analysis of the essay "Paranormal Activity and the Horror of Abject Consumption" (Hahner, Varda, and Wilson 2013) she finds that:

[5.8] The authors contended that consumption itself becomes abject in these movies, both repulsing and attracting audiences with stately homes under siege by unseen forces. Linking the trope of demonic possession with a broader conception of ownership and the possession of commodities, the films are marked by out-of-control consumerism, reflected by the audience's own desire to consume the franchise itself. (Heller-Nicholas 2014, 130)

6. Audience reactions: Theater-only and B-roll footage

[6.1] If demonic possession arises out of extreme consumerism (as it perhaps does for both the imagined victims in the films and the imagined audience in the UK reaction trailer), the message of the ad campaigns seems to align the audience with the unfortunate people that populate the Paranormal Activity universe. Rather than viewing spectators as potential victims—a terrifying and potentially nasty discourse to engage in—I contend that such warped mirroring only furthers the sense of spectatorial communion and collective emotion experienced during not only the Paranormal Activity films, but during in-theater horrors in general. The very point of the ads is confirmed here: we want to see other people scared out of their wits; that is part of the roller coaster ride of horror.

[6.2] The metaphor of the roller coaster is not limited to a single kind of experience. Rather, there is an experiential duality present: that of being a theatrical audience that is frightened and potentially moved by the audience reaction trailer (just as those bodies witnessed within the diegetic space of the trailer are), and that of also being drawn to the prospect of being frightened again as a spectator attending the film being advertised. Just as we have a desire to see others frightened, we also desire to be those who are frightened. The pleasure of watching these trailers is not just in seeing other spectators lose their composure in a darkened theater, but in the promise of being able to lose yourself in the communal horror and transgress the typical rules of the theatrical space. The audience reaction trailer then gives us multiple previews: of the feature film soon to arrive in theaters and the potential reactions we may have in the theater (as performed on screen and within the very theater the trailer is being screened in).

[6.3] This sense of the collective is emphasized and stripped to its core in a series of online-exclusive audience reaction paratexts not intended for traditional trailer consumption. In these clips, which appear to be released and archived exclusively online on sites such as YouTube, IMDB, Bloody Disgusting, and Trailer Addict, the viewer is presented with nothing but seemingly raw night-vision footage of audiences watching the film being advertised. Do enough searching through a trailer database like Trailer Addict, and you'll also come across videos labeled as B-roll footage from select advanced screenings of the films, with seemingly unpolished shots of audience members lining up outside of the theater, looking excited, getting amped up, buying concessions, and sitting down in their seats with giddy, occasionally nervous, anticipation for the frights to come.

[6.4] In the former, we see nothing of the diegetic screen in the theater space, nor do we ever break from the audience footage to see clips from the film in full frame. There is no narration, no shrill nondiegetic music cuing us to jump, and barely any text, save for an early demarcation of what city the screening is taking place in (for this Paranormal Activity 2 reaction footage, the audience is in Los Angeles for the "LA Demand It Midnight Screening"):

Video 5. Paranormal Activity 2 B-roll reaction footage from LA screening.

[6.5] In this footage, we are given only squirming bodies, excitedly nervous faces, and an audio mix that contains a haunting, somewhat abstract collage of hushed silence, room tone, screams of terror, and embarrassed laughter—all sounds that ride atop a booming track of decontextualized narrative audio from the film being screened just out of frame. This combination of images and sounds evokes Giles's ideas on the cinematic pleasures found "in not seeing—the delayed, blocked, or partial vision that seems central to the strategy of horror cinema" (2004, 39). Terror is being advertised here. We as spectators of these trailers are being treated to the promise of an overall sensory experience, even as we are deprived of the sensation of seeing footage from the film being advertised. The withholding of visual information creates a pleasure of anticipation, a need to find out what is causing such intense audience reactions and acting as both catalyst and backdrop to a communal event and public performance within the theatrical space.

[6.6] In the latter B-roll-style footage, the complete absence of anything to do with Paranormal Activity 2 (aside from its soon-to-be spectators) forces an interesting return to Kernan's ideas of trailers as anticipatory texts; here, she offers the following about the unseen elements of movie trailers, which can be useful in understanding the potential power that the total absence of actual movie preview footage (or, as with the B-roll footage, any notion of a film being screened at all) can have over the Web-based audience:

[6.7] Trailers offer figurations of felicitous spaces so as to make audiences wish to be there or, conversely, horrific or suspenseful spaces to create audience desire to experience the "safe" fear and terror of the movies. The restriction of trailers to a few minutes of carefully selected and edited shots and scenes endows what we do see, from faces to car crashes, with a kind of pregnancy or underdeterminacy that allows audiences to create an imaginary (as-yet-unseen) film out of these fragments—we desire not the real film but the film we want to see. This filling-in of trailer enigmas with an idealized film thus heightens trailers' promotional value, as well as the visibility of the production industry's assumptions about what its hypothetical audience desires. (Kernan 2004, 13)

7. Conclusion

[7.1] This call to give the audience a rousing experience like no other is indeed a gimmick. The amplification of audience anticipation, coupled with the direct fan engagement and encouragement of participation via social media is also a gimmick. It's schlocky, hokey, and very transparent in its intentions. These are indeed manipulative tactics, highly beneficial to advertisers and cognizant of fandom's desires, purchasing power, and deeply rooted gift economy (Hyde 1999)—though one could argue that the trailers themselves are not texts that make use of fan-made creations, and are instead simply providing a visual representation of actual, consensual practices of theatrical spectatorship. Regardless, there needs to be further exploration and research into these tactics as they evolve (note 5), and a more rich understanding needs to be developed of how these reaction texts imagine audiences, and what they are doing to actual spectators in the moment of media engagement.

[7.2] Admittedly, there is also something oddly alluring about being desired and sought out throughout the marketing process; the audience is not just being advertised to but is being advertised as something wanted, valued, and necessary. Through these audience reaction trailers and their subsequent viral, social campaigns, spectators are made even more fully aware of their power and ability to alter the look, scope and reach of the cinematic marketplace. Granted, Paramount executive Amy Powell's aforementioned focus on fan desires and participation is in many ways typical of self-reflexive industry discourse, and needs to be read with caution. Though her words may indeed represent a genuine interest in audience desire and a fondness for horror cinema, Caldwell necessarily reminds us that though "[interviews] with and statements by producers and craftspeople in film can be conceptually rich, theoretically suggestive, and culturally revealing," "we should never lose sight of the fact that such statements are almost always offered from some perspective of self interest, promotion, and spin" (Caldwell 2008). I agree wholeheartedly, and it perhaps goes without saying that simultaneous recognition of such industrial self-interest and enjoyment of the products of that marketing spin makes for a complex relationship with media texts as both fan and academic.

[7.3] Adding further to such complexity, there is also perhaps the linked idea that you are not simply buying a ticket to support the studios, filmmakers, or even the theater itself. In attending a screening of a Paranormal Activity film, you are supporting fellow spectators as well; you are physically and monetarily contributing to the fan community. In an essay on fan labor for Spreadable Media, Abigail De Kosnik argues that "fan productions help to sustain awareness of, and interest in, mass-media texts over time by continually supplying fresh commentary, videos, news, stories, and art, thereby fighting off the texts' obsolescence" (De Kosnik 2012). Furthering this point, I would argue that fan productions and labor also sustain awareness and heighten the visibility of fan communities—whether or not those communities support low-budget, rarely seen, video on demand splatter-fests, or profit-reaping, multiplex-haunting genre fare (and speaking from experience, I can attest to the fact that loyal horror fans often dip their toes into both niche and populist territory). Demanding a film on Facebook, rallying friends to go to a midnight screening, using your Webcam to upload video of yourself screaming at jolting, spooky trailers—all of these practices contribute not just to the promotion of a media text (in this case, the Paranormal Activity films), but also to the revelation and continued affirmation that fan communities are pervasive, widespread, varied, and highly active.

[7.4] The rewards (and requirements) of such fan practices are fascinating. These trailers are selling you the promise of an experience that only you—the fan—can fulfill. You cannot have what is being advertised unless you perform the type of good spectatorship witnessed within the trailer. At the same time, it is crucial to take into consideration that being hyper-aware of the spectator's role as a marketing tool could garner progressively negative or even indifferent responses from audiences, especially as these reaction trailers grow increasingly conventional and expected. How studios and filmmakers use trailers to engage, inform, and entertain spectators, as well as the ways genre and marketing history are drawn upon to create new cinematic and theatrical experiences, must be taken seriously within film and media studies.

[7.5] Johnston states that "trailers are revelatory texts that add to the overall picture of film history," and that "analysis should treat the trailer text as a unique short film, rather than a lesser (abbreviated) form of the feature film" (2009, 3). Such statements ring quite true when considering the types of trailers analyzed in this piece, since they often feature little or no footage from the actual film itself (therefore being beyond abbreviated). They instead attempt to capture and articulate the experiential qualities of the Paranormal Activity films—their atmosphere, essence, anticipatory dread, visual aesthetic, and desired physiological and emotional effects. These trailers have a feel and narrative all their own, telling stories of groups of people bravely gathered in theaters to encounter supposedly real (and possibly cursed) footage of the most horrific and disturbing.

[7.6] Giving in to the spectacle and mini-narratives of these campaigns is immensely pleasurable and often highly entertaining and, from personal experience, has led to some of the most engaging, uproarious, carefree and stimulating nights I've had at the mainstream cinema over the past five years. As scholar and fan, I'm presented with conflicted feelings about my own enjoyment and indulgence in these texts, but it's this very polarized position that alerts me to the importance of devoting further study to these specific issues surrounding horror marketing and audience experience. Such open-endedness points to the positive potentiality of horror (or other genre) marketing that utilizes audience reactions and depends on bodies to be in the theatrical space for prime engagement to take place. I have a hope that both audience reaction trailers and the social networking campaigns attached to them can "serve as an attempt to revive the more social aspects of horror movie consumption for a digital age—and thereby establish a genuine sense of subcultural belonging and connection," even as they somewhat troublingly position audiences as "being 'in sync' with the marketing ploys of industrial managers" (Tompkins 2013, 247). The horror fan community is here not just represented via an ad campaign; it is called upon and urged to assemble (both in the setting of the movie theater and the social media realm), opening up possibilities of contact, conversation, and the development of a forum where what horror fans—in this case, those of the Paranormal Activity franchise—truly want can move from the click of a virtual button to what they willingly engage with on screen.

8. Acknowledgments

[8.1] Thanks to Paul Booth for encouraging this work be taken beyond a conference presentation, my friends and colleagues at IU Bloomington for engaging with my ideas on horror and marketing, and to Katie Joy for supporting me and screaming with delight at every Paranormal Activity film.

9. Notes

1. In a 2010 interview with Henry Jenkins, Jonathan Gray states that with a film trailer, the audience is "getting a pre-view of the film's basic components, and it's thus being constructed as a meaningful entity for them. When the film finally comes along, it doesn't begin with a fresh slate; rather, its viewers have a history with it" (Jenkins 2010). I would also argue that audience reaction trailers do something similar with the spectator's relationship to themselves and fellow theatergoers; these trailers prime the viewer to have a very specific, communal, intense experience. Fan/audience performance of fright, nervousness, laughter, and so forth is here partially predetermined and prelearned via the audience reaction trailers.

2. A prime early example of this level of control would be the "Jump to a Nightmare" supplemental feature on The Nightmare on Elm Street Collection DVD boxed set, released in 1999. This feature allowed viewers to do as promised in the title: shift effortlessly to the most scary, surreal, and gruesome scenes without having to deal with major plot points, scenes of dialogue, or potentially nonfrightening moments. The DVD for Final Destination 3 also includes a similar "death-only" feature.

3. Paramount certainly made attempts at taking the inclusionary aspect far, by acknowledging fan contributions to the campaign and success of the first Paranormal Activity film. The same Ad Age piece said that Paramount and Eventful rewarded the movie's fans in the DVD release by giving them the opportunity to have their name listed in the ending credits. Paramount gave the 1 million demanders a 24-hour window to reply with the permission to include their name on the DVD, expecting perhaps 500 fans to respond within the short time frame. Instead, 170,000 replied—a nearly 20 percent response rate. "It suddenly became a problem of adding names," Powell said. "We had to have 10 names go by every tenth of a second—but it was great they could feel included in the process" (Hampp 2010). Great, perhaps, though it can't be helped but acknowledge the extreme, comical brevity of those fan credits.

4. The scope of the free/midnight/advance screenings is important to note, especially as much of the audience reaction and B-roll footage is culled from these events. From the piece: "Additionally, for the first time ever, fans around the country will get a chance to see the movie at the same time. Paranormal Activity will hold concurrent midnight screenings in seven additional markets in the U.S., including Los Angeles (ArcLight Hollywood), New York (Landmark Sunshine Theater), San Francisco (The Castro), Chicago (The Music Box), Boston (The Coolidge), Atlanta (The Plaza) and Seattle (Neptune). The film will receive midnight 'sneaks' starting September 25 at midnight in the following cities and theater: Austin (Alamo Draft House); Seattle (Neptune); Ann Arbor, Michigan (State); Durham, North Carolina (Southpoint 16); Baton Rouge, Louisiana (RAVE Mall of Louisiana 15); Boulder, Colorado (Cinemark 16); Columbus, Ohio (Studio 35); Orlando, Florida (AMC Universal Cineplex); Madison, Wisconsin (Marcus Eastgate 16); Santa Cruz, California (Del Mar 3); State College, Pennsylvania (Premiere College 9); Tucson, Arizona (El Con); and Lincoln, Nebraska (Ross Media Center). Additional midnight sneaks will follow on September 26, and October 1, 2 and 3."

5. The use of so-called smartphone 4-D technology seems to be the next step in furthering the rupture between fantasy and reality, as well as the next step in giving audiences a sense of control, interactivity, and immersion in the cinematic event (or at least using that sensory, participatory experience as a marketing ploy). For further reading on how this technology is being used for the new Ringu sequel in Japan, Sadako 3D 2 (and to envision how a series like Paranormal Activity might make use of such gimmickry), this article is a good starting point:

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