by John Miller
There’s an old joke that goes, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.”
While personal paranoia due to mental illness is no joke, paranoia in books and on film can be an absolute delight for those with a taste for thrills. In fact, paranoia is an essential ingredient in much of suspense and horror. What is paranoia, after all, but the early foreboding of bad things to come? And what is horror and suspense if not about the actual advent of said ‘bad things’?
In the real world, paranoid fears usually turn out to be illusory. But horror asks the question, “What if they’re true?” What if there really are vampires, or monsters in the sewer? What if your stepfather is 'The Stepfather' (from the Terry O’Quinn film of the same name)? What if the nebbish motel clerk who just rented you a cabin plans to gut you in the shower with a foot-long butcher knife while your eyes are full of soap? Who hasn’t stayed in a hotel or motel and wondered if maybe, just maybe, the bored clerk has installed hidden cameras in the room to spy on your most intimate and private moments? What do you want to bet you’ll think of Norman Bates at least once or check the air vents for tiny cameras next time you shower away from home, now that you’ve read this far?
Experiencing paranoia vicariously is radically different from experiencing it first hand. Though you may find it laughable later, at the time there’s nothing pleasurable about thinking someone has broken into your home, or is following you down a dark, deserted street. But watching others steadily transform from perfectly rational human beings into blithering paranoids can be an exciting experience, particularly when you as reader or viewer know that the character has a right to be paranoid, that evil is on its way. So why do we enjoy watching full-blown paranoia if it is so unsettling to actually experience it? Part of it may be that we delight in knowing that we could never possibly be as stupid as the people in a horror story. “Don’t go in there!” “Keep hitting him, you know he’s not really dead!” Don’t walk home alone in the dark – wait for sunrise!” “Just don’t invite him in!” These are expressions of our own paranoia, as we are certain that we would never take anything for granted in a dire situation because we would simply believe and assume the worst at all times. As observers, we know the golden rule: it’s never really over until its over.
Let’s look at a few classic film examples of paranoia at its best.
Ira Levin’s 'Rosemary’s Baby' is a masterpiece of paranoia, suspicion and dread in an everyday urban setting. It plays on the fear of succumbing to a nefarious plot in broad daylight, rather like stepping on a poisonous snake in plain view because we simply cannot believe one could be in our own living room, and the paranoid fear that those closest to us are not really our friends after all. Rosemary is in the middle of New York City with literally millions of people around her, yet she ends up isolated and helpless, and worst of all, betrayed by intimates. And Rosemary’s most paranoid fears ultimately pale in comparison to the ultimate truth of her situation, intensifying the paranoia even further. We share Rosemary’s journey, feeling the increasing paranoia every step of the way, struggling along with her to find the truth and to find a solution, right up until that final horror.
Equally paranoid is John Carpenter’s 'The Thing', only the settings are the exact opposite of 'Rosemary’s Baby'. In 'The Thing', it isn’t one person against the threat, it is an entire scientific team set against an alien beast, and they are not in the middle of a metropolis, but stranded on the bottom of the planet, cut off from the rest of the world and any possibility of help by vicious Antarctic weather. The paranoia results when the team members become unsure just who is human, and who isn’t. It is the paranoia in Carpenter’s film that ultimately sells the graphic and bloody horror of the story. Without the dramatic tension that the paranoia provides, the film would simply be a gore fest. This pays proper homage to the dictum that all good stories are primarily about the characters, not the events themselves, and raises The Thing from mere horror film to cult film status. The excellent 'Identity', starring John Cusack, takes a page straight out of Carpenter’s playbook. It too features a group of people stranded in the middle of nowhere, this time the Nevada desert in the middle of a driving rainstorm. As the paranoia metastasizes and grows and the body count mounts, neither the characters themselves nor the audience is sure exactly who the killer is, and the ending provides yet another surprise.
'Sliver', another Levin novel made into a film, is not nearly as successful as the three films already mentioned, primarily due to poor direction and a poor adaptation of the novel. But it does touch on the fear of being spied upon, coupling that paranoia with the equally pernicious lure of voyeurism. The novel is vastly superior to the film, but I mention the cinematic version because it updates the Norman Bates peephole scene to its modern equivalent, the miniaturized spy camera, a plot device also carried out to great effect in Vacancy. It’s quite disturbing to think that we may potentially have no privacy, not even in our bedroom, even if it is rented only for the night.
My all-time favorite film (with certain reservations) featuring full-blown paranoia is 'The Game', directed by David Fincher, and starring Michael Douglas. This film is a minor classic with a major flaw: the ending. But we’ll get to the ending at – well, at the end of this paragraph. 'The Game' does what the best of films about paranoia do – it builds the paranoia in a manner similar to that in which a frog is boiled. I’ve never cooked a frog, but the idea is to put the frog into a pan of cool water, and turn the heat up gradually. The frog never realizes it is being cooked until it is far too late. Fincher does this to his audience. We embark on an ever-increasingly-wild ride with Douglas that reaches a fever pitch at the end of the film, and we’re right there with his character every step of the way. If there were any film that truly captures the essence of paranoia as entertainment, it is 'The Game'. The problem is the very end of the film, which I will not divulge, but I will say that, unlike 'The Thing', 'Rosemary’s Baby', and 'Identity', the ending of 'The Game' it is one of the biggest copouts in cinematic history, on par with “And then he woke up” as an audience cheat . However, the first 98% of the film is so skillfully done, so knuckle-white tense, that I still highly recommend watching it, if only to see how a true master handles paranoia. Not that it matters in the final analysis, because ultimately Fincher is responsible for his own films, and we know from 'Se7en' that he can stick to his guns when he wants to (Fincher had to fight to keep the final scene of that film as originally written), but I understand that a test screening resulted in Fincher re-shooting the ending of The Game at the behest of the studio. All I can say to that is that I would someday like to see the original “director’s cut” of 'The Game', and see if Fincher stayed true to the tone of the film right to the end. My guess is he did.