By Owen Gleiberman
October 27, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT
Louis Quail/Photonica/Getty Images

I said in my review of Paranormal Activity 3 that I don’t scare easily at horror films, and that’s why I end up panning most of them. For me, it’s an occupational hazard: I see so many of these damn things that I know all the tricks. It gets harder and harder to find a horror film that can bypass that armor of genre awareness. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I may have been speaking for a great many people who aren’t critics. Since I almost never see a horror film at a screening (most of them, these days, aren’t shown to reviewers in advance), I regularly breathe in the air of audience reaction, and I can tell you: Whether it’s a suburban Jekyll-and-Hyde clunker like Dream House or a torture-porn sequel like Saw 3D, my experience is that most audiences sit through these movies the same way I do, in a slumped-in-the-seat state of desultory, half-baked absorption. You may get jolted a few times, but the vast majority of today’s horror movies don’t get under your skin.

I had a very different experience at the preview showing I attended for Paranormal Activity 3. As soon as the movie got under way, you could just about feel everyone’s shock impulses falling into sync. The first big scream — I’m talking roller-coaster scream, the kind that erupts in a whoop and crashes like a wave — came when the camera was snaking through the house and went up to that closet (Spoiler alert for the next paragraph and a half!), and the door opened, and everyone was thinking “Come on, they’re not going to show us a monster this early,” but then, kind of ahead of schedule, something that looked a lot like a monster did pop out of that closet.

The women in the audience all shrieked. Personally, I jumped — but more than that, I felt a shudder of fear shoot through me like an electric volt. This wasn’t just big-sudden-noise-on-the-soundtrack-as-glorified-Boo! For a split second, I really felt like I saw…something. I was scared, and then, moments later, I laughed. Because even though the monster wasn’t a monster at all, what it had revealed — what I really saw — was something in myself. If a movie could make me feel that fear, it meant that, on some level, I believed. Believed what? In ghosts? In demons? In the face of darkness? I don’t generally think of myself as believing in those things. Yet in a funny way, the film had shown me that on some primally programmed deep-cortex layer of my being, I do. What had scared me, to put it simply, was my unconscious imagination.

To feel that tickle of susceptibility is the reason that people have always gone to horror films. It’s why they’re such a mass ritual. And, of course, we’re now living in a promiscuously taboo-shattering, high-renaissance era of popular big- and small-screen horror. Yet the sheer profusion of this stuff has had a paradoxical effect. It’s easy for horror junkies, craving a higher high, to get inured to fear — to grow numb to it. At the movies, I get a good scare once in a while, the way I did at Insidious earlier this year, or at the prankishly spooky and perverse Drag Me to Hell (2009), or, long before that, at Scream (1996) and Scream 2 (1997).

But every one of those movies relies on a certain in-your-face, blood-nightmare quality. I think that what felt special to me in that preview showing of Paranormal Activity 3, what felt new yet at the same time thrillingly old-fashioned, was the notion that an entire audience could jump and scream and laugh at their own tremors in unison based almost entirely on the power of suggestion. That all of us could realize, with a certain cathartic communion, that the fear we’d experienced came not, in the end, from anything up on screen so much as from the way that the movie had manipulated the fear — the willingness to believe in ghosts, in monsters — that already lived deep inside us.

I think that if for some reason you aren’t inspired to feel that fear, then the Paranormal Activity films — just like The Blair Witch Project — may come off as obnoxiously threadbare, as a kind of shaky-cam sham. That’s why these movies inspire such hostility, such an angry howl of I want my money back! resentment, on the part of the people who don’t get sucked into them. (Hence the C+ for Paranormal Activity 3 from CinemaScore.) But for those of us who do get caught up in their corny/ingenious surveillance-gothic suburban-ghost terror, these movies work in an almost classic fashion. They don’t need stars or big budgets or wild effects to scare us. They just need…us.

So be honest: Who got frightened — I mean, really terrorized — by Paranormal Activity 3? Who didn’t? And what was the last movie before PA3 that did that to you?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman