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Film case study - Paranormal Activity

Rating changed

Complaints lead to rating change from M to R16.

Paranormal Activity originally came into New Zealand with an unrestricted rating of 'M' and the descriptive note 'contains offensive language'. It had received its rating through the cross-rating process based on the M-rating it had been given in Australia.

Find out more about the cross-rating process

After complaints from members of the public, the Chief Censor called the film in to be classified by the New Zealand Office of Film and Literature Classification. As a result, the film was classified 'R16: contains horror scenes and offensive language'. This classification also applies to the DVD version of the film.

The plot

The film is presented as 'real footage'.

Micah and Katie, a couple living in a suburban house, become increasingly disturbed by a demonic presence in their home. Micah, a sceptic, decides to run a video camera to capture the demon's activity while they sleep. The activity becomes more frequent and aggressive, and Katie's nocturnal behaviour begins to change.

The film footage comes from hand-held digital cameras (appearing to be shot by Micah or Katie) and the surveillance cameras set up by Micah. This style of filming is called 'found footage' and is often used in horror films.

The film was advertised as one of the scariest of all time. In countries around the world there were reports of people collapsing at cinemas from fear either during or after watching the film.

Article from stuff.co.nz - Paranormal Activity too scary for Italians

Complaints

Members of the public complained to the Classification Office about Paranormal Activity's unrestricted rating. They felt that the film was very frightening and contained highly disturbing themes. One complainant said that her 13-year-old son was extremely disturbed after watching the film.

As a result of the complaints, the Chief Censor decided to call the film in.

Under section 13 of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act, the Chief Censor can decide to classify a publication that hasn't previously been seen by the Classification Office, such as a cross-rated film. A copy of the film was sent to the Classification Office to be examined and classified using the criteria set out in section 3 of the Classification Act.

Classification considerations

Paranormal Activity is not your typical horror film.

There is not a lot of blood or violence in this film. Instead, the film-makers use simple but effective techniques to build the sense of fear and tension as the film progresses. A lot of the 'horrific' action happens off screen - the audience experiences what is going on by hearing it and by seeing the characters' reactions.

Classification Office decision

The Classification Office decided the film required a restriction.

After viewing the film and applying the classification criteria, an R16 classification was assigned to the film. In the summary of reasons for the decision, the Classification Office noted that:

The images of horror, the sinister supernatural themes, and the tension and realistic fear the characters experience in the film are likely to be greatly shocking and disturbing to younger teenagers and children.

Although deliberately designed to scare and disturb all viewers, adults and older teenagers will be more likely to be able to put the images and themes of the film into context. Children and young teenagers, on the other hand, are likely to sustain lasting damage from seeing films like this, including nightmares and persistent upsetting thoughts. Therefore, the film is restricted to persons who have attained the age of 16 years.

Classification Office's R16 classification decision for Paranormal Activity (PDF, 162KB)

Want to find out more about the classification of horror films? Check out our Horror genre case study

Other film case studies

Paranormal Activity poster

Paranormal Activity taps into our primal fears of the unknown to provide a procession of increasingly nervewracking and frenzied moments of terror. Cut off any distractions, glue your eyes and ears to the screen and prepare to be scared silly.

Ben Rawson-Jones, Digital Spy

Useful links

Stills from the film

A still image from the film of video footage of a bed in which Micah is sleeping while Katie is being dragged backwards along the floor out of the door
Video footage of paranormal activity in couple's bedroom
A still image from the film of video footage of an open bedroom door, taken on an angle. Micah is lying on the floor, Katie is standing in the doorway looking at him
The camera is knocked sideways by a malevolent being
A still image from the film of audience members screaming in fear as they watch the movie
The audience at an early screening of the movie

Classification

R16 classification label
R16: contains horror scenes and offensive language

Glossary

Descriptive note
The extra wording on a classification label which warns people of content in the film e.g. 'M: contains sexual references and offensive language'.
Cross-rating
A system of rating unrestricted films where the unrestricted classification from Australia or the UK is given to unrestricted (G, PG, or M) films in New Zealand.
Rating
A consumer advice statement given for films and DVDs by the Film and Video Labelling Body: G, PG, or M. Ratings can be overturned by classification decisions from the Office of Film and Literature Classification.