The dead letters

The Royal Ontario Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is not only an encounter with antiquity, but also an insight into the preservation and restoration of ancient documents.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a series of approximately 900 assembled documents. The manuscripts were written between 150 BCE and 70 CE, and found in 11 caves in the ancient settlement of Qumran on the Dead Sea. A fortunate mix of humidity, temperature, and darkness kept the scrolls intact for thousands of years.

“In caves, temperature and humidity are always stable,” said Dan Rahimi, VP of Gallery Development at the ROM. Rahimi assisted with the exhibit’s curation and contributed to the excavation of the scrolls.

Rahimi added that dry, dark caves preserved scrolls well, even those that were left on the ground, trampled on and damaged by both animals and insects.

The scrolls were removed between 1947 and 1956, and transferred to a department called the Scrollery in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum.

Conservators and biblical scholars sorted and catalogued thousands of pieces of scrolls. Although some had been kept in jars and remained mostly undamaged, most were found in thumbnail-sized bits. One cave alone contained more than 10,000 fragments.

The team compared each piece by texture, colour, and handwriting, assembling the pieces like a massive jigsaw puzzle.

“You have to realize that no computers or analytical tools were used at the time,” said Rahimi.

When a match was found, the pieces would be scotch-taped together and sandwiched between two glass panels.

This process proved to be devastating to the scrolls. Although some were written on papyrus, most were parchment, an organic material highly sensitive to changes in temperature and light. The natural light from the Scrollery’s large windows, combined with the pressure of the glass plates and chemicals from the transparent tape, proved to be detrimental.

One of the most surprising things at the ROM exhibit is photographs of the scientists of the time piecing together ancient scrolls while blithely holding lit cigarettes between their fingers.

As technology improved, so began an effort to restore the scrolls.

First, the scrolls were recorded and photographed. Scientists then removed the adhesive residue from the tape using organic solvents. The pieces were cleaned of any oils and stains, and the back of the scrolls were reinforced if needed.

Conservationists then arranged the scrolls on acid-free cardboard and attached the pieces with hinges of Japanese tissue paper. These sheets were then put in protective boxes in a climate-controlled store room and checked periodically.

When being prepared for exhibition, each scroll was cross-stitched through a frame in order to hold it together.

Only about one-third of the scrolls found are biblical; some are translations but most are commentary on scripture questioning the meaning of life and the end of the world.

“The scrolls give us a look into the worldview of the time. Many wrote about a looming apocalyptic war and believed that a messiah would come,” said Rahimi. “It shows us what people were thinking around the time Jesus of Nazareth came around.”

Rahimi added that the scrolls are valuable because prior to their discovery, the oldest known manuscripts dated from 1,000 CE.

At the ROM, about ten framed scrolls are placed in individual table-height window units with just enough light to be seen. As Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of the Beth Tzedec Congregation of Toronto says in one of the exhibit’s videos, you “put your eyes, and your nose, close to antiquity.”

The room is kept dark to protect the scrolls while a recording plays traditional Jewish prayers sung acapella. Translations are provided, although the scrolls are enchanting on their own.

One woman at the exhibit stared at a scroll segment and remarked “I can’t believe that someone penned that so long ago.” Those nearby agreed.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit runs until January 3, 2010. Admission for U of T students is $6. All full-time post-secondary students who present their student card and photo identification are admitted to the museum without charge every Tuesday, and need pay only the separate exhibition fee.

Welcome back, Justine

Justine Henin, formerly ranked number-one in the world in women’s tennis, announced on Sept. 22 that she would return to competitive tennis next year. “I am really happy and deeply moved to be able to announce tonight that I’m coming back to competitive tennis,” said Henin on live Belgian television.

In May 2008, when the Belgian player still topped the Women’s Tennis Association world rankings chart, Henin, only 25 at the time, shocked the tennis world by announcing her immediate retirement from professional tennis. “It’s the end of a wonderful adventure, but it’s something I have been thinking about for a long time,” said Henin at a news conference

Henin then went back to her birthplace, and started her own tennis academy with her long-time coach, Carlos Rodriguez. In various interviews, the Belgian has repeatedly stated that she was enjoying her life after retirement, and had no intention of returning. When everyone was convinced that Henin would indeed leave professional tennis for good, she returned to the spotlight. But this is hardly surprising, as there is still a place the holder of seven Grand Slam titles has yet to conquer: the All-England Club. “The desire to win Wimbledon is one of the main reasons she’s come back,” announced Rodriguez on Belgian television.

Henin’s signature Federer-like single-handed backhand is undoubtedly phenomenal, but it was her determination and aggressiveness that established her as one of the most prominent figures in women’s professional tennis in recent years. Many perceive these qualities as distinguishing Henin from her compatriot, Kim Clijsters, who had never beaten Henin in all three Grand Slam finals that matched the pair. The rivalry ended abruptly when Clijsters made a surprising retirement announcement of her own in May 2007.

Henin admitted that she was inspired by Clijsters’ successful return a few months ago, with the latter winning the U.S. Open title in 2009. “It is a source of inspiration and motivation,” Henin said of the rivalry which began when both were teenagers. “I have come to realise that I would not have been this strong if she had not been there at the time.” But she added that it was not the main reason for her comeback.

Since Henin’s retirement, a few players have been crowned but not one of them has truly dominated women’s tennis. The Williams sisters’ performances were sometimes shaky and inconsistent, and Maria Sharapova suffers from a niggling shoulder injury. Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, and Dinara Safina are simply no comparison to the Belgian player.

It is very unlikely that Henin would become a second Martina Hingis, who made a not-so-successful return in 2006, and finally retired in 2008 after testing positive for cocaine usage. Power plays a large part in Henin’s playing style. When on court, Hingis, the “Swiss Miss” well-known for her graceful skills, found herself bombarded with powerful shots by teenage players. On the other hand, it is widely believed that Henin still possesses what it takes to win the game, but she will have to work hard to again become a force to be reckoned with.

Whether Henin will become the second Clijsters or the second Hingis remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Henin, who no longer has a world ranking, has already been promised a wildcard to compete in next year’s Australian Open. The date is none too soon for tennis fans who want to see Henin back in action.

What seems obvious is that women’s tennis nowadays is lacking the spice that attracts worldwide attention. Henin’s return might be the answer to that. Now that Clijsters is back, Henin’s launch of her “second tennis career” would definitely continue the eye-catching rivalry between the Belgian pair. Clijsters welcomed her compatriot’s return, stating that it would be good news not only for Belgium, but for tennis in general.

Justine Henin’s return will boost the worldwide popularity of women’s tennis, news that everyone loves to hear—well, perhaps everyone but her competitors.

Just a theory? Dawkins begs to differ

Richard Dawkins, arguably the world’s most famous living evolutionary biologist, was in Toronto on September 29 to promote his latest literary offering, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, released on September 22.

Held at Isabel Bader Theatre and sponsored by Indigo, Dawkins spoke briefly, read a series of excerpts from his book, and went on to take nearly 30 minutes of unmoderated questions from the audience.

Dawkins’ previous works, such as The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2006) assumed that evolution is a fact but did not explicitly provide evidence in support of it. While reading an excerpt from his new book’s first chapter, Dawkins said, “Evolution is a fact and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it. No unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.”

While his readings definitely whetted the appetites of those not already working their way through the book, it was the subsequent Q&A period that made the event memorable.

It was obvious that Dawkins was “preaching to the converted” as the audience’s support was palpable—nearly every question asked revealed a firm belief in the speaker’s core tenants. There were no protesting creationists in the lobby and no shouts of “liar!” from saboteurs in the audience. In fact, questions quickly migrated away from the evidence for evolution toward the coexistence of atheists and the religious.

One questioner asked for Dawkins’ opinion on Ray Comfort’s plan to distribute to various U.S. colleges copies of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with a 50-page, pro-creationist introduction. For those unfamiliar with him, Comfort is a controversial evangelical Christian minister based in California. Dawkins first responded by re-enacting a significant portion of the infamous Comfort and Kirk Cameron “banana video” for the benefit of those who have missed it, likening the video to a Monty Python sketch (if you haven’t already, check YouTube for this gem). “I can’t really get that excited about it. Presumably, the people in universities are capable of seeing through that kind of thing and I imagine they would be rather flattered to be given a free copy of the Origin of Species. Just rip out the 50 pages […] and use the pages for the purpose they’re best suited,” said Dawkins. His defence of Charles Darwin’s work is why many refer to Dawkins as “Darwin’s Rottweiler.”

One questioner asked, “Will [religion] die with a bang or with a whimper?” To this the former Oxford professor replied, “There are people whose dedication to religion, probably largely based on childhood indoctrination, is so strong that they seem to be literally immune to evidence. Some of them, the more extreme ones, will even explicitly say, ‘I don’t care what the evidence shows.’” Addressing the idea of religion dying with a bang (interpreting “bang” to mean the possibility of armed conflict), Dawkins said, “I hope it doesn’t come to that. If it ever did, I don’t know whether it’s any consolation that presumably [the scientifically inclined] would have everybody who knows how to actually design weapons.”

Only one question touched upon the role of God in evolution by proposing that God created the evolutionary process itself and then allowed it to run its course. Dawkins replied, “This is a point of view which is quite popular. If you think about it, evolution by natural selection is not a process that needed inventing at all. The whole point of it is that it just happens. It doesn’t need an ingenious inventor to put it in motion. It happens without invention. It happens without planning. That’s what it’s all about. That’s how it works. So if God decided to do his creating by inventing evolution by natural selection, he was doing it in a way that made himself superfluous and I find it, to say the least, unpersuasive.”

Dawkins’ demeanour throughout was cordial and humorous. Given the grim personality often ascribed to him in the media, this came as a surprise to some attendees. “He was actually pretty funny,” one attendee stated, while waiting to have her book signed. Prompted by one questioner to discuss the public perception of atheists, Dawkins remarked, “The image of an atheist is somebody rather grim, who never laughs, has no sense of humour, that sort of Scrooge-like figure.”

It remains to be seen if The Greatest Show on Earth will find its way into the hands of lay readers who are unaware of the evidence for evolution and it is unlikely that the author’s entrenched critics will allow themselves to be swayed. In response to a question regarding the communication of his message to such individuals, he said, “I have worked hard, and I hope effectively, to achieve what [I set out to do]. I may have failed, in which case I will have to give it another go.”

Evolutionary biologist and author, Richard Dawkins, at the Isabel Bader Theatre promoting his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

The Big Sig

A patient reclining on a vast velvet divan narrates his life history in a dimly lit room. Meanwhile, the therapist twiddles his thumbs through a 50-minute hour. This classic psychoanalysis scene has become one of the most pervasive images of therapy today, thanks in part to Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s influence on popular culture and the way we view psychology is undeniable. Ever been called “anal retentive”? Heard about the Oedipus complex? The image Freud left behind fails to capture the field of psychology as it has evolved over the decades since his work. However, the novelty of his approach is often ignored in favour of caricatures of a sex-obsessed old Austrian guy.

Among his most influential ideas, Freud hypothesized about the unconscious. His psychoanalytic theory provided an explanation for behaviour based on the interaction between conscious and unconscious drives.

According to Freud, personality is divided into three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The interactions between these three components explain how our behaviour is shaped by conscious and unconscious drives. The conscious mind is regulated by the ego, which interacts directly with the outside world and acts as the decision-maker. The subconscious is divided into the id and the superego. The id acts as the primitive and instinctive component of personality, and tries to influence the ego to act on impulses and whims, regardless of what is proper or right. While the id acts on the pleasure principle, the superego counteracts it, and follows a moral principle. The superego is the moral force behind our actions, and regulates the ego’s interactions with the world. According to Freud, all three of these components are distributed differently in individuals, which explains how we behave according to unique motivations.

Freud also famously theorized about the “psychosexual” stages of development in childhood. He believed that personality is dependent on our experiences as children. Each stage of development corresponds with a part of the body that is stimulated during that period. For example, the second stage in development, which occurs in children two to three years old, is called the anal stage because children are more aware of (and according to Freud, derive erotic pleasure from) their bowel movements. It is also the typical time for potty-training in most children. Depending on the level of stimulation received at each stage, the child will acquire various personality traits, or in Freudian terms, fixations or retention. For example, an anal retentive person is someone who was potty-trained too early, or too strictly in their development. The resulting personality in adulthood involves obsession with orderliness and small details.

While many psychologists have criticized Freud’s views of human personality and behaviour for being too focussed on sex, the historical and social background to his theories is important. When you think of his primary clientele—affluent and sexually repressed Austrian women in the 1920s—his theories make more sense.

Wild Things makes our hearts sing

Memory has a way of stripping down childhood to its essentials. We have blurry images of the happiest moments, as well as the times that were particularly sad or embarrassing, while the more mundane passages tending to fade away. In the first 20 minutes of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max (Max Records), the very young protagonist, tries to keep himself occupied by running around his house in a wolf costume chasing his cat. He wants to play with his older sister, but she is more interested in her friends. When he tries to get his mother’s attention, she is occupied with a date. It is difficult for Max to communicate in any meaningful way to the older people who surround him, and his life generally consists of tedium punctuated by occasional retreats to the world of fantasy.

“I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie,” says Spike Jonze in the press notes for Where the Wild Things Are. “I set out to make a movie about childhood.”

Jonze’s film is based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, first published in 1963. Unless I heard it during kindergarten, I read it for the first time standing in an Indigo bookstore on my way to see this film. Sendak’s book is striking in its brevity: 48 pages and, except for nine little sentences, all pictures, with spare prose that evokes the simple precision of a haiku. I wish I had been exposed to it when I was younger. “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew—and grew—and grew until his ceiling hung with vines.” This is beautiful imagery, but if my enthusiasm for the book is somewhat muted, I suppose it’s because I am no longer at an age where I regularly turn to fantasy for solace. (Well, not fantasies involving friendly monsters, anyway…)

The book has only as much of a story as is needed to provide a framework for its images and emotions. The film provides Max with an on-screen mother, played by Catherine Keener, and gives the big, furry “Wild Things” names and personalities, but it remains more interested in mood than plot. Comparing a feature-length movie with a children’s storybook is really pointless, but I’d like to say that I—a Where the Wild Things Are virgin—had an easier time connecting to the film than the book, as the movie is a story about childhood for adults, not children.

Hire Spike Jonze (director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) to make a kids’ movie, and you get… a Spike Jonze movie. I have no idea what kids are going to make of this thing. Just as the book drew much of its power from a child reader’s instinctive feelings of fear of parental punishment and comfort in imaginary friends, adult viewers of the film will appreciate the exquisite sense of childhood melancholy that Jonze evokes with his slow pace and earthy colour palette. I predict many kids will be bored by such a meditative experience, and I suspect that childhood melancholy is an emotion best understood by those who are no longer children.

The story is told through Max’s perspective, to the point where our hero has even defaced the Warner Brothers logo (“A Time Warner Max Production”), and we are not privy to any information about his family that does not immediately affect him (in the credits, characters are known as simply “mother” and “the boyfriend”). How refreshing to see a kid in a movie who’s actually a kid, with self-centeredness and irritability to match his sweetness, and whose emotional maturation is real, but modest enough to be believable.

The imaginary wild things are all reflections of Max: Alexander (Paul Dano) is small and often ignored; Carol (James Gandolfini) is big-hearted, impulsive, and naïve; Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is sharp but casually cruel; KW (Lauren Ambrose) is kind and loving but unsure of her position in the world. These are tremendously lovable characters, all the more so because of their flaws. Unlike most voice actors in Hollywood family movies, the famous cast members approached the wild things as actual characters and not excuses for star turns, and speak their lines with real nuance and feeling. As delivered by Ambrose, the famous line “I could eat you up, I love you so” achieves special poignancy.

Where the Wild Things Are takes its sweet time. Jonze sees no need to hurry to the next contrived plot point when he can just relax and spend time with his characters. Maybe the biggest (and most backhanded) compliment I can pay to this film is that I wanted even less plot and even more of those pure scenes where Max and the wild things are napping together in a great big pile, or causing the “wild rumpus,” or wandering aimlessly in their surrounding deserts. Where the Wild Things Are is pitch-perfect at many things, and none more so than its remembrance of the deep, soothing comfort of fantasy.

VVVVv

Blackberry subway jam

This coming week, hundreds of Canadians are planning on doing something dramatic or unusual at the behest of Stephen Lewis. Dozens have volunteered to take the plunge into a dangerous environment, such as a stand up comedy club, or an apiary, and Toronto rapper K-Os will even return to his old job at the toy department in The Bay, but the big news on campus is that second-year U of T student Daniel Gray will brave the unseasonable cold to play catchy, thick-layered pop music on street corners around the city.

The Dare to Remember Campaign is an organized event started by Stephen Lewis to raise money for Lewis’s foundation to fight HIV/AIDS. It has provided Gray with an opportunity to do a social good in a challenging setting.

“I heard [Lewis] speak at the Massey Hall lecture,” says Gray who has been supporting Lewis’s organization since high school. “He’s so motivating. When he speaks, you want to do something so badly. I figured if I could incorporate my music with the experience, all the better.”

It’s hard to envision Gray realizing the complex pop songs of his first EP, A Future’s Past, as a one-man acoustic band.

“Given that my arrangements are so dense, it’s hard to make an appealing sound out of myself solo. I’m going to be busking with the loop pedal and a battery-powered guitar amp,” notes Gray.

On the EP, Gray shows off a remarkable knack for dense, yet buoyant guitar and piano pop, holding elements of ’60s sunshine and modern indie in equal regard. While addictive melodies are present throughout, what is most striking is the complexity of his composition. The result is obviously born of a very particular songwriter.

“Not that I’m closed to suggestion, but whenever I write a song, I hear it in my head on a grander scale with arrangement and instrumentation,” says Gray. “I dig intense layering, stuff like Sufjan Stevens, these types of really elaborate arrangements. That’s something I love in [pop music], layering until you hit a huge crescendo.”

Realizing his specific vision was important to him, but Gray’s father, Juno-winning engineer Gary Gray helped him with production, making the task much easier.

“He’s more in the classical world now, but in the ’70s and the ’80s he did quite a few pop records and folk stuff. He did a lot of the early Bruce Cockburn stuff and Gordon Lightfoot.”

In Daniel’s estimate, the final product is the outcome of their collective sensibilities.

“He’s so much of a perfectionist and I prefer rough edges, so it’s kind of an interesting contrast. We come from different styles, but we try to combine them into something we can both agree on. He has good suggestions, like ‘this would sound really good doubled,’ in terms of production values.”

The songs, however, are distinctly Daniel’s, given that he sings and plays guitar, drum, organ, harmonica, samplers, and everything else on the record. While his proficiency comes from an entire life spent around music—his mother is a professional violinist—Daniel started writing songs a few years ago, and only recently began considering the possibility of taking music more seriously.

“When I was younger, music to me was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, or these huge bands who make millions of dollars. I was being realistic about it. I never expected that I could do anything like that.”

However, having seen the unlikely success of more off-kilter pop musicians over the last few years has provided hope of a future career. Take Grizzly Bear, for example.

“They write psychedelic folk songs and somehow they became this huge band…I’ve noticed in the last year or so, ‘indie’ music has started to reach a new fan base, unlike in the ’90s or the ’80s. There’s a smaller gap between the indie labels and the majors now. [Many] people are making a living, and touring, and having a life with it. They’re not celebrities, and they’re not making millions of dollars, they’re making a modest living. But since I’ve been exposed to that kind of thing, I’ve made records of my own and become more ambitious in what I can do with that.”

For Gray, his expectations remain modest, even though his ambitions are high.

“If I can take it to a level where I can tour as much as I can and make a living off of it, then I think I probably would. It would be hard […] but people are discovering music they normally wouldn’t because it’s so easy to share.”

Daniel Gray’s EP, A Future’s Past, is available as a free digital download at danielgraymusic.bandcamp.com. He will be busking outside of stations along the Spadina subway line this week. He is also playing a show on Nov. 7 at the Concord Café.

Book City

Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down

Helwig is the associate director of the Scream Literary Festival and has also written six books of poetry. Her third novel is full of suspense and intensity. Girls Fall Down is about a photographer who tries to capture Toronto as it slips into chaos after a series of unexplained medical outbreaks. Portraying a more chaotic scenario of the city, where discomfort turns to frantic worry and paranoia, Helwig magnifies issues like racism and inequality in order to investigate them thoroughly. The reader also vividly experiences Toronto’s cityscape through the lens of the photographer.

Mark Osbaldeston’s Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City that Might Have Been

Unbuilt Toronto is Osbaldeston’s debut novel; he also practices law and writes architecture reviews. This book gets you thinking about Toronto’s architecture and what could have been built had certain building proposals been accepted. (For instance, there could have been a highway through the Annex, or an entirely different Queen Street.) Osbaldeston encourages the reader to creatively envision a different kind of urban environment, which leaves you with a new-found awareness and appreciation of Toronto’s structure and culture.

Austin Clarke’s More

Clarke is a Barbados-born Canadian citizen. One of the more prolific writers of the five short-listed, he has published 11 novels and won a number of literary prizes. More explores the African Diaspora through the life of a black immigrant woman in Toronto. The main character, a single mother from Barbados, has struggled endlessly to raise her son alone after being abandoned by her husband. She is shattered after hearing that her son has joined a gang, and submerges herself in a flood of memories for the next four days. Through her painful recollection of the suffering involved in coming to Canada, she finds a sense of strength that is both incredibly uplifting and inspiring. Clarke’s illumination of Toronto’s multicultural dynamic and the Kensington Market neighbourhood resonate powerfully.

Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love

De Sa is an English professor and Barnacle Love, his first novel, was also short-listed for the 2008 Giller Book Prize. De Sa’s novel is based on his own experiences growing up in Toronto’s Little Portugal with parents who clung to a culture he never fully connected with, an issue very relevant to those born into immigrant families. Following De Sa as a little boy riding his bike around Queen Street, College Street, and the Annex creates a touching picture of what he saw and felt as he ventured out into non-Portuguese communities.

Charles Wilkins’ In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Gravedigger’s Memoir

Wilkins has published over 12 novels, and this one is also being considered for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, which means people think it is funny. (I most definitely do.) This story is based on Wilkins’ own experiences digging graves as a teenager. It provides a fascinating look into a bizarre reality that’s only believable because the author himself lived it. Mixing the solemnity of death with hilarity, Wilkins’ dry wit allows him to communicate his perspective on the fearful issue of death and the way we deal with it.

Paranormal Activity frightens horror purists

When the “Midnight Movie” was in its heyday, the actual movie was a mere side dish to the experience of going to a theatre at midnight and encountering whatever low-budget oddity was currently in vogue. One of the best movie trailers of all time is for John Waters’ midnight movie breakthrough Pink Flamingos (1972). The trailer shows not a single frame of the film; instead, we see interviews with people exiting the theatre, still reeling from what they’d seen and calling the film things like, “The most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Kinda makes you want to see what all the fuss is about, right?

The trailer for Paranormal Activity—a much buzzed-about horror film with a $11,000 budget, or just about $1,000 more than that of the 37-year-old Pink Flamingos—works much the same way, featuring supposed night-vision documentary footage of a preview audience being jolted and shocked by spooky happenings of the film. Through a brilliant Blair Witch-style ad campaign, word of mouth has been spreading to the point where last weekend the film hit number four on the Box Office Top Ten, despite playing on only 160 screens (a gargantuan $49,379 per-screen average).

Oren Peli is a first-time director, and so far out of left field that at press time he didn’t even have a Wikipedia page (I gleaned from his sparse IMDb profile three facts: he emigrated from Israel to the U.S. at age 19; he studied graphics and animations; and he has a spouse whose name is unlisted). As with Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity has benefited from the various myths and tall tales that have sprung up around it. According to lore, Peli was inspired by strange goings-on in his own home: the story of a couple that films their room while they sleep to monitor for supernatural activity is reportedly based on an experiment Peli himself performed. And get this: no less than Steven Spielberg reputedly believed the DVD was haunted when his bedroom doors “locked by themselves” while he was watching the film.

Fun stuff, but to his credit, Peli is much more interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking than perpetuating any myths. Key to the strength of a mockumentary horror film such as this, he stresses in a phone interview, are naturalistic performances. “I knew from the very beginning that once we had actors that could pull it off, which was not easy to find, we wanted to make sure that they could speak freely and naturally. So we gave them a little bit of an idea of what the scene is and a little bit of guidelines, but by having them come up with their own dialogue we were able to make sure that everything feels very natural in the setting and doesn’t feel like it’s some sort of a scripted, theatrical performance.”

Peli became interested in the film when he realized the vulnerable state we enter during sleep. “I knew that by placing the setting of all the scary things that are happening in the people’s bed, in their bedroom, that’s the one thing that you can’t really escape. And after people watched The Blair Witch Project people said, ‘I’m never going to go camping again.’ Or after Jaws people said, ‘I’m never going to go swim in the ocean.’ But if you set up the setting for all the horrific things in someone’s bedroom, then that’s what you’re going to be thinking about when you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep.”

The Blair Witch Project is invariably mentioned in any discussion of the film, a comparison Pelin takes in stride. “It was definitely an influence. Blair Witch is the most successful movie that employed this kind of style, the cinema verité mock-umentary style, but I’ve been a fan of that since before Spinal Tap.”

“I think the style is similar,” he continues, “but the story and most of the other elements are different. So it’s still a different story. And I love that people say that it’s unique and original.”

Will Paranormal Activity really make you afraid to go to sleep at night, as many of its fans contend? “When people tell me they have trouble sleeping after watching the movie I take it as a compliment,” Pelin says.

A pause. “Hopefully it’s not going to become like a real medical problem for anyone where they… you know, they can’t sleep at all.”