Screams of terror can be heard eminating from the Del Mar Theatre showings of ‘Paranormal Activity,’ a film that’s gaining buzz for its ‘Blair Witch’ style filming and seriously spooky subject matter. Photo by Alex Zamora.
Screams of terror can be heard eminating from the Del Mar Theatre showings of ‘Paranormal Activity,’ a film that’s gaining buzz for its ‘Blair Witch’ style filming and seriously spooky subject matter. Photo by Alex Zamora.

It was enough to a make a grown man bolt from the theater mid-movie, hightailing it to the restroom after being overtaken by the terrors he’d just witnessed onscreen.

And it was enough that those who couldn’t take it any longer decided to leave their seats and instead cluster along the Del Mar Theatre’s benches to swap ghost stories while the brave masses cringed through the rest of the film.

At Paramount Pictures’ request, the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz was among only 12 theaters in the country — and the only theater in California — to premiere the low-budget, high-fright horror film “Paranormal Activity,” starting Thursday, Sept. 24.

Thrill-seekers, including folks from as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego, assembled downtown for midnight showings throughout the film’s opening weekend, with lines filling the sidewalk for an entire city block.

“The film opened for only midnight showings, mainly in theaters that are nationally known as ‘special theaters.’ To be included in that is a big deal,” said Scott Griffin, the midnight movie programmer for the Del Mar and Nickelodeon Theatres. “We’ve been doing well — selling out.”

The 500-seat Del Mar grossed the second highest single-venue sales during the film’s successful opening weekend. It was second only to Seattle’s Neptune Theatre, which has approximately 700 seats and was the only other West Coast theater to screen the film last weekend.

“I guess Paramount wanted us to play it because this is a college town with a larger theater, but if you ask me, I think they decided to give it to us because we’re haunted too,” said Ashley Barnett, a Del Mar employee and recent UC Santa Cruz literature graduate.

Marianne Lawlor, a third-year UCSC film major and Del Mar employee, worked all three nights of opening weekend.

“It was really chaotic because we were doing the regular midnight movie as well as ‘Paranormal Activity,’ but we had a bunch of extra people working,” Lawlor said. “The concession stand line was longer than I’ve ever seen it, and when the movie was playing we could hear people screaming all the way from the lobby. I heard one guy come out of the theater and go, ‘This is a million times scarier than ‘The Blair Witch Project!’’’

“Paranormal Activity” was filmed on a hand-held camera, in a style similar to 1999’s low-budget horror sensation “The Blair Witch Project.” Where “Blair Witch” depended on bloody, gory antics, “Paranormal Activity” opted for psychological methods of inducing terror.

“The house in the film could belong to any one of the people sitting in that theater, so that helps make it more frightening,” Griffin said. “This [Santa Cruz] audience gets a lot of slasher movies. This one’s more old-school scary. It’s legitimately scary.”

Paramount Pictures came out successful in its efforts to entice college crowds to the film. The film sold out opening night in 11 of the 12 college towns that hosted it. The exception was in State College, Pennsylvania, where a Penn State football game distracted the attention of many students and left the theater at 75 percent capacity.

All week the Del Mar answered phone calls from people across the state planning to fly into Santa Cruz to get the chance to view the film. Following the opening weekend’s extraordinary success, though, Paramount informed the Del Mar on Tuesday night that nation-wide showtimes and venues would be expanded by this coming weekend. As a result, about 15 out-of-towners called to cancel their ticket orders on Wednesday. According to the Del Mar, however, people snatched up the cancelled tickets as soon as they became available.

Griffin, who has closed up the Del Mar alone after countless midnight showings, said he has never experienced any paranormal activity at the venue firsthand.

“I’ve heard all kinds of ghost stories about the Del Mar. I’ll just say this to ‘Paranormal Activity’ audiences: our ghost at the Del Mar does not take kindly to texts during the film,” Griffin said with a smile. “So far the audiences have been great, and we’re expecting another successful weekend.”