A Haunted House
Marlon Wayans with Essense Atkins in A Haunted House. (Will McGarry, Open Road Films/Everett Collection)

Judging by the trailers that showed patrons watching the film and screaming, it is safe to say that many audience members were scared stiff by the first Paranormal Activity. Marlon Wayans, however, was not one of them. The Scary Movie star watched the found footage phenomenon at home – admittedly, a venue less prone to inducing fear than a packed movie theatre – and found the tale of a suburban couple plagued by a demon to be more hilarious than horrifying.

“I just kept saying to myself, ‘Bitch, move! Move!’ Or ‘Dude, break up with her. Leave! What are you still in a relationship for?’”

The In Living Color veteran was in Toronto this past week to talk about A Haunted House, his low-budget Paranormal Activity parody, which, at the time of this interview, had already made $30 million at the American box office after two-and-a-half weeks in release.

“Thirty-one-point-three,” Wayans corrects. “Holla!”

The film, which he also co-wrote and produced, stars Wayans as Malcolm, a bachelor who invites his girlfriend Keisha (Essence Atkins, Dance Flick) to move in with him. Right away strange things start happening, and it becomes clear that a ghost has followed Keisha into Malcolm’s home. Malcolm responds by wiring the house with cameras to monitor the paranormal goings-on and inviting both a gay psychic (Nick Swardson, That’s My Boy) and a dubious priest (Cedric the Entertainer, Madagascar) to intervene.

Wayans estimates that upwards of 30% of A Haunted House was improvised, including one unforgettable sequence – for better or worse – where Malcolm gets himself into the mood for a sexy evening with Keisha by first getting freaky with her teddy bear.

“I was just showcasing some moves, and all of a sudden I was going to bed and this little teddy bear was looking at me. And I was like, ‘I’m going to f**k the s**t out of you,’ and so I went for it. And three 45-minute takes [later], it was done. It went from being this much” – indicating a short period of time – “to literally making it three hours of our day; just having fun with that. You know, but you got to be fearless. None of that comes about by over-thinking.”

Wayans credits his co-star Essence Atkins, with whom he worked on 2009’s Dance Flick, with being just as fearless as him.

“She’s just a hard worker, fearless, committed; sweet yet has edge,” he says. “And the crazy thing is she had a baby three weeks, four weeks before filming. So we had her rigged up, doing all sorts of stunts. There was like breast milk everywhere, but she was just down. At first I wasn’t going to cast her because I was like, ‘We are going to break her stitches; they’re not healed yet.’ But she was just like, ‘Look, I’m fine. Let’s go, let’s go. If they come out, we’ll just stitch them back up on set and do another take.’ I was like, ‘Alright, you’re a gangsta.’”

And of course you gave the teddy bear to Essence’s child, I joke.

Wayans laughs. “That was my gift to her: ‘For your baby.’ She’s like, ‘Uh-uh. There’s sperm on this.’”

While audiences stateside have embraced it, A Haunted House has been roundly panned by critics, with the Village Voice’s Sherilyn Connelly asking in her review, “What can we do to keep A Haunted House 2 from happening?” Much of the criticism revolves around accusations of sexism and homophobia, thanks to multiple uses of the word “bitch” and Swardson’s lisping psychic. Wayans waves off such accusations.

“I’m neither,” he says. “I think people that say that I’m that, it’s because they are too afraid to laugh at themselves, or laugh with me. Because I don’t do jokes pointing the finger; I try to do one joke that makes the whole world laugh. I don’t want anybody in the audience feeling left out. I try to be all-inclusive. You tell a joke for everybody... We’re doing it to have fun.”

Going back to the original Paranormal Activity, I tell Wayans about a preview screening I attended which seemed to scare everyone in the audience, except for one trio of teenage girls.

“Black girls,” he says. It’s not even a question.

Uh, yes.

“Black people, we scream at the screen,” Wayans says. “‘Girl, don’t go in there! She’s a stupid ass... Girl, I knew the ghost would be behind there.’ We just like to be right. You know when the movie theatre goes ‘No talking please’? They should say ‘No talking, please, negroes.’ We love to talk to the screen, and that’s why I think doing Paranormal Activity if it happened to a black couple was a fresh take because we’ve never seen it. We always talk about it and how we would do this and we would do that. So to actually show what we would do was a lot of fun.”