I’m partial to the Paranormal Activity trilogy for three reasons: the clever camera work, the pitch perfect execution of tension building and release, and the films’ focus on women’s stories and histories. (The first half of this essay features only minor spoilers. You will be warned when the spoiler shit gets real.)
The first Paranormal Activity came out in 2007 during the outset of a scary thing called a subprime mortgage crisis. All three films tap into our anxiety about the bargains we make to ensure wealth and prosperity. Coincidence? Maybe.
But probably not.
Katie (in the first film), Kristi (in the second), and their mother Julie (in the third) all have ginormous houses because their mother/grandmother made a deal with the devil. Each film opens with a display of the sizable house and the occupants’ expensive accoutrements: PA 1 opens with Katie pulling up to the house in a fancy car on a beautiful suburban street, where her boyfriend Micah is filming his big screen TV. In the opening of PA 2, viewers take a tour with newborn baby Hunter and are introduced to multiple living rooms and “man caves,” flat screen TVs, a fireplace in the bedroom, a pool and a hot tub. PA 3 conveys the family’s wealth with both the size of the house and the expensiveness of the multiple cameras (it is 1988, after all).
Each film uses the hugeness of the house to create anxiety about the myriad dark corners and empty rooms. All three films exploit doorways; thresholds are the locus of fucked up shit:These movies may be about the anxiety of wealth, but they were each made with a small budget relative to their box office intake. They do a lot with very little.
For example, the first film’s stroke of genius: the timestamp. Fucking brilliant. Here’s how it goes: The camera is on a tripod in the bedroom. Katie and Micah are sleeping and time is fastforwarding and nothing’s happening, and time is fastforwarding and nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening. And then suddenly, the clock switches to REALTIME. And you think, The clock must have stopped for a reason. Something’s going to happen. And they’re sleeping. And nothing’s happening. Nothing’s happening. Nothing’s happening. Fuck, what’s going to happen? Something’s going to happen! Let it fucking happen already! And then it happens and you’re startled – but the tension is released. I call that a horrorgasm: tension builds and builds and builds and then finally the horrible thing happens, and it scares you but it feels good. The Paranormal Activity trilogy elicits multiples.
The timestamp from the first film still haunts me. Whenever I wake up in the middle of the night, my mind thinks OH FUCK I’M IN REALTIME WAS THAT A SOUND IN THE KITCHEN?
In the first film, the kitchen isn’t really a locus of horror. It’s featured in the requisite horror fake out: What’s that weird sound? Is it a demon? Nope, it’s the ice maker. Hahaha!
In the second and third film, horrible things happen to women in kitchens. Scary fucking things. The second film’s genius is the multiplicity of cameras, capturing footage of the front stoop, backyard, the kitchen, the living room, the front door, and the nursery. Add to that a hand held camera… I told you, these people have money.
Here’s how it goes: Shot from the front door: nothing’s happening. Shot from the backyard: nothing’s happening. Shot from the kitchen: nothing’s happening. Shot from the living room: nothing’s happening. Shot from the foyer: nothing’s happening. Shot from the nursery: nothing’s happening. Shot from the backyard: nothing’s happening. Oh shit, did that pool cleaner thing move? It’s tedious and somewhat irritating, but if the goal is to build tension before the real shit goes down, it works. Because boy does the shit go down…eventually.
In my estimation, the third film does an excellent job of utilizing both the timestamp and the multiple cameras – it was smart to use more than one camera like the first film, but also smart not to incorporate as many as the second film. To the cinematic mix, the third film adds an astoundingly effective method of capturing horrifying footage: strapping a camera to a fan. GENIUS. If horror films have taught me one thing, it is that scary shit awaits behind corners. Liminal spaces are frightening places. The camera on the fan, constantly in motion, is constantly turning corners, showing you awful things, and terrifying you with the horror of the thing you cannot see. This is particularly well executed in a sequence involving the babysitter. Speaking of the babysitter…let’s talk about the representation of female characters:
[WARNING: HEAVY DUTY SPOILERS AND CRITICAL ANALYSES AHEAD. ALSO NOT AS MANY PICTURES]
The horror genre has a tradition of terrorizing women, of chasing them through the woods and attacking them in houses. It also has a tradition of The Final Girl, a trope that is simultaneously empowering and reductive: the only survivor is a virginal woman who wields a phallic weapon and destroys the monster.
The PA trilogy features a different kind of Final Girl: she doesn’t kill the monster – she becomes it.
Here is the plot of each of the three films: a woman/women/girls are terrorized by a demon. A man puts cameras and captures scary-as-fuck footage until he is killed in a horrible way by a woman’s body powered by demonic forces.
“I’m a man and this is my house and I can protect it if I gain enough knowledge about my demonic adversary. Oh wait, no I can’t.”
Who is responsible for the demon’s success? Well, the demon itself, obvs, and the coven of women who made a bargain with it. But what about the three men who insist on filming the paranormal activity? Their actions certainly don’t seem to help the situation in any of the three films.
Micah (first film) is the cameraman most explicitly responsible for the escalation of the demonic presence. He insists on bringing a camera into their home, and he asks Katie “Do you know of any tricks to uh…make stuff happen?” and asks the psychic “Is there something we can do to like make stuff happen, you know, to like get it on tape?” Katie objects to Micah bringing home a Ouija board, but he does it anyway. He argues against bringing in an exorcist. He tells her, “This is my house, you’re my girlfriend, I’m going to fucking solve the problem.”
Micah’s actions and attempts to chronicle the demonic disturbances only seem to exacerbate those disturbances. James MacDowell at The Lesser Feat argues that Katie is subject to “a persecuted wife melodrama.” Jenn at XXBlaze claims that Micah is “a big stupid douche.” I agree with both of them.
I spent the entire movie thinking, “This asshole’s going to get his girlfriend killed.” But PA1 flips it around, and it is demonically possessed Katie who winds up killing Micah.
In the second film, Katie’s sister Kristi, Kristi’s husband Daniel, their toddler son, and his teenage daughter all live in the house afflicted by the paranormal activity. It is Daniel who decides to install cameras all over. He’s not a shithead like Micah; in fact, he isn’t even really excited by the activity. He’s the only one of the three cameramen who is a skeptic about its status as paranormal. He does fuck up by firing the nanny – the only person in the entire movie who actually understands how to engage with the demonic entity – because he doesn’t believe in “that stuff.”
Unfortunately, in Paranormal Activity 2, “that stuff” is real, and it really kills him.
The third film features footage of Katie and Kristi as children living with their mother (Julie) and stepfather (Dennis). It is Dennis and his friend/employee Randy who take to setting up cameras all over the house. Dennis seems to have the least culpability – he neither desires the paranormal activity like Micah, nor does he deny that anything supernatural is going on like Daniel. Nevertheless, he winds up killed.
I don’t think the PA films suggest that the filmmaking is the catalyst for the paranormal activity, but I do believe they imply that the filmmaking exacerbates the demon’s antics.
In the first film, when Katie is frightened by the increase in the intensity of the activity, she tells Micah “Maybe we shouldn’t have the camera.” (Micah’s response is, “Uh, hello, this is some really golden shit.”)
In the second film, Katie tells Kristi: “It thrived on fear. The more we paid attention to it, the worse it got…You need to ignore it.”
In the third film, when a particularly fucking horrible thing is happening to Katie, Kristie shouts, “Just ignore it! Just ignore it!”
Focusing on the demon in one’s mind goads the demon; focusing on the demon with one’s camera seems to do the same. To varying degrees, each of these films implicates the man who set up the camera(s) – and by extension, the viewer.
See, Micah is an asshole, but we’re just like him: we want to see it, we want to see evidence of an entity. We strain to see it, to see any indication of it. We don’t sit down to see these films hoping to watch a bunch of people sleeping peacefully through the night. It’s called Paranormal Activity, not Paranormal Nothing’s Happening.
Micah winds up dead, and we wind up afraid of our ice makers.
Ironically, it is the physical manifestation of evil – when we see the demon possess a human body – that makes the endings of each of the three films so anticlimactic. The chief horror of these films lies in the visible invisibility of the entity.
Don’t get me wrong: a possessed person can be absolutely horrifying. But in a film so focused on the scariness of not being able to see the adversary, this sudden transition feels…weak.
My co-thinker on the matter pointed out to me that even though the lady becoming the demon (or the demon becoming the lady) kind of demystifies the evil, any visible adversary would have been anticlimactic. She points out that the filmmakers could have really fucked up by trying to show the audience a demon in demon form. I agree with her.
And despite the meh resolutions, the overall message of the trilogy is chilling: the compromises we make to ensure our wealth and prosperity may very well come back to bite us in the ass (or lower back). There Is No Such Thing As A Free Ginormous House.
The vast majority of these films are so cinematically strong (the horror of waiting, the horror of watching, the horror of things unseen) and so committed to the stories of their female characters (whose history is the catalyst for the events that unfold) that I’ll forgive them for their crappy endings.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive Paranormal Activity 4.
I don’t have a problem with the fourth film departing from the first three by jumping forward in time. I think that featuring a woman filming herself via her laptop is a clever next-step in the PA tradition of innovative found-footage cinematography. I’m also glad that they’ve decided to continue keeping the focus on a female character.
So what’s the problem?
Yes, there are moments in the first three movies when the women are sexualized — but a sexualized woman’s body was never used to sell them.
I’m afraid to watch Paranormal Activity 4, but for the wrong reasons.