Is Paranormal Activity as scary as everyone says it is? Sure, this shoestring budget “DIY” horror movie that’s making a killing at the box office is scary. It’s scary because watching a faux home movie about people being stalked by demons while they’re sleeping is scary. It’s scary because the possessed female body is scary. It’s scary because the emptiness of affluent American suburbs is scary. But part of what’s scary about this movie is that everyone wants to know if it’s scary. Paranormal Activity has been so successfully marketed that the movie itself has become a kind of paranormal marketing activity that has possessed the mass movie going audience.
Let’s start by talking about the basic things that are consciously scary, the Things That Go Bump In the Night horror elements of this movie. These are the parts that everyone wants to see and know about. The whole premise of the movie is that a young couple – Katie and Micah – are being haunted by some kind of otherworldly presence in their home while they’re sleeping. Micah buys a movie camera to document the spectral presence, and the entire movie is presented like a home movie, as if we are watching an eyewitness account (via the video recorder) of a real haunting. The movie is entirely stripped of back story, unnecessary plot details, extraneous characters, artificial sets, lighting, or special effects. It’s a man and his camera filming his girlfriend and their house. Period. The movie’s sparse elements and the fact that it seems to be a real life account of Scary Things certainly heighten our sense of foreboding and fear, and after drawing us into this scene, the movie exploits its barebones minimalism to full effect.
There is no shortage of the experiential horror film kind of scary in this movie, but it doesn’t come with big gory drooling monsters or masked madmen wielding machetes. It is the smallness of things that is thing. We feel the terror that resides in the things we can’t see, the things we expect, the things that lurk in the corners of the screen, the impenetrable dark, and the emptiness of space. The simple act of sitting in the darkness of the movie theater watching this couple sleep is scary. The dark of the screen mirrors the darkness of the theater as we (and the camera) watch the couple sleep, and the movie plays on our primal fear of the dark, of the night, of things under the bed. The simplest things are incredibly frightening and imbued with an invisible but nonetheless terrifying sense of dread — a door swinging open and shut, a light switching on and off, the sound of footsteps on stairs. With each slight shift in shadow, sound, or light we feel the couple’s vulnerability through our gaze as we watch them sleep. Our bodies connect with the bodies on the bed, and it is truly eerie and creepy to watch how our bodies occupy space and the potential “paranormal activity” that goes on when we’re not in the conscious world. In fact, it’s like the unconscious has a life of its own while we’re sleeping. Indeed, much of the movie can be read as the unconscious that haunts the sterile American domestic space., and sometimes that unconscious can manifest like a demon.
Indeed there is a demon in this movie. We never see the actual demon, but we know where it comes from – the female body, as represented by the buxom Katie. There is nothing paranormal about this movie’s basic plot structure. It’s fairly textbook, and we’ve seen it dozens of times before (think The Exorcist and Carrie). Beginning at age eight (right at the cusp of pre-adolescence) Katie began to be haunted by a demon (female sexuality), and this menacing spectral presence torments Katie and wreaks no end of havoc in her life. It burns down her childhood home and now threatens to destroy her new stable domestic space. Wherever Katie goes, her demon follows her. She can’t escape her demon because her demon is the female body itself, and female sexuality is a force to be reckoned with. Some of the scariest scenes in the movie are scenes of Katie standing in the bedroom staring down at the bed, her female body frozen in the frame and agitated with its own presence. Very scary.
Once Micah discovers that Katie is haunted, he does what any normal guy would do. He tries to control Katie and her demon with a camera. He goes out and buys the biggest, best camera he can get (a.k.a. technological penis) and tries to contain the paranormal activity (Katie’s body and its demonic attachment). Sure, the sleeping scenes are really scary, but a large chunk of the movie involves Micah and Katie arguing over the camera and Micah’s obsessive desire to capture Katie in its lens. Micah thinks that by turning Katie into the erotic object of the camera that he can contain her “paranormal” presence.
In the opening scene, one of the very first things that Micah films is Katie’s ass as she walks up the stairs. The camera zooms in, and we watch Katie’s butt fill up the screen. Throughout the movie, Katie’s tits and ass are constantly in full focus: Katie’s bountiful breasts push out of a low-cut dress or bulge against a tight t-shirt; her ass peeks out of the bottom of her shorts or is squeezed into her jeans. Micah asks Katie to perform a striptease for the camera and asks if he can film them having sex. Katie, of course, declines because she will not be controlled by the camera. Over and over again, Micah tries to turn Katie into a kind of pornographic object, and over and over again, Katie resists. In fact, in the end, the paranormal activity cannot be contained because the paranormal activity is Katie’s female sexuality and body, which eventually castrates the male that wants to contain it.
But why does this presence need to be contained and controlled? Because the possessed female body doesn’t fit nicely into the sterile domestic space that is the really scary thing in this movie, because its agitated presence disrupts the deadened emptiness of affluent American domesticity. What is truly frightening is not the demon that haunts Katie but the emptiness and lack of life that haunts the domestic space that she and Micah occupy. What is truly disturbing is spending nearly ninety minutes in this creepily dead home that is the embodiment of material culture and completely devoid of individuality and human presence.
The very first internal shot of the home shows a giant large screen TV sitting in front of the window, blocking out all light and life from outside. The house’s department store showroom leather furniture and lifeless mass-produced artwork hanging on the walls are haunted by the empty specter of American consumerism (the kind of consumerism that will drive a man to buy a camera to control his girlfriend).We spend the vast majority of the film being weighed down by Micah and Katie’s dull existence, their perfect home a suffocating presence more ominous and menacing than any demon. As we watch the couple bicker and banter in their lifeless suburban home, we experience a lingering sense of boredom as we are sucked into this “home movie” of a couple that is not very interesting.
The most exciting points of the movie are when the couple is sleeping and we can witness the menacing presence that is trying to materialize in this dead domestic space. The demon is actually a breath of fresh air compared to the claustrophobic dullness of Micah and Katie’s everyday life. It’s actually a relief when Katie embraces the demon and rips the throat out of her boring domestic existence. What’s interesting is that the movie’s primary focus on the dull minutiae of Katie and Micah’s domestic life creates its own sense of heightened desire for those scary moments when the boredom is interrupted by rendering the couple unconscious and bringing on the demonic presence.
The movie mirrors formally how its marketing strategy has worked to bring in record-breaking profits at the box office. In the movie, we suffer through the irritating ordinariness of Micah and Katie’s life so that we can experience those moments of adrenaline-pumping fear while the main characters are sleeping. In real life, we endure the ordinary minutiae of our own lives and then shell out ten bucks at the theater to use the movie to disrupt our own suffocating boredom.
In the movie, Micah is a day trader whose affluence is dependent on his ability to make good investment choices. Obviously, filmmaker Oren Peli is his own kind of day trader and was no stranger in understanding how the market functions when he created his product. Using the Blair Witch Project as a model for success, Peli created a film for a mere $15,000 using his camera, a house in the San Diego suburbs, and two friends for actors. He then created a cult of desire for the object and marketed it as a paranormal object in its own right that promised to disrupt the boredom and minutiae of everyday life that plagues the American masses. Domestic box office take as of November 3, 2009 was $86,944,269. It looks like Peli’s paranormal investment strategy was successful.
One of the things that’s really scary about this movie is the fact that people can be so easily manipulated to buy into a cult object. What’s scary is that the cult of the movie has become such a media sensation and such a massively desired object of consumption. People want to consume the movie like some kind of drug that promises to deliver them from the dullness of their lives, when really all it does is strip your wallet of ten bucks and give you the privilege of watching a boring guy unsuccessfully try to maintain domestic stability by controlling the hysterical female body. Still, it’s kind of fun to watch and to think about.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org