Starring Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat
Running Time: 86 minutes
Watched via Amazon Instant Video
Available for streaming rent or purchase via Amazon Instant Video
These kinds of films [“The Entity” and “Paranormal Activity”], in which an invisible antagonist returns again and again to an increasingly defeated victim – while operating superficially as ghost stories – are almost always analogous to other psychological issues, most notably the repression of traumatic memories and the cyclical acceptance of abuse.Kier-La Janisse, House of Psychotic Women
Janisse discusses the repeated hauntings in Paranormal Activity in relation to her own traumatic cyclical experiences, including recurring nightmares, patterns of abuse at the hands of her stepfather, and her recreation of her idolized stepsister’s tumultuous adolescence despite knowing the negative outcome. She is very candid about her purposeful antagonization of her stepfather’s temper, as well as her secret enjoyment of the drama created by the violent altercations and the attention she received as a result. She also compares her mother to Carla (The Entity) and Katie, as she views the films’ characters as pawns in the struggle between the men in their lives and a malevolent outside force in the same way her mother was a prisoner of her refusal to react against her violent husband and her all-encompassing alcoholism.
Paranormal Activity opens with Micah surprising his girlfriend Katie with a large professional video camera and we learn that the purpose of the camera is to record the paranormal experiences occurring around them. Katie claims to have experienced hauntings periodically throughout her life and does not want to encourage them, but Micah seems both excited at the prospect of recording something supernatural and initially skeptical that the events are paranormal, rather than something easily explained such as neighborhood children playing pranks. He does not take Katie’s fear seriously, mocking the psychic she invites to the house, until he experiences the hauntings for himself. Once he establishes the validity of a supernatural presence, he continually challenges it despite Katie’s pleas for him to stop. She is terrified that the camera and constant filming is angering the presence, but Micah insists on continuing to record their every move and the hauntings become more and more aggressive.
The film is part of the found footage sub-genre popularized by The Blair Witch Project and was well-received by both audiences and critics; popular enough to spawn a multi-film franchise. I feel biased because I’m not really a found footage fan, but when I watched this film at the height of its hype, I was disappointed because I did not find it to be scary or particularly well made and I was not looking forward to watching it again. However, for this watch, I made a concentrated effort to view the film with Janisse’s perspective in mind – that Katie is caught in the middle of a struggle for control between her insensitive boyfriend and the demonic entity that has followed her throughout her life.
Micah is presented almost from the beginning as a selfish, callous person. He pays more attention to the camera than Katie, playfully asking it if it’s doing well while ignoring her apprehension about filming. He’s eager to show off his guitar, and then says “Oh and then there’s her,” while pointing the camera at Katie. He adopts a flippant attitude with the psychic, clearly dismissing him, and tells Katie that calling the demonologist is “insane”. He tries to convince her to communicate with the presence, even though that idea clearly terrifies her. Most egregiously, he brings a Ouija board into the house after the psychic has expressly advised against this, citing that doing so will put Katie in serious danger.
It is ultimately that selfishness and macho posturing that becomes Micah’s downfall and it is at the hands of his girlfriend, albeit under the influence of the demonic presence he has spent the entire film taunting. The paranormal experiences serve to exacerbate the underlying tensions that already existed in the relationship and the presence uses them to drive a wedge between the couple. By the time Micah is willing to get help, it is too overpowering for the psychic to help them and the demonologist Katie has been begging for is not available. His unwillingness to listen to her, consider her fears, or put his care for her above his desire to investigate the paranormal occurrences allows the demon to possess her and leads directly to his death.
As Janisse asserts, the cycle is completed, both the demon’s pattern of stalking, possessing, and ultimately killing its intended victim and it’s recurring haunting of Katie herself. We learn late in the film that another woman, the “Diane” mentioned by the presence using the Ouija board, has had a nearly identical experience to Katie. She eventually died after being possessed, and in the original endings of the film, Katie also dies rather than disappearing as the theatrical ending suggests.
Like The Entity, we see how the supernatural elements of Paranormal Activity mirror the nature of real world experiences – in this case, abuse. Katie is abused by the demonic presence throughout her childhood, and then her significant other facilitates and participates in that abuse by openly antagonizing her demonic abuser, despite being instructed not to engage with it. Ultimately, she tries to placate the presence by insisting that they stay in the house and not resisting its hold over her. As with many real abused women, her final act is to lash out and kill the person responsible for the abuse. This reinforces the idea that horror, although much maligned, is able to use monsters, ghosts, and other fictionalized villains in much the same way non-genre films are able to depict the same issues in a “realistic” way. It allows us to experience these traumatic events, while still feeling removed from the true terror in our own lives.
Do you have thoughts on Paranormal Activity or Kier-La Janisse’s analysis in House of Psychotic Women? Let me know in the comments below!
Encyclopedia of Gender in Media by Mary Kosut, pg 115
“Paranormal‘s Domestic Activities” by Todd Ford, from Cinema 100 Film Society
“What in God’s Name?!” By Eric T. Hansen, from The Washington Post – The case of Anneliese Michel, on whom “Diane” is loosely based. (It is also the inspiration for the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose.)
I’ll be watching two shorts directed by Peter Tscherkassky – Outer Space (1999) and Dream Work (2001) – which feature imagery from The Entity. Both are available on YouTube. Don’t forget that you can follow along using Dana Danger’s list on Mubi!