You know that feeling that you get on the back of your neck, hair raising at an inexplicable draft or a sudden sense of movement out of the corner of your eye? We all do. We usually laugh it off, vaguely unsettled but berating ourselves for our overactive imaginations, chalking it up to nerves and paranoia. Well, you’re right to be paranoid. Your house is not as safe as you might think it is, no matter how many security precautions that you take or how many lights that you leave on when you pop in that horror movie. So Paranormal Activity suggests, offering a uniquely uncanny look at one of our oldest and most persistent fears: the invasion of our homes.
I originally saw Paranormal Activity in theaters, interested at first more in the viral marketing that led to the film’s release than the film itself. Trailers depicted actual audience members in grainy footage, seemingly scared out of their wits, and the website proclaimed: “Be part of the phenomenon!” It truly was a phenomenon. Voting for the film to come to your town paired with the viral spread of online videos set up the in-theater viewing experience as something more personal and interactive than the average night out at the movies. The film became much like a play or a haunted house in which the viewers reacted viscerally and in unison, agreeing to become a part of this collective suspension of disbelief.
Sure, the online appeals to audiences may have been rather transparent (albeit clever and certainly successful) marketing on Paramount’s part, but seeing Paranormal Activity in the movie theater brought to the forefront one of the most basic ingredients of the horror film: the intimate, immediate experience of terror and the pleasure it yields for the audience – an important aspect of the film that I felt far too many critics dismissed.
So when I got my hands on the DVD, I couldn’t help but wonder if such a phenomenon would truly translate to my TV. The DVD itself, however, boasts on the cover that it’s “One of the SCARIEST AT-HOME VIEWING EXPERIENCES ever!” and the back of the jacket sleeve similarly emphasizes the merits of at-home viewing. “You demanded it,” the description reads, “and now the surprise hit critics call ‘one of the scariest movies of all time’ can be experienced in the most terrifying place of all…your home”. “Go ahead,” it adds, “we dare you to watch it at home”.
I needn’t have worried. Paranormal Activity does indeed insinuate itself into your home, exchanging the powerful group experience of the theater for a disturbingly intimate viewing. The at-home viewing experience allows the story to invade your most private and privileged space, sinking into your home and your security just as it did the characters’. The film almost takes on a whole different visual tone when screened on TV, like a home video. This certainly isn’t a movie that you really need a nice flatscreen or Blu-ray player for (though undoubtedly surround-sound and large-as-life bumps in the night would contribute to the jump-in-your-seat value); I myself settled in to watch it in my bed, in the dark, on my seven year old, 20-inch.
Home entertainment technologies are, after all, a very important part of Paranormal Activity. While Micah and Katie’s electronics are decidedly higher end than my own, the figure of technology in the haunted narrative is a familiar one. No one can think of Poltergeist without the image of spectral contact via television static – one, in fact, that we see in passing and most likely in reference in Paranormal Activity. While the characters’ use of technology in exploring paranormal activity is an important element of the film—intended, as Micah states, to document and help them understand what is happening to them - it functions primarily to both highlight and measure what is likely the movie’s most important theme: the private life of a young, upper middle class couple living in suburban San Diego.
The very first image we’re faced with in the film is a shot of Micah’s flatscreen TV, an early marker of the daytrader’s social standing and inclinations. His English major girlfriend, Katie, then pulls into the driveway behind the wheel of a rather pricey sports car, which Micah captures on his brand new, likewise expensive video camera, the means by which we view the entire film. Katie’s immediate reaction is to question the price, size and necessity of the camera, Micah portraying early on the image of the techno-savvy/obsessive, occasionally overcompensating American male. Big camera, big TV, big computer…Precursor to Micah’s big bravado.
Katie steps immediately into the role of playfully, at times annoyingly, nagging girlfriend, and the two of them together form a familiar portrait of domestic life that we easily fall into. The beginning of the film devotes itself to establishing Micah and Katie’s normalcy, initially only hinting at the developing rupture in this comfortable existence between Micah’s pleas to use the camera for “extracurricular activities” in the bedroom, shots of Katie knitting while Micah plays guitar, and the two of them making dinner and getting ready for bed. This goes on for longer than perhaps one would expect, but rather than prove boring, this slow submergence into Micah and Katie’s home life lulls the audience into not only a false sense of security and a vague, nagging sense of anticipation, but more significantly an identification with the day-to-day interactions and routines that comprise a relationship and a private life. We know the couple by their most intimate and innocuous details, making the eventual invasion into this everyday existence frighteningly familiar even as it is not our story or most likely our experience.
We often associate horror with the uncanny. In his essay “The Uncanny”, Freud famously deconstructed the term through its German equivalent, unheimlich. The heimlich is that which is familiar – “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc… Intimate, friendly comfortable; the enjoyment of quiet content, etc., arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house.” (Freud, 1919). This sounds exactly like the mundane life that Micah and Katie first present us with, despite the fact that Micah bought the camera with the intent of capturing the strange activities that have been occurring around their house—flickering lights, faucets turning on and off, banging on the walls, scratching sounds, indecipherable whispering that Katie attributes to a presence that has been haunting her since childhood.
The earliest seeming scares turn out, in fact, to be harmless – a creepy sound that is actually the icemaker, Micah running to investigate a scream from Katie in response to a spider – but they too are familiar. We have all felt the spike of fear and rush of adrenaline associated with these instances, commonplace as they are; there is always the chance that the next time, it might actually be something unfamiliar, however – something that does not belong in the home – and that’s what keeps us on edge.
The anticipation of the horror is the deferral of pleasure that makes this film work so well. While we’re waiting for the long delayed payoff, the expected horror movie moneyshots, we sink at once into the comfort of the at-home viewing experience and the homelife of Micah and Katie. As the couple fear the disruption of their home, we glance anxiously around the shadows in our own.
Heimlich has another meaning: “Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others…secret” (Freud, 1919). This too is the home. What goes on in the house is private; Micah and Katie’s life is only open to those they let in, and as we watch the video footage intended for their own viewing, we are voyeurs, at once identifying with the couples’ lives and invading that life.
The voyeuristic experience has always been a key ingredient in the pleasure of the horror film, or any film, for that matter; to live vicariously through another’s narrative for own individual purposes. The life that Micah and Katie invite us into, however, is so familiar as to cease being vicarious; we are Micah and Katie, and we nod knowingly at behavior we see in our own significant others, jump at every noise they do, and anxiously anticipate the same paranormal activities that they do, feeling their fear. But if the heimlich, the canny, is what is familiar, homely, and normal as well as what is secretive and private; the uncanny, the not Heimlich, must be frightening precisely because it at once both strange and familiar.
It is simultaneously the familiar and strange activities that take place in the house that contribute to the terror of Paranormal Activity. We are lulled into the same comfort and complacency that Micah and Katie are and we are just as fearful of any disruption into our everyday, normal lives that we should, by nature, have a certain ownership and control over – the home is at once the place we can escape and hide away as well as be ourselves and be loved. Any threat to this, supernatural or otherwise, is frightening, and this is precisely what drives Paranormal Activity and lies at the core of its appeal.
The demon that’s after Katie isn’t what truly scares us or the couple. It’s the fact that Katie brought it into the house with her, as Micah points out, somewhat sardonically but quite accurately: “just remember too, that you didn’t exactly warn me about this kind of stuff before we moved in together… maybe on our fifteenth date, or our thirtieth date, or when we decided to live together… that might’ve been a good thing to bring up”. Having a relationship with someone, let alone starting a home with someone, is a leap of faith. You trust that this person will not keep secrets from you and that you’ll find happiness in this intimacy. So when Micah watches footage of Katie standing before him for hours at a time while he sleeps, he comes face-to-face with the vulnerability of putting your trust in another person.
The bravado he displays throughout the film, calling and cursing out the demon (“Is that all you’ve got?), the obsession with capturing and thus solving the phenomenon through technology, his fixation with the security system even as Katie points out that “it’s already here” – Micah’s life is being invaded, and he can’t stop it. “I’m in control…I’m making progress,” he tells Katie, who responds, “You are absolutely powerless.” For Micah, that’s the ultimate horror.
In many ways then, Paranormal Activity becomes an exploration of masculinity as well as the home and the family, placing Katie in the disturbingly familiar role of the monstrous female. Her fear and helplessness is genuine too, however; as Micah discovers from his research, demons choose their victims at random. It could happen to anyone, and thus it could happen to everyone who has a home and a loved one, and there is seemingly nothing that you can do.
The alternate ending, the only extra feature on the DVD, serves to highlight this futility, bringing the film to a close in a manner that for me was much more satisfying. Regardless of the conclusion, however – and the original 2007 version of the film that hit the festival circuits featured another ending entirely, in fact, that unfortunately is not included here – the ultimate fright is in the uncanny examination of the home that Paranormal Activity offers, one that promises to remain in your own home, lying dormant and in wait until the next time you hear that ominous creak on the stair.
It happens all of the time. It’s normal. It’s probably just your girlfriend heading downstairs for a glass of water in the middle of the night. Nothing to worry about…right?