***SPOILER ALERT – I DISCUSS HOW PARANORMAL ACTIVITY ENDS, SO DO NOT READ IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE MOVIE FRESH***
The recent ubersuccessful Paranormal Activity may call to mind The Blair Witch Project, a similar film in form and conceit, but Paranormal Activity also owes much to the supernatural films of the past: in Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and a slew of other films, women find their bodies inhabited by spirits, demons, and devil babies.
Paranormal Activity begins with Micah, a young day trader, introducing his live-in girlfriend, Katie, to a brand-new camera purchased for documenting the mysterious goings-on that she feels have plagued her since childhood but have recently worsened. Katie describes seeing a ghostly figure in her room at night and feeling an eerie presence next to her. These occurrences only increase in frequency as the film progresses, with Micah’s efforts to understand the spirit seemingly provoking it into more alarming actions (a Ouija board, for instance, spontaneously bursts into flames). As an audience member, the couple’s descent into the clutches of the demon feels inevitable and it comes as no surprise when the possessed Katie hurls a lifeless Micah into the camera and leans out of the frame to consume him. (See the very bootleggy version below)
Katie’s possession correlates with those of other unfortunate anti-heroines: Rosemary, Regan, and Linda of Witchboard, all find their bodies subsumed by otherworldly spirits. As this list suggests, “women in general are figured as more open to the supernatural,” according to Carol Clover. Regarding Rosemary’s Baby in particular, Clover writes that “possession comes about because, as a female, [Rosemary] is naturally enterable,” making her more vulnerable to the forces without to come within. It’s this openness to possession that enables the feminine transformation into abject monstrosity, Barbara Creed suggests in her own work. These dynamics clearly come into play in Paranormal Activity, reminding us that in spite of its postmodern aesthetics, it remains very much tied to generic constructions of gender that predate pseudodocumentary horror.
Still, Paranormal Activity is as much about the trappings of masculinity in post-9/11 pre-recession America as it is about feminine vulnerability. We learn through exposition that Katie’s haunting began as a child and only recently became a major problem after moving in with Micah. It seems that Micah’s insistence upon solving the problem himself only exacerbates the situation. Throughout the film, you get the sense that Micah derives a peculiar pleasure from the situation. He comments positively about the footage obtained and relishes the opportunity to confront the spirit when it rears its ugly head. Katie regularly reminds him that the situation is not to be made light of, yet she humors Micah and is complacent as a result.
While similar dynamics occur in Rosemary’s Baby, it seems that narratives such as these generally involve the lone or compromised woman being possessed. The Witchboard trailer below emphasizes the necessity of isolation with the narrator declaring “Don’t play it alone”:
Carnival of Souls, a b-horror film from the sixties, similarly plays upon the single, isolated woman as a target for haunting by ghosts, paralleled by the noisome presence of a single man pestering her for dates. Even Regan, the young girl haunted in The Exorcist, lacks a fatherly presence that must be corrected through the intervention of priests.
While all of these films are problematic in their emphasis on the feminine as vulnerable, I admire the approach of Paranormal Activity and Rosemary’s Baby. Both films suggest that the woman who relies too heavily upon her male partner may be more vulnerable than her single counterpart. As a result, both masculinity and ideals of romantic love and coupledom become sites for critique. The “possessed” woman, then, is not only haunted by the demons that antagonize her but by the man who enables the demon’s entry into her life.
Since I first heard about the Karyn Kusama directed and Diablo Cody-scripted Jennifer’s Body, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the trailer. For those with short memories, Cody wrote the screenplay for the ridiculously successful Juno. Contrasting Juno somewhat, Cody’s follow-up script takes a humorous approach to the horror genre. Like Juno, the film focuses on the transformation of the adolescent female body, but rather than pregnancy as the cause, demonic possession is the culprit. Here’s the trailer for a taste:
My good friend Alyx over at Feminist Music Geek made some pointed observations about the trailer, noting the soundtrack, dialog, and representations of gender and sexuality. I agree with Alyx that the trailer’s hints at Jennifer’s bisexuality raise interesting possibilities AND concerns about using bisexuality strictly for titilation. These elements of the film will be interesting to dissect upon its release.
What I find especially fascinating is the way in which the film draws upon actress Megan Fox’s burgeoning star persona in its depiction of her character Jennifer’s monstrosity. Again, I draw from an entry by a friend of mine named Annie at her blog Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style. Among other elements of Fox’s celebrity image, Annie discusses the ways in which Fox has been photographed for various magazines. Many of these photos emphasize Fox’s mouth by showing it partially open or by portraying her in the act of eating. Here’s an example:
Interestingly, the trailer above similarly emphasizes Fox’s mouth as an orifice with the potential to enact pleasure, but also suggests it to be a horrific weapon. In other words, Jennifer’s mouth both seduces and destroys. One of the movie’s poster’s perfectly combines these seemingly paradoxical uses perfectly:
(Side note: this poster seems like a big rip-off of the True Blood promotional posters–see previous post for example.)
It should be no surprise that the filmmakers use the mouth in this way, given the long history of horror literature and films with similar iconography. Vampire stories, for instance, draw upon the lethal and sexual possibilities of the mouth. My academic hero Barbara Creed connects such imagery to the myth of the vagina dentata (translation: toothed vagina) common to cultures around the world. These myths illustrate male fears of castration and anxieties about women’s sexuality. While modern societies may have seemingly dispensed with the notion, the anxieties surrounding women’s sexuality remain and thus filmmakers continue to use images that echo the vagina dentata to horrific effect.
I find it fascinating, though, that a young celebrity who has already established herself as a sex object through such orally fixated images will soon be associated with the more violent side of the mouth. For me, this demonstrates just how multivalent this orifice can be. Horror films will continue to use it to inflict pain, while the GQ crowd will continue to allude to it’s possibilities for pleasure.