***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.