I recently watched the 2009 film, Paranormal Activity. This is a haunted house horror film that employs a hyperrealist approach reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, where the actors do their own filming using a digital video camera, the acting is virtually improvised, and the result is presented as “found footage.”
The story is simple: a twenty-something suburban couple, Micah and Katie, he a day trader, she a university student, both White, middle class, and American, encounter evidence of nocturnal paranormal activity in their house, which Micah sets out to document; the situation grows progressively worse and eventually climaxes at the end of the film.
The latter employs a number of familiar tactics.
Firstly, it has extraordinary events befall perfectly ordinary folk, and seeks, therefore, to augment its affrighting potential by making it easy for the audience to identify with the characters.
Secondly, it has the male protagonist not take the paranormal threat very seriously, while the female protagonist descends into hysterics.
And thirdly, it has the activity escalate in an algorithmic crescendo, slowly at first, rapidly at the end: said activity is not only minor and relatively harmless during most of the film, but it is never witnessed directly by the protagonists until the final chapters; for the most part, the activity takes place while the characters sleep, with its discovery posthumous and mediated by a digital recording.
What interested me about the film, however, was not so much the technique but how it related to the characters, particularly where whiteness and gender roles and representation intersect in modern American cinema.
Evidently, if we are watching a horror film and if the protagonists are meant to be young and nothing special, we would be wrong to expect them to display great wisdom or superior intelligence. Yet, precisely because they are meant to be nothing special, it is shocking to deduce what their characterisation says about the Ronald Reagan generation.
The viewer will notice, for example, that, although the couple lives together, they are neither engaged nor have plans to marry. Having been together for three years, one would imagine that they know each other well enough by now to be able to ascertain whether their relationship is going anywhere; but, instead, it seems they are content with the status quo, neither party willing to commit to anything, leaving their options open, and, by implication, merely staving off loneliness until they get bored or someone better comes along.
This is the normal state of affairs these days, and, I will concede, one not without advantages: after all, the good old days whose passing so many nostalgic Right wingers like to lament had its fair crop of unhappy marriages and life partnership is a serious commitment where mistakes can be enormously costly in more than one sense.
All the same, open-ended arrangements like that of Micah and Katie bear the seeds of dysfunction and are symptomatic of the disintegration of the Western family structure. An ex-girlfriend of mine from my university days found herself in an analogous relationship, only to discover, after nine long years, that the gentleman in question was unwilling to marry her. By this time she was well into her thirties, not an easy age for anybody to find fresh new partners or start a new relationship from scratch. She was eventually successful, however, and recently married, but she is now over 40 and a healthy conception, if at all possible, will be considerably more difficult – women over 40 are more likely to conceive a child with genetic defects, such as Down syndrome.
The speculation one can make from watching the film is that, perhaps, culpability for the absence of a marriage proposal lies with Micah. This gentleman is good at making money from buying and selling shares on his computer, but he persistently exhibits an irritating lack of maturity and an inability to assume responsibility and keep promises.
Early in the film the couple is advised by an expert in the paranormal not to get a Ouija board or attempt communication with, let alone bait or antagonize, the demon. He, in fact, recommends referring the matter to a demonologist. What does Micah do? Too wrapped up amusing himself recording ‘cool’ paranormal events to think of consequences, gets the Ouija board, attempts to communicate, bait, and antagonize the demon, and scorns the suggestion to call the demonologist, despite mounting evidence to its advisability. When confronted about the Ouija board, which his girlfriend had made him promise not to buy, Micah’s smirking response is exactly what we would expect from his type: “I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it!”
Micah’s puerility is compounded by a weak and half-developed sense of masculinity; his reactions are consistently adolescent, he allows himself to be shaped by events, and he even permits Katie to treat him like a child. That he does is nor surprising, given his lack of seriousness, bemused flaccidity, and fainéant laggadliness, which inspire nothing but contempt.
When, by dint of sniping sarcasm and scornful skepticism, he is finally embarrassed into adopting a more assertive approach, his performance is juvenile and pathetic: “Nobody comes into my house . . . fucks with my girlfriend . . . and gets away with it,” “I am taking care of this . . . this is my house, you’re my girlfriend . . . I’m gonna fucking solve the problem. OK?” Yea, right. Whatever.
Whatever Micah’s shortcomings as a White, heterosexual male, the fact is that he deserves his girlfriend. She is bossy and, as is routine in modern American film and television, incapable of having an argument with her partner without gratuitous sarcasm and derogatory shots at his masculinity. She also shouts, bellows, and dresses in a most unfeminine manner, favoring informal, thick, cotton wear that often conceals rather than emphasizes her feminine curves. This latter point might be unfair, as the filming takes place during evenings and mornings and it is common for people, even sartorially relaxed university students, to change into comfortable clothes while at home. All the same, it is easy to imagine Katie either tarted up for a boozy evening at the nightclub or in sneakers, t-shirts, and jeans or jogging suits, with little variety in between; while at university in the late 1980s and early 1990s I came across hundreds of Katies, so her character conforms to a common American type.
As to the house inhabited by this irksome couple, it is well worth noticing, as it tells us as much about them as it does about contemporary American culture. Firstly, the viewer will observe that there is not a single book in the whole house – not one, except for a copy of one of Wiley’s For Dummies manuals and a handful of college textbooks hidden away on a low-lying shelf. As an English Literature major, it is clear that Katie scrapes by with the textbooks alone: no genuine lover of literature here. And when Micah decides to do some research to better understand the haunting, we find him leafing lazily through a copy of Ernst and Johanna Lehner’s Devils, Demons, and Witchcraft, which is little more than a picture book. At the same time, the viewer will also observe that the shelves in the lounge hold hundreds DVDs: this is, then, the sole source of culture for this college-educated couple.
Indeed, their lounge is dominated by – oh, yes – a monstrous television set several parsecs across and massive enough to form a steep gravitational well. One wonders why the sofas are not in orbit around this monstrosity. Television is so important to this couple that they are not above sacrificing natural daylight in order for the television set to constitute the epicenter of stimuli in the area: the black jumbo set blocks the front window almost entirely, and (presumably to avoid tempting burglars) the blinds to this window are kept permanently shut.
Is it any surprise, then, that their dialogue is so exasperatingly brainless? Admittedly, they are not as dumb and inarticulate as the characters in The Blair Witch Project, who could barely string a sentence together, and who lacked words to name even basic objects or concepts; but, even so, Micah and Katie are somniferously superficial and have nothing interesting to say. I imagine one’s frontal lobes would rapidly necrotize and liquefy after a few weeks in their company.
On the second floor we encounter another anomalous feature. The three-bedroom house has… three double bedrooms. One is theirs; the other two are unused guestrooms. Now, for a house inhabited by a lonely couple with no plans to marry and, as far as one can see, no plans to reproduce anytime soon, this creates the impression of their having more space than their impoverished imaginations allow them to fill. Could it be that they have an active social life and frequently entertain visitor friends? There is little indication that this is the case: the film records their activities over a period of several weeks and, during this time, we find Micah never talks to anyone but his girlfriend, while Katie is visited by only one friend, a patronizing tubular female with no conversation.
When we consider that Paranormal Activity was written and directed by one Oren Peli, a 39-year-old Israeli-born film director and screenwriter, his instincts with regards to what constitutes an ordinary White American couple is revealing because they are those of an outsider: the White Americans in this film are uncultured philistines, infantile, spoilt, obdurate, bickering morons incapable of learning from experience, let alone anything profound or useful; they are, put a different way, like oversized children, with too much time, too big an allowance, and really nothing to do. They are parochial, ovine consumers, serving time with no sense of purpose or direction, completely oblivious of the world outside the confines of their feckless existence, and for whom life is simply a succession of unconnected moments, wiled away meaninglessly in search for endless entertainment and fun.
Peli is not alone pumping out similarly negative portrayals of White American youth; I am reminded of the vile Eli Roth and the latter’s Cabin Fever, another horror film featuring cognitively deficient all-White university students.
The sad aspect of these films is that, because viewers consume them passively as entertainment, the sheer persistence of the attitudes and interpersonal dynamics therein presented act eventually to normalize them. I have seen enough of them reproduced in real life to wonder about the degree to what ordinary people take their cues from modern American cinema when faced with unstructured social situations. Even though most realise that the scenarios presented are fictional, fantastical, stupid, or impossible, American cinema’s influence as a model of social interaction ought not to be underestimated.
To better suspend disbelief, fiction imitates life. But in postmodernity, in the age of ubiquitous information and mass communications, life is known to imitate fiction, with the result that fiction imitates life that imitates fiction that imitates life imitating fiction. Distortions – because the imitations are two dimensional – are introduced into every revolution. Round and round they go, the distortion growing ever larger until they acquire a life of their own. The medium is the message, as the saying goes.
Without cinema able effectively and entertainingly to challenge Peli’s and Roth’s and their ilk’s message, without a different voice providing an alternative narrative, theirs becomes the cultural default, the dominant paradigm and archetype. The main premise of Paranormal Activity is entertaining enough, even for a complete skeptic, but it needs to be told by a less contemptuous narrator.
TOQ Online, April 10, 2010