WTF is that?
Allison de Fren and Brian Cantrell
Like other “faux footage horror” films, the Paranormal Activity series places the viewer in the role of the forensics analyst or police detective searching for demonic perpetrators within a media timeline stitched together from a variety of commercial grade electronic sources, ranging from digital camcorders and VHS to surveillance cameras. Unlike other films in this genre, however, it forefronts the devices themselves and their capacity, or lack thereof, for capturing visible evidence, an approach that reaches its climax in Paranormal Activity 6: The Ghost Dimension, when the discovery of a hacked videotape camera enables the users (and audience) to see (in 3D no less) the invisible ectoplasmic source of disruption to their normal suburban activities. This visual and technological self-reflexivity—which foregrounds technique over content and defies the conventions of traditional continuity filmmaking—has inspired scholars like Steven Shaviro to describe the series as “post-cinematic” or beyond the ken of cinematic viewing and identification. This video essay underscores many of the points made by Shaviro in “The Glitch Dimension: Paranormal Activity and the Technologies of Vision,” building off his observation that each film operates as a media allegory, “presenting its own construction as an exemplary instance of the ways that new electronic and digital media pervade, participate in, and largely produce our social world in general.”
Whereas Shaviro finds precedents for these works of post-cinema in avant-garde films and art, however, we see them as a contemporary media reprisal of a longer allegorical tradition in indeterminate vision. Anamorphosis, specifically, stands out as a precursor to these works due, in part, to its subversion of a prevailing technology (as opposed to a prevailing style as is usually the case with artistic movements) and related self-reflexivity. Anamorphic works comment on the nature and limitations of biological vision and the technical processes by which it is engaged, creating multiple points of view and, in turn, producing multiple subjectivities. All of these themes seem critical for a sufficient understanding of the deeper roots of post-cinematic works and specifically the Paranormal Activity films. In both anamorphosis and this particular franchise we see novel strategies of representation that foreground, exploit, and subvert the very apparatuses and material conditions that make those strategies possible. We chose Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors as the primary object to place into conversation with Paranormal Activity not only because it is the most famous example of anamorphosis, but also because of its status as a work of memento mori, a genre whose themes are echoed throughout the Paranormal Activity series and directly referenced in The Ghost Dimension.
If, as Christian Keathley has suggested, videographic criticism is often grounded in a cinephilic impulse, then this project presented unique challenges due to our mutual dislike of the franchise and confusion about what fans admire (reflected, perhaps, by our title). The sheer banality of the dialogue and the formulaic structure of each film made conventional or even half-hearted attempts at close reading feel somewhat pointless. We deliberated about whether to employ the kind of “cultural analytics” espoused by Lev Manovich et al. While data-driven methodologies might have provided insight to the structural evolution of the films over the course of the series, however, it would not have done justice either to the self-referential mythology that is constructed and recapitulated from installment to installment or to the “demonic feedback loop” within each film, in which the proliferation of media devices both establishes and increases the presence of the demon, escalating both media capture and the paranormal events being captured.
Perhaps the hardest aspect of these films to square with our particular historical and theoretical approach is their unapologetic commercialism. Indeed, the filmmaking strategies on which we and other critics have commented, such as the use of pro- and consumer-grade video equipment, the negligible dialogue, regrettable expositional framework, and absence of continuity editing are driven less by artistic than financial concerns. Nevertheless, and in no small part due to their ability to deliver a great deal of white-knuckle suspense from limited content, they have become some of the most commercially successful horror films of all time. The films, intentionally or not, seem to comment openly on the consumerism and middle-brow status of their own protagonists. With the exception of The Marked Ones, we see them brandishing expensive cameras and living in oversized McMansions in suburban housing developments (one character is a day trader; another owns a Burger King franchise). It is for these reasons that Julia Leyda has suggested that the first two Paranormal Activity films are an allegory of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the demon a looming specter of foreclosure and economic ruin. To the extent that this is true, it further aligns the series with Vanitas, which were genre paintings targeted at the 17th century nouveau riche collector of Holland. But while such paintings were intended to instill a moral lesson, the Paranormal Activity films provide no such closure. Instead, their protagonists are drawn into endless cycles of media consumption and production, which possess them both literally and figuratively, leaving behind only the empty shells of subdivision houses, along with poorly edited evidence of the events that have transpired and the ever-present cameras, all waiting for a new set of eyes and a new body of viewers to consume.