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Paranormal Activity: Dare you experience the U.S. phenomenon? [Essay]

Paranormal Activity: Dare you experience the U.S. phenomenon? [Essay]

Paranormal Activity

Virginia Woolf eloquently describes how Dr Caligari (1920) affected her in a way that one would acknowledge in contemporary film theory as being a phenomenological reading of a film. Describing the effectiveness of a shadow in a scene in Dr Caligari she writes, ‘the monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’’ (Woolf 1920:174).

The horror film was one of the first genres to evolve from the moving picture, captivating and exciting, the horror film embodies ‘glimpses of something within’ (Woolf 1920:176). Evidently Woolf was ahead of her time and had noticed the power of the horror film as being like ‘a symbolic form of human communication’ rather than merely a representation on screen(Sobchack 1992:5). Instead, Dr Caligari ‘marked [Woolf] by the way in which significance and the act of signifying [were] directly felt [and] sensuously available to the viewer’ (Sobchack 1992:8). Horror films often encourage spectators to align themselves with a protagonist thus stimulating questions for the viewer such as; what would I do if I were in that situation?

Active viewing of a horror film has been understood as being a ‘cathartic’ process. Aristotle, described when watching a tragedy, ‘a spectator experiences pity and terror, and therefore has a beneficial ‘purgation’ of emotions which is necessary and purifying’ (Wells 2000:22). In Paranormal Activity, Katie (Katie Featherston), undergoes a series of increased suffering, the paranormal demon thrashes her body, torturingly whispers her name and takes over her bodily functions, physically and mentally draining her. We view the suffering through a night camera set up by Katie’s partner Micah (Micah Sloat). For Aristotle, our distance from the
screened events enables us to experience Katie’s suffering, through a cognitive experiment whereby the viewer is able to think through the emotional turmoil without physically undergoing the torture the protagonists endures. Aristotle’s cognitive approach to horror can be compared to the medical practice of hypnotherapy, whereby a patient is induced into a sleep-state and concentrates on imagining their fear. Through imagining the fear rather than literally experiencing it, the patient should hypothetically feel they have literally combatted their fear.

For Aristotle, the horror film can be suggested to offer the viewer this cognitive experiment as the viewer is able to think through the protagonist without undergoing the literal torture on screen. However, I will argue that Paranormal Activity offers no form of cathartic relief, instead, the open-ended narrative lingers on the mind of the spectator and the idea that the paranormal being could be real prompts the viewer to question, as the tagline suggests ‘what happens when you sleep?’ (IMDB). The mythology of the film seeps into our everyday reality. Paranormal blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact. Instead of the viewer feelings relief, the film threatens the idea that we are safe.

Paranormal Activity can be understood through Noel Carroll’s ‘The Paradox of Horror’(2005). Carroll, like Aristotle, places an emphasis on the cognitive pleasures induced through ‘art-horror’ (images of horror). Carroll focuses on three interrelating aspects that appeal to the spectator of horror; the continuous curiosity in the narrative structure, the monster that is both; anomalous which interests the spectator and paradoxically, disturbing, which fascinates the spectator. Spectators are drawn in and curious in ‘proving, disclosing, discovering and confirming the existence of something that is impossible’ (Carroll 2005:171). He cites how ‘the disclosure of the existence of the horrific being and of its properties […] are the real drama in the horror story’ (Carroll 2005:172-173). Paranormal Activity unfolds as Carroll suggests; the proof comes from Micah’s night-time filming, the monster is disclosed when Micah’s film reveals evidence. Micah’s internet research enables him to identify the monster as being a demon.

Furthermore, the psychic warns the couple that the demon’s presence is overwhelming confirming their discovery and the confirmation and confrontation is exhibited through Katie’s ultimate possession by the demon. Monsters, for Carroll, are described as being paradoxically intriguing as they are ‘impossible beings’ that ‘induce awe’(Carroll 2005:172). We are fascinated by these monsters because of their ability to ‘induce awe’, particular monsters such as ‘deities and demons attract us because of their power’ (Carroll 1990:167-168). For Carroll, the demon in Paranormal would fall into his descriptive understanding of an ‘art-horror’ monster that is ‘impossible’ and therefore ‘irresistibly interesting’ and yet ‘disturbing, distressful, and repulsive’ because of it’s inhuman ‘violation of standing cultural’ categorization (Carroll 2005 174-175).

The demon is able to inflict pain whilst maintaining it’s invisibility, this invisible identity further enhances our paradoxical curiosity to disclose the demon’s facets. Contrastingly, The Exorcist (1974) conveys to the viewer a shocking and instantaneous image of the demon possessing Regan. In Paranormal the demon’s identity is faintly shown when the demon occupies Katie’s body. However, the demon is also disturbing as Carroll describes, as it ‘violate[s] our classificatory scheme’ (Carroll 1990:185). Through traces of the demon the viewer is given evidence of certain facets that the monster beholds.For example, Micah hears a noise in the upstairs, he runs to assess the damage. A photograph on the wall of himself and Katie embracing has been scratched across Micah’s face. We now begin to visualise the demon as having human assets such as nails, and anthropomorphic emotions such as, jealousy towards Micah. The spectator may refer to screen memories formulated through the horror genre depicting other demonic monsters. This notion re-enforces Carroll’s suggestion that our curiosity to identify overrides the spectacle of horror. However, Carroll’s schema of the anomalous and disturbing monster in horror fails to work fully in the film. When Katie becomes possessed by the demon and in turn embodies the demon, it can be argued that Carroll’s paradoxical monster does not fit when applied to Katie. Katie, is a human, and subsequently cannot be seen as ‘impossible’ and therefore Carroll’s ‘ex hypothesi’ would mean that she cannot be ‘disturbing, distressful, and repulsive’ (Carroll 2005:174).

Paranormal Activity also exhibits attributes of the ‘Realist Horror’ (1995) formulated by Cynthia Freeland. Freeland critiques Carroll’s schema for discounting films such as, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), because the monster (Hannibal Lecter) is a naturalised possible as opposed to “impossible” being. Contrastingly, Freeland explores the moral implications raised by ‘realist horror’. She describes the fearful serial killer through her example of Henry, in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), who is camouflaged as a morally sound man, alike to you and me, and yet he slaughters people for pleasure. This realist monster is as horrific as the fictitious monsters Carroll prescribes. For example, in the finale scene of Paranormal, the grainy camera runs, Katie 3 jolts up in a robotic motion. Walking around the bed, she acknowledges the camera. She stands facing Micah for an extended time exemplified by the recorder running in double speed implying an external viewer is assessing the footage. Katie leaves the bedroom into the darkness. Micah hears a noise and runs to rescue Katie. Micah is violently thrown by Katie from the pitch black as though he were a limp animal, he dies abruptly. Katie creepily strolls over to his lifeless body.

The final shot shows Katie run towards the tilted camera lens, her awareness of the camera makes this scene all the more terrifying. Her smirking black-eyed demonic face is shown in the frame in extreme close-up. This powerful final scene defies Carroll’s paradox of horror, instead ‘highlight[ing] spectacle over plot’ the ‘ideological effect’ is ‘able to perpetrate a climate of fear and random violence where anyone is a potential victim’ (Freeland 1995:138).

Robin Wood notes how ‘normality is threatened by the Monster’ and how ‘normality and Monster are two separate aspects of the same person’ (Wood 2002:31). Katie, explains to Micah how she was haunted by the demon as a child. In the scene when the couple hear a noise in the attic, Micah enters the attic to retrieve a photograph of Katie as child, the photograph was destroyed in a fire that burned Katie’s family home. Katie is shocked by its existence.

At moments in the film the viewer questions as to whether Katie exhibits the ‘figure of the doppelganger, alter ego, [or] the locus classicus in Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (Wood 2002:31). Wood and Freeland’s notions would promote the idea that in Paranormal Activity, the ‘Realist Horror’ can be exemplified through the normalisation of Katie. Moreover, in the penultimate scene in Paranormal Micah and Katie decide to move to a hotel in a bid to escape the horror. However, once the devil embodies Katie she unexpectedly changes her mind and pleas with Micah to stay at home. Katie’s demeanour is calm and her physical appearance does not change once possessed, whereas, in The Exorcist, Regan develops warts and becomes red-eyed. Katie alternatively seems eerily ordinary. Her normalised state stimulates thoughts as to whether Katie has always been the demon, her revelation that she was haunted as a child continues to undercut the original storyline the film initially bases its premise upon. Freeland concentrates on spectacle of violence over Carroll’s interest in discovery of the monster. ‘Interested in the moral issues raised by violence’ Freeland compares Carroll’s work with Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ (1920) who both, for Freeland, place too much emphasis on narrative in ‘art-horror [which] distances emotional response to a representation’ (Freeland 1995:127).

Freeland also critiques Carroll’s lack of scope over his umbrella view of the horror genre, claiming that the “monsters” he prescribes are limiting. For Freeland, Carroll’s prescriptive approach to horror excludes the many sub-genres of realist horror ‘because it depends crucially upon the fictitious nature of the monsters at the centre’ (Freeland 1995:127). Alternatively, the ‘realist horror requires us to think in new ways about the moral assessment of films precisely because of its realism’ (Freeland 1995:127). Similar to ‘stories on the nightly news, plot’s in realist horror are dominated by three r’s: randomness, reductive, repetitious’ (Freeland 1995:134). Unlike the suspenseful classical horror where , for example, the two-tone noise of the shark fin in Jaws (1975) pre-reflects our bodily reaction that follows. The use of sound is randomly used in Paranormal subsequently summoning our bodily reaction to occur after the sound, unexpected, we are tensely anticipating the sound throughout. The randomness of sound is reminiscent of sounds one would hear in their own homes. The once disregarded sound of the noisy dishwasher of the modern home now becomes a fearful sound for the spectator going home. The setting of the modern home further disturbs the allusion that horrors stereotypically occur in decrepit houses, making us question the idea that a person can be haunted as opposed to a site.

The omnipotent nature of the demon in Paranormal Activity complies with Carroll’s anomalous monster, however, the direct address between the demon (as Katie) and the camera lens evokes a phenomenological reading of the film. The ‘film experience’ as coined by Vivian Sobchack involves us visually and sensually as ‘the visual other’ (Sobchack 1992:132). Sobchack describes our transformation into ‘embodied subjects’ through our inescapable ‘encounters- both direct and indirect – with the objective phenomena of photographic, cinematic, televisual, and computer technologies and the networks of communication they produce’ (Sobchack 1992:136). Micah’s connection to the filmic mode of exhibiting the paranormal causes him to have an indirect communication via the camera and thus his direct communication in the real world makes him a vulnerable target for the demon. Micah’s attempts to combat the monster through his internet researching of case studies and nighttime recordings presents him as the heroic male unable to physically combat the demon. It is as though ‘by containing the paranormal activity inside the borders of a screen, Micah can better understand, measure, and even control it’ (Sayad 2016:43).

The undercurrents of technological obsession are also present in a scene when the psychic visits the couple. Micah’s skepticism gives the viewer an optimistic reassurance that the monster is fictitious. The mood becomes intensified when the psychic insists Katie should contact his friend who specialises in demons. This aspect of narrative affirms Carroll’s narrative schema as it enables for the monster to be ‘established’ as being a demon (Carroll 2005: 172). Micah uses the camera as a tool for conveying his skeptical attitude towards the psychic. When sarcastically asking the psychic “what does a ghost hunter actually do?” the camera lens zooms onto the psychics face, in extreme close-up, as though the camera is an extension of Micah’s perceived world, mocking the psychics over exaggerated fear. As spectators we align ourselves with Micah’s skepticism, taking refuge in the comfort of humour, we too mock the man’s effeminate need to leave the house out of terror. As the lens zooms out to show Katie and the psychic in the frame, Katie’s humiliated face addresses Micah through the lens. The psychic directly addresses the camera, speaking to Micah through the lens also, it as though he is addressing the skeptical in viewing the footage too, compelling them to believe in and take seriously, the demon. It is at this moment that the viewer becomes concerned for Micah and Katie.

Bill Nichols claims ‘every film is a documentary’ (Nichols 2010:1).The film ‘calls on us to interpret them, and as “true stories” films call on us to believe them’ (Nichols 2010:2). Initially the intertitle headings “# NIGHT 12” and the time code’s on the footage further encourage the spectator to believe that the footage is real and being played back to us as evidence. Oren Peli employs an amateur style which morphs the boundaries between reality and fiction. For example, when Micah watches Katie make food, he places the camera on the side of the breakfast bar and we vulnerably watch. Similarly, Micah and Katie romantically flirt through the camera, Micah excitedly holds the camera in extreme close-up towards Katie’s eyes who is luring him into bed.

Such sequences encourage a complacent spectatorship, enticing ‘us [to] believe’ in the films ‘world for us to explore’ (Nichols 2010:1). Furthermore, the ambiguous nature of the
‘found-footage horror invites questions about our affective relationship to the image and, by extension, to the films’ ontological status’ (Sayad 2016: 48). Factual recovered film footage is typically associated with historical archives. In this context footage would make up the collective memory from a particular historical context. Documentaries such as Night and Fog utilize found footage to express the utter horror that took place in Auschwitz. The format of found footage
whether fiction or nonfiction fascinates audiences and Oren Peli plays on this notion through the taxonomy of Carroll’s narrative description of curiosity to see private filmic events.

Once the demon is confronted, Paranormal never lets the viewer rest. Our eyes scan the grainy night footage hoping to catch a glimpse of the demon. The low-budget and amateur style of filming ‘positions consumption as abject, as that which both disgusts and attracts the audience as it entrenches them in the dizzying desire for more’ (Hahner, Varda, Wilson 2012:3). The camera is the pre-reflective eye of the horror that is being screened. Micah looks through the lens before he looks at the horror before him. Similarly The Blair Witch Project (1999) also portrays this form of pre-reflective filmmaking. When lost in the woods, protagonist Heather, looks through her night-vision lens to see the demonic children. Freeland questions ‘what is it to engage in a philosophical examination of realist horror?’ (Freeland 1995:126). The found footage subgenre is tightly linked to the realism of a factual documentary. In her essay ‘Documentary and the Phenomenology of the Ethical Gaze’ (1984) Vivian Sobchack describes six visual forms ‘of ethical behaviour [that can be] thematized phenomenologically’ (Sobchack 1984:249). Although Paranormal Activity is fictional I will argue that through its employment of documentary style it evokes an ethical reading that implicates the viewer. Micah is the film’s documentarian, and it is his film. He is put in a space of vulnerability reflective in his camera use, such as, tilted camera lens, panning, dislodged framing and shaky motions. I will apply Sobchack’s ‘endangered gaze’ to Paranormal as it is ‘inscribed by signs that indexically and reflectively point to the mortal danger of the filmmaker’ and ‘indicat[es] a physical presence behind the camera’ (Sobchack 1984:251). The omniscient camera becomes a protagonist in the film, eerily capturing the couple’s every move, like the demon, it too watches.

Paranormal Activity inspires philosophical and ethical thinking through form, theme, sound and editing that ‘more than any other medium of communication makes itself sensuously and sensibly manifest as the expression of experience by experience’ (Sobchack 1992:3). The film tampers with new forms of exhibition of horror through found footage and stimulates viewers to believe in the film as reality. Paranormal transcends the notion that our separation from the filmic world establishes our safety. Instead, the film leaves us wondering who exactly is playing the recorded footage in current time, and it is this curiosity in the horror narrative devised by Carroll that led Paranormal to become a series that continues to horrify. One could argue that there is a contracted belief in horror that is similar to a religious belief system; you have to believe to be scared, you have to believe to be religious.



Demme, Jonathan (1991), The Silence of the Lambs.

Friedkin, William (1974), The Exorcist.

Myrick, Daniel. Sánchez, Eduardo (1999), The Blair Witch Project.

Peli, Oren (2007), Paranormal Activity.

Resnais, Alain (1955), Night and Fog.

Spielberg, Steven (1975), Jaws.

Wiene, Robert (1920), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Books and articles in collective volumes

See Also

Hahner. A Leslie, Varda. J Scott, Wilson. A Nathan (2012), ‘Paranormal activity and the Horror of Abject Consumption’ in Critical Studies in Media and Communication (London:Routledge), pp.1-15.

Aristotle (1920), On the Art of Poetry (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press).

Carroll, Noel (1990), The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart (New York:

Carroll, Noel (2005), ‘The Paradox of Horror’ in The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Texts and Readings, ed. Thomas.E.Wartenberg and Angela Curran (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Pub), pp. 170-177.

Freeland, Cynthia (1995), ‘Realist Horror’ in Philosophy and Film, ed. Cynthia Freeland and
Thomas.E.Wartenberg (New York and London: Routledge).

Hutchings, Peter (1993), Hammer and beyond: the British horror film (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press).

Jancovich, Mark (2002) Horror, The Film Reader (London: Routledge).

Nichols, Bill (2010), Introduction to Documentary, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

Sayad, Cecilia (2016), ‘Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing’ in Cinema Journal [online journal] vol.55, no.2, pp.43-66 <>, accessed 22 March, 2016.

Sobchack, Vivian (1992), The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (New Jersey: Princeton University Press).

Sobchack, Vivian (1984) ‘Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary’, in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2004) [excerpt], pp.249-255.

Wells, Paul (2000), The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch (London: Wallflower

Woolf, Virginia (1920), The Cinema.

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