Paranormal Activity. Micah annoys Katie with the video camera constantly, whining that she should let him film them having sex or here brush her teeth.
Our increasingly digital world is made up of ones and zeroes.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) is still remembered today as the first of the “found footage” genre of horror cinema, with its efforts at an amateur, hand-held aesthetic and documentary-style realism.
Cloverfield (2008) continued the found footage horror cycle started by Blair Witch, depicting a catastrophic event in New York City.
V/H/S (2012) provoked fans of the found footage horror with its anthology format.
Europa Report (2013) brings the found footage genre to science fiction, depicting a series of mysterious events during space expedition.
Paranormal Activity. Micah smirking over the Ouija board like a naughty child who knows what he’s done.
Carrie Mathison spies on Nicholas Brody and his family using surveillance cameras installed without her CIA supervisor’s knowledge on TV’s Homeland.
Paranormal Activity. The demon toys with us as we watch the sheet billows up over Katie and Micah as they sleep unaware, captured by the video camera.
Paranormal Activity 2. Possessed Katie enters the house quietly through the front door, in the upper right corner of the screen, and walks over to the sofa where Dan is watching TV with his back to her.
Paranormal Activity 2. A pan on the stove slowly catches fire, setting off the alarm and causing Dan to run downstairs and extinguish it.
Paranormal Activity 2. The ominous-looking night footage of the swimming pool, inhabited only by the cleaning machine.
Paranormal Activity 2. The poolbot spontaneously leaps into the air, producing a jump in the audience and characters but not caused by the demon.
Paranormal Activity movie trailer:
We watch the cinema audience watching Micah. Shots of audience reactions: suspense…fear… horror.
The Paranormal Activity films, as I have shown, exemplify postfeminist recessionary texts in their representations of gender and the domestic; they are also post-cinematic in their interest in the themes and technologies as well as the structures of feeling of the digital age. In the most literal sense, post-cinematic describes the current state of the film industry, in which movies are either shot on digital cameras or transferred to digital formats from film. In addition, they are distributed in digital formats from DVDs and Blu-ray to online streaming platforms such as Netflix and YouTube that can be accessed using mobile devices. Viewers may also see them via television interfaces using digital recording or decoding devices such as Roku and Wii. In his definitive body of work on the post-cinematic, Steven Shaviro argues that with these changes in technology, our lives are changing as well. This happens not only in obvious ways, such as the amount of time we spend online in some form on our myriad devices, but also in how we think about and interact with the world via social media, and how we participate in the digital networks of capital via online banking and investments, cash machine withdrawals, transit system smart cards, and credit and debit card payments. Shaviro argues,
As such, post-cinematic media “generate subjectivity and . . . play a crucial role in the valorization of capital,” just as they draw our attention to the parallel uses of technology in entertainment and finance:
Today the conversion to the digital of almost every iota of human existence would seem to reduce art and entertainment (film, games), economics (banking, credit), and communication (personal, commercial) to a single plane of intangibility, to the ether. However, at their best, theories of post-cinema resist this notion of vanishment and, on the contrary, strive to engage a materialist critique even when, or precisely when, the object of analysis appears so insubstantial and elusive. Post-cinema is thus bound up in the neoliberal motor of perpetual capitalist expansion and subsumption. By unpacking the aesthetics of post-cinema, this article contributes to that project by trying to foster new film-analytical models that attend to the latest iterations of capital.[open endnotes in new window] I contend that here, in the Paranormal Activity movies’ technological form and in their diegesis, the digital is the link between the nightmare of debtor capitalism and the horror of the camera as non-human agent that captures the malevolent actions of the non-human demon.
Caetlin Benson-Allott places the Paranormal Activity films within the recent trend in what she names “faux footage films,” a subgenre of found footage films. Extending and elaborating on the handheld digital aesthetics of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the first two Paranormal films also “reveal the extent to which the amateur, unpolished technique of faux footage horror represents the psychic boundary between public and private” by allowing access to what are presented to us as rough unedited footage, home movies, and private surveillance videos (Benson-Allott 182). The faux footage film presents allegedly real footage to the audience, most often in genres such as horror, science fiction, or some combination of the two. The Blair Witch Project (1999) marks the beginning of a resurgence of this subgenre of films to which the Paranormal Activity franchise also belongs; more recent additions to the subgenre include Cloverfield (2008), V/H/S (2012), and Europa Report (2013).
The Paranormal movies call attention to the plethora of now ordinary video technologies in the U.S. home, which are increasingly figured as malign (Benson-Allott 186). The video cameras in the movies digitize their human subjects, thus turning something we might call private reality into data. The domestic digital aesthetics of the Paranormal Activity franchise are integral to the troubling of the public-private boundary that Benson-Allott indicates. The home-made and faux footage only escalates the horror in these movies as it depicts the penetration of invisible, financialized demon capital into the refuge of the family home.
Many of these films, including the Paranormal Activity films, can also be interpreted as “weapons in a format war being fought by copyright holders and pirates over our e-spectatorship” at a time when, thanks to the possibility for rapid digital data transmission via the Internet, piracy has become a major concern of the entertainment industry (Benson-Allott 171). The cycle of faux footage horror at the beginning of this century instills in audiences a sense of fear and anxiety about the “repercussions for watching the wrong video or watching the wrong way,” and thus take their place in a long line of films that make watching films into a dangerous act: Videodrome (1983) and Ringu (1998) to name only two (Benson-Allott 17). In Paranormal Activity, breaking the rules also carries strong punishments. We learn that the demon gets stronger and more aggressive as Micah records it on video and watches the footage, ignoring Katie’s warnings. He childishly continues to break her “rules,” smirking to the camera when he promises he won’t “buy a Ouija board,” fully intending to borrow one. His mockery of her directives parallels the defiance inherent in piracy, although obviously with more severe penalties. Beyond their context within the copyright wars, however, the Paranormal films also underscore the dire consequences of defying the rules of debtor capitalism in the digital age.
The Faustian contract that Katie and Kristi’s grandmother made with the demon becomes an engine of deadly destruction as the demon takes possession of what is owed. Lois’ granddaughters now must pay the balance due: Kristi’s son, Hunter. The movies thus dramatize in hyperbolic horror movie style the condition of indebtedness that Maurizio Lazzarato argues
Released during the foreclosure crisis in 2009, Paranormal Activity portrays the horror of a debt that cannot be evaded or expunged, which can lead to the repossession of a cherished object such as the family home, or in this case, a child. Through her reproductive labor and assisted by Martine and Katie, Kristi must assume the debt of her grandmother Lois and pay the demon-creditor what is owed.
The hereditary nature of this particular debt plays on a growing sense of resentment among white, middle-class Americans who are realizing that younger generations will not have access to the same advantages and opportunities as their antecedents did. The debt economy engulfs ever-increasing percentages of personal income, and a record low 14% of Americans believe that today’s children will do better than their parents (“New Low”). While at least the belief in upward mobility has long been taken for granted in U.S. life, now it is mainly capital that moves and most often it is leaving. As Randy Martin points out, financialization has ushered in changes in U.S. structures of feeling around the home itself. Whereas owning property used to be a sign of stability for previous generations, it is now a potential vulnerability, and in fact,
The Paranormal Activity movies allegorize the way in which possession and re-possession have become horrific concepts in the twenty-first century.
The demon’s mobility and invisibility, its ability to navigate the home unseen and to inhabit the body through possession, echo the insidious, digitized mobility of transnational finance capital, which has forced so many homeowners into foreclosure and repossession. Just as the demon demands payment of an ancestor’s debt, the predatory mortgage, abstracted beyond verifiable recognition into digitally traded securities, allows an outsider to take away one’s very home and hearth. Moreover, the digitization, agility, and decentering of financial systems and instruments make them harder to see or resist; the Paranormal Activity movies portray the demon as an elusive, disembodied, yet personalized evil entity. Demonic possession—as well as the transfer of the demon’s possessive attention from Kristi to Katie—also recalls the contemporary phenomenon of identity theft, which can have serious repercussions: you can lose all your assets, not to mention ruining your credit rating. These digital forms of theft are only possible in an increasingly data-driven, disembodied, financialized world. The non-human demon, like a bad credit rating or identity theft, trails the sisters throughout their lives until one of them bears a son, which makes it more frightening than a site-specific haunting, in that moving away will not allow them to escape the hostile, disembodied demonic force.
The absence of an embodied evil in the movies invests the video cameras with sinister overtones, raising the complex question of point of view. In this way, too, the movies repurpose the horror convention of de-familiarizing the home as haven to make it a site of terror and the uncanny. Digital video technology—home video, surveillance, and security cameras, in particular—are ubiquitous, ordinary artifacts of contemporary life in the United States and the rest of developed world; “Sinister Surveillance” is even featured as a TV trope on the invaluable wiki of that name, which lists the numerous popular culture texts that incorporate it, including the post-9/11 law enforcement dramas such as Homeland (2011-) and Person of Interest (2011-).
Although security cameras ostensibly exist in order to make us feel safer, reviewing the interminable, repetitive videos in the Paranormal movies produces more anxiety for us and the characters by revealing what a character can never see firsthand: herself sleeping and what goes on while she sleeps. Watching the speeded-up videos of Katie and Micah sleeping as lights switch on and off, the door moves closed and open again, and the sheet billows up around their bodies, the footage emphasizes their unconsciousness and vulnerability. Moreover, while a sleeper can never see herself from outside, the demon, like the camera, can; it can also move her around, inhabit her body, and then look out from within her body. However, unlike conventional horror cinema’s use of point of view to increase suspense, such as filming a sequence from the killer’s perspective observing the unsuspecting victim, this camera does not represent any human point of view. Positioning the camera in a non-human POV, the movie produces an uncanny sense of helplessness; we occupy neither the demon’s perspective nor the sleeping characters’, but that of a machine, the diegetic digital camera.
In the Paranormal movies, digital modes of production condition the kinds of affect the movie generates: their cinematography and editing corral us into certain perceptive modes. The omniscience of the “unmanned” cameras, however, begins to resemble a form of mastery over the humans—the cameras are superior, all-seeing witnesses. They force people—characters and spectators—to watch helplessly. An almost sadistic tone emanates from this kind of enforced and hobbled surveillance. Unlike other kinds of horror that emphasize the excessive wounding of the flesh, bodies are not mutilated or tortured in these movies; all of the Paranormal Activity movies are surprisingly free from gore and protracted violence. Yet they still fit the classification of body genres, as Linda Williams defines them: “trashy” movies of the horror, melodrama, or pornography genres that provoke strong physical responses from the audience (4).
There are plenty of “jumps”—involuntary physical expressions of fear and surprise in the Paranormal series, but the movie also controls the viewer’s body in other ways. For example, the camera fixed on its tripod in Paranormal Activity and the static security cameras in each room in Paranormal Activity 2 force the spectator to scan the frame continuously, because the fixed camera cannot highlight action or details using close-ups or editing, as in classical cinema. Calling attention to the film’s form in a way that makes viewers more anxious and uncomfortable, this camerawork produces a form of digital dramatic irony. That is, when recording while humans are sleeping, absent, or looking the other way, the always-on cameras “know” and “see” more than the characters, and thereby we viewers do as well, as long as we assiduously do the extra work and pick out by our own effort what is important in the frame. In the next section, I examine some of the other kinds of extra work the Paranormal movies assign to their viewers.
Paramount-DreamWorks has built the Paranormal Activity franchise from an ultra-low-budget production into a blockbuster series; the films thematize and exemplify the extent of digital technology’s permeation into contemporary U.S. life not only in their story and cinematic form, but also in their marketing and branding. Picking up the rights to the first Paranormal Activity movie, which Peli made for $15,000, the studio reportedly paid $350,000; subsequently, the movie has grossed over $193 million worldwide (“Paranormal Activity”). Despite the studio’s debate over whether to include marketing costs ($10 million) when calculating return on investment, the first Paranormal Activity movie is widely considered the most profitable movie ever made, and subsequent movies in the franchise have set other records (O’Carroll). But still uncounted for is the added value of the fan labor as a significant component in marketing the movie. The series’ specifically twenty-first-century variety of dynamic online fan participation runs serves as a contrast—and perhaps antidote—to the movies’ affective register, consisting of helplessness, fear, and anxiety. Just as the movies’ post-cinematic aesthetics enact a peculiar form of bodily control over viewers—making us actively search within the frame to locate suspicious movement—the movie’s branding entails a variety of viewer activities in addition to simply buying access to the film (as a cinema ticket, DVD purchase or rental, or streaming event).
One of the reasons the PA franchise became so successful may be that it has been supported by the young horror movie fan’s social media communications: the public, performative online behaviors that we practice every day on Twitter and Facebook, sharing shaky homemade video and private domestic scenes with our so-called “friends.” The new media publicity campaign for the first film, under producer Jason Blum and spear-headed by the PR company Eventful, encouraged fans to click a button on the movie’s website to “Demand It!” promising that those towns with the most clicks would get the movie’s release sooner. Thus the executives could see the buzz around Paranormal Activity grow day by day and were able to pinpoint specific locales where it was attracting more attention. Eoin O’Carroll points out that just urging
But the other reason the “Demand It!” marketing campaign has been so successful is the way it drafts the fans into unpaid labor as marketers themselves, targeting viewers like themselves. This campaign exemplifies what Sarah Banet-Weiser argues is a hallmark of the new “brand culture” of the twenty-first century, in which
As the horror fans went to the website and clicked the “Demand It!” button, they reinforced their own consumerist desire for the movie, and at the same time demonstrated it publicly for both the movie studio and the rest of the movie’s potential fan base to see, thus contributing to the production of publicity and the market research for the movie. This form of branding, which represents the “intersecting relationship between marketing, a product, and consumers,” is omnipresent today and has penetrated all forms of media and all kinds of products, from running shoes to soft drinks to soap (Banet-Weiser 4).
Notably, Blum explains “Demand It!” using a domestic metaphor:
By taking an active role in demanding the movie, and taking part in the movie’s PR activities on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, fans build “a kind of affective, authentic engagement into the product itself,” participating in the branding campaign instead of just being addressed by it (Banet-Weiser 38). This form of immaterial labor—which binds the consumer to the product through monetized, unpaid online activity—also blurs boundaries between consumers and producers, employing
The studio expected it would take weeks to attain one million “Demand It!” clicks, but fervent online horror fans did it in four days (Evangelista). A similarly active marketing role for fans worked through the Twitter campaign using the official Paranormal Activity account, @TweetYourScream, to encourage fans to post their reactions.
Indeed, given the widespread practice of piracy among the movie’s young target audience, the extraction of immaterial labor online—through Demand It!, Twitter, and other social media platforms—serves as a form of payment in addition to, or in lieu of, the commodity’s legitimate price, which many of them avoid by viewing the film illicitly. The movie corporations thus profit not from their ownership of copyright, which they still hotly defend in current battles over intellectual property laws, but they also accumulate capital in the form of voluntary, even enthusiastic, online immaterial labor. That is, they benefit from the online activity of others just as Google’s Page Rank algorithm does, according to Matteo Pasquinelli:
The immaterial labor of online Paranormal Activity fans and would-be fans, then, constitutes a kind of hedge bet against the alledged losses to piracy that the industry decries in the war on piracy.
The first Paranormal Activity movie’s trailers were also innovative in their active incorporation of audiences and digital technology into the publicity campaign. The ad mimics the film’s low-budget visual aesthetic, with descriptive title cards setting the stage at a test screening in Hollywood, presenting both the movie and the trailer “as historical events” (Benson-Allott 170). The trailer dramatizes the experience of the audience, along with the characters in the film, producing a parallel narrative about one of the first groups to “experience” the movie. Then the lights go down, the night-vision camera engages, and we see the darkened theater, filled with spectators and shot from the back with a view of the screen, as well as from down in front, where we can see their faces reacting in horror as they watch the movie: mouths open, eyes covered, jumping involuntarily, screaming out loud. As Benson-Allott points out, through its use of similar technology to shoot the audience footage, “the ad’s night-vision scenes ostensibly document real reactions, just as Peli’s movie ostensibly documents real demonic possession,” thus blurring the distinctions between the real theater audience and the fictional characters in the movie (188). By encouraging viewers of the trailer to place themselves in the position of the terrified viewers of the movie in that test screening, the trailer also re-inscribes the ordinariness that pervades the movie, as viewers see regular people in the trailer consuming the movie, which is purported about regular people.
The trailer also blurs the boundary between the product being sold (the movie) and the target buyers (the audience), as it places “viewers” both within the trailer and in the position of watching the trailer. The pro-filmic objects of the trailer are “viewers” like you, watching the movie, just as the characters in the movie are “really” Katie and Kristi. The Paranormal Activity trailer, as an artifact of brand culture, demonstrates the way in which the “separation between the authentic self and the commodity self not only is more blurred, but this blurring is more expected and tolerated"— and, I would add, enjoyed (Banet-Weiser 13, original emphasis).
Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 trace a family’s troubled history with a demon across several generations, but the plots are always located within a family home and centered around a female character. The demon in the first two Paranormal films has come to claim a debt resulting from a contract with an ancestor, who has in a sense “mortgaged” future male offspring in exchange for power and wealth. Given the series’ immediate context within the credit crisis and the Great Recession, we can interpret the demon as an allegory for debt under neoliberal capitalism: it is just as invisible, inescapable, and imperfectly apprehended via digital media. Like the video data that constitutes the “film” itself, and like the transnational finance capital and the intangible systems of consumer credit that permeate contemporary life, the demon is unseen and immaterial, yet it exercises enormous power.