Paranormal Activity is an interesting film not just because of the scares, but because of its analysis of psychological abuse and gaslighting. In 2006, Katie and Micah have moved out into the suburbs. Micah establishes off the bat that he’s… well, he’s the one paying the bills, right? So he’s sorta the boss. Katie goes along with this, but when creepy shit starts happening, Katie asserts herself and tells Micah to ignore it, to leave it alone. Despite Katie’s warning to the contrary, Micah antagonizes the demon that’s been haunting Katie since childhood, and eventually it takes over Katie, kills Micah, kills Katie’s spirit, and flees the couple’s house. The viewer is left with the unsettling feeling that the demon responded to Katie’s need for freedom from Micah’s psychological and verbal abuse; that at some point his casual dismissal of her opinions warranted his death.
Like the first entrant in the series, Paranormal Activity 2 begins with a scene of happy couple-dom. Kristi (Katie’s sister) has just had a son, and her husband is intent on filming everything. When creepy shit starts to once again rear its ugly head, Kristi again warns her husband to back down (there are in fact several scenes with Katie and Kristi talking about their experiences with this evil; they always remind each other to keep it a secret), and, like Micah, he refuses. This is, however, a blended family. Ali, Kristi’s stepdaughter, has noticed something extremely funky, and attempts to protect both her baby brother and step-mother from the demonic presence she hears and feels. Here, the haunting is as much about the specter of physical abuse as it is about demons, with Ali flinching away from her parents’ grasp. It’s also very much about control; the cameras used range from an all-encompassing security system to handheld devices.
Paranormal Activity 3 is a flashback movie; it’s a family history stolen from Kristi and Katie, and documents the chunks of their childhood they claim to no longer remember. In these videos, we as the viewer watch Kristi’s first encounter with “Toby”, a friend who frightens her and demands she keeps his secrets. If she tells, he warns her, he’ll hurt her and her sister. What’s especially whoa!!! about this from a feminist perspective is the explicit acknowledgement of the 6 stages of grooming. Kristi is a lonely child who has a new friend; he tells her she’s special; he isolates her from her sister; when he threatens Katie, he lets Kristi know it’s her fault. Moreover, the girls’ grandmother Lois is in on it; she subtly encourages the girls’ mother, Lois’ daughter Julie, to look to her as a source of support, and in the film’s final moments, she’s caught adorning Kristi for a demonic wedding, and colluding in the murder of her daughter. While there is no rape on screen, this film is very much about the sexual exploitation of children as an intergenerational problem. Grandma knows who — and what — Toby is, and subtly encourages her daughter to either accede to his wishes by having a son, or to allow both Toby and the grandmother continued access to Kristi and Katie. In fact, not only does she know what Toby is, she may have made the original deal with the entity in question, in order to guarantee her own wealth and that of her daughter and granddaughters.
Now we’re up to 4.
Constants thus far:
1. In each film, the focus is not on the male partner’s desire to penetrate the past and present of his wife/partner/children as a means of controlling and asserting dominance over “his” space. That’s simply a framing a device. Instead, the film consistently focuses on the lived experiences of children and women.
2. In each of the first three films, the camera as an explicitly male gaze is rendered passive; it witnesses cycles of abuse but not only does it not intervene; it exacerbates them. The camera, the men who set it up, and by extension the viewer become culpable in witnessing and encouraging the horror the cameras document. FromBitch Flick:
See, Micah is an asshole, but we’re just like him: we want to see it, we want to see evidence of an entity. We strain to see it, to see any indication of it. We don’t sit down to see these films hoping to watch a bunch of people sleeping peacefully through the night. It’s called Paranormal Activity, not Paranormal Nothing’s Happening.
3. Victim-survivors are encouraged to be silent. This does not help them escape the cycle of abuse at all; it just keeps it from escalating.
Now, onto Paranormal Activity 4.
Alex (another A-name daughter not related to the JKL generations of Mama Julie, Grandma Lois, and Katie/Kristi) is a 15 year old child of privilege. Her boyfriend is explicitly grooming her for sexual activities she’s already made clear she’s not ready for. Unlike Katie and Kristi, she asserts her boundaries clearly and decisively. However, her parents are too caught up in the drama of their divorce, her mother’s alcoholism, and her father’s emotional distance to pay attention to her fears and concerns when Robbie (the weird, poorly dressed 5 year old next door) takes up with Wyatt, Alex’s younger brother. Because Alex is so clearly an active and engaged parental figure to Wyatt, she immediately notices something is wrong, attempts to bring it to their parents’ attention, and acts to protect him herself, even rushing to his defense against a coven of witches.
Childhood neglect is a major theme in this film. Both parents ignore Alex’s concerns about Robbie and Katie, instead focusing on Alex’s (admittedly creeptastic) boyfriend. The dad misses important life events like Wyatt’s soccer games. The mom wanders off for a drink and a phone call when Wyatt is bathing, leaving him vulnerable to demonic attack. Robbie, the weirdo kid next door, never changes his clothes throughout the entirety of the film, casually walks over 2 miles from the park to his own house and lives in a room where the door locks from the outside and where the windows have been papered over with newspaper articles. Like the first three films, Paranormal Activity 4, is explicitly exploring psychological and physical abuse, as well as neglect. However, unlike the first three films, Alex wanted to set up the cameras, explicitly to protect her brother and herself. She’s the only one of our Final Girls to take her and her brother’s defense into her own hands, insisting that Wyatt tells her what’s going on and demanding that her parents listen to her. While this doesn’t save her, it’s a marked contrast to the first three films. It’s also a reminder that one of the franchise’s major themes is that when women and children are victims of abuse, they are not only not likely to be believed, they are also often put into situations where that abuse will escalate.