Paranormal Activity 4

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.




  1. says


    One of the other interesting things I noticed about Paranormal Activity, particularly between the second and the fourth, is that the daughters/sisters, Ali and Alex, become targets in different ways. Ali first tries to bring attention to the strangeness in her surroundings, but is self-interested in a way Alex isn’t (doesn’t really get her boyfriend involved, wants her father to leave his wife and baby to protect himself and his daughter, and by the end is pretty okay with them passing the curse along from Kristi to Katie), and does not name what is happening to her and her family as consciously malicious, instead saying that something was wrong with Kristi, something was weird, etc., using passive language. She also goes along with Kristi’s insistence on not talking about the bad things happening in the home and trying to ignore them.

    Meanwhile, Alex, who is very much Wyatt/Hunter’s mother proxy, and is also tuned in to signs of her parents’ and Robbie’s dysfunction from the film’s beginning, immediately notices that not only is something wrong with Robbie, and notices the same day that Wyatt’s behavior begins to change for the worse. She tries to pull her parents AND her boyfriend into it, calling out his own abuse dynamics (spying on her via webcam and recording it), and then calling on those skills to use them to protect herself and her family– which struck me as very realistic abuse survivor behavior, even in just knowing what to look for, and how to do it based on observation/experience. Alex also won’t gaslight herself, and refuses to be gaslighted by her parents/boyfriend as her home situation continues to deteriorate; and since she can’t really name her abuser, since it’s a horror movie, and he’s a demon she can’t see, she does everything else she can think of in speaking truth to power.

    But then, since the movies really are about abuse/power dynamics, her drawing attention to herself by speaking out and refusing to be silenced marks Alex as a threat/obstacle to be removed (hence, imo, the scene after Wyatt/Hunter “drowns” and begins being possessed/having to actively fight off possession, where he levitates an unconscious Alex above her bed for examination)– and the same for the scene where Katie enters the family’s home and tries to call out to Wyatt/Hunter, who isn’t ready to host “Toby,” who in turn is trying to kill Alex in the garage (rather than feed off her fear with little/no physical harm, as he/it did to Ali in PA2). I think only after that is Alex designated as the “sacrifice” for Toby to fully join with Wyatt/Hunter and/or for Alex to be absorbed into the cycle of abuse in an, “if you can’t beat ’em, make ’em join you,” sort of logic, leaving Robbie as the only loose end in PA4. My impression was that his neglect/abuse was his having been groomed to be a willing sacrifice himself, as well as a means of entry into Wyatt/Hunter’s life, and Alex’s bucking back against the abuse dynamics was somewhat unexpected, both in-narrative by Toby, and also in not keeping with the movies’ tradition of women’s forced silence (enforced internally, or externally by disenfranchisement) as complicit approval and perpetuation of the abuses visited upon them.

    …They are secretly really sad movies, actually. No one escapes misogynist cisheteropatriarchal rape/DV culture unscathed, not even the abusive men themselves. :(

  2. Maria says


    I think that Ali and Alex are definitely meant to parallel each other; their names are related, and Alexandra, at least, is another name for Cassandra, the seer whose warnings were never believed. It’s also another name for Hera, and means “protector.” It’s a good name for the characters — both because Ali’s name alludes to these other meanings but may not actually REFER to them, and because Alex is very up front about her role as Wyatt/Hunter’s protector.

    PA4 only leaves Robbie and Ali as the loose ends who aren’t sucked into the coven. Since the movies are pretty committed to coming out every year, I don’t think we’re going to have a weird love interest with those two since, uh, Robbie’s five. Ali also initially thought the haunting was HER mother, which suggests to me that Toby is not the only supernatural game up in this piece. In fact, maybe the reason Ali wasn’t as vulnerable to Toby’s machinations is because she had someone going to bat for her on the “other side.”

    The only other things I can think of is the identity of Katie/Kristi’s father…. and also that if the PA5 opens with a vision of a demonic Alex as a member of Toby’s coven, I’ll probably cry.

  3. Maria says

    Even with all that being said: I’m hopeful that PA5 will be the resolution/escape vehicle for Katie/Kristi, Hunter/Wyatt, Alex, and Ali. Alex ALMOST escaped, after all, and almost rescued her brother. I refuse to believe that a series like this would so break its own mold only to insist that there’s no way to break the cycle of abuse.

    Also, the other loose end? Who the FUCK has been posting about this coven AND ITS SECRETS online???

  4. says

    These sound great! I’ve been watching some classic haunting movies lately (’tis the season) and realized quite a lot of them do tell poignant psychological abuse/neglect stories – and on the whole, they definitely skew more feminist than movies as a whole. Which is great in one sense, but it’s also kind of sad that the most pro-female movie genre is one about abuse.

  5. Maria says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    It IS, but it’s also cool that they’re often movies about confronting abuse *and winning.* The downer in this series is that so far, at least, there’s not a way out.

    (though if the 5th movie looks at religious fundamentalism, with whatever blogger is posting the info referred to in the 1st, 2nd, and 5th movies being an escaped member of the coven, that would be pretty amazing)

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