Girl Meets Context: Horror Franchise Month continues as we visit with the most recent of the big mainstream horror series. The first of the Paranormal Activity films was made for only $15,000 and raked in over $193 million worldwide. Combined, all four Paranormal movies have grossed over $700 million, not including the Japanese and Latin spinoff films. The premise of the first film is quite simple: a young woman, Katie (Katie Featherston), believes she is being stalked by an unseen entity and turns to her live-in boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), for help and guidance. Micah decides to purchase a camera and document the “paranormal activity” that manifests around Katie. They also consult with a hapless male psychic who insists that this is “not his area of expertise,” only telling the couple that they are being plagued by a demon, not by a ghost. As time passes, the uncanny occurrences ramp up in number and intensity, leaving Katie a terrified shell of her former self. But also, Katie begins to exhibit odd, possibly threatening, behavior. With a “shock” ending and critical raves, Paranormal Activity became a national phenomena, leading to water cooler debates about its authenticity (because, as The Blair Witch Project had done in 1999, the filmmakers purported that the events depicted in the film were “real,” even setting up a website chronicling the “true story” of Micah and Katie’s terrible fate). Kristine and I sat down to talk about the surprising online conversation going on about lead actress Katie Featherston, the film’s reliance on Gothic tropes, and the “male gaze.” Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Sean: So this may not be the most productive way to start off our conversation about Paranormal Activity, but are you aware that people all over the Internet consider Katie Featherston, the female lead in the movie, to be a fat, obese creature? And are disgusted by the very sight of her? If you don’t believe me, look at this and this and this and this and this.
Kristine: Yeah, I did some minor peeking around the Internet in preparation for our discussion, and I got the gist that there were all these online people calling her obese.
Sean: Can you even believe?
Kristine: I am horrified, especially because Katie being busty was one of the only things I remembered about the movie! Sean, am I part of the problem???
Sean: Well, what do you mean when you say “busty”?
Kristine: That she has big tits.
Sean: Yes, she does. I would say there’s a big difference between that observation and saying, “She’s obese.”
Kristine: Sure, of course, but it’s still putting her body at the forefront of the conversation about the movie.
Sean: I just think America is still so not used to seeing like, real women’s bodies. I know that sounds like Women’s Studies seminar tripe, but I was shocked that people online were literally saying “Ugh, her obese body!”
Kristine: That is just plain ridiculous. Not to mention that everyone knows all those trolls are actual fatties. I did think that her “real girl” appearance was a requirement for the cinéma vérité conceit of the movie, don’t you? But, also, SHE’S NOT FAT.
Sean: No. But I agree with you that the movie feels more “real” because she’s not a stick-thin Hollywood creature. So, when we first watched the movie you were like, “That was it?” and were unimpressed. Is that an accurate summary?
Kristine: Wait, first I have a question: Was Katie Featherston ever cast in anything else?
Sean: No, she’s only been in the Paranormal Activity movies. But she’s been in all four of them so far.
Kristine: Oh, weird. So to answer your question, yes. I remember being underwhelmed because Paranormal Activity was touted as being the scariest thing ever (not by you, but that’s how it was marketed with all the trailers of audiences freaking out in the theatre, etc.). I thought a lot of the movie was silly, like the Ouija board bursting into flames, but some of it has actually stuck with me and creeps me out to this day. To wit, sometimes when I am in bed and have my foot out from under the covers, I remember the scene when the invisible demon grabs Katie by the ankle and pulls her from the room and I freak out and have to pull my foot in under the covers where it is safe! That happens, like, once a week.
Sean: Haha! I agree that the moment when she is pulled out of bed by the ankle is the best creepy moment. The Ouija board bit is hella dumb
Kristine: So dumb.
Sean: Ugh, the dumbest, and only made all the more dumb by imagining it terrifying Christians the world over.
Kristine: I barely remember the character of the “expert” psychic/demonologist or whatever, but I do remember her boyfriend, Micah, being a RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] prick. [Editor’s Note: For the backstory on RIMA, see our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy.]
Sean: Yeah, there’s a demonologist who keeps getting brought up as the ultimate authority on the subject but he never actually shows up in the movie. And I always thought it was a wasted opportunity, especially in the sequels. But the presence of the male psychic (and the off-screen demonologist) actually links up thematically to how the boyfriend, Micah, is a total RIMA monster. It is my assertion that this movie is literally about the male gaze and Katie is subjected to it and treated like an object of study for the entire movie. It is all RIMAs, all the time in this movie.
Kristine: Sure, yes. Micah’s solution to the “problem” of Katie’s demon is to video-record her and study her. His death by her hand at the end is very satisfying, right?
Sean: Yes. This movie has a happy ending: the death of Micah.
Kristine: Me no like-ah Micah. Isn’t the movie also about yet another woman who is either innately evil or brings evil into the world? Because the demon isn’t connected to the house, it’s connected to her, right?
Sean: Yes. Just like The Exorcist, the body of a young woman is the “problem.” But I also feel like the movie constructs Katie, in the first 20 minutes, as the “perfect girlfriend.” She’s laughs at all of Micah’s stupid jokes and she appears independent but is actually completely dependent on Micah.
Kristine: She is someone’s idea of a perfect girlfriend because she is smart, but in a totally non-threatening way. She doesn’t have her own power job to compete with him. She has plenty of time to hang out with him. And, of course… big tits.
Sean: She is set up by the movie as the object of study and because Micah is the one holding the camera, because he is the “gazing male,” the movie is constructed in this deeply problematic way.
Kristine: As I recall, the power structure in their relationship is pretty fucked. He’s like some rich day trader guy and she is a student who lives in his giant house with him. So right there, he has a lot more control over the relationship. It’s HIS house and he has the final say over what goes on there.
Sean: Yes! Micah constantly exerts control and RIMAness over her. He says, “So this could be a really rare phenomenon and it’s cool that we got it on tape.” Katie replies, “I’m surprisingly not as excited as you considering I’m the one that’s being terrified.” Then he says, “That’s all good. We’ll take care of it.” I think his tone is consistently condescending and dismissive. He says, “Um, I know it’s “bead time” right now….” when she and her girlfriend are making jewelry together. At another point Micah says to her, “Take a deep breath. Pop a pill. Nobody comes into my house, fucks with my girlfriend and gets away with this.” When Katie wants to call the demonologist Micah repeats, “I’m taking care of it – this is my house, you’re my girlfriend, and I’m gonna fucking solve the problem.” She just says, “Okay.”
Kristine: Yeah. And he gets irritated when their problems start to interfere with their sex life and his life in general.
Sean: Kristine! They want to have sex and he puts the camera next to the bed and tells her that it is off. He says, “That’s the standby light,” but it is a total lie. When he told that lie in the theater screening I went to, the entire audience was dying and laughing hysterically, delighted by what a cheeky scamp he is. But Katie knows he is lying and makes him turn the camera off. Then, after they have sex, he turns the camera back on to say, “That was probably illegal in Kentucky and eight other states. This girl is a wild animal” while she giggles and hides her face in the covers.
Kristine: I remember. It was gross. So, do you want to know what I think this movie is really about?
Kristine: I think “the demon” that follows Katie is actually depression or mental illness. Micah’s reaction reminds me of how men often react to women suffering from depression. Like, at first they want to help, which translates into figuring out “why” and “solving” it, and then they get annoyed and frustrated when it starts affecting their quality of life and their image of their “perfect girlfriend.”
Sean: You are brilliant. I was going to say, the way that Katie winds up, by the latter half of the movie, catatonic and wrapped in a blanket on the couch or like, crying in bed, collapsed on the floor sobbing hysterically… That all feels like some big insistence on the part of the movie that women are these moody, complicated, depressive creatures. Katie says, “I’m gonna go lay down” like, a hundred times.
Kristine: Yeah, agreed. But I have been that moody, complicated, depressed lady.
Sean: I don’t know if you remember, but the big climax in their interpersonal relationship is when she finally screams at him and insists that Micah is “Absolutely powerless!” That is the moment of true horror in this movie because it is made for straight men, with straight men’s subjectivity on its mind. Straight men’s anxieties and fears of the feminine are at the center of the movie.
Kristine: Ah, I didn’t remember that but you are right. That is Micah’s biggest fear, right? He’s such a bag of shit.
Sean: The conceit of the movie is that a demon is following Katie around tormenting her, but Micah is also the one following her around, tormenting her. The victimization, invasion and clinical study of Katie is the movie. And to riff on your argument that the movie is really about depression, of course she’s right… He is powerless and, in the end, he is destroyed by her sadness. Remember when he like, finds her on the back porch wrapped in a blanket being catatonic? Or when she stands in the bedroom rocking like an autistic freak for hours?
Kristine: Those standing-and-staring scenes were really scary. Am I making this up or haven’t you found your boyfriend sitting up in bed staring at you in a catatonic state?
Sean: My boyfriend, like eight years ago when we first started dating, once spoke in tongues and climbed over me in his sleep to get out of bed and it was terrifying.
Kristine: Dude. I would freak!
Sean: The scariest part was wondering what he would have done if I had let him get up and go out into the darkness…. Like, get a knife? Burn the house down?
Kristine: Did you hold him down or something? Did you wake him up?
Sean: I commanded him to get back in bed and in his catatonic state he just… listened to me. Then in the morning I told him about it, after I had spent the rest of the night lying awake and terrified.
Kristine: What was he saying when he was speaking in tongues? What did it sound like? Was it like the vampire language in 30 Days of Night?
Sean: Yes! It sounded guttural and pre-Babylonian.
Kristine: I am dying.
Sean: It was horror.
Kristine: Were his eyes open or shut?
Sean: They were 3/4 open.
Kristine: Has it happened since? Is it going to happen again… tonight???
Sean: No, it never happened again.
Kristine: Was he under a lot of stress at the time? Am I being a Micah right now?
Sean: No, the opposite. The reason his dreams stopped is because he has worked all these high-pressure jobs ever since. That catatonia was a product of a free mind that was beginning to… wander. And was open enough to receive signals from the ninth circle of Hell.
Kristine: Wow. I am… uncomfortable.
Sean: Deal with it.
Kristine: How much demon-haunting/mental illness should one put up with in a relationship? Before you bounce?
Sean: I would stick it out Drag Me to Hell-style. I would be slaughterin’ goats and shit. Though I’ve heard apocryphal word-of-mouth tales of breakups that happened because of supernatural activity…
Kristine: Yay! But what if your boyfriend was sitting, huddled in a blanket, for like 6 months?
Sean: Um, that’s happened before! He was just drunk.
Sean: So back to the movie I am dying about the English major and the day trader.
Kristine: That’s pretty classic “gender roles” BS if you ask me.
Sean: How come ghosts and demons never haunt poor people’s houses?
Kristine: I know, right? Even in Insidious, where the parents are a public school teacher and a freelance piano instructor, their house is amazing.
Sean: The signs of their wealth are everywhere in the movie. Katie is making jewelry, Micah’s guitar, the expensive camera, the convertible, the pool, “our extra bathroom, the guest bedrooms.”
Kristine: I think part of it is supposed to be a form of “character development ” for Micah. This is a dude who is used to being a successful problem-solver and an alpha male. So his failure to get rid of the demon or “fix” Katie is all the more frustrating for a man like him. Or something like that.
Sean: So men without Micah’s wealth are all ready emasculated wimps, so why bother?
Kristine: No, I am saying it is the movie’s way of telling us what kind of dude Micah is. I am not trying to explain the demon’s choice to haunt them.
Sean: But I am seriously asking a larger question about the genre in general: Why are all hauntings always in rich people places?
Kristine: Poor people already have people hounding them constantly – landlords, bill collectors, etc.
Sean: So landlords are like holy water? They drive away the supernatural?
Kristine: Rich people houses are more fun to haunt – all those rooms and space. If YOU were a ghost, wouldn’t you want to haunt some huge swank pad? I would. Remember in The Innocents when Miss Giddens says there were no “secrets” in her house growing up because it was too small?
Sean: Right! Awesome connection! I think it has to do with the ghost story’s roots in Gothic literature. The genre standards of the haunted castle… I think we’ve never really left those basic traditions behind. This movie’s contemporary iteration of the Gothic is turning a McMansion in suburban San Diego into the haunted castle, and making the sound of the air conditioning in the vent, the sound of the icemaker in the fridge become possibly uncanny – I think that might also account for the way the movie “handles” Katie… That Gothic tradition/idea/obsession of the proper women being “hunted” by a hungry beast.
Kristine: So it’s great when that is turned on it’s head and the beast is her?
Sean: Oh I don’t know about that… I think Katie’s fear is eroticized in the movie. Katie waking up from a dream or cowering in terror sounds like a woman having an orgasm. Katie tells Micah, “Whatever’s following me, it feels like a monster and like it wants to hurt me.”
Kristine: Isn’t it also about the classic hysterical woman?
Sean: Yes. I mean, this is why I’m actually genuinely fascinated by the popularity of these movies. I really think, more than any of the other franchise movies we’ve watched, that this taps into some deep well of collective psychology about gender politics.
Kristine: I agree. Going back to the (gross) post-coital monologue that Micah delivers to the camera – he likes Katie’s “wild animal” feral side when it comes to having sex with her, but not so much when she is looming over him or hurling him against the wall.
Sean: Yes. When I see that footage of audiences watching this movie in the trailer, I can’t help but think, “They are telling all the girls in the audience that they are occult creatures to be feared and all the men that they should do their best to control/contain their women… but that they will fail because of woman’s exquisite uncanniness.”
Kristine: Right, but you don’t think the movie also knows that Micah is an intolerable prick? You and I can’t be the only ones who cheered his death at her hands.
Sean: Kristine. I think that most people identify with Micah and that most people are like, “Yep that’s how men are and that’s how women are!” when they see the Micah/Katie relationship. I mean, the movie constructs itself so that we identify with Micah, because he controls the camera and the gaze.
Kristine: Ugh! So you think most people are like, “I hate that fat demonic bitch! How dare she kill Micah!”???
Kristine: Ugh. I am upset now.
Sean: In terms of what this movie tells men about how they should behave… So much of the movie is about Micah not honoring Katie’s wishes. She keeps insisting that she doesn’t want the ghost/demon to manifest and Micah keeps making decisions that instead encourage the ghost/demon to manifest. She says, “Micah stop!” a least a thousand times in the movie. When she screams early in the movie because a spider is in the bathroom, Micah stops to get the camera before he runs to help her. She even says, “I’m in here losing my mind and you stop to get the camera?” Which of course adds to the movie’s notion that women are “crazy.” But the biggest thing is that he brings the Ouija board into the house after she expressly asks him not to. In fact when Katie and her girlfriend express concern over the idea of the Ouija board, Micah gets really annoyed and is like, “Just let me do my thing!” And then lying to her about the camera being off before sex?
Kristine: Yeah, all true. Again, because he is the king of the castle, he can dismiss her wishes and there isn’t much she can do about it.
Sean: King of the castle. Do you agree that all ghost movies, at their core, rely on Gothic tropes? Even in Poltergeist – the closest thing I can think of to a middle class family being haunted – the suburban home is still a “castle” that is haunted….
Kristine: So far as what I have seen. Sean, is this what it’s going to be like when my boyfriend and I live together? Will I have to get permission to have “Bead Night’ with my gal pals?
Sean: Hahahaha! “Bead Night”! But with you wouldn’t that refer to anal beads?
Kristine: Ha, exactly!
Sean: I also want to point out that Micah is homophobic. Micah says, “What a fruit” about the male psychic from the beginning of the movie.
Kristine: Ah right, I forgot about that. Of course he is. Tell me about the sequels to this movie. I know it was very successful at the box office.
Sean: In Paranormal Activity 2, Katie’s sister and her family are the ones being haunted. The “male gaze” problem is sort of solved in the sequel because the entire family is being recorded by a security system that has cameras everywhere. The male in the house is not “in control” of the movie’s gaze.
Kristine: Oh, that’s kind of interesting.
Sean: Yes, I agree! Then Paranormal Activity 3 goes back in time to when Katie and her sissy were little girls, and their Dad is the one videoing everything, so the camera is back in the hands of the male RIMA. Couldn’t they have made it the Mom videotaping? Of course not! I just want to state, for the record, how much this movie depresses the hell out of me and convinces me that feminism changed…. barely anything.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: THESE are the relationship norms of America. Katie and Micah are “your average heterosexuals.”
Kristine: I think their relationship is totally realistic in all respects!
Sean: Every time a guy makes a joke to his friends about “bead night,” Micah’s evil spirit gains power.
Kristine: TOTALLY agree. That is why my rating is: This movie either has too many ideas or not enough. I don’t know which and I am too depressed to figure it out.
Sean: My revised title for this movie is The Female Subject: An Exploration into the Uncanny Feminine, Complete with Big Bazooms.
Kristine: Ha ha ha! I love it.
Sean: My rating is This movie is hate speech.
Kristine: I hate how there is a way to read this movie in which SHE is not good enough for HIM.
Sean: Because she’s an obese cow, Kristine. Don’t you see that?
Kristine: Ugh. I am dying.
The Girl’s Rating: This movie either has too many ideas or not enough. I don’t know which and I am too depressed to figure it out.
The Freak’s Rating: This movie is hate speech.