The Confusing Politics of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
by Sean Bottai
THIS MONTH WE’LL BE THINKING THROUGH SOME OF 2014’S BEST AND/OR MOST SUCCESSFUL HORROR FILMS. WE’LL TRY TO SPOT CONNECTIONS, TENSIONS AND LARGER THEMES, AS WELL AS FIGURE OUT WHY SOME FILMS SUCCEED AND SOME FAIL AT ACHIEVING THEIR GOALS. MOVIES WILL BE DISCUSSED IN TOTAL, SO BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is refreshing and disheartening in equal measure. It’s interesting to think about it in a couple of different contexts. First, within the context of the horror franchise model in which sequels are produced yearly with diminishing returns. It’s something that’s always been a part of the genre, going all the way back to the 1930s with the classic Universal Monsters movies (more on those later this month when we think through I, Frankenstein and Dracula Untold). The best modern examples are the comically bloated slasher franchises of the 1980s and ’90s: sequels were quickly and mostly artlessly cranked out to John Carpenter’s masterpiece Halloween (by the end of the ’90s, there were 6 sequels), to Wes Craven’s inventive pop-classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (also 6 sequels by the year 2000), to Sean S. Cunningham’s shoddy but lovable Friday the 13th (8 sequels in the 20th century), which was itself a cash-in on the juggernaut success of Halloween. Even minor horror properties like Tom Holland’s Child’s Play and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser became industrialized (and on video/DVD, crap franchises from the era like Puppet Master, Children of the Corn, The Howling and The Amityville Horror have never ceased cranking out new installments). It makes sense, I guess, that it was during Reagan’s America that the horror genre came into its own as a mass consumer product.
Let’s just say that the Resident Evil and Underworld films qualify more as action franchises than horror (again, we’ll return to this idea with I, Frankenstein). That leaves the Paranormal Activity films holding the current title of horror’s top-earning franchise now that the Saw and Final Destination series have temporarily concluded (an eighth Saw film is reportedly in the works). A sixth Paranormal Activity movie, subtitled The Ghost Dimension, is slated for 2015. The Marked Ones stands out from all of the other theatrical horror franchises in that it’s a high-earning film series that has re-tooled itself to play to a very specific sub-section of the country. Horror franchises have pandered to minority audiences on direct-to-DVD releases (2000’s Leprechaun 5: In da Hood might be the best example), but never theatrically and never with such a clear sense that connecting the franchise’s generic white suburban setting to some kind of urban, ethnic milieu was essential to keeping the franchise going. Americans from Spanish-speaking families and backgrounds are the first major ethnic subgroup to get their own installment of a big horror franchise delivered to theaters, targeted at them. It’s interesting also that the film’s origins were first reported in the press as being a quickie spin-off before the next ‘real’ sequel, also slated for a 2014 release, but then that ‘real’ sequel never materialized and The Marked Ones was granted the status of the ‘official’ fifth movie. It was marketed as being inspired by the guileless enthusiasm of an anonymous “15-year-old Latina” from a Paranormal Activity 3 test-screening and stories of the movie’s white writer-director “visit[ing] Los Angeles botanicas” were quoted to give the movie authenticity (read more on that here).
However cynical the reasons for making the fifth movie an ‘ethnic’ sequel, The Marked Ones is radical in that it fixates its story on a bunch of barrio kids with no white intermediaries there to ‘translate’ them to a presumably white moviegoing public. Unlike The Purge: Anarchy, which provides a white paternal hero to ‘normalize’ a movie that, without him, would be mostly about a pair of biracial, non-white women, The Marked Ones assumes that it’s totally normal for a mainstream movie expected to make money at the box office to invest in the subjectivity of people who aren’t Anglo and aren’t upper-middle-class. Hector, one of our leads and the movie’s ostensible hero, wears a t-shirt that says “I Just Look Illegal.” Jesse’s grandmother speaks unsubtitled Spanish throughout the movie. This is very new, and it’s heartening.
The other big context I’ll argue for here might seem like more of a stretch, but it’s always been my belief that that the Paranormal Activity films represent a kind of cultural reaction to (or barometer of) the ongoing and evolving status of feminism and the roles/issues related to women’s place within society. To be blunt, the Paranormal Activity films – especially the first three – are “End of Men” horror movies. The 2007 original film is explicitly told from the point-of-view of a high-status modern American male – white, straight, upper class (he’s a day trader) – as he looks on in horror while his girlfriend’s emotional and mental stability slowly erode. The movie uses demonic possession as a barely-veiled metaphor for female mental illness or, to be crass about it, the shockingly mainstream idea that “bitches be crazy.” Katie is, in every way, a paranoid projection of late-2000s masculinity. She confirms that women are unpredictable, traumatized, unable to handle stress, anti-investigatory, and, eventually, unhinged. I read the politics of trigger warnings and female PTSD/rape-trauma into Katie’s policing of Micah’s attempts to document their experiences. She’s been ‘violated’ previously and Paranormal Activity continually depicts her resistance to Micah’s inquiry as irrational and over-sensitive, while rendering Micah’s lack of respect for her boundaries (he’s continuously thrusting a camera in her face against her protestations, even attempting to film their sexual activity without her consent) as the product of rationality, healthy curiosity, and problem-solving skills.
With The Marked Ones the franchise is just as committed to positioning itself as a record of male investigation into occult, malevolent femininity. Jesse and Hector are the next in the franchise’s lineage of rational male investigators (Micah in the original film, Dan from the first sequel, Dennis in part 3) trying to ‘solve’ the problem of women in their families/communities. In this case, it’s the eccentric downstairs neighbor Ana, a reputed bruja, who poses the threat. She’s older, single, and at various times in the movie she is coded as a possible lesbian/bull dyke (she forcefully confronts them outsider her door; the boys videotape her naked with a young woman engaged in ‘some kind of ritual’). This very recent resurrection of “the witch” or the “possessed” female as a formidable threat in genre cinema – 2013’s The Conjuring, the two Insidious films from 2010 and 2013, the despoiled matriarch Maria from 2012’s The Devil Inside, the perversely afflicted farm girl Nell from the Last Exorcism films in 2010 an 2013, the malevolent title entity from 2012’s remake of The Woman in Black, as well as the many monstrous women lurking in the various segments of the V/H/S anthologies in 2012, 2013, and 2014 – feel like a very potent cultural reaction to the gender politics of the current moment. This sense that powerful, (largely) straight men are losing their entitlement or sense of authority is reflected in everything from the Gamergate controversy to the tensions about “tech bros”, “brogrammers” and sexism in Silicon Valley to that whole “women aren’t funny” thing from a few years back, that actually keeps coming back up again and again. Men get fired from powerful jobs for making sexist remarks. Politicians invite derision and backlash for inventing sexist pseudoscience. To some, it’s a New World Order and its fucking scary as hell.
That’s why the movie’s reliance on deeply misogynistic fantasies of witchcraft are so revealing, so culturally relevant, but also so disappointing (though not quite as shocking as Insidious Chapter 2‘s mad mother and cross-dressing queer psychopath dyad). The Paranormal Activity films are more explicit than most contemporary horror about articulating male terrors and paranoias about women. The evil women in the franchise – who are all witches, spellcasters and demonic deviants – target men and sons as their primary victims. The first sequel culminates in a woman-led, demonic plot to kidnap and corrupt Hunter, the youngest male heir of the family. The Marked Ones also generates uncanny thrills from the notion of Ana, the unmarried bruja, seducing young men: first the barrio kid Oscar, then Jesse. They are the ‘marked ones’ of the movie’s subtitle, these young men who are so susceptible to being brainwashed/taken over by these communities of occult females. Demonic possession isn’t merely indicative of the tainted-ness of the female body (as in the first movie) but dramatizes how that tainted-ness is contagious, how it can infect young men, sicken them, dehumanize them and turn them into monsters… Just like the women are.