Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), & Phenomena (1985): Halloween as Phenomenally Active Fable

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

Written by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst
Directed by Tod Williams
Starring Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, and Katie Featherston



Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Written by Christopher Landon
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring Lauren Bittner, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Chloe Csengery, and Jessica Tyler Brown



There’s a certain potency to the formula of the Paranormal Activity films. They have a way of simultaneously engaging the implicit voyeurism of the medium – compounded, no less, by the film’s being framed as personal home recorded video – while reprimanding this impulse in the audience by manipulating their expectations for violence.

The inherent exclusionary purview of the security camera, in Paranormal Activity 2, and home camcorder setup, in Paranormal Activity 3, borrows liberally from The Blair Witch’s innovative exploitation of the limits imposed by a found footage premise when grafted onto a horror film structure. It is axiomatic that tension and suspense are largely generated by that which is left out of the frame – think of Jaws or Halloween where the antagonist is withheld until the film’s last third. Framing a film as a found artifact, then, makes explicit the visual limitation of a single camera. Through this limitation of perspective, the viewer is made more sensitive to developments occurring off camera; the imagined horror is always more effective than the actual, just as the suspense generated through the anticipation of something horrific is exponentially more visceral than the horrible thing itself.

It is precisely this framing device that hamstrings the films, however. By arranging their “documented” happenings into conveniently narrative ninety minute parcels, the Paranormal Activity films call attention to the contingent nature of their plots. Where the spectre of the demon haunting the family is eerily invisible to the camera, the intentionality behind the film’s existence in their current forms in their realities are also problematically absent. It is unclear who has compiled the massive amount of footage from which these events are excised and arranged. Who has taken the great pains to so carefully structure the haunting of the sisters such that it follows dramatic and cinematic conventions of development while clearly engaging with an explicit manipulation of the viewer’s expectations in service of suspense? Intertitles are provided to contextualize to an extent, such as, “The Fourteenth Night”, or to tantalize the viewer toward a sequel, “Katie’s location is still unknown”. There is no indication that this compilation of footage has been arranged by the police, however, or a relative, or, indeed, how the tapes came into their current editor’s possession at all.

That a single pair of sisters is so beset by video recording technology in their lives also beggars credulity in a narrative sense. Here is where the films perhaps open themselves up to more speculative gestures, however. The omnipresence of the cameras articulate a pervasive cultural movement toward documentation. With each successively shorter generation of technology the ability for individuals to record their lives increases; what was once prohibitively expensive is now de rigueur thanks to cell phone cameras. What testifies more to this fact than the cornucopia of filtered food available to observe on Instagram? So Katie and Kristi, tellingly without a family name, become more allegorical placeholders than realized characters. Their demon problem transforms from mere terminal supernatural nuisance to instead gesture toward representing the negative potential, in terms of a violent domestic instability, that is parceled along with the invasion of the private sphere by this compulsion to document it. The invisibility of the demon allows it to occupy a space that is at once presence and absence opening its activity to be read as both representative of the domestic impact of act of recording and the violence implicit in the viewer’s voyeuristic desire. Through this reading of the film, the narrative’s conceptual inconsistencies are relocated to a less prominent position and, as such, are minimized in favour of a more generous fable-like function.


Phenomena (1985)

Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, and Daria Nicolodi

Perhaps surprisingly, Dario Argento’s Phenomena follows a similarly moralistic path. Argento’s quickly film establishes a juxtaposition between the sublime natural beauty of the film’s Swiss setting – it’s picturesque mountain ranges and boreal forests comprise the background of the film’s first shot – with the unnatural act of murder. Tellingly, once the head of the first victim is emancipated from the tyranny of its neckdom it tumbles into a gorgeous waterfall. The movement of the natural world subsumes the activity of its own perversion. This is a theme that the film revisits later in radically reconfigured terms.

Sent to a Swiss all girls private school by her absent actor father, Jennifer Corvino, Jennifer Connelly, arrives in the area as the police renew their attempts to unravel a series of unsolved murders. Jennifer is at once separated from her classmates by her Americanness and the fame of her father that gauzes her to such a degree that her own character is obscured to the girls she encounters. There is also the small matter of her supernatural ability to telepathically connect to, and manipulate, all sorts of insects. That marks her as different as well. The murders escalate as Jennifer successively fails to integrate into the school while befriending John McGregor, Donald Pleasence, an elderly and wheelchair-bound Professor of entomology whose closest companion and ersatz nursemaid is a chimp. The two bond over Jennifer’s resemblance to an aid that McGregor once had who was the first victim of the unidentified murderer and their love of insects. They are also, less explicitly, aligned as outsiders sympathetic to the other’s inability to integrate into larger society due to their physical and mental difference from the norm.

Argento’s singular sense for dramatic lighting is deployed throughout to the film to enhance both Jennifer’s strange dreams that precede her bouts of somnambulism – as if speaking to insects was not sufficient mental differentiation – and the constantly swaying foliage the surrounds the school and town. The soundtrack, too, features the synthetically cool atmospherics of Goblin as well as an occasional galloping Iron Maiden song, each working to heighten the mood of the film while underscoring its points of surreal disconnect.

All this builds toward McGregor devising a way to utilize Jennifer’s talents to track down the location of the killer via the habits of a fly that seeks out decomposing tissue. While her abilities are obviously supernatural, their connection to the natural world is not one of transcendence, but rather a more intimate connection. Jennifer is afforded a means of communicating and engaging with nature that renders her, in effect, more natural than natural, not unnatural. That the film predicates the solution of its central mystery on her gift speaks to this fact; Jennifer’s connection to the natural world is the only means to bridge the gap created by the unnatural intervention of the murderer. It seems only logical, then, that the murderer, when revealed, is presented as a physically deformed being; the perverse act of murder makes itself explicitly apparent on the countenance of its actor. If all this had not been entirely clear to this point, the final act of violence in the film is shockingly primitive (in its literal primate sense) and suggests the 6% genetic difference between chimpanzees and humans in no way includes either the genetic information for revenge of the use of a straight razor.

Phenomena‘s final confrontation occurs on a beach, in that archetypically liminal space between worlds – here between the natural and corrupt – after Jennifer has been submerged in water, cleansed and reborn. The first murder’s association with natural water resurfaces here, the turbulent activity of the waterfall resolved on the shore of a peacefully dark lake. The roles of victim and assailant have been reversed and a seemingly natural order is restored. Despite the narrative disjunctiveness of the film, which should be at least half apparent in the many strange affectations piled onto the character of Jennifer, Argento’s implicit sense for visual storytelling allows the film to carry along some sense of cohesion while its many smaller elements tug along its seams. As problematic as so solidly positing a binary between the natural world and its corruption may be, these concerns are at least moderately assuaged by the drama Argento can infuse his compositions with as they themselves skirt the space between the natural and the hyper-real.

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