In my new column, Distorted Memories, I am taking on the world of found footage, a divisive horror film technique that relies on shaky cameras, glitchy footage, and the power of the unseen to portray a constructed version of the truth. Found footage is a revolutionary cinematic technique that reveals our relationship to truth and technology, whether through video cameras or webcams. Each month I’ll examine a found footage film, its techniques, and how it works to portray reality to create fear. From The Blair Witch Project to The Den, I’ll be discussing the importance of glitches, the terror of the static camera, and much more. This is my love letter to found footage, an experimental technique and subgenre that challenges the way we look and enjoy horror.
I love the Paranormal Activity franchise. I recently spent my 27th birthday watching all six while eating snacks and taking long baths. In rewatching each film and taking in how they evolve and grow over the years, I couldn’t stop thinking about the houses of each installment. Each seemed more extravagant than the next, vast spaces with plenty of places for demons to hide.
The domestic spaces of the franchise dictate what exactly we are able to see and how innovative characters become when trying to capture more footage. Not only that, but these homes, with the exception of the apartment in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, are physical manifestations of the American dream. They are spacious, packed with stainless steel appliances, the latest tech, and of course, a pool in the backyard. These are the homes of the comfortable and wealthy, families that seem to have it all until demons begin to tear them apart inside and out. The Paranormal Activity franchise reflects societal fears of the destruction of domestic spaces, the only place where we truly feel safe. Without that space, where can you go to escape? Further, we really only see the events that take place inside of each house; there is no security footage or video of activity in the outside world. These films become insular bubbles that are focused on the destruction taking place inside the home.
“The Paranormal Activity franchise reflects societal fears of the destruction of domestic spaces, the only place where we truly feel safe.”
In the first installment of Paranormal Activity, the viewer is presented with a beautiful three-bedroom apartment in Southern California. There lives unmarried couple Katie (Katie Featherston), a student, and Micah (Micah Sloat), a day trader. It is a massive apartment that seems like it would be exorbitantly expensive for this couple. And yet here they live comfortably until a demonic presence begins to terrorize Katie. Even in this beautiful, new-looking apartment, something sinister can still infiltrate it and taint it. There is only one camera, used primarily by Micah, that is either carried around by him or is placed on a tripod while they sleep. The viewer is only given access to the rooms where Micah and Katie are. That means unknown terrors occur outside of the frame, but the viewer isn’t able to see them, which increases the horror of the scenario and the unknowability of this creature.
The house of Paranormal Activity 2 expands in size, as does the family at the center of its story. With more space comes more cameras, as static security cameras nestle in high corners of the house, becoming flies on the wall that are silently observing the increased demonic activity. The viewer is able to get a better idea of the scope of the haunting; this is not just Micah’s camera that is only seeing that Micah can see. More horrors, such as all of the cabinets flying open, are captured. There is no longer a reliance on someone constantly holding a camera, though hand-held POV footage is included to add layers of fear; the viewer is not just presented with these events from a distance.
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The franchise then goes back in time with Paranormal Activity 3, looking at Katie and Kristi as children, living with their single mom, Julie, and her boyfriend, Dennis. While their mother is the sole provider for the family, their home is, again, large and spacious, full of cool furniture and as many toys as a kid could ask for. As this film takes place in the 1970s, that places a technological constraint on the types of cameras that can be used. There are no easily-accessible security cameras to place in corners. Instead, Dennis gets creative to capture as much space as possible. While there are static cameras, the piece de resistance of Paranormal Activity 3 is the camera placed on the oscillating fan so it can pan across the first floor and reveal what’s happening in multiple rooms, albeit at a rather slow pace. This leads to some of the film’s most effective scares as another room slowly comes into frame and something that wasn’t there before has appeared. Again, while this is revealed by the camera, it is the domestic space that presents Dennis with these restrictions and enables his creativity.
Again, with Paranormal Activity 4 and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, the homes are massive, extravagant, and almost seem unreal. I put these two films together because at this point in the franchise, these two films closely follow the formula established by the previous films: cameras around the house, creepy things happen on camera, it only escalates. There is not much done in the name of innovation, except for the use of the Xbox Kinect camera in Paranormal Activity 4. The Xbox Kinect is a motion-sensing device that lets you place video games without a controller. That means it uses cameras to sense who is in front of it and translate its moments on screen. Of course, that camera, whose image is full of green dots, is used to capture the strange and unexplainable. This gaming system, a luxury item that often serves as a symbol of wealth, transforms from a form of entertainment to a weapon against the forces that lurk in this house.
“[Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones] offers a breath of fresh air not only to the franchise, but to the horror genre as a whole.”
A majority of this franchise is focused on wealthy white families and how they fall apart in front of the camera’s eye. However, the fifth installment, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, subverts the established expectations of these films by focusing on a working class Latinx family that lives in a small apartment, rather than another McMansion. This offers a breath of fresh air not only to the franchise, but to the horror genre as a whole. So often Latinx characters are stereotypes and not leads of American horror films. They are maids (as seen in Paranormal Activity 2), construction workers, characters on the periphery that hold little to no importance to the film’s narrative. And poverty in horror is often portrayed with no nuance and only as something negative that should be ignored or completely destroyed. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones works against those expectations and uses the smaller spaces of individual apartments and its young Latinx characters to tell a new story that is unfortunately almost never seen in popular horror films.
The homes of the Paranormal Activity franchise are just as integral to the story as the demonic presence and night vision cameras. These sprawling, or cramped, spaces provide plentiful scares as well as a rather fascinating examination of the role and importance of the domestic space. Right away these homes provide the characters with a socioeconomic identity. The viewer knows something about them before even meeting or learning much else about the characters. From massive living rooms and high ceilings to rentals with chipping paint, Paranormal Activity’s domestic spaces are vessels for the creative and the demonic.
What’s your favorite film in the Paranormal Activity franchise? Let me know over on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook page.