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‘Paranormal Activity’ and Gender Politics

November 9, 2009


By now, almost everyone is familiar with the premise of the box office hit “Paranormal Activity”– a low-budget, Blair Witch Project style mockumentary featuring a girl (Katie), a boy (Micah), a camera, and an off-camera demon. What it also features is an excellent take on gender, evolutionary psychology, and what happens when it goes horribly horribly wrong.

Paranormal activity : le nouveau blair witch ?

The movie’s plot begins and ends with the overarching narrative that infuriates many feminists about contemporary horror movies: the woman as evil seeking to destroy man. We saw it most obviously in Lars Von Trier’s AntiChrist (see here for an interesting take on why that movie is, in fact, feminist, btw). In Paranormal Activity, the same ideas are explored less obviously, but also in an arguably more complex way. One more time, if you haven’t seen Paranormal Activity, I wouldn’t suggest you ‘read more’, as there. are. spoilers. beneath. the. cut.

Seriously, the spoilers begin now. Okay.

Here’s Paranormal Activity in a nutshell: demon has been pestering female since she was young, it returns when woman and man move in together. Man tries to fight demon with video camera and a lot of macho statements (“Is that all you’ve got”, etc.), demon feeds off the increasingly negative dynamic of male-female relationship, demon finally possesses woman, possessed woman kills man. The End. Terrifying. No really, it actually is a terrifying movie, but I’ll leave that to the reviews.

You know, it’s a bit distressing that the narrative of ‘woman as evil and out for the destruction of mankind’ remains popular in contemporary horror movies. But that’s for another debate. What is interesting is that the final, terrifying scene of Paranormal Activity was actually changed a number of times. The final ending chosen actually fits into this woman-as-evil narrative more clearly than the previous ones, interestingly enough. The final scene goes like this: we watch through the camera as the couple sleep. Then suddenly Katie sits up straight, gets out of bed, walks over to Micah and stands there staring at him for a few hours. She then walks out of the bedroom and goes downstairs. After a few minutes, we hear Katie screaming. Micah wakes up, screams to Katie that he is coming to help her, and runs out of the room. For the next few minutes you just see an empty bedroom while hearing both Katie and Micah screaming downstairs with a lot of commotion. After a few minutes, the screaming stops and it is silent. A minute or two later, you hear a loud stomping sound (like something heavy is coming up the stairs). is where the endings differ. In the ending that was chosen for the movie’s wide release, you hear footsteps slowly coming up the stairs, and then Micah’s body gets thrown into the camera. The camera falls to the ground and you see Katie standing at the door with blood stains on her shirt. She gets down on all fours and crawls– seemingly possessed– towards Micah, and sniffs his body like an animal. She then looks at the camera and smiles menacingly, before lunging at the camera and breaking it.

The above was Steven Spielberg’s altered (and final) ending. In the original ending, Micah’s body was never thrown towards the camera. Rather, only Katie walks back in the bedroom, covered in blood and holding a large butcher knife. Possessed, she walks right up to the camera, with only the upper half of her body in the shot, and then simply pulls up the knife and slashes her throat in one quick, graceful movement, and falls down on the ground. The camera keeps rolling so we just see an empty bedroom for a few seconds, and then the camera shuts off and the movie ends.

The original ending is quite different, politically, in one important respect: agency. In the original ending, Katie is absolved of any agency. Her face remains expressionless, and we are led to believe that the demon is now in complete control. The onus of Micah’s death, as well as Katie’s ‘suicide’ are on the demon, rather than Katie. In the final ending, however, Katie self-referentially sneers at the camera after sniffing Micah’s body, her face is not expressionless but rather very sinister. In a way, Spielberg’s ending completed the narrative of woman-as-evil much more coherently than the original ending would have. it would be fairly easy to close out the discussion at this point, allow me to delve a little further and explain why I think the movie actually goes further than your average horror movie in terms of gender representations. What Paranormal Activity does quite well is explore the dynamics of Katie and Micah’s relationship, and by doing so, unveils what happens when these gender dynamics go horribly horribly wrong.

Micah’s primal response to the whole demon thing is to protect and provide for his mate. Unfortunately for him, his mate is possessed by a demon, which as everyone knows, really complicates shit. His desire to be the strong alpha male was vocalized a number of times: “This is my house,” he says, “You are my girlfriend.” His solution is to confront the demon head on, despite the pleas of both Katie and the psychic to avoid provoking the demon with the camera, the taunts, and the ouija board (check, check, and big fuckin’ check).

And what does Katie do? She tries to tell Micah, a number of times, not to provoke the fucking thing. She knows it’s wrong, she knows its dangerous, but despite a lot of bitching, she doesn’t actually ever take the reigns and put a stop to it. And therein lies the problem. Is she merely subservient to her structured gender role, or is there something inherently evolutionary about the desire of a woman to feel safe in the arms of the mate she has chosen, to ensure that the man she has entrusted with her safety make the right decision? In this sense, Paranormal Activity explores the dynamics of what feeds into the classic couple’s fight of the woman who wants the man to pull over and ask for directions.

Additionally, when looked at from this angle, the fate of the couple cannot easily be blamed solely on the female. In particular, the psychic’s warning that the demon “feeds off of negative energy” symbolizes that what has in fact empowered the demon is the unhealthy dynamic that develops when these structured gender roles come into play.

And if this dynamic– the male as the protector, ignoring female instincts, and the female, structured to stand by her man even when he’s being a complete retard– leads to destruction, perhaps Paranormal Activity, despite it’s woman-as-demon theme, is a lot more intelligent as a critique of contemporary gender structures than we think.

Completely off-topic, but if you’re interested in another great examination of Paranormal Activity– this one involving themes of socio-economic status and the current recession, Slate has it for you.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. theflithyviewer permalink
    November 9, 2009 1:27 pm

    there is a third ending that we saw here thanks to illegal downloading it, in which the woman comes up the stairs with a bloodied shirt, holding the knife, sits down by the bed and rocks back and forth for a day or two (the light in the back turns on and off, in a freaky way). Her friend calls, leaves a message, comes by to check what happened and finds the guys body, screams and runs out.

    cops come, and when they come to the bed room, the girl gains her senses (not aware of whats going on), she still has the knife and tries to speak to the cops, who because they are cops, shoot her dead.

    i’m interested in knowing how this falls within your narrative, because i think that ending (which is the second best, behind the throat slitting one) fits into your narrative.

  2. theflithyviewer permalink
    November 9, 2009 1:30 pm

    interesting take on the movie, btw.

    check out Cannibal Holocaust, for a take on “civilization-savage” dynamic.

  3. sysh permalink*
    November 9, 2009 1:40 pm

    Actually, the ending you mention fits really well with it all, despite– from a cinematic perspective– being really dumb and anti-climatic. Politically though, it does rope in societal perspectives of gender: society– symbolized by the police– literally bust a cap in woman’s ass for destroying man.

    Do you have a link to Cannibal Holocaust? Is it specifically looking at Paranormal Activity?

  4. theflithyviewer permalink
    November 9, 2009 3:45 pm

    Cannibal Holocaust is a 1980 Italian horror film, dubbed the most controversial film made for the 20th century, due to its content. It can be seen in its entirety on google video.

    The parallel with Paranormal is that its one of those hand-held camera type horror flicks.

    wikipedia it, highly interesting.

  5. Kassidy Kae Pruitt permalink
    November 20, 2009 1:32 am

    i loved it and i blieve its true! me and my boyfrend saw itand it was freakng scary! i loveit! great enthusiasm! and detail!

  6. C fg permalink
    November 30, 2009 6:01 pm

    Geeezzz…. It’s just a film. It’s hardly gender politics.
    I’m a man and I don’t feel that any woman or this fictional character were trying to destroy men.

    1- this is an over the top, sensationalist assesment of a FILM
    2- the girl wasn’t possesed or evil until the very last scene. She wasnt portrayed as some bitch trying to destroy mankind but a girl who had been haunted by some demon most of her life.

    What is distressing?

    This is as bad as when I read that 300 was ‘racist’ because it portrayed the people from the East as monsters. (completely ignoring the fact that the film is based on legend, narrated from a biased perspective, and that the entirity of the film is pretty unrealistic.

  7. snugglebus permalink*
    December 1, 2009 11:54 am

    sorry to disagree with you C fg, but I think it is perfectly reasonable to think about the implicit meanings at play in this film or any other. hollywood is probably the biggest manufacturer of imagery that people make explicit choices to consume and to expose themselves to. doesn’t it make sense then to ask aloud what sort of ideas are at work in a film that will be impacting its audience sub-conciously?

    in the case of 300, though i instinctively probably felt the same as you at the time, the point was that more than simply being racist, a lot of people were concerned with the being facist. facist in the sense that it glorified the idea of heroic self-sacrifice by a race of buff, ethnically pure white guys, resisting the incursion of a mysterious ‘others’, a horde of threatening outsiders (who also seemed to serve as a dumping ground for all sorts of pathological fears, managing to be simulaneously exotic, effeminate, and threatening for example).

    and isn’t this the exactly the structure at work with many american conservative commentators today? claiming to represent a small group of people, the only ones holding onto the true (or ‘pure’) sense of the American ideal, and the only ones prepared to ‘stand up’ against the incursion of a horde of threats (gays, immigrants, terrorists, despotism etc.)?

    the question to ask then is more how much this sort of imagery actually matters, especially when we are bombarded by so many different images daily. what does it matter what the ideas are at play in one particular film? that is really the more complicated question. but its certainly wrong to criticise this kind of thought process as illegitimate imo.

    • December 7, 2009 3:14 pm

      nice pic……. if seen like a true story t has a kinda flavour n it…

      but i can believe tis oly if i see the dead bodies of the couple,.

      the polis must ve taken fotografs……..

      can sumone tell more abt tis???

  8. evilyngarnett permalink
    December 29, 2009 6:55 am

    Just finished the film, ran to the computer, googled “paranormal activity movie gender” : that’s how extreme the gender role dynamic appeared to me. Your take was interesting, and more complex than mine–although similar, in one sense: what you {and the psychic} called “negative energy”, I called “horror”. I truly the thought the exaggerated gender dynamics were part of the horror. The man, a walking male fantasy straight out of a beer commercial ( wise-crackin’ stay at home day trader frat-boy) refuses not just directions, but seriously needed professional help, selfishly and stupidly putting the woman he supposedly wants to protect in terrible danger. She, meanwhile, shrieks at the sight of a spider (eek) and has serious “girl time” with her friend by making beaded frilly things–she is either in a state of terror or “common sense” throughout most of the film: “Oh my God, Micah, be careful”…There was something monstrous, grotesque and yes, frightening about their over-defined gender roles. Of course the reverse at the end made it all the more satisfying–there’s a serious sense of gratification watching this fratboy get what he was asking for and seeing Miss Moffat turn into the spider. And what about their ultra-cool American dream house with the giant flat screen TV? Isn’t there something in there about making your home into to much of a castle and never leaving it? Anyway thanks for your take, I am glad I’m not the only one who noticed the Gender Horror.

    • sysh permalink*
      December 29, 2009 11:55 am

      hey, thanks for the well-thought out reply! Glad you enjoyed it! Stay tuned for more stuff 🙂

  9. Just Some Guy permalink
    January 8, 2010 11:56 am

    It’s amazing to me how threatened anyone can feel about a woman doing something so insidious as…acting like a woman.


    Gender roles? I don’t suppose anyone who sits and snuggles with these kinds of ridiculous notions likes to consider crazy influences like… evolution?

    Nah, that’d be just ludicrous…

  10. January 18, 2010 6:32 pm

    não vi nada de paranormalidade

  11. January 18, 2010 6:33 pm

    não vi nada de paranormalidade
    achei muito fútil

  12. Observer permalink
    November 15, 2011 9:44 pm

    I am jumping into the conversation a few years late, but after seeing the third Paranormal Activity, I’m interested in how gender is used to create fear. This was alluded to in your synopsis. I think a large portion of the fear factor comes from the fact that the man (Katie’s father in the third installment, but there is a male lead in each film) has no control over his own property (not just the household, but as head of the household, his significant other, and in the second film as well as the third, his children). To be clear, I am not suggesting that women should be considered men’s property, but rather that this is an established concept of conventional gender roles (the whole “I call it as I see it, not as how it should be” theory). I think this creates fear and anxiety for the male audience members, whether they notice it or not. As was pointed out in the above commentary, the traditional gender roles establish females as subservient to the protection of their male counterparts. The anxiety that comes from losing control of one’s perceived property thus extends to females as well (“My protector has no control”). I think the female audience members actually draw fear from the male lead losing control as well for this reason.


  1. Links of Great Interest: Don’t you hear this hammer ring? | The Hathor Legacy

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