‘Paranormal Activity’ and Gender Politics
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. AND DISCUSSIONS ABOUT GENDER POLITICS.
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.
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).
This 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.
While 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.