This is a flick straight out of the Ghost Hunters handbook. Nighttime footage, often poorly shot, is edited into semi-coherence for the sake of a credulous audience. Some people think Ghost Hunters is genuinely creepy and thought-provoking. It isn’t, but Paranormal Activity 2 is. As with the first film, the boon is the vilifying of the American patriarch. Micah Sloat was a masterful evocation of the passive-aggressive paternalistic chauvinism that still exists like a rotten, vestigial organ in American culture. Katie’s relationship to him was directly related to their relationship to the demon that harassed them. Ultimately, they both paid the price for failing to acknowledge the real problem: not the demon, but the troubling manipulations plaguing them as a couple. The sequel doesn’t hit this thematic aspect quite as hard, but there is grist bubbling under the surface. A newly-minted blended family: a step-mom (and new mother) with a dark past; a teenage daughter adjusting to no longer being an only child; a father too wrapped up in his work and arrogance to pay attention to his family. These facets aren’t really explored much in depth, but probably the single most blood-boiling thing about the entire film is that the father, Dan, spends a king’s ransom to install this high-tech security system, and then doesn’t even bother to watch the footage when his wife and child beg him to do so. Beyond his condescension toward his wife and daughter, the film pokes a needle in the eye of the myth of the Man protecting his Home at all costs, depicting a truly ugly moral compromise at the moment of truth. Micah may have been a bit of an asshole, but he was at least genuinely clueless. If my wife came to me one morning and told me in all earnestness that she was being hounded by a demon, we would be on a plane to the Vatican by sundown. Dan Rey almost qualifies as a villain, and it blew my mind that he could be so obtuse.
The journey of discovery — of themselves and the evil things around them — these characters take may not be new, but it rings true, even with all the crass manipulations. First they come to grips with the fact that, yes, there are evils out there beyond their ken. Then they have to come to grips with what that means. Then they have to decide what to do about it. On a basic level, it’s still about the characters, and the choices they make as individuals. What struck me in particular about one of the film’s biggest “boo” set pieces wasn’t just that it made me jump in my seat when it happened, but the fact that it happened to one of the characters when that character was alone, in a location where they felt secure. And after the violation of that scene, instead of immediately calling for help or fleeing, that character simply covered up the evidence and tried to forget about it — all because someone else had said that perhaps ignoring it was the best course of action. That’s certainly insane and inadvisable; the only thing that happens to ostriches in horror films is their decapitated heads get buried in the sand.
Upon reflection, however, that character’s reaction seems appropriate. Not correct, but apt — an astute perception about the way people react to situations that are so huge, overwhelming, and wrong that turning a blind eye seems the only sensible thing. We’re irrational creatures, and while cold logic and rationality may be as close to objective as we can get without actually being immobile security cameras ourselves, the fact that the film has a clear, narrative thread makes it an obvious attempt to put us in a more empathetic position relative to the characters. As frustrating as it may be, people ignore the truth about their own imminent peril all the time. Having plain-as-day documented evidence isn’t going to change the fact that people will behave in ways contrary to their own welfare whether they see the evidence or not. That’s kind of the crux of the Paranormal Activity films. The people can see what’s happening to them. They have time to react. They have options. They make the wrong choices. They suffer. And there’s nothing we, as viewers, can do to help them. It’s terrifying, but it’s the world we live in.
In Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of The Haunting, the protagonist responded to the malevolent spirits in the house because of her past; likewise, Jack Nicholson’s alcoholism was the lever for the party guests in The Shining; Craig T. Nelson’s family man moved into a home he had paved over an Indian burial ground to build in Poltergeist. ↩
And I mean that literally: half the scares in the film are incredibly loud thuds. ↩
Admittedly, his declaration, “It is, after all, an overtly meta-textual narrative about the representation of violence on film,” and a “Kubrickean” one at that, is one of the most questionable things I’ve ever seen a good writer print in an otherwise insightful review. ↩
An American scam gone global! Give a bunch of d-bags infrared cameras and let them walk around in a dark house long enough, psyching each other out, and you can spin it into a multinational franchise. I love this country. ↩