Halloween: Paranormal Activity and Suburban Gothic

When looking for evidence of how the gothic manifests itself in contemporary culture, we could do worse than consider the film Paranormal Activity 4, currently in cinemas this Halloween. The idea which runs through the Paranormal Activity series is that the visual technology which is so much a part of contemporary life might just capture something horrible, either by accident or design. In the original film (2009), a couple attempt to make sense of frightening paranormal disturbances which have been occurring in their new home at night – a light turning itself on and off in the hallway, a door opening by itself, loud thuds and crashes upstairs, etc. – by mounting a digital camera in their bedroom and recording while they sleep. This is followed by handheld cameras in Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), security cameras in Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), a prequel to the original, and now, in this fourth instalment, a series of networked laptops recording continually via webcam throughout the house.

Our handheld digital world has had a huge impact on cinema, and not just because the compact nature of digital cameras and smartphones – and their prices – makes filming accessible to all. Where the mediatized global catastrophes of the Sixties were televisual (the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, for example), in the twenty-first century, they have been digital. There can be no doubt that the footage from 9/11 and the 2004 Tsunami taught film-makers how to ‘do’ realistic disaster (most obviously in the film Cloverfield, which revitalizes the tired monster-movie genre by telling its monster-on-the-loose story in the manner of 9/11 footage, snippets of the catastrophe appearing in shaky images as people run in panic around the streets of New York). But what Paranormal Activity suggests is that there is something disturbing about the technology itself, something dangerous about our very compulsion to record every moment of our lives. What if the devices we deploy to protect ourselves should uncover, or even unleash, a submerged world we would be better off not knowing about?

A familiar refrain in popular culture is that there is something ghostly about the static grainy monochrome images captured by security cameras: the derelict parking lots, the empty shopping malls, the deserted streets, that constitute our world. In its heyday in the late eighteenth century, gothic fiction specialized in exotic, enclosed spaces, fitting locations for heightened  drama, such as the rooms in castles or monasteries. Now we are as likely to encounter the gothic in the ordinary spaces of our everyday world – not only the urban architectural spaces explored in the photography of Jane and Louise Wilson, but in everyday suburban kitchens, bedrooms and garages. ‘Suburban Gothic’ is a label coined by Bernice Murphy* to refer to a major sub-genre within American gothic over the past few decades, which expresses the anxiety that beneath the surface of the most mundane of environments something extraordinary is lurking, something virulent or evil. The Paranormal Activity series is a recent example of a sequence of films that include Halloween (1981) and Disturbia (2005). The original film was set in a modest example of ‘tract’ housing, the sequels in more affluent villas. Each, though, is representative of ‘suburbia’.

From the outset, the plot has been the weakest link in the Paranormal Activity series, despite the creditable attempts to embellish it in the sequels. A demon has attached itself to one of two sisters, staying with her throughout her life as she moves from one suburban locale to another, making sure she and her offspring stay in his possession, eliminating anyone who gets in his way. But why this is the case, and even how it works, is less clear. In a way the story is rather un-gothic: demons are more monstrous but less uncanny than ghosts. But in the end this doesn’t matter. In Paranormal Activity 4 the simple plot – demon wants boy back – is just a pretext for the real business of the film: to show us how menacing the spaces of our ordinary lives are. The films gives us the Freudian uncanny in an especially direct sense: our homes are made unhomely by the act of scrutiny. One of the most problematic inconsistencies of the story might be the fact that a force formidable enough to drag adults through rooms, start cars, and send chandeliers crashing down on people, is apparently unable to turn off a laptop. But this demon has no interest in stopping the camera, for it is his biggest ally.

*Bernice Murphy, Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2009)