The story in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007) concerns a young San Diego couple, Micah and Katie, who set up a camera to document the strange occurrences in their house. On the surface, it’s a horror film about battling supernatural forces — not exactly new ground for the genre. But now, in a different time, a new meaning reveals itself: The film succinctly argues against patriarchal masculinity and the harm it causes women; Katie is our substitute for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford or any number of other victims.
Katie’s trauma started at age 5, when she remembers seeing a shadowy figure at the foot of her bed during the night. There was a fire in her childhood home, too, which her family luckily survived but for which a clear cause was never found. Since then, the supernatural occurrences have happened infrequently at various points in Katie’s life. She has never revealed this to Micah until now, preferring to remain in silence about her traumatic past.
Micah, it’s immediately apparent, embodies toxic masculinity. His initial instinct isn’t to offer sympathy or support to his partner but to demand evidence, by way of camera footage. In the first half of the film, he deals in constant mockery, almost gleefully so. He calls Katie over one morning, pretending to have discovered evidential audio from the night before, only to play stereotypically scary music on his computer instead. Despite her vehement protestations, he borrows a Ouija board to try to antagonize the supernatural entity. Katie’s trauma is merely a game to him, a Trumpian exercise in cruelty.
Most of the film is shot by Micah with a handheld camera, so everything we see is filtered through his male gaze. Fittingly, Micah wields his camera in sexually explicit ways: he goads Katie to kiss the lens; he won’t stop pointing it at her as she tries to use the bathroom. He even odiously pretends the camera is switched off when they’re about to have sex one night. Micah’s behavior is consistently shallow, deceitful, and entirely unsurprising. Serious conversations are deflected with flattery as he comments on Katie’s physical beauty.
A psychic tells them that what haunts their house is not a ghost but a demon — the difference being that a demon attaches itself to a person, not a place, and waits for a chance to strike. Victims of sexual assault may survive their ordeal physically but not emotionally, their demons always with them. Yet in dealing with this resurfacing of her pain, and faced with an erratic and unhelpful partner, Katie somehow remains relatively calm. Perhaps, we can conclude, she has lived with her trauma for too long and knows to try not to disturb it.
Micah remarkably victimizes Katie for her suffering, blaming her for bringing this into their house, his assertion echoing all those withering accusations from men about sexual assault victims “asking for it.” A particularly poignant moment arrives as the couple are searching desperately online for information about what they’re going through. They encounter a website with an eerily familiar case: a girl from the 1960s who suffered similar supernatural occurrences. Katie is one in a long line of women who are wrestling with the demons of their past when they realize they’re not alone in their suffering.
The film ends with Katie being possessed by the demon. Her trauma has subsumed her, certainly, but it does lead to the destruction of her toxic patriarchal relationship when she kills Micah; it’s comforting, particularly today, to see this as a female using her traumatic past to survive her present. Micah’s refusal to remove himself from stereotypical gender norms ultimately proves his downfall, and Paranormal Activity stands as a rebuttal against such suffocating patriarchal ties. It’s tempting to link this film to another recent feminist horror piece, The Witch (2016): Set in the Puritan 1630s, a young girl transcends her family’s obstacles and joins a coven of witches, the film ending with them ecstatically dancing naked around a bonfire. Whether it’s the 17th century or the 21st, there’s a clear lineage of females suffering in silence before finally overcoming their demons. One hopes there will come a day when it doesn’t take magic to rise above it.