There is something refreshing about the technophobia latent in the Halloween blockbuster thriller Paranormal Activity. (Please note: This article contains spoilers) Perhaps the most timely component of the film is its technophobia, rather than its budget (Blair Witch Project) or no-name cast (Katie Featherston as Katie and Micah Sloat as Micah).
The film cycles as a metamovie with Micah’s video camera and home recording studio the discovered evidence of the couples’ own personal cinematic horrors, remediated into a projected experience for me and my own boyfriend watching it in a movie theatre in Brooklyn. The film’s synopsis is as follows: Micah begins filming goings-on in the house because his live-in girlfriend Katie is having strange experiences that might be best described early on as a haunting. Katie asks Micah several times throughout the movie to stop his own filming because it is (obviously to audiences) making things much worse. Over time and after many hours of footage, the ghost becomes more like a poltergeist and then finally, a full on demon. Micah taunts the demon with the video camera several times, asking it to show itself, which it does via sound waves on his audio equipment. Micah even puts powder on the doorway to their bedroom, almost like putting movie makeup on the demon, who enters the room and scares the crap out of Katie but not so much Micah. Micah seems to think he can handle everything himself, that he is the man of the house and everything will be under control if they can just stay calm and continue to videotape the paranormal events. And everything ends up badly for the both of them.
Horror and sci-fi audiences are familiar with technophobia (a fear of technology) in the common narratives of machines usurping human agency. Think of the Terminator series, where machines are the catalyst for our destruction and then continue to hunt us down in the aftermath of our apocalypse. Or Bladerunner, which was pretty much the same thing. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is an epic story of a super computer that has access to human subjectivity like a god.
Technophobia is not only manifest as cyberpunk proverbs but also in everyday society as well. The enduring hacker threat that saw Kevin Mitnick imprisoned for almost 6 years in solitary confinement is an example of how serious technophobia can be. But Paranormal Activity depicts a technophobia that is not simply a fear of technology but is perhaps an unconsciously articulated critique against allowing technologies to become ersatz witnesses for human experience. Or, even closer to the issue, to consider constant documentation as action.
Certainly, I believe documentation can be action, seen through the documentary as a film genre or investigative journalism. However, in the case of Paranormal Activity, Micah asserts his ability to see and thus comprehend the events that are happening to him and his girlfriend only through his recording technologies. It is his way of handling the situation, to document its existence as happening to him because without such documentation he is not so sure. The surreality of the events take precedence. And even after the vague harping of his girlfriend to stop (and of course he cannot, otherwise there would be no movie), he absolutely refuses. He can handle this himself.
In a vein similar to George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, Paranormal Activity reflects our lived phenomena of “Pix or it didn’t happen.” There is a sense brought forth by the behemoth of techno-capitalism known as “globalism” that everything can be translatable, seen, understood. But when Micah’s dead body is thrown at his own camera in the final scene and the Demon inhabiting Katie’s body leers over the camera to smile, I see this as the Demon trashing the camera literally and figuratively.
This is the ultimate critique of our needling, do-nothing technologies – that they are still no weapon against the things that frighten us the most and in a growing information economy, the things that frighten us the most are the things that know but we cannot know them (terrorists, demons, hackers, the FBI). I am uncertain as to whether the director hoped Micah’s body scene would be absorbed by the audience as actually happening to them, as if Micah’s body is thrown against us as viewers, because in that sense the Demon would be aware of a potential future audience. Like the Blair Witch Project, the sentiment is that all documentation will at some point be found. But is legacy action enough? I am reminded of bystanders whipping out cellphone cameras during accidents rather than rendering aid (also known as the Kitty Genovese Bystander Effect but with the sinister addition of 2 megapixel cameras). Is this effect in some way an empathetic reinterpretation of Big Brother? Someone must have helped, someone must have seen, someone is witness to this because I cannot, have never been, the only one.
This is the movie for the modern-day archivist, the diarist bloggers, the collectors of our own lives. We are being asked how much of our lives can be documented and how much should be, or rather, I am asking that through use of this movie. But I think that’s an easy question to ask rather than answer. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re looking at until a dead body hits you in the face.