Paranormal Activity and the Perils of Male Hubris (Women In Horror Series)

Widely lauded for its slow burn tension and practical effects, Paranormal Activity is at heart a cautionary tale: don’t fuck with supernatural forces. That’s not a new theme in horror, nor does it offer a particularly inventive take on the subject, but the film does do something rare with its haunting/possession premise: deconstruct masculine arrogance and the harm it inflicts upon women.

Filmed in same found footage style made famous by The Blair Witch Project (and responsible for single-handedly repopularizing the genre), Paranormal follows young couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). Their house is haunted by a demon that’s appeared intermittently in Katie’s life since her childhood, and Micah decides to document the supernatural occurrences with his expensive new camera. Of course, that’s the absolute worst thing to do—a psychic warns him that engaging with the demon grants it energy to grow stronger. Micah ignores this advice despite Katie’s pleas to the contrary, leading to an escalation of violent occurrences.

It’s very common for characters in horror movies to make bad decisions. Scream’s genre-savvy heroine Sydney Prescott explicitly calls the trope out: “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” In this situation Micah’s the girl running up the stairs (or toward the source of the mysterious noise, or down a dark hallway), but it’s not just a case of convenient genre foolishness — his actions are inseparable from his arrogance. From start to finish he’s the epitome of male privilege, a walking fountain of bombastic machismo. He taunts the demon into action (what, are they gonna duke it out like bros?), assures Katie he’s the only one who can help her, and tosses out declarations like, “nobody comes into my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.” In order to maintain and elevate his own sense of self-confidence, he dominates: overruling Katie’s wishes, undermining her actions, and brazenly challenging the demon to “do its worst.” He might as well ask it to compare penis size with him, his attitude is that frat boy stereotypical. And not only does his aggressive bravado allow the demon to terrorize, inhabit, and ultimately destroy Katie, all because Micah thinks he’s invincible, his words indicate an attitude of ownership — he views Katie as a possession to control.

Not as important a possession, though, as his camera. The film is shot almost entirely through Micah’s male gaze, both literally and figuratively. He controls the camera for the majority of the proceedings, meaning what we see is what he’s decided to look at. For the first thirty minutes, a great deal of this is attempting to fetishize Katie’s body: following her up the stairs, asking for a strip tease, trying to trick her into making a sex tape against her will. Between this and his commentary about her appearance (an attempt to redirect conversation — several times Katie expresses a genuine worry or acts in a way Micah dislikes, and he deflects with a flattering comment), Micah actively objectifies and dehumanizes Katie by treating her either as a thing to film or a thing to lust after. When Katie screams in fear and calls for help, Micah takes the time to grab the camera before running to her. It’s clear he prioritizes what “cool shit” he can capture on film over Katie’s emotional and physical safety.

What subverts this objectification is Katie’s self-aware, combative response. Her initially fond exasperation morphs into justified fury at his bullying dismissals and constant harassment, as well as a sense of betrayal. She repeatedly pleads “get that camera out of my face,” “please turn that off,” and “stop following me with that fucking camera” — all of which Micah ignores. This is Katie’s experience, her history, her autonomy at risk, but Micah makes it all about him. Her trauma is completely inconsequential to him.

The main conflict of the film, honestly, comes down to a fight over Katie’s body. The demon wants to possess it; Micah assumes he has a claim over it. Katie is trapped between two controlling, opposing forces, her wishes subjugated by both, because the man who’s supposed to be our noble hero is at just as much fault as the demon. Any number of characters can be as selfish and foolish as Micah — his specific flaws are informed, and created, by toxic masculinity. He casts himself as the violent, aggressive, rational man taking care of a hysterical, overemotional, weak woman. The more the film progresses the more their relationship develops shades of emotional abuse in how he undercuts her decisions, browbeats her into submission, and erases her voice. He mocks her anger, belittles her fear, infantilizes her conversations, demands an endless right to her time and attention — even shifts blame onto her. She brought this thing into the house. She should have warned him about it. Katie fires back, “If you think you’re in control, you’re being an idiot. You are absolutely powerless.”

Katie’s the intuitive one. She never wanted to provoke the demon in the first place. But instead of humbly accepting his own impotency, even as his hyper-masculinity is exposed as a worthless farce, Micah coerces Katie into a state of continued trust, dependency, and emotional weakness, never listening to her fears and considering them legitimate. His sense of manhood is so threatened by her seeking help from someone other than himself, by the mere possibility he might not be invulnerable and omnipotent, he places the woman he claims to love in further danger.

Karma, eventually, proves the woman right.

At the end of the film, the demon possesses Katie and kills Micah. Not only did his refusal to step outside stereotypical gender traits result in his death, the violation that befalls Katie is his fault. She literally becomes a possessed object, demonstrating the harm inherent in both forced gender role conformity and the attitude of male ownership toward the female body.

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Enough about that douchebag. Let’s talk about Katie herself.

As a protagonist, her role is rather passive. The nature of the story requires her victimization to prove a point, but it’s unfortunate she only assumes control of the narrative after she’s been demonically possessed. She’s incapable of fighting back in a classic way, but even her one act of defiance (destroying the camera) isn’t her own. On the surface she’s broken free of Micah’s controlling watch, finally able to assume control of her body, but she’s actually a vessel for the demon’s will. Thankfully this doesn’t devolve into the patriarchal fear of powerful women; it’s about a woman’s identity being enslaved and consumed. Having said that, demonstrating sexism by way of a helpless woman is, in a way, more regressive than progressive.

There are five more films of decreasing quality in the Paranormal Activity series, four of which feature glimpses of possessed!Katie, but that’s all they are — glimpses played for sheer terror rather than further character analysis. However, it’s worth noting most of the films continue to focus exclusively on women’s choices and legacies. Katie is one in a long line of women to work with, or against, the demon. She’s also the only overarching female killer in a horror franchise I know of, which would be an impressive achievement — if the demon controlling her actions didn’t nullify it.

Despite Katie’s overall lack of agency, Paranormal remains a staggeringly inventive, deeply frightening film, and a blistering takedown of the danger male hubris poses for women — and, given Micah’s fate, men as well.

Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in some of the genre’s most iconic films.

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