A True Account of Sublime Terror and Paranormal Activity

Paranormal ActivityOctober 2012. It was early in the evening, and I was sat in the Odeon about to indulge in the guilty pleasure of watching Paranormal Activity 4. I was also alone (something the poster specifically advises against), as few of my friends in Jessop West shared a soft spot for films of this ilk. As darkness fell over the auditorium I felt that dawning sense of commitment, regret and excitement: you know this is going to scare you but because you’ve paid for it you can’t leave. By the time that the film began the anxiety I felt for what I was about to endure was almost unbearable, and as the pre-title note appeared to explain that ‘the following discovered footage was filmed in 2011’ my mind turned (as it often does in times of intense emotional and psychological trauma) to Daniel Defoe and Ann Radcliffe


First, the note on the screen caused me to remember the preface to a peculiar item printed by Defoe in 1705 titled A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal. The piece (which features a séance in which the late Mrs Veal returns to chastise her remaining relatives) opens with a preface from the editor stressing that what follows ‘is matter of fact, and attended with such circumstances as may induce any reasonable man to believe it.’ Slowly it dawned on my that the current vogue for fictional films pretending to be compilations of discovered footage bares an uncanny resemblance to the ‘discovered document’ trope of the eighteenth-century novel. For instance, Defoe’s Moll Flanders claims to be compiled from real ‘memorandums’, and the preface to Robinson Crusoe explains that the editor is relating a true story that he has been told (providing as he does so the inspiration for Foe by J. M. Coetzee). A brief survey of popular print at this time reveals an abundance of supernatural accounts, such as Mrs Veal, which use these same prefatory mechanics to present themselves as being true accounts.

The context into which Mrs Veal was released was one experiencing a huge explosion of printed material. Lapses in licensing laws and advances in the printing made it cheaper and more accessible to produce, purchase and read printed material. Suddenly, almost anyone could print and disseminate anything – and you only had the word of the author that what they said was true. Texts would go to great lengths to establish their validity and credentials. However, the processes used to do this could easily be exploited. Many of the anxieties that this produced over the authenticity of material or indeed the true identity of the author are very familiar to us today as the age of the internet forces us to ask the same questions. These are questions which were brought into sharp focus in last year’s cinematic documentary Catfish. [Spoiler alert] This film followed a photographer in New York who had come to develop quite an extensive relationship with a family in Texas; regularly communicating with them by phone, text, email and Facebook. However, when he eventually decides to give them a surprise visit at their family home he makes a shocking discovery. The questions that Catfish raises about social networking and the blogsphere could just as easily be applied to the print culture of the eighteenth-century. Catfish is also a perfect example to raise at this point since discussion still rages (admittedly, mostly online) as to whether the documentary itself was a hoax.

Having decided that Daniel Defoe would definitely have been a fan of Paranormal Activity 4, I tuned back into the film to find that we were staring at a pile of cuddly toys in an empty bedroom. The premise behind each of these films is that characters are compelled to set up cameras in their home to prove to a sceptical partner that they are being terrorised by a maligned presence. The film itself is then this footage. There are very few special effects (particularly in the early instalments), and seemingly endless sequences in which the camera is left alone to stare at an empty room, a darkened corridor or a sleeping couple. You are gradually rewarded throughout the opening two acts with doors which move slightly, lampshades that begin to swing, or the occasional loud noise from downstairs. With the exception of the final act, remarkably little ever actually happens on the screen. And yet it is almost unbearable to watch.

Viewed objectively there is not much to fear from an empty room. However, a bedroom in which something scary is definitely about to happen is no longer just an empty room. You find yourself scrutinising every inch of the screen; dead eyeing every rocking-horse and ironing board in case they might suddenly spring to life; staring as hard as you can into the shadowy depths of the corridor hoping to spot whatever might be lurking there before it can jump out at you. The silence becomes deafening. And yet all that there is on the screen is an empty bedroom. So why is it so affecting? Edmund Burke has the answer, writing in 1757:

‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, […] or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotions which the mind is capable of feeling. […] To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of the danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.’

Obscurity adds to terror by forcing the viewer to account for the unseen through the use of their imagination, undoubtedly conjuring an image more dreadful than that which is really there. The terrifying potential of the imagination is something that eighteenth-century novelist Ann Radcliffe exploited exquisitely. For instance, in her 1794 novel The Mysteries of Udolpho it is the imagination of her heroine, Emily, that infiltrates the narration to transform a ‘gloomy’ and partially obscured castle into something fearfully personified:

‘[T]he whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand sovereign over the scene, and to frown defiance on all who dared to invades its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features more awful in obscurity.’

Emily’s imagination turns Udolpho into something terrifying. Just so, it is the viewer that makes Paranormal Activity terrifying. It is significant that when the demonic presence finally becomes manifest at the end of the first film it is invisible. The viewer’s imagination is the main special effect employed by these film-makers, and the results are far more affecting than the gruesome shocks or overt ‘horror’ of films like Saw or Hostel. The extent to which films such as Paranormal Activity are indebted to tropes and traditions that Radcliffe kick-started in the eighteenth-century can be seen in the responses to Udolpho. Commenting on the novel’s sense of ‘protracted expectation’ one contemporary reviewer claimed that ‘curiosity is raised oftener than it is gratified; or rather, it is raised so high that no adequate gratification can be given it’. This is a comment that could just as easily apply to Paranormal Activity.

Artistic value aside, I would argue that on a technical and psychological level Paranormal Activity is actually a sophisticated franchise which reveals through its prefatory packaging and ‘terrifying’ structure a substantial debt to the eighteenth century; foregrounding the close kinship between print culture and the age of internet. It utilises extensively the theory and mechanics behind Radcliffe’s Gothic writing, and (just as the the Gothic has always done) it responds to, amplifies and exploits both popular anxieties and the very medium in which it appears.

(Tune in again for my future post: “How Channel 4’s ‘Gogglebox’ represents the perfect embodiment of the public sphere”)

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