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It was the Summer of Covid and my partner and I decided the timing was perfect to watch the Paranormal Activity series, binging all five movies in quick succession to escape the dark reality of our day-to-day. For us, the Outside was full of the unseen danger of infection, rendering our little studio apartment a sanctuary of safety and maskless breathing, a tiny ship in the stormy sea of the world. Turning inward, toward domestic horror as an act of emotional scab-picking to test how safe we felt, made sense. An urge came over both of us to find a movie that was scary but not too scary — or too real. (Zombies, pandemics, dystopias, and fascist-adjacent horror were all off the table.) Found-footage horror was ideal.
Paranormal Activity (2007) follows a young couple, Katie and Micah, in the suburbs of San Diego, terrorized by an unseen demon that starts closing and opening doors and escalates from there. The ensuing five films in the series elaborate on the mythology of the original, with a coven of witches, the Midwives, who brainwash women to sell their firstborn sons in exchange for money and power; the sons then become an army of the possessed. The Midwives also work tirelessly to render their demon overlord, Toby, into flesh and blood. Each film riffs on the idea of passive cameras recording paranormal manifestations, often while the victims sleep.
The mild predictability of this sort of horror film was soothing compared to the roller coaster of the news cycle. Seeing the craft of low-budget horror proved inspiring during these days of domestic resourcefulness and limited resources. Movies like Paranormal Activity felt safe to watch largely because there was this inherent sense they happened to other people, in houses that didn’t look like ours, paying the price for intergenerational transgression in the form of jump scares. We had no McMansion to be haunted.
Watching these cookie-cutter homes and quaint suburban palaces, each filled with excessive granite-topped kitchen islands and walk-in pantries that later become demonic playgrounds, it hit me: My studio apartment is too humble to be haunted. Our single long room with a perpendicular divider affectionately known as “The Monolith” has just two doors: the bathroom and the front door, hardly enough to build any real suspense. On the top floor of a 19th-century row house, our Ikea furniture and curb-claimed artwork rest on parquet floors and crumbling exposed brick. It was a big progress marker when we got a rug.
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The house in Paranormal Activity, meanwhile, is the sort of home I mentally tag as “where rich kids grew up.” Where I’m from in suburban New Jersey, these houses are clustered in developments called “Vista Ridge” or something similar. Beige walls and beige carpet meet on the dullest horizon; overstuffed large black leather couches speak to the TV rooms of the ’90s; and lofted ceilings and an open floor plan render the space cavernous. The popular open living concept is perfect in conjunction with panning security cameras for building tension as Toby advances across the shot. Every room sees part of another room just around the corner, giving it the feeling of being a labyrinth of decor that feels equally generic and straight from The Sopranos in its nouveau-riche aspirations. Chandeliers are a favorite of Toby’s, starting with a mere jiggle before a well-timed fall. Grand stairways in the foyer (the foyer!) show every jolt as a victim is dragged up or down. A three- or four-bedroom house ensures lots of doors to open and close.
Watching the films and feeling mounting class rage, I realized that for Paranormal Activity, demonic haunting is a problem of the bourgeoisie. Toby could be at one end of the house and it would take minutes to investigate a mysterious noise. Sigils lay undiscovered in houses for DAYS in some films; a quick neck swivel surveys my domain in its entirety, give or take a cabinet or bathroom. Toby would have to work hard to convince me he was anything other than a loud neighbor or a mouse in the wall.
With so much space, corners become darker and more numerous. The larger the home, the more intricate the surveillance — first from hired help (many films feature domestic workers trying to warn their employers of the bad spirits) and then, increasingly, from security cameras, ostensibly trying to “catch” the disturbance. Some homes later in the series even come with preexisting internal security systems before Toby even jiggles a doorknob.
The families of Paranormal Activity reflect the suburban excess of their homes. From a sullen teenage girl to a father convinced the settings were off on a camera, everyone is from central casting’s Upper-Middle-Class White Family Department. McMansions and their “perfect” families conjure a vision of the American dream — endless comfort and sprawling space away from the chaos of the city, a seeming fortress of security and stability, with a family unit to match the poster-perfect house. A home in Rancho Penasquitos, California, the area where the original Paranormal Activity house is located, now sells for between $700,000 and $1.3 million. Taking into account that Micah reads as an early tech worker and is identified as a day trader while his girlfriend, Katie, is a college student, their house seems recklessly large given joint income. Yet even if most families in the U.S. will never have that type of capital to purchase a house like Micah and Katie, the Paranormal Activity families are depicted as typical.
The hubris of the pre-2008 housing market, where loans were large and down payments small — the median in 2005 was 2%, and nearly half of home buyers made no down payment at all — is on full display in Paranormal Activity. A single income could feasibly acquire this house, but one can’t help but wonder if Toby hadn’t gotten them, maybe the mortgage crisis would have. The unsettling power of the series is that it shows the dark side of so much opulence. There’s no escaping Toby; people are stuck in the houses they live in, and no amount of cameras or walk-in pantries can stop this demon. The physical manifestation of the American dream, the suburban McMansion, becomes a stage to an American nightmare featuring witches and an army of the damned. When six-year-old Wyatt, of Paranormal Activity 4, is asked why he ran across the street, he replies simply, “It’s a good neighborhood.” It turns out the house across the street is incubating a cult. So much for property values.
Surveillance becomes the norm as each film progresses. In the original film, Micah bought cameras for fun and decided to use them to capture what was bothering Katie. In Paranormal Activity 2, Daniel, the patriarch of the family, installed mounted security cameras after a break-in; Paranormal Activity 4 features door alarms that helpfully proclaim “door open” whenever Toby decides to take some air, along with omnipresent webcams. The first film uses surveillance as a way to preserve the couple’s idea of the status quo, even though filming Toby might actually have made things worse, as the demon feeds off of negative energy and attempts at communication.
In my own small apartment, while I lack the space for security cameras, I am always watched. My social media habits inform what ads I see; I routinely crack jokes about the FBI agent listening in. While I have no Alexa or Fitbit and keep Siri off, I know that I’m still being monitored for my choices in the hopes of spurring consumer behavior. Do I have free will, or am I also haunted — possessed by an algorithm of someone else’s making?
Paranormal Activity was released the same year as the original iPhone, and the series tracks the slow creep of cameras into our most personal inner lives. In Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, she defines the titular system as “1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification.” Paranormal Activity applies the same logic: If families ignored Toby, they wouldn’t give him the strength to influence their behavior. As surveillance is increasingly normalized in the series and predates the need to “catch” Toby, the families play more easily into the hands of the Midwives.
If haunting is really just an Other watching us, whether we know it or not, then haunting is all around us. Suburbanites, with their huge houses and built-in security systems, opt into an expectation that surveillance is for their benefit — security cameras are a deterrent, a protector of property. The devices that are markers of wealth — laptops, iPads, new phones — come with their own expectation of constant surveillance. A demon in the fourth bedroom of my McMansion is the least of my worries.