Candid Cameras: Transmedia Haunting and the Paranormal Activity Franchise – Janani Subramanian

In 2008, Steven Spielberg received a DVD screener of Oren Peli’s micro-budget horror film Paranormal Activity; after watching it, Spielberg claims his bedroom door mysteriously locked from the inside, forcing the director to call a locksmith. [1] He quickly returned his copy of the film to his DreamWorks offices, wrapped carefully in a plastic garbage bag, terrified that it was haunted.[2]  Whether this Hollywood urban legend was a publicity stunt or not, it highlights the ways the Paranormal Activity phenomenon, from its inception, infused our everyday media objects – and the spaces where we use them – with fear.  The incredible success of the first film (thanks or no thanks to Spielberg) spawned three more sequels and prequels, with more on the way, and while each film is cheaply made and has a set and devoted fan base, it is the franchise’s translation of its haunted-house narrative into digital marketing campaigns that continues to feed its popularity. The franchise’s marketing campaign expanded the world of each film to various digital platforms, including Easter-egg filled trailers, demon-finding apps, and “haunted” websites, revealing the way contemporary horror must rely on sophisticated transmedia storytelling techniques to stay both relevant and frightening. While the monster of the PA franchise is supposedly a demon haunting generations of young home-owners, I argue the real horror of the films exists in the boundaries that both connect and separate the frightening events from the audiences – the technologies recording each narrative and the digital platforms used to market each film, and what those technologies suggest about our constantly shifting relationship to domesticity, security, and surveillance.

On the surface, the Paranormal Activity (PA) franchise is a series of gimmick films that combine “old” horror conventions such as haunted houses and demonic possession with a variety of “new” home recording technologies and gadgets.  Alongside the franchise’s investment in a larger, multi-part narrative arc involving witches and demons, each film adds to the franchise’s transmedia universe by multiplying the number and kinds of home surveillance technologies used to film and market each installment.  As Emanuelle Wessels argues in her study of post 9/11 transmedia branding, a science fiction/horror film such as Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008), for example, expresses “one sense in which post-9/11 protocols of security-citizenship, particularly utilizing consumer recording technologies to remain on ‘high alert’ for terrorist activity, can manifest in popular film as a form of cultural pedagogy.”[3]   Similarly, the PA films raise questions about the uses and abuses of these same technologies to monitor domestic spaces, extending the reach of “security-citizenship” into the more intimate spaces of suburban homes. Each film begins by endorsing the way individuals use home recording devices as means to securing domestic spaces, yet ultimately uses the conventions of horror to call attention to the ways these devices can both fail and terrify us. The failure of these technologies to protect suburban domesticity taps into contemporary anxieties about home ownership in light of the current economic and housing crises, highlighting the limits of individuality and individual security in the face of greater terrors.[4]

The constant multiplication of devices in and outside of each film also relies heavily on an audience awareness of the franchise’s aesthetics and mythology, a central tenet of transmedia storytelling that scholars such as Henry Jenkins have argued defines contemporary Hollywood.[5]  The emphasis on audience knowledge of a film’s transmedia universe has an odd relationship to horror as a genre, which often depends on a slow, suspenseful release of knowledge and information to create and maintain fear; as the PA franchise reveals, building fear across new technologies and platforms keeps the informed transmedia consumer scared.  I begin this essay by looking briefly at the PA franchise’s stylistic and thematic predecessor, The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999), and then examine the ways each installment of the PA franchise uses technology within and outside of its narrative.   Alongside efforts to involve audiences in the promotion and exhibition of the franchise, the films turn interactive technologies into frightening entities, calling attention to our ambivalent relationship to the increasingly sophisticated technology that governs everyday life.  As post-9/11 surveillance culture continues to manifest itself in myriad ways in popular culture, the PA franchise, its use of technology as both source of and protection against outside horrors, and its transmedia reach reveal the ideological cracks in the idea that technology – and its ability to document, record and monitor – guarantees safety and security in and outside the home.

The Blair Witch Effect

Figure 1: The Blair Witch Project, 1999

Figure 1. The Blair Witch Project, 1999.

In 1999, The Blair Witch Project began the now-ubiquitous trend of the “found-footage” horror film and shifted paradigms of film marketing, independent film, and the generic conventions of 21st century horror.  The film relied on the then-new phenomenon of viral Internet marketing to create early anticipation among its young audiences, subsequently becoming one of the most profitable films in history.  As Jane Roscoe describes, Internet rumors about the film’s veracity came from the filmmakers, the studios, and curious audience members: “Initially there was no conscious decision to set the film up as a hoax, but because of the early responses to the film, this uncertainty over its ontological status was capitalized on by the filmmakers, who refused to confirm or deny that it was a true story.”[6] Roscoe goes on to explain that the Internet became a place to advertise the film, communicate with other filmgoers, and create and view spoof trailers and videos; most importantly, though, it also became an integral part of Blair Witch’s transmedia approach to horror in the new millennium.

Figure 2: The Blair Witch Cult, 1999

Figure 2. The Blair Witch Cult, 1999.

As Jenkins has argued, transmedia storytelling is about world-creation across multiple platforms, allowing viewers/consumers to explore and piece together the fictional universes that make up their favorite entertainment franchises; it also provides media conglomerates with the opportunity to pursue synergy across various media outlets.[7]    The Blair Witch Project’s website, for example, provides a timeline of pseudo-historical events related to the film – a picture of a rare book from 1809 describing the town’s curse, current pictures of the sites where disappearances occurred – which round out the mythology surrounding both the filmmakers’ disappearance and the film’s mysterious, unseen witch.  The proliferation of websites that add bits and pieces to the film’s mythology works particularly well with horror as a genre, as horror franchises, like science fiction and fantasy, are built around uncertain and intricate histories – who and what the monsters are, how long they have been plaguing us, and the long list of victims foolish enough to try and vanquish them.

The Blair Witch phenomenon traded heavily on this uncertainty to foster curiosity about its subject, yet equally crucial to its popularity and mystique was its style.  The film’s mock documentary aesthetic with shaky video and film cameras, improvised footage and on-location shooting lent itself well to an Internet-based marketing campaign; in 1999, both documentary and the Internet traded on their uncertain relationship to the “real.” As Roscoe argues, Blair Witch’s use of documentary codes self-consciously raised questions about the film’s subject, the status of the students filming it, and the ontological claims of documentary itself. Such uncertainty, I find, travels to and through the websites used to speculate and spread rumors about the film’s veracity to tap into our ontological distrust of the Internet itself – where does this knowledge exist?  Who is putting it out there? J.P. Telotte says in his analysis of the film’s Internet presence: “Or more precisely, [Blair Witch’s] project is to blur some common discrimination, to suggest, in effect, that this particular film is as much a part of everyday life as the Internet, that it extends the sort of unfettered knowledge access that the Internet seems to offer, and that its pleasures, in fact, closely resemble those of the electronic medium with which its core audience is so familiar.”[8]   Rumors about the film proliferated across the Internet in one of the first examples of “viral” film marketing, and the spread of information hinted at the negative implications inherent in the word “viral,” as information spreading like a disease could not possibly be trustworthy, yet it commanded the attention of both audiences and film studios.

While Blair Witch instigated a shift in horror film style and marketing, horror films of the early 21st century manifested a more thematic obsession with film, television and the Internet as potential sites of horror.  Chuck Tryon describes films such as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (Joe Berlinger, 2000), The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002), FeardotCom (William Malone, 2002), White Noise (Geoffrey Sax, 2005) and Cloverfield as “imply[ing] that electronic media will lead to fragmented social relationships because of their illusion of authenticity and their potential to further isolate people from a larger community.”[9] As Tryon argues, these films are, on the one hand, “media-savvy” in their recognition of the constantly evolving “practices of watching horror movies,”[10] and, on the other hand, ultimately critical of the technological advances accompanying these practices as threatening to the stability of the nuclear family and home.  In the American version of The Ring, for example, a deadly videotape circulates among teenagers, and the film’s adult protagonist attempts to solve the tape’s mystery in order to protect her young son; as Tryon argues, the film “implicitly links the dangers of TV and video spectatorship to parental fears about protecting their children from dangerous or harmful images.”[11] In some ways, the PA franchise fits into Tryon’s argument, as the transmedia texts used to advertise the films as well as their unique, static-camera aesthetic emphasize the act of watching as integral to the horror experience. In addition, the PA films, all set in comfortable, upper-middle class suburban homes, represent recording technology as an extension of the many appliances that regulate and monitor everyday suburban life – ranging from computers to automated pool cleaners – documenting supernatural activity but also standing in for the viewer’s voyeuristic experience of seemingly mundane domestic spaces and activities. But in contrast to the films that Tryon mentions which ultimately suggest that technology (videos, cameras and computers) is a threat to private, domestic life, the PA films make no direct connections between technology and family strife, but in fact figure technology as a means initially to ensure the safety of each household. The films and their paratexts are less about demonizing technology, so to speak, and more about using that technology to document, catalog and personalize fear, both in and outside the world of the films, building a franchise brand based on watching and experiencing horror rather than on the horror itself. In addition, the PA franchise’s efforts to extend its brand into social media presents an extension of its central theme – the way electronic media has insinuated itself into domestic space – and the way transmedia horror and branding can often unwittingly call attention to the way we engage with consumer technology in our daily lives.

PA 1: Static Cameras and Screen Space

Figure 3: Paranormal Activity, 2007

Figure 3. Paranormal Activity, 2007.

As the recording devices multiply from film to film, so too does the PA franchise’s narrative arc, which involves multiple generations of one family being haunted by a demon trying to capture the family’s first-born son; the continuation of the storyline across multiple texts is inextricable from the technology being used to capture it.  The films are seen primarily from the perspective of static cameras, and these various recording technologies form the thematic and narrative center of each film, providing characters and viewers with visual evidence of the house’s strange activities as well as revealing crucial pieces of the franchise’s backstory.  The cameras – digital camcorders that record through the night in PA 1, security cameras in PA 2 (Tod Williams, 2008), clunky VHS cameras in PA 3 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2011), and webcams and Xbox Kinect cameras in PA 4 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2012) – generally remain in one place, not guided by human hands, a marked distinction from the shaky faux-verite footage produced by the amateur filmmakers of Blair Witch or more recently Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) and The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010).  PA 1-4 are about houses and families haunted by demonic forces, yet they are also about the technology we use to mediate our daily lives; the grainy, static-camera footage of seemingly innocuous suburban domestic spaces points to our fascination with and fear of the increasingly mundane nature of surveillance technology.

The first film, made on a shoestring budget by video game designer Oren Peli, surprised film studios with its runaway success, fueled in large part by Internet marketing tactics focusing on the audience’s control of its distribution.  Early articles about the film in the trade and popular press focused primarily, like Blair Witch, on the production and distribution aspects of the film rather than content alone and praised Paramount’s forward-thinking digital marketing campaign.  The campaign was two-fold – one, cameras were installed in theaters to capture audience’s reactions to the film, and two, the studio used the website eventful.com to encourage people to demand the film to play in their towns, what EW’s Owen Gleiberman called “old school, groundswell marketing.”[12] The dual emphasis on the viewer – viewers’ reactions and seeming control over the film’s distribution – personalized the horror experience in a way that set the stage for the franchise’s transmedia development.

The trailer for Paranormal Activity (2009)

The trailer featured images of the film playing in the theater intercut with the green-hued shots of the audience in night vision; as the film builds tension, the audience’s reactions get more and more extreme as they gasp, hide their eyes, and jump in their seats.  The trailer ends with the movie’s title, complete with slight blips to again replicate the experience of watching the amateur footage of the film.  The trailer brings the film’s audience and the space of the theater into its world, previewing the franchise’s efforts to extend the spaces and technologies of each film into the personal spaces, technologies and experiences of the viewer.

The first PA film’s main attraction was its use of the static camera, which became the film’s main selling point and what invited discussion and imitation among fans. As Tryon points out, The Blair Witch Project’s use of handheld video “correlates video with subjective vision rather than the objective, impersonal shots associated with a standard film,”[13] and PA 1 makes an effort to distinguish handheld footage from static footage, or the point of view of the young couple trying to capture what’s haunting them from that of the camera alone.  The film begins with the boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) playing with his new, professional camera, filming himself and then his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) as she pulls up to the house and interrogates him about how much he spent on it. The opening scenes alternate between handheld and static footage as the couple prepares dinner and tests out the camera’s capabilities; through shaky footage and strange angles, we get a sense of the spacious, comfortable kitchen, dining and living rooms of the couple’s suburban home.  We see them later setting up the camera on a tripod and figuring out exactly where to place it in the bedroom, and the first title, “Night 1: September 18, 2006” comes on screen. Through a series of fades, we watch footage of the couple sleeping that is marked by successive time stamps.  The static camera’s objectivity is interrupted by the fades and fast-forwards of the night footage, emphasizing a central question of the mock found-footage film – who found the footage, and who is watching it?  The use of edits within this footage points to these films’ artificiality, for someone has put the pieces together to form a narrative, but the question of who is watching also helps build a transmedia world of sequels and paratexts. In the case of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the original film’s footage motivates a group of curious horror enthusiasts who then suffer a similar fate.  In the case of the PA franchise, the status of the footage from 1, 2 and 4 remains unknown, but the question of “who is watching” is shifted outside the world of the film, to the viewer and his or her ability to explore PA mythology and characters on DVD players, computers and even phones, again explicitly incorporating the viewer into a transmedia experience of the PA universe.

The static camera aesthetic in particular lent itself to a viewing experience focused less on plot and more on the viewer’s relationship to the spaces on screen and to the various recording devices used in each film, forging a connection between space, viewer and device that the franchise would eventually extend into the digital. Hahner, Varda and Wilson argue that the juxtaposition of haunted house conventions and minimalist style of the first and second film produce an ambivalent relationship to the idea of consumption in and around each film:

While the films ask the audience to enjoy the suffering of indulgent main characters, the protracted tempo and claustrophobic visual space simultaneously induce viewers to surveil the films ravenously.  In this way, consumption becomes abject insofar as the audience is enticed to consume the screen as the film punishes the homeowners for the same appetite.[14]

The static camera footage in the PA franchise, in contrast to the handheld footage of outside spaces in Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, immobilized and domesticated what Wessels calls the “surveilling gaze,” locating it specifically in the intimate spaces of suburban domesticity and encouraging audiences to “consume” the spaces they saw on screen.[15] At the beginning of PA 1, the nights are marked a relative lack of activity, and while audiences are cued to watch for these slight movements by the fast-forwarding, there is still a relatively long period of waiting and watching (which gets shorter when the middle-of-the-night episodes become increasingly bizarre and ominous).  The handheld footage captures Katie and Micah’s conversations about the hauntings, alternating between each one’s point of view, but the static camera is the one that captures the objective proof of a supernatural presence without any human intervention.    The lack of a human hand and first-person perspective guiding the camera in these moments of the film make us strikingly aware of the space being filmed and any movement within that space. Within the horror narratives of the PA franchise, this is of course ideal as we as viewers are encouraged to participate – to rewatch and discuss – seemingly insignificant events that eventually add up to a bigger and more terrifying picture.  The static camera taps into the frightening notion that cameras can have an uncanny ability to know and see what we do not; the PA brand builds itself on the eerie nature of machine intelligence by increasing the number of seemingly sentient devices inside and outside each film.

The first film not only invited more intense viewer response through its static camera aesthetic, but also left its narrative unresolved; the theatrical version ended with Katie, now fully possessed by the demon, killing Micah and escaping.  Attempting to translate the film’s surprising success to a new medium, the producers began a transmedia branding campaign featuring short digital comic entitled “Paranormal Activity: The Search for Katie,” which was available for download on the iPhone.  The use of a handheld device was the franchise’s first attempt to tease out transmedia narrative strands on a digital platform, but ultimately the comic’s more conventional format did not capitalize on the film’s distinct technological aesthetic.[16]  The comic follows a demonologist mentioned in the first film, Dr. Johann Averys, who unfortunately goes out of town as the horrors intensify and is unable to help Katie and Micah when they most need it.   The last scene of the film had demon-Katie lunging towards the camera, nearly consuming it before the screen goes black, a marked departure from the camera’s unobstrusive presence throughout the rest of the film.  The comic picks up right where the first film ends, as Averys regretfully informs us alongside an illustrated close-up of Katie’s demonically possessed face: “[Katie] was desperate for my help.  I arrived too late.  Now her boyfriend is dead at the hands of something inexplicable.”  While this first panel taps into the shock of seeing Katie’s demonically possessed face in extreme close-up, the rest of the comic does not imitate or refer back to the film’s static camera aesthetic, merely following Averys’ initial investigation into a larger demonic conspiracy and teasing out the potential for a combination horror/crime procedural narrative.  There were no further issues of the comic, though, suggesting that the PA audience was not interested in the kind of transmedia approach to horror undertaken by the Blair Witch team; instead, the demonic presence that Dr. Averys begins to investigate relocates firmly in the technologically mediated domestic spaces of the second, third and fourth installments of the franchise.

PA 2: Building the Mythology On and Off screen

Figure 4: Paranormal Activity 2, 2010

Figure 4. Paranormal Activity 2, 2010.

The second film in the franchise not only teases out more details of Katie’s supernatural family history by focusing on her sister Kristi’s (Sprague Grayden’s) family, but also amplified the franchise’s emphasis on domestic surveillance by increasing the number of static cameras used throughout Kristi’s suburban home.  PA 2 also began to further shift the film’s technologically-oriented fear to the viewer’s private spaces and devices via an Easter-Egg filled trailer.  The official trailer on the film’s website featured vague footage from security cameras in a suburban home, yet hidden underneath were “Easter Eggs” that unlocked other, mysterious clips and stills if the viewer dragged the video progress bar backwards at specific points.  While the Easter Eggs do not reveal any clear story information, they appear to come from old, disintegrated footage and photographs.  Allowing the user to access these via a web trailer sets up a disconcerting juxtaposition between “old” and “new” media (and in many ways anticipates PA 3’s central conceit) while also suggesting Katie and her sister Kristi’s mysterious history.


The trailer for Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

Although in a different vein than PA 1’s trailer, PA 2’s web trailer also emphasizes the experiential facet of contemporary horror films via a digital platform – the idea, outlined by Tryon, that 21st century horror draws attention to the act of watching and experiencing the films in a new media saturated market.  The viewer, acting as virtual detective, navigates the footage and unlocks secrets, a logical extension of the franchises’ play on voyeurism and haunting, activating the web as a site where the film’s demon mythology unfolds and where the user/viewer experiences horror at his or her fingertips in the seemingly private spaces of the home.

The idea of fear pervading the intimate spaces and technology of the home structures the narrative of PA 2, which is told predominantly from the point of view of security cameras around the house.  PA 2 was unique in its placement on the franchise timeline in that it begins before the first film and ends after it, expanding on Kristi’s role within the family’s demonic history while also following up on the ending of the first film’s narrative (somewhat answering the question of “Where is Katie” that the comic book also attempted to explore).  Like the first film, each night of the haunting is labeled, and the strange activity increases in intensity until Night 19, after which Kristi’s husband Dan (Brian Boland) and his teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) are forced to perform a kind of spell that transfers the possessing demon to Katie.  The security cameras capture multiple rooms and spaces throughout the house, and each night scene goes through the same cycle of rooms, showing a few seconds of footage of the front path, the pool, the kitchen, living room, front hall, and the nursery, in that order.  The footage is filmed from a high angle, capturing the rooms in their entirety, and for the first half of the film, not much happens in these rooms except for small, seemingly inconsequential movements.  When I first viewed this film during its initial theatrical release, the audience giggled throughout these scenes, presumably amused by the absurdity of staring at empty domestic spaces. What I find revealing about this experience in the theater is how the uncomfortable nature of these scenes, as with PA 1, involves a spectatorial identification with/alienation from the camera itself.  The cameras are merely appliances within a seemingly mundane suburban milieu and capture a great deal of domestic inactivity, yet the audience and the film’s characters rely heavily on these appliances for crucial information and “clues.”  Locked into whatever position the camera is, we read each scene closely for any disruption of domestic space, including doors moving, lights flickering, pots and pans shaking, nursery mobiles slowly turning, or automated pool cleaners malfunctioning. Through such unrelenting observation of inanimate everyday objects turned “possessed,” the PA franchise provides a tongue-in-cheek representation of the true horrors of suburban domesticity – having out of control appliances disturb a comfortable and privileged existence.  Yet the cameras remain steadfast, constant and unrelenting, providing us and the family the only documented evidence of the house’s demonic presence although ultimately failing to save them by the end of the film.

The destruction of the family in PA 2 despite their increased visual security re-emphasizes the connections the franchise consistently makes between domestic (in)security and technology, as increasing the amount and sophistication of the cameras  fails to protect domestic space from outside threats. The notion of security and domesticity via technology are heavily gendered in the first and second film; Hahner, et al argue that the large, affluent houses in the first two films, as well as the futile attempts of the male protagonists to save these houses from destruction via expensive technology, “positions the main characters as worthy of punishment” because of their excessive investment in consumption.[17]  Dan installs security cameras in the house after the family suffers an alleged break-in, and like Micah, he believes that technology will not only reveal what is rational (a.k.a. seeable), but will also provide some degree of protection for his family.  His foil in this endeavor is the family’s housekeeper Martine (Vivis Colombetti), a woman of Hispanic origin who senses the demon in the house and attempts to convince the family of its danger.[18] Dan dismisses Martine’s belief and fires her, only to call on her later for help when Kristi becomes fully possessed.  Martine of course represents the tired cliché of the domestic helper of color who has a mystical/psychic connection to spiritual forces, yet she also proves to be a somewhat worthy opponent to the demon and an intriguing alternative to Dan’s male and technologically supported domestic authority.[19]  Similarly, Dan’s teenage daughter embraces technology, including a handheld camcorder and her computer, as a means for investigation, which provides the film’s teenage audiences with a point of identification that adds a tech-savvy facet to the teen rebellion present in many horror films. The daughter moves through domestic space via her handheld camera, filming her family and the housekeeper jokingly at first and then using the camera to try to document the horrifying events; in contrast, her father appears predominantly from the vantage point of the static security cameras, stuck in the spaces of his own domestic fortress and more symbolically immobilized by his inability to acknowledge the unknown. In the franchise’s fourth installment, this notion of the power of technologically-motivated teenage girl consumption provides a heavily brand-oriented addition to the series’ transmedia universe, but it also re-asserts the franchise’s emphasis on the ways each family’s patriarch fails to protect domestic space even with the most “secure” technology.

PA 3-4: Ghosts in the Transmedia Machines

Figure 5: Paranormal Activity 3, 2011

Figure 5. Paranormal Activity 3, 2011.

The third and fourth films of the franchise engage even more specifically with viewer consumption by promoting and expanding the PA storyline across more personal gadgets and devices. As Hahner, et al argue, the open-ended nature of each film – the unresolved endings and suggestions of complex backstories – invites viewers to participate further in the franchise’s ambivalent take on consumption: “the films work to disgust viewers with the overconsumption of the main characters,” to ask “the audience to consume the films by scrutinizing the screen,” and, of course, to keep them returning to the theaters to quench their curiosity.[20] Yet as the devices multiple in and around each film, the consumption that is punished in the narratives of the first two films becomes more explicitly linked to the individual viewer’s acts of consumption, specifically through the failure of these consumer technologies to keep the unseen horror of the films at bay.  The third film in the franchise, a prequel that explains some of Katie and Kristi’s haunted backstory, was the most financially and critically successful of all four films.  Set in 1988, the film is made up of VHS footage of Kristi and Katie’s odd interactions with an invisible friend named Toby, later of course revealed to be the demon.  It is structured the same way as the first two films with increasingly strange activity happening over the course of a few weeks, yet added two elements that increased its appeal – the use of haunted/haunting children and a retro VHS-aesthetic, the latter of which several reviewers commented elevated the film past its two predecessors; recalling the use of mysterious VHS tapes to promote The Ring, the production team passed out vaguely labeled copies of PA 3’s trailer on VHS at festivals.  The second marketing technique PA 3 used was also somewhat delightfully retro, yet, crucial to its transmedia reach, staged as an iPhone or Android phone application called “Demon Summoner.”  Referencing a scene in the film when the sisters and their babysitter play the “Bloody Mary” game in front of a bathroom mirror, the app prompts the user to “Go to a dark room with a mirror” and then “hold the phone upright at eye level.” A flickering candle appears, and then the words “Turn the phone around so the candle faces the mirror and say Bloody Mary 3 times.”  The app then snaps a picture of the user in the mirror, superimposing a strange silhouette over the picture to show photographic proof of a demonic presence alongside the user’s face. PA 1-3 all set up contrasts between classic horror movie props and conventions such as Ouija boards, purification rituals and exorcists and their digital/video aesthetics, and using a phone or mobile device to play a nostalgic parlor game represents a continuation of this tongue-in-cheek clash of horror moments.  Even further, though, the phone app continues the franchise’s attempt to call attention to the multiple devices and gadgets that we use in various spaces, in this case by having users actually carry their devices into their own bathrooms, bedrooms, etc., adding an even more personal and intimate communication device to its transmedia reach. Wessels argues that the explicit use of cell phone camera footage in films like Cloverfield, as well as its use outside of the film in studio sponsored fan-videos, “demonstrate(s) usage of goods integral to the performance of citizenship” that are then “integrated into consumer regimes of self-governance,”[21] feeding into post 9/11 surveillance culture’s emphasis on individuals as protectors of national security.  The PA franchise’s emphasis on consumer recording devices is not directly tied to political context the way Cloverfield’s is, yet performs a similar kind of corporate-sponsored endorsement of watching and protecting domestic spaces and the nuclear family.  That said, those same recording devices are linked explicitly to fear – capturing events out of the ordinary – and using a cell phone to capture demonic activity in your own home, for example, seems to invite domestic disturbance rather than prevent it.

The third film in the franchise was also the first one to utilize Twitter fully as a marketing platform, encouraging fans to “Tweet To See it First” to bring early premieres of the film to their cities, echoing the franchise’s early attempts to harness fans’ curiosity as a publicity tactic.  The official twitter handle of the franchise, TweetYourScream, soon served a variety of capacities, including marketing and publicity for the fourth film, a news feed for upcoming releases, and a means for fans to continue their conversations about the franchise.  In 2012, the fourth film of the franchise not only utilized Twitter for advertising purposes, tweeting pictures of fans lined up for early screenings and re-tweeting excited, anticipating fans, but the studio also incorporated Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Youtube and Google Plus into a viral campaign creating an additional character in the PA world, a divorced dad named Jacob Degloshi.  About two weeks before the premiere of the fourth film, Mr. Degloshi showed up on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, with pictures and videos of his daughter Sarah coming to live at his house.  At some point Jacob finds a VHS tape in Sarah’s suitcase, with a scratched off symbol of the coven from PA 3, and, after struggling to procure a VCR, watches the tape, which contains footage from 1988 of Katie and Kristi talking with their grandmother.  Katie play-acts being pregnant with a boy named “Hunter,” of course referring to the little boy who is kidnapped in PA 2 and who reappears in PA 4.  Strange events begin plaguing Jacob and his daughter after he watches the tape (which breaks before he can watch all of it), which prompts him to set up cameras to begin documenting the activity.  As with the films, things heat up quickly, leading to his mysterious death, captured on video with his daughter stonily looking on.

While Degloshi’s videos, pictures and messages intersect with the PA world in certain places – the symbol and more VHS footage from PA 3, mentioning the names Hunter and Toby from the entire franchise, his daughter’s friendship with Alex (Kathryn Newton), the main character in PA 4 – what was more interesting was his documentation of the haunting in real time via social media. The studio aimed to reproduce the experience of watching the footage of the films via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube, interspersing Degloshi’s descriptions of what was happening with pictures and videos made in the handheld/static footage style of the films.  Degloshi’s story echoes that of the other films – a male homeowner attempting and failing to protect his family via recording technology – yet the use of social media to document the invasion of Degloshi’s private spaces also invades the viewer’s more intimate technological spaces (Twitter, Facebook), continuing the franchise’s blurred boundaries between “outside” (demonic, unseen terrors) and “inside” (domestic spaces, both technological and not).  Degloshi’s existence itself is a phantom in some unseen machine, and while the film’s fans realized early on that Degloshi was the franchise’s creation, there was something unsettling about how easy it was to create, develop and insinuate this character into one’s mundane techno-existence.  Building on this extension of horror into the everyday, the film’s official website also featured a “chat with Alex” link that turns the viewer’s computer screen into a Skype conversation with PA 4’s teen protagonist, Alex, and allows the viewer to witness, via the computer’s camera, frightening scenes involving Hunter and Katie.  As you are chatting (or, rather, listening to Alex chat), the computer screen fills with pop-ups of various cameras placed around the house.  Taken together, the Jacob Degloshi campaign and the “chat with Alex” feature produce small narrative tidbits for the franchise’s expanding storyline yet continue to shift its focus to the immediacy of horror experienced via household technology, specifically in the case of PA 4, computers and video game consoles.

PA 1 and 2 used cameras explicitly as devices meant to protect domestic space, but PA 4’s use of recording technology is more insidious, calling attention to the fact that more individualized consumer devices can “watch” us in unexpected ways. The fourth film is a true sequel, taking place about 5 years after the end of PA 2, where Katie and her strange son Robbie (Brady Allen) have moved across the street from a family in a Henderson, Nevada suburb.  The family’s teenage daughter, Alex, begins to notice strange interactions between Robbie and her brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), which she and her friend Ben (Matt Shively) begin to document via various recording devices.  The fourth film uses the same combinations of handheld and static footage, yet its primary technological conceits were the family’s Xbox Kinect and the webcams on the family’s laptops, rigged by Ben to capture footage in various rooms. While filming with the laptops’ cameras merely replicates camcorder footage, we become aware of the computer interface when Alex “Skypes” with Ben on her laptop and his image pops up on the lower right side of the screen. As filmmaker Henry Joost says of the choice of webcam, “When you’re video chatting with someone, you can’t see behind you, but the audience watching this can. That plays a pretty big role in the movie.”[22] Joost takes the horror convention of the audience seeing something creeping behind the protagonist and transfers it to an everyday communication device, drawing attention to the ways we position ourselves in relation to those devices in domestic space and the ways these devices appear to “watch” us back. The Xbox Kinect, set up in the family’s living room, is also a device that we do not associate with recording footage, but it unwittingly records strange events in the green, pixilated footage of the Kinect’s motion-capture feature.  Unlike the cameras in the other films, the Kinect does not reveal any crucial events in the film’s narrative but instead hides eerie faces and shapes for effect alone, prompting critics to deride its use as pure Microsoft product integration. That said, both the laptops and the Kinect translated well into the franchise’s most developed transmedia marketing campaign, a full-blown Twitter campaign that continued after the film’s release on DVD. The franchise’s Twitter account encouraged viewers to play with their own Kinect motion-capture footage, to tweet pictures of themselves watching the film (preferably on an Xbox) to enter an Xbox sweepstakes (#PA4onXbox), and to tweet pictures of “demon signs” in their own houses to win a DVD prize package (#DemonSigns).  While the pictures themselves were humorous and tongue-in-cheek (haunted pets was a particularly goofy trend), these campaigns encouraged viewers and fans yet again to focus on the experiential aspects of watching and re-watching the films. Hahner, et. al claim that “Tweeting or posting one’s experience with the films allows the ambiguity of consumption to move further beyond the space of the films proper,”[23] and asking fans to document their experiences watching the DVD on various devices and in different rooms of their houses encourages the continuing consumption and promotion of the franchise via various platforms. Jenkins says that films inviting intense audience involvement (i.e. that ones that can lead to a plethora of transmedia strands) “must provide resources consumers can use in constructing their own fantasies,”[24] and the sheer simplicity and mundaneness of the static camera, the Xbox, and the webcam, along with the extension of the franchise into social media, prompt viewers to imitate and parody the franchise’s style and content on multiple platforms.  That said, the imitations also emphasize the interactions between camera, space and body that the franchise foregrounds, and locating and documenting fear in these intimate, mundane spaces and devices unwittingly calls attention to the limits of technology to capture and protect us from the unknown.

Conclusion

In this essay, I have attempted to trace the transmedia branding campaign of the Paranormal Activity franchise through its four installments, focusing specifically on the franchise’s use of various recording technologies to create a viewer-centered horror experience that translates to a variety of personal devices.  I argue that the use of a static camera aesthetic and haunted websites, iPhone apps and Twitter campaigns ultimately draws attention to the ways that what Wessels calls “security-citizenship,” or the use of personal recording devices for safety and protection, fails.  There is a disjuncture between the ways that the families in each film make futile attempts to protect their homes using technology and the ways the franchise promotes itself through that same technology, asking fans, by the fourth film, to document their own experiences with fear in ways similar to those of the possessed, dead and otherwise disenfranchised characters of the four films.  The PA franchise has been read against the Great Recession and Housing Crises of recent years in its punishment of white, wealthy homeowners, yet its use of technology also recalls the way surveillance culture in recent years has become increasingly individualized, from the FBI’s request for cell phone footage of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings to the ongoing allegations of the NSA’s spying on private phone and Internet use.  To “Tweet Your Scream,” then, is to participate in a brand campaign, but perhaps also to consider – for a split second, even – that neither the device you are using nor the space you are using it in is “safe” from the prying eyes of whatever and whomever is watching.  The PA franchise has successfully extended its reach into the personal spaces and devices of its fans, yet its use of transmedia horror reveals a deep ambivalence about how and why we use technology in our everyday lives.

References

Carvell, Tim. “How The Blair Witch Project Built Up So Much Buzz: Movie Moguldum on a Shoestring.” Fortune Magazine. August 16, 1999. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1999/08/16/264276/.

Cornet, Ruth. “Interview: ‘Paranormal Activity’ director Oren Peli in ‘Paranormal Activity 3.’” Screen Rant. October 20, 2011. http://screenrant.com/paranormal-activity-3-oren-peli-interview-rothc-137180/.

Gleiberman, Owen. “‘Paranormal Activity’: A marketing campaign so ingenious it’s scary.” Entertainment Weekly. October 7, 2009. http://insidemovies.ew.com/2009/10/07/paranormal-activity-marketing-campaign/.

Hahner, Leslie A., Scott J. Varda and Nathan A. Wilson. “Paranormal Activity and the Horror of Abject Consumption.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no. 5 (2012): 362-376.

Horn, John. “The Haunted History of Paranormal Activity.” The Los Angeles Times. September 20, 2009. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/entertainment/ca-paranormal20/1.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. March 22, 2007. http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html.

Lobdell, Scott (writer) and Mark Badger (artist). Paranormal Activity: The Search for Katie, IDW Publishing (December 2009). iTunes.

Roscoe, Jane. “The Blair Witch Project: Mock documentary goes mainstream.” Jump Cut 43 (2000). http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/BlairWitch.html.

Sullivan, Kevin P. “‘Paranormal Activity 4: Five Secrets Revealed.” MTV.com. August 29, 2012. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1692810/paranormal-activity-4.jhtml.

Telotte, J.P.  “The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet.” In Nothing that Is: Millennial Cinema and the Blair Witch Controversies, edited by Sarah Lynn Higley and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, 37-51. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004.

Tryon, Chuck. “Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures and Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video 61, no. 3 (2009). 40-51.

Wessels, Emmanuelle. “’Where were you when the monster hit?’ Media convergence, branded security citizenship and the trans-media phenomenon of Cloverfield.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 17, no. 1 (2011): 69-83.

 

Notes:


[1] I would like to thank Jorie Lagerwey, Ali Hoffman-Han, Naja Later, Jessica Balanzategui and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback on this essay.

[2] John Horn, “The haunted history of ‘Paranormal Activity’,” The Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/entertainment/ca-paranormal20, October 13, 2013.

[3] Emmanuelle Wessels, “‘Where were you when the monster hit?’ Media convergence, branded security citizenship and the trans-media phenomenon of Cloverfield,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 17, no. 1 (2011): 70.

[4] See Hahner, et al for a list of critics that related the first film explicitly to the recession and housing economy. “Paranormal Activity and the Horror of Abject Consumption,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no. 5 (2012), 363.

[5] As Jenkins says, “The New Hollywood …demands that we do research before we arrive at the theater.” Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 104.

[6] Jane Roscoe, “The Blair Witch Project: Mock documentary goes mainstream,” Jump Cut 43 (2000), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/BlairWitch.html, August 1, 2013.

[7] Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, March 22, 2007, http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html, October 4, 2013.

[8] J.P. Telotte, “The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet,” in Nothing that Is: Millennial Cinema and the Blair Witch Controversies, ed. Sarah Lynn Higley and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004), 42.

[9] Chuck Tryon, “Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film,” Journal of Film and Video 61, no. 3 (2009): 40.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Ibid., 44.

[12] Owen Gleiberman, “‘Paranormal Activity’: A marketing campaign so ingenious it’s scary,” Entertainment Weekly October 7, 2009, http://insidemovies.ew.com/2009/10/07/paranormal-activity-marketing-campaign/, August 2, 2013.

[13] Tryon, 43.

[14] Hahner, et al., 367.

[15] Wessels, 74.

[16] Scott Lobdell (writer), Mark Badger (artist), Paranormal Activity: The Search for Katie, IDW Publishing (December 2009), iTunes, August 30, 2013.

[17] Hahner, et al., 367.

[18] A Paranormal spin-off entitled The Marked Ones (to be released January 3, 2014), teases out Martine’s “spiritualism” and appeals to the franchise’s sizable Hispanic audience with an entirely Latino cast and an East Los Angeles setting. http://news.moviefone.com/2013/10/17/paranormal-activity-the-marked-ones-trailer/

[19] “As characters, [Micah and Dan’s] manifestation of abject consumption iterates a logic that propels capitalism generally and narratives about the housing crisis specifically.  These men cannot resist the lure of consumption even as they are threatened with being consumed.” Hahner, et al., 370.

[20] Ibid., 369.

[21] Wessels, 75.

[22] Kevin P. Sullivan, “‘Paranormal Activity 4: Five Secrets Revealed,” MTV.com August 29, 2012, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1692810/paranormal-activity-4.jhtml, September 7, 2013.

[23] Hahner, et al., 372.

[24] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 97.

 

Bio: Janani Subramanian is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis.  Her research focuses on representations of race and gender across popular culture, and her work has been published in Science Fiction Film and TelevisionCritical Studies in Television, and Studies in Popular Culture.  Her book manuscript, Alien Visions: Fantasy, Race and Representation, is currently under contract with Rutgers University Press.