She-Devil: Demonic Possession, Family and Women in the Paranormal Activity Movies by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

She-Devil: Demonic Possession, Family and Women in the Paranormal Activity Movies

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Demonic possession is a female thing.

Sure, the devil  usually manifests itself in a male form (The Devil’s Advocate, Constantine, etc.), but it’s women who are most often possessed and chased by demons in movies (The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, to note a few examples). One could chalk this up to the Gothic ancestors of the modern demonic film. It used to be that fragile women were tormented by ghosts (Turn of the Screw or The Haunting), but for the past few decades they’ve been upgraded to Lucifer.

For that reason, it’s interesting to watch Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2, and see them through the lens of family and female roles.

I have read the argument that The Exorcist is a movie about the danger of turning away from traditional family and social structures. The Exorcist, some critics have argued, is a cautionary tale of what happens when you have an atheist single-mother helming a household. The Entity could be read as another cautionary tale of what happens when a woman lives alone without a man. The Exorcism of Emily Rose warns young women looking to leave their home of what may happen when they depart the family fold, and the protection of their fathers.

Note that the women in the Paranormal Activity movies, despite maintaining traditional roles (one sister is a student with an interest in jewelry, the other a stay-at-home mom; both live with a male provider, in sharp contrast to the mother of The Exorcist) end up in the hands of a demon.

Demonic possession in these films is not the product of a risky action by the protagonist, such as eschewing a male protector. But the men chosen to be the protectors are foolish and, one might even say, irrelevant.

The women in both Paranormal Activity have a boyfriend or husband, but both of these men are either clueless or incapable of protecting them. In the original film, Micha’s macho male posturing and constant promises that he is going to solve the problem lead to nothing. In the sequel, Dan does not even believe there is a problem, and he cannot even provide a solution, turning to a woman (the spiritually attuned Mexican nanny) for help. The only thing the men in these movies seem capable of doing is fill their homes with cameras or shoot video footage, with the occasional profanity uttered.

While in The Exorcist a priest, representation of the traditional male order, would have waged a battle against evil, and won, here there is no victory.

One important factor to note is that neither of the men in the movie turn to a priest to perform an exorcism and aid their afflicted beloved one, despite knowing a demon is in their home.

I believe this reflects current anxieties about changing family roles, and values. Most people no longer attend church or temple every week. A 2006 online Harris Poll of adults in the United States showed that 26 percent of those surveyed attended religious services every week. Thus, it is no wonder, that the protagonists of the movies do not even consider seeking the priest. Contrast this attitude with, say The Amityville Horror, where the priest is asked to perform a blessing early on in the movie.

Thus, the movies seem to weave a cautionary tale of how families, vulnerable due to their lack of faith and the men who do not perform their traditional duties of protectors and saviours, will crumble in the face of evil. Demonic attacks are no longer the fault of the women who choose to be single-mothers, or play with the Ouija.

What then, do these films tell us? Women are ripe for paranormal attacks (an old tale), but unlike in the old days of horror films, they can no longer turn to the men for assistance. The men are too busy with their large TVs or video footage. Ladies, you’re on your own, the movie tells the protagonists.

The Atlantic Monthly recently had a story titled ” The End of Men, ” a story which seemed to be a fear-fest on how women may come to dominate the workforce and the world. At one point the author says “the men, self-conscious about their diminished status, stand stiffly, their hands by their sides, as the women twirl away.”

I think Paranormal Activity is reflection of these fears, of a changing social landscape. And though I think we are hardly at the age of The End of Men (the reports of that death are greatly exaggerated), one could see why a movie like Paranormal Activity, made at a time when the United States has faced a recession unseen in decades, such fears would pop up.

The micro-families of Paranormal Activity stand as representations of the United States at large; the underlying fear of these movies: that the world has changed, and no one knows how to cope with it.

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