Visiting a haunted house equals big scares, as most The Haunting of Hill House film variations will tell us, but what makes a film (in my opinion) even spookier, is having the scares in your home...
...The place you call your own. Whether it’s one you’ve had for your entire life or newly acquired, the domestic realm offers more scares because the so-called safe space turns sinister for the inhabitants. The familiarity of the house, the possessions inside, or even your own family cannot prevent nor protect when evil becomes the new house guest. When looking at horror which occurs within the home, one horror scholar uses the phrase “family horror” to refer to the films, but in the case of Paranormal Activity 2, a correct label of the genre might fall more along the lines of “domestic horror” or, for a subgenre even more specific, “upper-middle class gothic”. Paranormal Activity 2 premiered 10 years ago and while it offers typical themes of a haunted house film, the perspective of the domestic sphere combines gothic tropes with a modern setting where the father-figure battles and eventually loses control over his domain.
SPOILERS FOR PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 1 & 2 AHEAD
Using “gothic” to describe PA2 might surprise some because the house does not have creaking floorboards, rattling chains, or other tropes associated with drafty old castles or abandoned buildings. However, in the film we get an updated version of a spooky estate involving a well-off family in their large house. Doors swing open on their own, pots and pans clatter to the floor, and innocuous children’s toys come to life. Aside from the jump scares, the house itself adds to the fear because gothic architecture in literature or film serves as a representation of human relationships. In olden times, women were often either locked away under the guise of “hysteria” or became a slave to the household. Men did not find limitations within the homes and therefore had more time to get into trouble. These themes still play out in PA2 where the female characters, Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and Ali (Molly Ephraim), are assigned to their rooms or the kitchen, while the father, Daniel (Brian Boland), earns much more freedom to wander throughout the house and lay claim over several of the rooms.
Paranormal Activity 2 begins with a tour of the house from the perspective of the father. He treats the camera (and audience) as if he is showing his newborn son Hunter his new home. However, the baby boy stays with his mother while the father shows off his first and then his second man cave. When Daniel has the handheld, we get his male perspective and see how he controls and interacts with his home and everyone in it. However, a little over a year later, Daniel’s space is violated by an apparent break-in where every room aside from Hunter’s (including Daniel’s multiple man caves) is trashed and ransacked. Daniel can no longer rely on his own eyes to survey his home, so he installs security cameras in every room. In an attempt to continue controlling his environment, Daniel actually hands the power over to the house and the audience now relies on its perspective for the story.
Interestingly enough, the theatrical release depicts the father as dismissive to his wife and daughter as they experience their own spooky incidents (ex: getting locked out of the house, having the kitchen vomit its contents onto the floor), but in the extended cut we see two scenes where the father earns the brunt of the ghost’s wrath. In one scene Daniel comes downstairs late at night to find his kitchen ablaze because of a pan left on the stove. In a screaming and swearing panic, the father grabs the flaming pan and throws it into the pool, only to find his daughter and her boyfriend looking on from the hot tub. A later scene shows Daniel going for a relaxing dip in his hot tub, only to find the temperature at a painful level. He rushes inside to put frozen food on his scorched scrotum, where he is met by laughter from his daughter. These scenes show both the family and the house turning against Daniel. He risks getting burnt from the kitchen fire and suffers some degree of burns from the hot tub and blames both incidents on Ali. He told Ali to say good night to her boyfriend and found them still together hours later. While agonizing over the burn to his genitals, despite trying to admonish his teenage daughter, she laughs at his pain. Including these scenes in the film would show more of Daniel’s struggles to control his family and house but removing them makes Daniel’s denial more believable and gives him a false sense of security that he is still in control.
The child also plays an important role within the domestic sphere. Hunter combines the different circles of the family. Ali is Daniel’s child from his previous marriage, but then Daniel married Kristi, and Kristi is Hunter’s first born. Only Hunter holds a biological connection to everyone in the home and ties the family together, so his birth represents the present dynamic of the home. However, Hunter also represents the future not only because of his youth, but also because his male-status represents the continuation of the Rey name and family lineage. Daniel’s first interaction with his son involves the father bonding with his boy via a videotape. The father shows off his success and brags about his sexual conquests as if he is talking to the grown version of his son and not a newborn. However, because of the curse on Kristi and Katie’s family, Hunter also represents the past. Generations prior, a male child was promised. The family only produced daughters for 70 years until Hunter’s birth. The boy’s birth was long anticipated and, even though Daniel lovingly awaits having a male heir to bond with, his son never belonged to him.
Traditionally in domestic horror, the home is invaded by some supernatural being. The family does not move (usually for financial reasons) or go looking for the ghost, but instead the hauntings begin unexpectedly. In the case of PA2, the spirit had previously haunted Kristi in her youth and now reemerges in an attempt to steal her child. Usually any preventative measures are delayed due to the stubbornness of the father in the home. The man of the house usually insists he can handle the situation because the ghost lives under his roof, and therefore must observe his rules. PA2 follows the typical frustrating “dad-knows-best” trope of the haunted house genre in the beginning of the film, but Daniel Rey does eventually break away from it. However, in turn he creates the domino effect for the entire Paranormal series. The haunting did not bother him and he dismissed the complaints and fears of his wife and daughter, assuming they were just screwing around and not following proper housekeeping protocols (ex. hanging up pots correctly, letting a door slam shut, etc.), but the spirit eventually crosses the line. The loss of his wife to the ghost disrupts Daniel’s life, so he becomes forced to address the haunting. Daniel has lost control of his castle, so he chooses to target someone outside of his domain.
The follow-up to the original Paranormal Activity plays as a prequel (starting over a year before the first film) and somewhat of a sequel; PA2 occurs simultaneously alongside the first film (a coquel? Simuquel?) and even shows events which occur immediately after Katie killed Micah in the original. Aside from sending the ghost to Micah and Katie’s house, Daniel also made it possible for the actions to take place. During PA2, Daniel shows off his handheld camera to Micah, who immediately falls in love with the device and jokes about leaving his girlfriend for the camera. In a “keeping up with the Joneses/dick measuring competition” Micah goes out and buys a bigger and better camera to show off. Without this camera, the original film would not exist. And as the story unfurls in 2, the audience learns that while the long-ago curse perpetuates the hauntings in the Rey house, Daniel’s actions were the real catalyst for Paranormal Activity and therefore all the sequels. Faced with losing his wife to the spirit, Daniel makes the choice (quite easily in fact), to transfer the ghost from his wife to her sister. Placing the spirit in Katie then starts all the events which unfold in the first film, eventually leading to the death of Daniel and Kristi, and the kidnapping of Hunter.
By Amylou Ahava
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