Bright Lights Film Journal

“We’re Engaged to Be Engaged”: The Paranormal Activity of Trauma and Relationship

“The camera has a motor, you just turn it on and walk away” – Andy Warhol

Couples commit to each other, in part, to escape the past. But if, as children, their relationships were fraught with indifference, neglect, abuse or trauma, transitions they make together can prompt visitations. In Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, the self-defined “newlyweds,” having hardly unpacked the moving boxes, realize they are not alone. For Micah and Katie, cohabitation has come easy — no pressure, no expectations, no in-laws, no demands outside the home. The couple can devote all their time and energy to a new chapter in their relationship, one accompanied by bumps in the night, pulled in from the past by a loving commitment to each other and a fixed camera position.

After a psychic (drive-by couple’s therapist) diagnoses the activity in question, all he offers the isolated pair is the distinction between a ghost (familial human spirit) and the malevolent demon of Katie’s past — a shadowy, shapeless entity with a will of its own. Though connected to Katie, she dissociates when describing it, assigning no event or emotional context — other than vague fear — to the eerie sensations. The demon’s motive is unknown except for originating in Katie’s childhood and reanimating now, when she’s moving in with her boyfriend. Micah becomes obsessed with documenting the demon’s return to her life despite the psychic’s warnings that the camera (subconscious) will “invite it in.”

The camera belongs (always running) in the master bedroom — both the lover’s sanctuary and the subconscious stage for the demon to come between them. With each visitation Katie withdraws deeper into her symptoms, which Micah continues to minimize as evidence in his own frantic struggle to deflect her disturbing past from invading their newly defined security. As the paranormal activity escalates, so does the pervasive sense that the lovers in crisis are captives in their own home — cut off from the outside world and increasingly from each other, without guidance or understanding. Katie resists Micah’s persistent pleas to film their sex because it equates their intimacy with his methodical approach to unmasking her demon; sex remains the last activity of her choosing — no camera, no demon, no past, just the temporary warmth of the physical present.

If we imagine the haunting as a metaphor of relationship disrupted by the inability of lovers to mend torn psyches together, then Micah’s distractions (video camera, demonology) become more relevant. Micah represents most men in his drive to “solve” or only understand superficially, his girlfriend’s night terrors — his textbooks and camera merely labeling what is already there. Micah channels emotional immaturity into an endeavor to undermine his fear of Katie’s past and the effect it will have on them.

The characteristics of Katie’s demon — its origin in her childhood, recurrence, and imagery — resemble a repressed trauma, exiled from her consciousness to form an unrecognized but parallel memory of pure sensations. The demon’s markings are tainted in sexual imagery in the house fire and the bite found on Katie’s back after a restless visitation. The singed photo of young Katie expresses a stolen childhood — captured and kept away from integrating into adulthood, a lost memory left to morph into its own grand, symbolic pathology. Micah hides in his documentation while Katie prepares to relinquish her will to its raw psychic energy and newly established permanence in her life. Both lovers fear the trauma’s emotional imagery and what its return (when the subconscious is left running) brings to the defining phase of their relationship. Fearing who they are and together what they can endure raises a relationship’s underlying questions: What circumstances bring us together? What do we risk in a shared life? Will commitment release or forever obligate us, to relive the past?