(Note: this contains spoilers for both Paranormal Activity and its sequel.)
In 2007, an Israeli-born aspiring director and writer named Oren Peli set up a film shoot in his own home. Using a home video camera, two actors he hired for $500 off of Craigslist, and the barest outlines of a script, he shot a ghost (or demon, to be more accurate) story that kicked around Slamdance and some other LA horror festivals before it clawed its way up the ladder to Steven Spielberg's lap.
Released in 2009, Paranormal Activity cost just $15,000 to make, but went on to gross almost $200 million worldwide. For those keeping score, that officially makes it the most profitable movie of all time, in terms of return on investment. It spawned a sequel that appropriately came out around Halloween 2010. Shot in a similar manner, that one cost a cool $3 million and has so far made $166 million worldwide, still a gaping profit margin. There are rumblings of a third.
I find it difficult to believe that the simple storyline and setup can work for a longer franchise, but both films managed to be chilling and effective. And not only because of the things that go bump in the night: the films also portray the all-too human demons that plague American marriages. In both movies, the demonic possessions of women are heavily--if inadvertantly--aided by the callousness and carelessness of the women's husbands.
In PA1, Micah and Katie are "engaged to be engaged," but have been cohabitating for a while when the movie starts, long enough to settle into a marriage-like existence. When weird things start happening around the house, Micah insists on filming them, despite Katie's misgivings. This has happened to her--and her sister--before, when they were kids. Micah doesn't listen to her wishes, though, and starts challenging the dark force inhabiting their house. Katie calls in a paranormal expert; Micah scoffs at the idea and bullies her into not calling a demonologist on the expert's advice. He insists that he can fix this himself, saying, "This is my house, you're my girlfriend, I will handle it." He breaks promises to Katie and buys an Oujia board. Every move only escalates the problem until it manifests into full-on demonic possession. By that time, you're almost rooting for the demon to kill this douchebag. You'd be right.
In PA2, which acts as a prequel, concurrent movie, and sequel all at once, Katie's sister Kristi has just had a baby boy with her husband Dan, adding to their household that includes a daughter, Ali, from Don's previous relationship, a superstitious Hispanic nanny named Martine (magical non-white person alert), and a German Shepherd. When strange things start happening around their house, all the women in the house have strong reactions: Kristi recalls some childhood hauntings, Martine burns incense and chants to keep the demon at bay, Ali is at first excited but changes her mind once she does a little research. The dog worriedly stands guard over the baby.
All is for naught, though, because Dan is the kind of guy who will blame a supernaturally-slammed door on the wind and refuses to listen to any arguments to the contrary. No action is taken, as his opinion is apparently the only one that matters. Hell, even the (female) dog's agitated barking goes unheeded, except by the demon, who puts her in puppy hospital. When events finally escalate beyond Dan's ability to explain away, the solution Martine presents is horrifying: they will use a crucifix to transfer the demon to the next blood relative, Katie, thus setting the events of PA1 in motion. Ali protests, but Dan whips out a line that echoes Micah's--"It's my house, it's my wife and my son. This is my decision."
All of this becomes even more interesting once you consider the fact that neither PA1 nor 2 employed a conventional script. Instead they used "retro-scripting," in which the director laid out basic scenarios and plot developments then let the actors make up their own dialogue. Now, it is entirely possible that two separate directors instructed their lead actors to go the route of chest-thumping king of the house, but it's also possible that the actors went that way on their own. I tend to believe the latter: in both films there was a sense of hesitancy on the actors' parts before they committed to claiming dominance over their house and everyone (female) within it; once they had, then it was full-steam ahead. That says a lot about how engrained that kind of male dominance still is in our households and especially in our marriages.
Except then it backfires, in both cases, rather spectacularly. In PA1, Micah's taunting and the toxic energy around their marital squabbles allow the demon to worm its way into Katie's head. Her first act of possession is to kill Micah. She then saunters over to PA2 and the Reys' house, where she snaps Dan's neck like a twig and kills Kristi.
I hesitate to call this a feminist commentary, both because it's still an otherworldly force attempting to possess the bodies of women, and Kristi is about as innocent and powerless a victim as one can find. However, the movies subtly make the point that the demonic possession is almost beside the point: these women have already lost control over their lives and bodies to the men in their homes.