Communication Currents

Haunted by Consumption: The Seductive Allure of Paranormal Activity

February 1, 2014
Mass Communication

The Paranormal Activity franchise now stands five films strong (three sequels and a spinoff, with a sixth film due in the fall of 2014). Critically praised and financially successful, this franchise rejects the recent gore trend (SawTuristas) in favor of eerie horrors. Significantly, these films focus on the public’s fear of and fascination with materialism and consumption.

A number of critics suggested the horror of the first two films was related to the consumerism of the main characters contrasted with the mortgage crisis and dampened economy. More generally, popular narratives demonized the consumerism of homeowners—what Thorstein Veblen first called “conspicuous consumption”—for the economic recession. Some critics read the franchise through this framework and imagined the films as admonitions against irresponsible spending.

While we agree these haunted house films resonate with anxieties about the mortgage crisis, we are less hopeful about the counsel they offer. Instead, using Kristeva’s work on abjection, we argue the films’ much-praised minimalist style positions consumption as abject—which both disgusts and attracts the audience, feeding its desire for more. Specifically, the minimalist style of the films positions consumption as abject because it erupts in different features of the films—that is, from the greed of the protagonists to those production techniques prompting the urge to consume the films. The films ask viewers to demonize the greed of the main characters while feeding their own consumptive drives.

Consumption as the drive for more structures the style, tempo, and frights of the franchise. Thus, while these films display common horror features, the way the filmmakers deploy these generic conventions destabilizes the simple roles and resolutions of other horror films. We suggest there are three primary filmic strategies that solicit the hunger of abjection:

1. Suburban homeowners blanket their grand homes with surveillance cameras, while simultaneously the audience is asked to surveil the screen searching for evidence of the protracted hauntings.

2. The filmmakers employ stock characters—skeptics, psychics, and hysterical women—but these characters refuse their typical roles and only fuel the consumption of the protagonists and antagonists. For example, in horror films, psychics typically help resolve the haunting; here, these figures actually increase the demon’s power.

3. The use of open endings alongside social networking invited audiences to see themselves as divorced from the corporatism of mainstream films just as they invest more deeply in the franchise.

Put simply, audience members are encouraged to voraciously consume the films even as they enjoy watching homeowners being punished for similar transgressions.

A telling corollary appears in an October 2008 New York Times opinion piece in which best-selling author Judith Warner diagnosed the psychic struggle induced by the mortgage crisis. She wrote that for those who despise the social rules affording the “worship of wealth,” the downfall of the most recent Ponzi scheme and its speculators ought to lead to schadenfreude, a pleasure in watching the fall of Wall Street tycoons. Gratification remains elusive from the knowledge that all Americans likely will suffer from the transgressions of Wall Street elites. As Warner lamented the impossibility of escape, she observed, “There is no outside.” If Warner is right, then watching the downfall of greedy homeowners in film may entrench viewers in an abject relationship to consumption.
The Paranormal films are set against the backdrop of the mortgage crisis. Significantly, many popular narratives on the housing crisis singularly blamed homeowners for their materialism. This franchise certainly falls prey to this tactic. Yet, to simplify consumerism in this way ignores the ambiguity of consumption. Instead, for us, consumption is perverse, a want that is mobile. In this instance, consumption is part of the style of the films—we consume the frights of these films just as they consume us. As such, the audience cannot distinguish its own drive to consume from the avarice of the protagonists and antagonists. Indeed, the lure of consumption is the very appeal of style: the urge to contain the ambiguity of who you are from what you consume when neither can be separated. As Kristeva notes, style can call “upon what, within us, eludes defenses, trainings, and words, or else struggles against them.” In these films, the dizzying moves of consumption attempt to evoke for viewers the appetite of want. Because the films seem to simply demonize consumption, the audience fails to recognize the allure of consumption presented. The style of the films overcomes the audience’s simple revulsion to greed. The audience remains trapped in an abject relationship to consumption and cannot escape the simultaneous horror of and fascination with the drive for more.

In relation to the latest economic crisis, in which the pursuit of never-ending wealth dramatically deflated the world economy, the abject relationship to consumption is particularly compelling. While the audience may be able to recognize the pitfalls of avarice, the lure of consumption is much more difficult to combat. Resistance remains troublesome precisely because consumption travels; it is tethered to that which appears artificial, mere style. In this sense, the Paranormal films are exemplars for understanding how the style of contemporary films engage the audience’s abject relationship with consumption. Undeniably, the sizeable earnings for Paranormal Activity 3 suggest that the franchise’s well-used formulaic style profits from an abject relationship to consumption. Moreover, a number of recent films work by demonizing the individual’s consumer drives as they stylistically seduce the same appetite in viewers through the spectacle of special effects or by asking them to imagine themselves as independent of these drives. Films such as Avatar (2009),Wall•E (2008), Repo Men (2010), and Limitless (2011) point to the insidious lure of consumption in modern film.

Our reading of the Paranormal franchise provides a valuable framework to analyze how the style of aesthetic works reconfigures or cements the audience’s abject relationship to consumption. The Paranormal films represent and elicit the compulsive repetition at the heart of modern capitalism. The appetite of consumption continues to haunt. 

About the author (s)

Leslie A. Hahner

Baylor University

Assistant Professor

Scott J. Varda

Baylor University

Associate Professor

Nathan A. Wilson

Northwest Missouri State University

Assistant Professor