Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

I posted a shorter version of this yesterday on Facebook; here is a revised and expanded version.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimenson is quite good (despite the predictably negative reviews; the same reviewers who didn’t like the earlier films in the series now say that the new, final installment doesn’t live up to those earlier films). – I should note that I didn’t see it in 3D, so I can’t say what that might have added to the experience. But the overall principle of scary creepy events that you can barely discern, amplified by all the empty waiting and uncertainty that surrounds them, is as well done here as in the earlier entries of the series. And a single setting, an anonymous Southern California suburban one-family home, as in the other entries serves as sole location (aside from some interdimensional pathways) for the entire film. 

Ghost Dimension is perhaps less formally rigorous than some of the earlier entries; but it makes up for this in other ways. The original Paranormal Activity, (2007), the first movie in the series, was shot and directed entirely independently by Oren Pelli for something like $15,000 – though more money was spend when the movie was picked up for general distribution. The remaining films were not made as cheaply, but they were still extraordinarily low budget by Hollywood standards (I seem to remember seeing the figure of $1 million per film somewhere). Pelli was the producer for the subsequent entries, but let others direct. (The new film is directed by first-time director Gregory Plotkin, who edited all the previous films in the series except the first one).

Paranormal Activity 1 distinguished itself with what can be called its performative and instrumental self-reflexivity: the equipment with which the film was shot — a handheld consumer video camera, and several cams on laptops — is itself present within the diegesis, and plays a major role in the events of the film. Things like laptop webcams allow us to record presences that we don’t perceive directly — because we are not there, because we are asleep, or because the subtlety of the physical disturbances being recorded evades our immediate direct notice. The use of supposed found footage in horror is not new to this series — the obvious precursor is, of course The Blair Witch Project (1999) — but what distinguishes Paranormal Activity is how this footage is used. It isn’t just material left behind by the protagonists, but it becomes a major determinant of how they do what they do. In the morning, they look at the footage recorded while they were asleep the previous night. And we as audience scan this footage because of how it is presented to us with fast forwards and jump cuts made evident not only by changes in the image, but by the ubiquitous time codes on the corner of the laptop screen.

The second and third entries elaborated on this by means of a sort of serialist minimalism, like that of an avant-garde experimental film. This is something that Nicholas Rombes discusses in his article on Paranormal Activity 2 (2010).Where the protagonist in the first installment used webcams in laptops, the protagonist in the second film installs surveillance cameras throughout the house. And we get long sequences in which we cycle through the output from these fixed cameras, in repetitive order, while we are just waiting for something to happen. Sometimes we hear ominous noises whose sources don’t appear in any of these visuals. And we find ourselves searching for the most minute changes in the images, each time we cycle through them. It’s sort of like a horror film directed by Michael Snow. (Well, to be perfectly fair, Wavelength actually is a horror film – or at least a thriller – directed by Michael Snow).

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) is a prequel, set in the 1980s: which means that the technology used and depicted consists mostly of VHS cameras and tapes (a technology which of course is analog, not digital). This constraint allows for some astonishing inventions: especially when the protagonist puts one of his VHS cameras on the chassis from an oscillating fan. This allows the camera to slowly and repeatedly pan back and forth, so that it alternately views the living room and the kitchen of the home. In the course of these pans, we spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen, as well as hearing things that we can’t see because the camera is in the wrong part of its slow pan, seeing things which happen far away from the camera, on the room’s opposite wall, so that we don’t even notice these events the first time we watch the movie), and getting some real shocks when we finally get the payoff for all of the waiting and vague intimations. 

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) updated the series by adding video chat as well as body scanning through the motion-sensing apparatus of the Kinect. The whole series up to this point is distinguished by the ways in which traditional Hollywood formal structures are constrained by the nature of the footage, not only as it is presented to us, but also as it is developed through the characters’ own uses of their cameras. The use of cameras tied to particular POVs (whether human, as in the handheld video cams, or nonhuman, as in the webcams and surveillance cams) means that the traditional film syntax of continuity editing cannot be applied. It is as if the filmmakers stripped editing language down to zero, and then rebuilt it from scratch, following the technological affordances of the devices they were using. For instance, it is only in PA 4, with the video chats between the teenage girl protagonist and her boyfriend, that we ever get anything like a shot/reverse shot structure. A detailed breakdown of how these formal constraints work, far better than anything I could do, is provided by David Bordwell in his discussion of the series. 

The unnumbered sidequel, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) is quite entertaining, but doesn’t really do anything new formally with the series. It stays mostly with the handheld video camera. I can’t help feeling the filmmakers missed an opportunity here. It is too bad none of the series made use of cameraphones, which at this point are ubiquitous in a way that dedicated videocams are not.

The new and apparently final entry, Ghost Dimenson, goes off in a surprisingly different direction from the rest of the series. Even leaving aside the 3D, which is evidently something that is still not cheaply available in home consumer equipment, the new movie is not quite as careful as the previous entries in motivating every shot. Sometimes there are quick cuts while the action and the sound continue unbroken, an editorial refinement which couldn’t really be done in camera, and thus conflicts with the home-footage premise. However, we still don’t get anything like conventional continuity editing. The camera is often shaky and wobbly, and it moves around erratically — all this brings us back to the sense that one of the characters is holding the camera, even when it is uncertain which character this might be. It’s almost as if Ghost Dimension is the inverse of Sean Baker’s beautiful Tangerine (also 2015). Where the latter movie was shot entirely on iPhones, yet has a smooth and controlled look that we cannot help attributing to much more expensive equipment, Ghost Dimension looks/feels cheap, flawed, and spontaneous, regardless of the quality and cost of the equipment actually used to make it.

All this relates to the underlying aesthetic of Ghost Dimension, which marks a big change from the earlier films in the series. Where the previous films emulated, and gave a new socio-economic context to, (late-modernist) self-reflexivity and minimalism, Ghost Dimension rather shows an affinity with the more recent experimental trends of glitch art and even “new aesthetics” (machine art). There are a few sequences that switch among multiple fixed cameras as in PA 2, but even this is disrupted when one of the cameras is knocked over by demonic forces. For the most part, instead, we have handheld (and therefore continually moving, sometimes shaking) videocams that operate mostly in darkness or semi-darkness. This has a number of important consequences. It isn’t always easy to tell where exactly the camera is positioned. A lot of stuff is barely visible, because the scene as a whole is either unlit, or lit only in a circle by the highly directional lighting from the camera itself. Sometimes we get switches to what seems like infrared mode. In addition, even in the daytime portions of the movie there often a lot of static and noise, as well as shakiness, in the image. And jump cuts (as I have already mentioned) are far more frequent than in the earlier installments. Not to mention that what I have metaphorically called “noise” in the video image is often accompanied by difficult-to-identify (literal) noises on the soundtrack.It’s an old strategy to use various sorts of darkness and murkiness in horror films, together with offscreen noises, in order to increase uncertainty and fear. But Ghost Dimension pushes this further, to the point where the manifestations of ghostly, demonic activity are not just beyond the ken of the camera (and sound recorder), but rather affect the image and sound tracks by impinging upon them in order to distort them. Or, to put this in somewhat different terms: it is not just that audiovisual devices are able to capture images and sounds that stretch beyond our own perceptual abilities, but that the movements of these imperceptible forces impinge on and distort the capturing/representing devices themselves. It has become common for film and video makers to deliberately include glitches as a way to paradoxically heighten the supposed “authenticity” of the images (for instance, think of all the movies that digitally incorporate lens flare, as a mark that the scene was really recorded by a real camera). But here glitches extend beyond even this sort of use — instead of authenticating the medium, they insist upon the breakdown and incapacity of the medium.

All this is amplified by the one really surprising novum in Ghost Dimension. In addition to their own 2013-vintage cameras (2013 is when the action of the movie takes place), the protagonists find an old video camera, apparently a VHS one, left behind by the protagonists of PA 3. This camera has an odd design (additional lenses or sensors, apparently attuned to something different than the three primary colors a normal video camera is able to capture), and it turns out to be able to actually pick up traces of the otherwise invisible demons. But these entities manifest within the special camera’s feed in strange ways, and precisely in the form of glitches and interruptions, rather than in the form of solid objects or bodies. We see them first as scattered, swirling interference patterns, and then increasingly as dark blotches that ooze into the frame, inhabiting the visualized space without taking on concrete form. The special camera can see the demons precisely as glitches, or formless obstructions of the image. This also seems having to do with the fact that the special video camera is an archaism, analog rather than digital — giving us vagueness and obscurity rather than clear patterns.The idea of archaic equipment is also emphasized when the protagonists find an old VHS player, and pop the old cassettes (in effect, outtakes from PA 3) into it. These involve some wonderfully freaky moments when the people in these 25-year-old videotapes interact with,and respond to, the people in the present watching them, as if they — the ghost images recorded in a distant past — could see their present-day viewers. All this reminds us that the ideal of digital order and clarity can never really be achieved. Glitches intrinsic to the digital go hand in hand with obstructions that date back to older, imprecise analog technologies. You can never get rid of these analog traces from the past, just as you can never entirely cleanse even the supposedly purely digital renderings in the present.

In short, if the earlier movies in the series were about the real phantoms that are generated by surveillance and self-surveillance technologies, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is correspondingly about the real phantoms that are generated by the limits of these technologies, and by their breakdowns either because they are (contrary to what we are led to believe) intrinsically limited, or because their malfunctions are a feature and not a bug, the consequence of their being pushed (as they cannot help being) beyond the limits that they seek to define.