Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Notes on Paranormal Activity, Antichrist, and Andrew Britton


Paranormal Activity and Antichrist ostensibly come from entirely different filmmaking traditions and seem to implicitly address themselves to different audiences. This has meant that, as we would probably expect, they have been received in very different ways by the critical fraternity. The former has tended to be treated as an arthouse picture steeped in a symbolism considered to be either intellectually profound or emptily provocative (depending on the reviewer), while the latter has largely been regarded as an ingenious, but ultimately functional, genre exercise designed to elicit scares and nothing more. There are, however, undeniable parallels between the two films which demand to be engaged with – particularly given they were released within months of one another. I’m nowhere close to reaching any conclusions on these parallels, but the fact that they are so clearly there, combined with the fact that (as far as I am aware) no one seems to be noticing them, is interesting enough to require a few words.

I’m certainly not saying it’s wrong to view these films in the ways I’ve described – indeed, in order to retain perspective and context it is necessary on some level to do so. Antichrist of course is the latest in a long line of intentionally controversial and formally inventive works by the international art cinema’s leading provocateur, Lars Von Trier; likewise, Paranormal Activity certainly is a pleasantly creepy updating of the ghost movie and a fun night out at the cinema. But such categories, dictated by production, mode, and marketing, can sometimes blind us to more deep-rooted similarities that are grounded more in matters of narrative (and, as a consequence, ideological) convention.

One immediately obvious, and broad, convention shared by the films is the horror genre: in Antichrist this genre is viewed through the lens of art cinema, and in Paranormal Activity it is tweaked via the style of recent ‘realistic’ horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project (1999). Another shared tradition is that of the male/female ‘two-hander’, since both films are focused almost entirely on a heterosexual romantic couple. Beyond this, though, another more specific convention that I think both films clearly engage with is what Andrew Britton has called the "persecuted wife melodrama" (and elsewhere the “Freudian-feminist melodrama”).

Britton set out his case for this cycle of films in the essay ‘A New Servitude: Bette Davis, Now, Voyager, and the Radicalism of the Woman’s Film’ (which can now be found in the indispensible Britton on Film). Put very simply, Britton describes the persecuted wife melodrama as being focused on a female protagonist who is married to an impressive and overbearing man, and who (for reasons that vary across the films) comes to feel hysterical, threatened and trapped in both her marriage and her marital home. The narrative tends to see the husband exert considerable control over the woman, to the point at which he may either be revealed as the cause – or at least as standing in the way of the cure – of his wife’s distress. Depending on the film, the narrative will conclude either with the expulsion of the husband or the revelation that the woman misunderstood his malevolent intentions towards her.

This is a tradition Britton sees as indebted to the image of women in Gothic 19th Century literature (particularly Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), and which found expression in classical Hollywood in films such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Minelli’s Undercurrent (1946), Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949), and Ophuls’ Caught (1949). Bringing the cycle slightly further up to date, I would suggest that another key movie is Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – a film that brings the tradition’s conventions directly into contact with contemporary horror, and which can thus be seen as a necessary stepping stone on the path towards the cycle’s presence in 2009 with Antichrist and Paranormal Activity.

As I have said, I don’t have a final reading on the significance of the inflections these films play on the persecuted wife melodrama. The fact is, though, that its conventions are undeniably present, and they ensure that both movies (not just the one explicitly concerned with gendercide) are as much about sexual politics as they are about ‘horror’. In the absence of a more in-depth analysis (which may well come at a later date), I will for now restrict myself to simply quoting a few of Britton’s points regarding the cycle and suggesting briefly how they manifest themselves in each film.

[NOTE: If you haven’t seen one or either of the films and want to avoid spoilers, then read no further.]

The marriage takes place at the beginning of the narrative, the rest of which is concerned with the bloody aftermath of “the happy ending”.

Neither film begins with a marriage, but the relationship in both is already well under way by the film’s start. This is fully in keeping with the famously disconcerting trend (embodied perfectly in the persecuted wife melodrama) that, in Hollywood cinema at least, a story about courtship is a comedy, while a story about marriage is a melodrama.

In some cases, though not in all, the film emphasizes the Oedipal aspect of the heroine’s love [by stressing that] her husband is older than she is and/or her superior in social rank.

This is certainly more obvious in Antichrist, where Dafoe’s character is both clearly older than Gainsbourg’s and seemingly a successful (judging from the couple’s apparent wealth and the fact that Gainsbourg doesn’t work) psychotherapist. In Paranormal Activity too, however, Micah is surely the earner in the household, given that Katie (like, in fact, Gainsbourg) is a student. In both films the male partner is also very strong-willed, and certainly perpetually behaves as if he were his partner’s superior.

Enter “the house” – archaic, marmoreal, labyrinthine, patriarchal: the prototypes are Brontë’s Thornfield Hall on the one hand and Poe’s House of Usher on the other.

In both films the uneasy domestic setting is key, and is where most of each film takes place. In Antichrist ‘Eden’, the holiday cabin, is clearly central to the drama and partly represents the malevolent forces at play in the narrative, both being wracked by storms like those that bedevil Poe’s House of Usher (resulting in the hellish falling acorns), and containing hidden secrets like Brontë’s Thornfield Hall (Gainsbourg’s thesis notes, the photographs). In Paranormal Activity we are told that the apartment is not the reason for the haunting, which would likely accompany Katie wherever she leads; yet the film nonetheless takes place entirely in the couple’s shared home, and the supernatural occurrences are initially only manifested in and on the fabric of the apartment (objects moving, lights and televisions switching on and off, unexplained noises [again, see: Usher and Thornfield]).

The marriage bed becomes the site of the heroine’s ultimate terror and humiliation and of the displacement of her sexuality into hysteria.

This most certainly describes the function of the marriage bed in Antichrist, since Gainsbourg’s guilt at having been unable to save her son is tied so intimately with sex, causing her to initially engage in sex obsessively and later to punish herself through a horrific and permanent disavowal of sexual pleasure: the circumcision. This theme is less overt but still present in Paranormal Activity via Katie’s refusal to let Micah film their lovemaking, and the fact that the great majority of the hauntings happen in the couple’s bedroom, where they set up the camera each night (guaranteeing that the image of the couple being frightened in bed is probably the most representative image of the movie – and also the film’s poster).

Masculinity, as the Freudian-feminist melodrama perceives it, is driven by an obsessional horror of lack, [represented in] the husband’s profound conviction of his impotence [which in turn results in] a corresponding project of domination.

This is where the conventions of the persecuted wife melodrama are felt most strongly in each film. Both Dafoe in Antichrist and Micah in Paranormal Activity are shown to be deeply threatened by the fact that they cannot rationally explain what is happening to their partners. They therefore engage in an extended process of domination over both the woman and her problem that is putatively presented as attempts to ‘solve’ them. In Antichrist this situation is exacerbated by Dafoe’s profession as a therapist, which causes him to take Gainsbourg away from the specialists treating her because he believes he can cure her himself. Micah also rejects offers of help from others (the psychic) in favour of solving Katie’s problems in his own way. Indeed, both are obsessed with handling their partners’ problems themselves in their way (despite many contrary pleas from the women in their lives), betraying assumptions of ownership and mastery (see Micah’s line, “I'm not having something coming in my house and fucking with my girl...”). In Antichrist the chosen tool of the indomitable power of male reason over the ‘irrational’ female is psychotherapy, in Paranormal Activity it is the video camera (at the film’s opening we learn Micah has bought the biggest, most expensive camera on the market – a purchase that it is certainly not especially difficult to read in Freudian terms). In both films there are veiled and not-so-veiled power battles going on in virtually every exchange the couples share – battles that the man, initially at least, wins every time.

She is exemplary for the passion and intensity with which she has internalized the desires, fantasies and ambitions which the culture encourages her to have.

This is manifestly the case for Gainsbourg, who – it emerges – has (at least following her son’s death, and probably earlier) internalised patriarchal culture’s most extreme misogynist attitudes, ultimately resulting in her belief that womankind as a whole is inherently evil. Has Katie perhaps taken on less pronounced assumptions regarding female passivity and male power, which cause her to allow Micah to so thoroughly dominate her?

The powerful female energies which the male protagonist has sought to disavow erupt, the house is destroyed, and the patriarchal line is extinguished.

In both films repressed female energy certainly eventually erupts, and violently, but with rather different consequences. In Antichrist Gainsbourg exacts a terrifying reign of violence upon Dafoe, only for Dafoe to recover and finally feel justified in killing her. Does Von Trier’s desire to provoke in this respect actually result in him forfeiting some of the more radical potential of the persecuted wife conventions? In Paranormal Activity, a more modest genre film, Katie is ultimately taken over fully by the demon and disposes of Micah, escaping to ‘whereabouts unknown’, thus enacting a destruction of an embodiment of patriarchy that earlier examples of the tradition could only begin to hint at. Perhaps one of the things to be learned from comparing these films is that genre movies still retain the potential to express ideas that would prove unacceptable in other forms – even perhaps in the form of the ‘shocking’ art film…?

These are very preliminary notes on the subject and, as such, the questions above are not rhetorical. I think there is a great deal more to be said about the relationship between these movies and the tradition to which I am arguing they relate, but this will have to wait till a later date. One thing at least that I hope is clear, though, is that assumptions about mode, production and implied audience need not necessarily blind us to potentially telling similarities between the ideologically-charged conventions used by seemingly disparate films.


  1. Very interesting - I had heard that Paranormal Activity was depiciting that kind of relationship. Especially interesting that you should link in Rosemary's Baby to the cycle, as that is exactly what I am arguing in my chapter on the film in my PhD (my MA thesis was on the cycle and Cukor's Gaslight and Lang's Secret Beyond the Door more specifically). I think you can see aspects of the cycle in a fair few horror films, and that its interesting that the female heroine who is simultaneously courageous and persecuted is such a central trope of the genre. I have to say I prefer Britton's term (from the Movie 31/32 article 'The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment') ''persecuted wife' melodrama', as I think it encapsualtes what the experience of the films more fully - Elsaesser uses the term Freudian feminist melodrama too I think and its just feels like, criticially or interpretively, that it tips the balance of what we are seeing in the films (though some of them are undeniably engaging with psychoanalytical ideas). The cycle has received some critical attention (Elsaesser, Doane, Gallafent), but not so much of late, apart from Mark Janovitch who has done research into the way the films were recieved and marketed at the time as horror films (He has an article in the Irish Journal of Gothic). Oh, and in Helen HAnson's book on 'Hollywood Heroines' but she places them into more a generalised female gothic, which incorporates other elements not necessarily involved in that specific cycle.


  2. Hi Lucy!

    Thanks for the comment. I had forgotten that Britton uses the term "persecuted wife melodrama" elsewhere - you're right: it's a nicer phrase, less unwieldy, and less prescriptive. Had I remembered it I probably would have used it myself here - oh well!

    It probably went without saying already, but I'd love to read your thesis when you're done, if you'd be up fort that - sounds really interesting. This is obviously just a side-interest for me, so it would be great to see what you've come up with after thinking about it in such depth. Perhaps - with these movies - it's time for the term to be resurrected (insert Gothic pun here)...!

  3. Hi James,
    Of course you can read it, I am very pleased that you interested enough to want to! I would love to read yours when it is finished too (I mean that, not just in a oh, you want to read mine way). And absolutely, it is time for the term to be resurrected (I can't think of a good gothic pun), persecuted wives are everywhere! or maybe that's just me.

    Good work on the blog, shaping up to be very interesting, I'm looking forward to reading your Robin Wood post.

  4. "or maybe that's just me"

    I hope not!

  5. I've decided to actually change the references in the post from "Freudian-feminist" to "persecuted wife". You're right - it flows much better, and "Freudian-feminist" requires a bit more explanation than I'm able/willing to give it here. Maybe if I write on the films again I'll go into more depth on their relative merits, but for now I think this fits better. Thanks for the prompting!