Some Notes on Paranormal Activity 3 as a Structural Film

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Earlier this year, I made a case for Paranormal Activity 2 as an avant-garde film, (and here) without any expectation that Paranormal Activity 3 (different directors, writers, and cinematographer) would be anything other than a greedy vehicle for cashing in on the relatively CGI-free, stripped down, DIY, experimental aesthetic of the first two Paranormal films.

So I was surprised that Paranormal Activity 3 continues pushing the envelope in terms of formal experimentation in a mainstream genre. What follows are some rough notes from my one viewing of the film, in a theater packed with teenagers who were so embarrassed (it seemed to me; I may be reading the whole vibe wrong) by the genuine terror (i.e., the presence of “Toby,” the invisible demon that functions as a horrific, nightmare version of the “pooka” from Harvey) of the film that they laughed, talked back to the screen, and made such a general ruckus that not one but TWO theater managers were called in to try to quell the noise. I say “rough notes,” but I don’t really mean that. I’ve thought about this too much, but the more I think about it, the rougher and more unformed the central idea becomes, so I’m putting it out here before the idea loses its shape entirely.

1. Paranormal Activity 3 is a structural film, in the avant-garde tradition, described best by P. Adams Sitney in Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde:

The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline. Four characteristics of the structural film are its fixed camera position (fixed frame from the viewer’s perspective), the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography of the screen. Very seldom will one find all four characteristics in a single film, and there are structural films which modify these usual elements.

2. In the film, the husband/father Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) attaches a VCR camera (holding 6-hour tapes) to the base of an oscillating fan in order to capture a wider angle of vision in the kitchen/dining room/ foyer entrance.

Kubrick-like, the film in these stretches (some of them quite long) becomes automated, as the notion of a director is erased. If “the structural film” insists on its shape, then this is all shape. These long takes, as the automatic camera pans steadily from left to right, from right to left, not pausing to reflect on any dramatic action, erases traces of human agency, and what emerges is the pure structure of the film.

3. In his ever-surprisingly-current 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes wrote: “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”

4. The underlying terror of the Paranormal films is not their invisible demons so much as their invisible authors. The fact of the fixed camera’s supposed impersonality—in an era of hyper-confessionalism—suggests that we are, after all, merely subjects of our own subjectivity.

5. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) with its off-screen presence of the demonic, is literally the father/mother/baby of the Paranormal films. And Michael Snow’s structural masterpiece Wavelength (1967), with its 45-minute slow zoom, and the death that occurs in that film, is also somehow responsible for the fierce, formalist constraints of the Paranormal films.


The creeping darkness, and the darkness of words, where we always struggle together, dear reader, rare and true,

Reader unmov’d and Reader unshaken, Reader unseduc’d
and unterrified, through the long-loud and sweet-still
I creep toward you. Toward you, I thistle and I climb.

–Olena Kalytiak Davis, “sweet reader, flannelled and tulled” from
shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities

8. The wondrous indecipherability of “Toby.” The camera, endlessly (as long as the power holds out, as long as the camera functions, as long as the tape VHS tape lasts) panning horizontally, back-and-forth, across the blank and filled-in spaces of an American home, haunted not by demons, but by cameras.


Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →