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Scary! The Real Women of “Paranormal Activity 3”

When I saw the first Paranormal Activity in 2007, I loved the haunted-condo horror. I grew up in Southern California watching The Addams Family and believing the supernatural, like the Salem Witch trials, happened to other people, in older places. We had sunshine even when the rest of the world had cloudy days.

Paranormal Activity turned that sense of suburban safety on its head.

What makes Paranormal Activity 3
and the rest of the series different is that they reflect real
contemporary domestic drama. In some ways the desperation and delights
of ordinary life come across clearer in this trilogy than they do in
earnest indie pics, and less overwrought than an Oscar-bait movie like Carnage.

Female characters dominate PA3:
the two grown-up sisters in
the movie’s prolog, the sisters as girls, their mother, their
grandmother, and a babysitter. One of the reasons the series appeals is
the unvarnished nature of the women in the cast, women whose
act it is to appear like they’re not acting, or are not even the best
actresses; women with thighs.

In this outing, pretty but not
gorgeous single mother Julie and her two daughters, Katie and Kristi,
adjust to the recent addition of Mom’s younger live-in lover, Dennis.
This is a common enough situation, the stuff of advice columns and
coffee klatches. There’s a sense of unease under the surface: How will
the addition of this male, and his sexing up of Mom’s life, impact the
three females in the family?

And because the new man in their
life is a videographer, his fetish for filming everything — from the
birthday party break-the-piñata climax to awkward sex with Mom to
pulling a MacGyver on a household fan so that he can pan the
kitchen-living room for psychic phenomena — puts all their
relationships under increased scrutiny.

The result is
intentionally low-key: soap opera without the soap. It’s also horror
without the Hollywood touches of movie stars we recognize (Scream‘s Drew Barrymore), heavy makeup or expensive décor. What began in 2007’s Paranormal Activity out of low-budget necessity has become a stylistic imperative.

This is not the Alfred Hitchcock of Psycho and Vertigo with his icy blondes. It’s not Wes Craven, with his sexy super-aware teens. Or the moody Method Juliet, Bella Swan, of the Twilight saga. This is Gidget gone gory, the girls-next-door with a grim legacy.

One
of the series’ trademarks is that while women can be victims, they’re
not solely defined as such. These aren’t torture porn or slasher films
with screaming Jamie Lee Curtis wannabes — both sub-genres with lesser
appeal to most women.

The movie’s core suspense arises from a
real, common parenting issue: The youngest daughter has an invisible
friend. Most kids do. My daughter had another, better mother — a variation on Coraline.

As
a parent, do you take the new friend seriously? Do you talk to the
empty chair at the tea party? At what point do you begin to wonder if
there’s something seriously wrong with your kid, since the invisible
friend seems to be making increasingly strange and potentially dangerous
demands?

Rarely does a parent reach the extreme conclusion that
the friend may not have a body but it does have a spirit. And that
spirit’s malevolent. One of the reasons PA3 succeeds so well is
that as a mother or a daughter, you connect with this dynamic. It’s a
child-rearing trope exaggerated to the point of demons. And that’s what
makes it so compelling, particularly to women: It puts its finger in the
socket of our everyday fears.

What appeals — particularly to
women — is the way this movie wraps its terror in the bland, typically
boring world of split-level condos. Even the weather beyond the drapes
never turns stormy like it did in Hammer Horrors like Dracula. PA3
harnesses the loneliness of the stuck-at-home mother living beyond the
strip mall and turns it into terror. When Julie becomes unhinged by the
occasional grumble of the ice-maker and the burble of the fish-tank
filter, she’s both ashamed of that unreasonable fear in her suburban
cocoon and in absolute denial that demons could find their way to sunny
Southern California.

PA3 homes in on what women want: to see themselves, unvarnished and unapologetic, at the very center of the story.

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