Since the mid-1970s, the paranormal family horror film has articulated various forms of trauma originating within the unstable middle-class American family. Underlying these articulations of trauma is an anxiety over home ownership and the price of maintaining a family and home in times of recession, inflation, record unemployment, and rising fuel costs. Paranormal Activity and its sequels articulate the precarious economic situation faced by many present-day American families, deriving horror from digital and analog video archives dating back to similar anxieties occurring in the 1980s. Paranormal Activity and its sequels present feature-length archives: each consisting of “found footage,” often what could at times be taken as unremarkable scenes from what appear to be unremarkable families living in houses that are anything but “unremarkable.”
A horror of the family archive and what it can yield frames paranormal family horror through archival materials (oral and print histories, digital and analog video). This “horror of the archive” has always been an important part of paranormal family horror, providing some motivation for the haunting as a means of calling the family to rally or flee. In order to explain and counter the haunting, family members talk to eccentric locals, they consult newspapers, land records, death records, journal entries, etc. Yet these are the oral and print archives, joined now by visual archives made possible by technologies emerging in the late 20th century: home video, personal computers, and the Internet, among others.
The footage found in these new media archives isn’t necessarily horrific by itself (we never see a ghost or demon, nor any gore). Instead, the horror springs from the home video archive, which tells us another story. What we see in lieu of ghosts is a multigenerational saga of family trauma and paranormal horror, one depicted in economic terms through the family’s inherited wealth having resulted from a grandmother’s pact with a demon. The found footage format delimits how much we know at any given time about this American horror story: we are teased, we are not always made privy to some events or information or are only made privy in part. It’s never enough and we go through it again in the next installment, searching the horrific home video archive for answers to where it all went wrong.