Posted on April 25, 2015

Who is Katie? Paranormal Activity and Problems of Selfhood

Dawn Keetley

After a brief hiatus, the next installment in the Paranormal Activity franchise will be returning in October 2015. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension will apparently turn back to Katie (Katie Featherston) and, according to producer Jason Blum, will explain everything.[i] One thing I wonder if the film will explain is the photograph of Katie (with her boyfriend Micah) in the first installment, Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), that quite clearly is not a photograph of Katie.

Fig. 1 Katie and Micah's photo, 1 06 57

The picture becomes momentarily central about two-thirds of the way through the film when the couple hears a noise upstairs. Running fearfully to investigate, Katie calls out, “Our photograph!” and points out to Micah (Micah Sloat) that it has mysteriously cracked, with long scratches dragging down his face. As Micah’s camera zooms in on the picture, it becomes clear that it’s actually not a picture of Katie. Why? Why make the point that it is supposed to be a photograph of Katie and Micah and then have the woman in the picture look really nothing like Katie? Why put the picture in the camera’s frame, linger on it, have Katie and Micah talk about it? Why draw attention to what is not a picture of Katie?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I can offer one possible interpretation, since I’m going to presume that Oren Peli made a deliberate choice here and that the choice has meaning.

The fact that this photography of Katie is not of Katie heightens the fact that the film in general, erodes the very idea that we have a distinct, stable, persistent “self.” Demonic possession, in fact, serves as a metaphor for the way in which we all contain something impersonal underneath the personal (what we think of as our “self”). Indeed, horror films consistently trade in depicting this “impersonal” part of the self—the part of the self that escapes the “I.” I can actually think of no better phrase to express this idea than the words Marty (Fran Kranz) utters in The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012): “We are not who we are.” We are indeed not what we “think” (or remember) we are. We are always also something else.

This idea is dramatized in Paranormal Activity through demonic possession: when she’s possessed, Katie does things “she” would never do. Not least, she kills her boyfriend, Micah. But, obviously, it’s not “Katie” that does this. Before she was possessed by a demon, though, we see Katie do more mundane things (things we all do) that demonstrate she’s something more (other) than what she “thinks” she is. She gets up in the middle of the night and stands by the bed, for instance, and, at one point, she walks downstairs, sits on the porch outside and refuses to come in when Micah asks her too. The next morning Katie has no memory of what she did, and she has to see it (to know it) on the video Micah recorded. Watching her actions from the night before, Katie persists in saying she has no memory of them, and she talks of herself in the third person—talking of what “she” did, not what “I” did, thus marking how the woman who walked in her sleep, the woman on the video, is in some real way, not her. Like the strange woman in the photograph, the woman on film is someone or something other than “Katie.”

Fig. 2 paranormal activity katie staring

Another picture of Katie appears in the film, this time of Katie when she was a girl. Katie recognizes this picture—she says it’s her—but it doesn’t look like her (it’s a child) and Katie is also stunned by its appearance because she insists to Micah that all photographs of her were destroyed in a family fire. This photograph of Katie, then, like the one that hangs in the hallway, is an impossible picture. Like that photograph, it both is and is not Katie. Significantly, in Paranormal Activity 2, Katie’s step-niece doesn’t recognize the picture as Katie, thinking it is instead Katie’s sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden).

Fig 3, Photo of Katie

The tenuousness of Katie’s identity is also manifest in her lack of memory. In both Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2, she admits several times—to Micah, to her sister, Kristi—to having only a dim memory of her childhood. Trying to explain her sense of having been haunted before, she is unable to remember any of the content, any of what actually happened, saying only that she was “scared all the time.” Memory is one of the principal ways by which we maintain a sense (illusory but necessary) of a persistent, unified self. We remember things, and we string those memories together through narrative, a narrative that attempts to bring typically random moments into coherence, giving shape to self. Often memories are anchored by photographs; in fact, photographs often substitute for memories, seeming to evoke them when they in fact fill in for them. It is no accident, then, that Katie’s failures of memory, her inability to tell a coherent story of herself, exists along with missing and uncannily strange photographs. Katie looks at the image of herself on Micah’s tape and doesn’t recognize herself; we look at two photographs of Katie (the only two the films offer) and we don’t recognize her.

Who exactly is Katie, then? Who are any of us? The very idea of demonic possession—of being inhabited by an alien force—is a suggestive metaphor for a common human state. Identity is fragile, multiple, never quite what it seems. We create a recognizable “person” out of the messy chaos of ourselves. But there always persists something impersonal that escapes that creation. We are “who we are.” But we also “are not who we are.”

Related: Check out my post on 10 horror films about sleep disorders (including Paranormal Activity).

Paranormal Activity is streaming on Amazon:


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