“It’s okay, it’s okay,” a man in black armor, holding an automatic rifle is saying to a terrified child, whose family members the man and his partners have just killed. The child is impelled to howl out in shock and fear at the once-familiar and beloved bodies lying on the cement floor, an instinct which if followed will only further imperil the child, breaking the unknown rules of this large man speaking in a strange language. There are three audiences for this man’s words: the child, who will obviously not be okay; the armed man, who wants his incantation to show there is a way to kill a child’s family and have it be okay; and a group of people watching this scene in a movie theater, who may have arrived there presuming to better understand events that, in all likelihood, were uninteresting to them while still in the present tense. I was on a date.
I saw this scene in Zero Dark Thirty last winter, and I don’t think I would have seen it in any other context than on a date. The sensual submission one undergoes in a theater is ideal for pre-erotic social encounters, nudging a couple toward one another under the cover of cultural connoisseurship and reassuringly aligned matrices of taste. Movies become focal points to triangulate emotional compatibility against, modeling views of the world we might want to believe in, and thus allowing one to measure the direction and intensity of a mate’s mythological orientation, an artificial North Star hung in the air. These myths are always ready for use as insulation and encouragement for romantic coupling, even in their most horrific forms cultural objects condense all of the perceived evils a culture might identify and leaves a relieving shorthand for what should be repressed and rejected in order to protect the sacred propagations of its audiences.
Zero Dark Thirty is a horror movie about the incongruous extremes required to preserve a lifestyle that’s grown so incomprehensibly expansive some are willing to sacrifice their own participation in it to serve as a hero on the frontlines, single, unloved, unfucked, untouched, overworked, in service of an ideal whose necessary defense involves killing mothers and fathers in front of their children, and then rushing into the night in black painted flying machines. The movie makes ethical questions impossible to answer by flooding them with procedural distractions, symbolic minutiae that can’t bear postponement in the same way that an ethical deliberation can. Good can be reclaimed from evil at the last minute, but a missed deadline or meeting is missed forever.
It’s important myths like Zero Dark Thirty are transmissible in romantic circumstances, seen on a million date nights around the country, neurotic romance in the shadow of portentous military procedural. Just as Jessica Chastain’s character Maya has neither family nor lover, absences that amplify the heroism of her life in pursuing Osama bin Laden through the otherwise tedious trailways of surveillance and bureaucracy. The coldness she endures must feel unusual from our own lives, and the false dramas of office and advancement hidden in them. The boringness of her life’s work is frayed by living in alienation with no life partner to draw strength from. Though her life is threatened a number of times, her persistence in an otherwise staggeringly tedious job driven toward capturing and killing another human is at least as impressive because of her commitment to work without the two fundamental pleasures of American culture: a nice house and a legally bound soulmate. The mystery of how life might be possible without these feels more central to the movie’s escapist anxiety than arguments over politics, terrorism, and murder. We were going to kill him anyway, as we had many others before him, and we were going to lie while doing it. That knowledge comes with the price of admission. But how, how, how does she survive without happy hours, platform beds, and the existential analgesics of sex and love?
Paranormal Activity reverses the structure of Zero Dark Thirty, applying the horror mechanism toward the anti-climax of an ideal lifestyle, which, once attained leaves a haunted emptiness in the space that its desiring once filled. The idea comes from a long tradition of gothic unease in opulent spaces, now degraded for the end times of the American credit swoon, where castles on the heath passed down from learned patriarchs became thin-walled tract homes built in dusty suburbs, sold to self-important gentry collecting on their due after buying into some vocation-focused degree, the tedium of which is repaid with a flatscreen, backyard jacuzzi, and a thousand lazy Sundays walking barefoot on the off-white carpet.
Paranormal Activity preys on the moment when an attained desire reveals an abyss beneath, in which the romantic fantasies of domestic ornament and artifice begin to seem like hostile presences. I got what I wanted, but I no longer know why I wanted what I have. When one’s desiring is channeled into an equation of education and work incentivized with material benefits that have no direct relation to one’s vocation, the equation itself becomes cryptic. The sense of self that comes from thinking of one’s life as part of a larger equation creates a ghostly mistrust in one’s beliefs and the unquestioning energy spent trying to live up to them.
The signal moment in every Paranormal Activity movie, inseparable from their aesthetic of found surveillance footage, is the frame in which a character is oblivious to some supernatural phenomenon happening over their shoulder. These moments are most effective when the channel the alienation of suburban spaces into the relationship of the family inhabiting them—one’s lover or child standing in demonic catatonia beside their partner or parent in the middle of the night.
These moments intimate a new desiring equation, of which someone in the family is unaware, inheriting the curse of a decision made by a distant grandparent, who promised the first born male child to a demon in exchange for wealth and prosperity. There is no escape from this arrangement because the decision has been made before each movie’s protagonists were born. They have no agency in this arrangement, but can only serve as conduits that unknowingly transmit the debt across generations, with the demon stymied by the inability to conceive a male child (and the arrival of Hunter, the waited-for man-babe, in the second movie, doesn’t satisfy the demon, who always seems to invent new justifications for his pursuit.).
The home doesn’t provide protection, but instead becomes the blood debt that must be repaid without any of its inhabitants realizing what they owe, nor to whom. The desiring ecosystem of those that live in the home is surrounded by a larger ecosystem of wants that depend on the compliant ignorance of those it contains. The expansive comforts of a newly constructed home are founded on separating the family from everything that surrounds them, from the fence that cordons off their property, to the doors that make the communal nest a series of chambered hollows, in which one has the luxury of feeling insulated and alone, while remaining aware of all those other chambers on the other side.
The space for luxuriant separation is both incentive for participating in an economic system that turns basic pieces of human communal necessity into prized hidden behind education and employment benchmarks, a value system that can ultimately only return to its participants what they already had before entering: home, family, community, love. The chambering off creates a sense of preciousness while installing a network of newfound absences to darken with uncertainty, guaranteeing that even the attained goals of careerist fantasy leave its participants space for self-doubt and disturbance, possession, and violence. The stories reach their horrific climax when those spasms of unease come to reside in one’s partner, a wife that can no longer be trusted, or a child turned in service of an unseen demon living in a playroom cubbyhole. It’s okay, his name is Toby.
It’s this intimate betrayal that’s projected outward in Zero Dark Thirty, turned mythic in the moment an armed American crouches before a terrorized child whose parents are being murdered, and tells him everything is as it should be. There was no other way things could have been, and indeed, what seems monstrous is just virtue operating on a higher order of magnitude. This confrontation between violated and violator is the inevitable apotheosis of all procedural narratives, which know from the beginning how their mysteries will be resolved, withholding information from their witnesses only to create an artificial surprise with the revelation of a fact, whose omnipresence has made marionettes of everyone connected to it.
The romantic tragedy of the marionette is not that it moves against its own will, but that the intimate liberties taken by its animator come with no reciprocal admission of dependency. We become instruments hoping that we might find something other than the blunt strokes of craftsmanship in our master’s handling, and the moment they abandon us to the darkness of the shed, departing with the ornament created through our unknowing participation, we can see the pointlessness of ourselves and their functional wants, drained in an eager desire to move on our own, and left haunted by the realization of immobility when the hand that held us is taken away.