Operation Backlog Completion 2024
Nov 192014

Cover of the DVD case for Paranormal ActivityThe last time I watched a movie for class, the ending destroyed what was otherwise a fairly entertaining story, I mentioned that endings matter. Now I’m going to talk about how motivations matter, because when I finished Paranormal Activity, the biggest question I had was “why?” (There will be spoilers in this post.)

First: why is Micah such a jerk?

Not only do character motivations matter, but characters themselves matter. It’s okay to have some jerks in the cast, but it’s nice to have likable protagonists, especially if you want the audience to care about what happens to them. I didn’t like Micah. At all. He started out annoying, then he became a total jerk, and as more supernatural stuff happened, he just got worse and worse. It was hard not to feel like he cared more about getting some awesome paranormal footage and/or proving he’s the big macho man who can punch out a demon than he cared about Katie’s well-being… or his own.

Micah makes the husband in Grave’s End look like a saint. At least that guy started out as a skeptic and then goes into denial. I can feel some sympathy for the apparent idiocy of a character who really doesn’t believe anything supernatural is going on.

But Micah?? At first, there are a few shades of skepticism to him, and it’s implied he doesn’t really believe Katie or take her seriously. That ends pretty fast. Before long, he convinced there really is some sort of demonic entity in the house, yet he still doesn’t take it seriously. He:

  1. Refuses to let Katie call the demonologist because he’s so arrogant he thinks he can take on the demon himself.
  2. Decides a Ouija Board would be the best way to communicate with the being even after the paranormal investigator specifically warns him not to try because it’ll open the door and make things worse.
  3. Taunts the demon for not doing anything too bad. (I’ll get to the demon’s motivations in a little bit, but seriously, if you’re haunted by a demon that just likes to turn on faucets, open doors, and stomp around… be happy. What kind of idiot gets upset that things aren’t worse?)
  4. Keeps the camera on constantly for no clear reason except that he really likes to use the camera. (While insisting this will somehow help the problem… because having your demon on tape will be useful when you refuse to call in anyone for help.)
  5. Brings a Ouija Board into the house despite the previous warning and promising Katie he wouldn’t. (As soon as he promised he wouldn’t buy one, I knew he was the sort of nitwit would would take the exact wording as an excuse to borrow one.)

There’s more. I’m sure of it. Micah spends the entire movie being an unlikable jerk, which would be bad enough if their lives weren’t at risk. Even toward the end, he’s not really taking it as seriously as he should.

In short, I wanted to punch Micah for most of the movie, and kinda hoped he would get first-hand proof of how dangerous the demon was, so the movie didn’t exactly make me concerned for this character’s welfare.

But at least I was concerned for Katie, which brings me to my second “why.” Why does she always cave to Micah? She seems to realize he’s a raging idiot, yet even after she makes him promise to abide by her rules when it comes to the camera, the footage goes on pretty much as it did before, so…. what was the point of that?

She gets mad when she sees him with the Ouija Board, but she didn’t really take any steps to get it out of the house, despite knowing the danger. She just orders Micah to get rid of it. Because he’s proven so reliable in the past.

Vicki (Victoria Winters) from the original Dark Shadows

Reverend Trask would have livened this movie up.

Katie finally takes some positive action when she decides to call the demonologist, but when he’s unavailable and the investigator from earlier says he can’t help, she just gives up. She doesn’t look up another demonologist or call a priest or anything. And when Micah reads stuff on the Internet that says an exorcism might make things worse, she just accepts it.

She’s a passive character, one who always reacts to the actions of others. In a way, this reminds me of Vicki from Dark Shadows (the TV show, not the movie), but at least Vicki was surrounded by a cast of proactive characters. All Katie has is Micah.

And the demon.

This question of character motivations doesn’t just end with the human characters. My third “why” is why does the demon do the things it does?

I complained that the events in The Amityville Horror felt random and disconnected, and I praised Grave’s End for having a neat explanation for the central supernatural activity. Even The Others has a solid reason for why the “ghosts” in the house do the things they do. Paranormal Activity lines up more with The Amityville Horror in that the demon’s motivations are even less understandable than Micah’s.

Assuming its ultimate goal was to possess Katie… why did it do most of the things it did? Did it need her to be at a certain level of fear? Was it amusing to the demon to flicker the lights or make loud noises? Did it pinpoint Micah as just the sort of moron who would ignore the expert and bring in an Ouija Board… which it could then conveniently leave a message on even though Micah never actually used the board, and write what may or may not have been “Diane” (or… Di-anne, since he said there were two Ns) in the hopes that Micah would do the exact Google search needed to find the demon’s previous victim and therefore not call an exorcist?

Even if the demon did use an insane Batman Gambit like that, why did it want them to find the photo in the attic? Why did it spend the first part of the movie going upstairs in the dark, then decide it needed the light on? Why did it develop a shadow partway through?

And why, since it clearly understood what the camera was, didn’t it try to stop the filming? Did the demon just really want to be a star?

Outside of all these complaints, Paranormal Activity wasn’t all bad. The “found footage” style lent it a sense of realism which annoyed me at first but gradually increased my immersion. There were a few genuinely creepy moments and some good scares.

But I doubt I’ll watch it again.

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  10 Responses to “Paranormal Activity: Motivations Matter”

  1. I didn’t question the motivation of the demon so much because I have seen the second movie, which is a prequel that explains most of the questions you have about the demon. I’m not going to go into those because they have no bearing on this. You are right. There is nothing in this film that explains the motivations of the demon at all aside from evil being evil. Most possession movies I’ve seen, however, don’t need more motivation besides, hey, it’s a demon, and perhaps that is why a few creepy shots aside they aren’t effective narratives. I look at the slow build of the activity as a means of the demon gathering power to be able to have more of a presence in reality, but there is nothing that lends any strength to that assumption. To me, as a viewer, I found the rationale I needed for it to make sense, but I think as writers we need to explain that, or at least hint to it.

  2. Yes! Yes to this. Yes to all of this. I really, really, really hate Micah. If you want to smack him around I’m right there with you. I really wanted a character that was if not nice…not a total ass to try and help Katie. Instead we got that prick-ish snot of a boyfriend. I wonder why she would even be with much less stay with someone like that.

    I also questioned Katie’s lack of agency. She is always waiting for someone else to do something about it. If it were me I’d be getting an exorcism from every religion that does them, until one stuck. The fact that she’s so mad about the Ouija Board but then does nothing about it. If someone was using a board to talk to the demon attacking me I’d toss them and the board out. Maybe even toss the Ouija Board in a fire.

    • I think they tried to do some stuff early on to make Micah more endearing, but I just found him annoying, and it wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of his behavior anyway.

      Yes! I wanted her to grab the Ouija Board and throw it out the window.

  3. Thank you for pointing out that Micah was a jerk. Because he was. He repeatedly ignored Katie and the priest from the beginning. He just had to do things his own way, including breaking rules that those two set up for dealing with Katie’s problem. It was evident early on that they were dealing with a demon, but Micah treated it like a joke the entire time. I could go on about how much I hated him. And I was annoyed with Katie just letting him run the show. I got the feeling it was something she lived with, the demon following her around, and she just felt as long as the phenomena was at a manageable level, she didn’t need to be afraid. But you make a valid point about her not trying to find another source of help. Why did she just roll over and play dead?

    I did read that in hauntings and possessions that the activity is to weaken the mental state of the person, making it easier to possess them. That’s why I think the build-up was important. Then again, who knows for sure?

  4. I completely agree with you about Micah. In a film with arguably two characters it doesn’t work if half the cast is unlikeable. I guess that’s why the Blair Witch Project worked better for me. The goal is streamlined and believable (get to the car) and all of the characters sort of go through their own cycle of desperation. When they act like jerks it fits the stress of the situation. All in all, I could relate more to that film and I actually cared about the characters. This film? Not so much.

  5. I actually enjoyed the ambiguity in the demon’s motives. For me, it made the demon more demonic. With ghosts, I’m with you. I need there to be reasons for their actions. But with demons, a personification of evil, I’m okay with the means being ends in themselves. It’s a demon. It wants to cause fear and pain. It did. Worked for me.
    I agree that Micah was pretty much a moron (necessarily so, for the plot) however I was able to like him because I felt that his love for Katie, however flawed, was genuine. It redeemed him for me. Whenever something was attacking Katie, no matter how terrifying, he ran to help her. Sure, it was as foolish as all of his previous actions, but I thought it was just brave enough to earn him some points.

    • Hmm, I guess that’s a good point. Maybe I shouldn’t look for motivations as much when it comes to demons.

      I want to believe in Micah’s love for Katie, but I’m not sure I can. Yes, he always ran to help her, but he also generally disregarded her wishes and acted like he always knew best.

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