Left (onscreen) Right (offscreen): Paranormal Activity 3 and the Oscillating Fan Camera
The Paranormal Activity series, although frequently dismissed by critics, often finds unique ways of engaging with the cinematic image that warrant closer critical attention. For instance, their collective interpretation of the found footage genre has resulted in the development of a singular formula: the characters become suspicious that their house is being haunted; they proceed to set up expensive and elaborate cameras and recording equipment; they go to sleep; and, finally, they watch the footage back the following day. One aspect of these films' rigid structure that has begun to receive attention is their affinity with structural/materialist film. Nicholas Rombes, in particular, has frequently suggested that the Paranormal Activity films be thought of as avant-garde,1 drawing comparisons with the primary features of structural film outlined by P. Adams Sitney: fixed camera positioning, repeated capturing of the same spaces and the marked passage of time.2
These sensibilities foster a viewing experience that encourages spectators to "scan the frame continuously, because the fixed camera cannot highlight action or details using close-ups or editing, as in classical cinema."3 Many, I suspect, would agree that this is an accurate description of how the Paranormal Activity films go about their business: priming the viewer to focus on dead space in the frame, with the uneasy expectation that the source of terror may come from what is already contained within the bounds of the image presented to us. In that respect, the restriction of camera movement cultivates an especially constrained relationship to offscreen space in the sense that nothing can be revealed to us through a change in angle or point of view. This is partly what makes the static set-ups so terrifying: that there is no possibility of escape or looking away. The camera is as fixed as the events that unfold in front of it. However, this does not account for every shot in the series. Indeed, I will now turn to a particular instance of deviation that is worthy of sustained investigation in and of itself, particularly in the ways it can inform our understanding of offscreen space.
In Paranormal Activity 3 (Joost and Schulman, 2011), Dennis (Chris Smith) is faced with a logistical problem. He is trying to set up precautionary cameras after becoming suspicious that his house may be haunted, when he notices something strange in the footage of his and girlfriend Julie's (Lauren Bittner) interrupted sex tape. The problem is spatial: he only has one camera left but there are two remaining rooms of the decadent mansion that require coverage. Dennis, as we see early in the film, masterminds strapping the camera to an oscillating fan so that it drifts back and forth from one room to the other. We first see it used when he shows Julie and we immediately get a taste of how it operates; they begin to argue in the kitchen while the camera rests, momentarily observing the living room, before it pans back to reframe them. The gimmick is made clear to us – the movement remains fixed and mechanical, unmediated by humans. It simply pans back and forth, holding each room in stasis for a matter of seconds before recasting its gaze to the other.
From a filmmaking perspective, the device is used most memorably in a chilling moment that occurs when babysitter Lisa (Johanna Braddy) is sitting alone at the kitchen table while everyone else is asleep. The shot begins in the living room and pans right to catch Lisa pouring herself a glass of milk. When it leaves her to relapse its journey, she is initially absent on its return, before bursting back into the frame yelling "Boo!" at the expense of Dennis, who she knows will watch the footage back the following day. Lisa then returns to the table, while the camera performs another two complete scans of the spaces within its scope. The audience, at this time, are essentially made to bear witness to time's passage but, more importantly, to be confined to looking at a single room at a time. This pays its generic dividends when the camera pans back to the kitchen to find a figure draped in a white sheet standing motionless behind Lisa. As soon as she turns around, the physical presence vanishes from beneath the sheet, leaving it creased on the floor. It is clear to us that she is in danger of some kind and the film elicits a tremendous amount of tension when the camera continues its travels and leaves her alone at such a crucial moment. The viewer, no doubt, feels some sense of violation; the object of the cinema, surely, is to show us the action, not to place us in a moment of time and space in the narrative and then not show us what is happening.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman effectively mediate the action to create the impression that it is unmediated and, in doing so, bring to the foreground the fascinating dialectic between onscreen and offscreen space. This shot, infuriating as it may be, ruminates on the impossibility of being in two places at one time. When we are looking at one room, it is because we cannot possibly be looking at the other, and vice versa. This spatial dilemma is also considered in Michael Snow's Back and Forth (1969), a slightly lesser known work from the influential Canadian artist (most famous for his seminal structural film Wavelength ), which shares a striking resemblance to the oscillating fan shot in Paranormal Activity 3. Both instances make their thematic and aesthetic subject the impossibility of capturing two spaces at once. However, because the camera moves, it also connects two spaces in ways that could not be achieved in a straight cut. In what is widely considered to be the most influential treatise on offscreen space, Noël Burch called for "a rigorously dialectical relationship between off-screen space and screen space [in which] camera movements should participate in it in the manner suggested by the early Russians."4 Here, he is referring to Soviet montage theory, which attempted to achieve a synthesis of ideas by connecting disparate images through editing. In a camera move such as this one, however, the effect is unique; the film commits to a certain temporal integrity – whereby we watch the two spaces become connected in real time – that editing would fundamentally violate.
In this respect, Paranormal Activity 3 sheds new light on how offscreen space can be used expressively by mobilising an acute knowledge of its distinctly dialectical relationship. That is to say, the film must be aware of the fact that what we don't see is often more powerful, important and frightening than what we do, and that the two always work in tandem. Indeed, Burch referred to them as "the two types of space."5 The notion that what we do not see can "haunt" the onscreen image seems particularly ripe for use in the horror film and the example from Paranormal Activity 3 ably achieves this by activating the sense of dread and frustration that comes with not being allowed to see two things at once.