As ridiculous as the rumor may have seemed at the time, all the talk about how Brian De Palma was being sought out to direct Paranormal Activity 2 makes sense now. It is, after all, an overtly meta-textual narrative about the representation of violence on film. If nothing else, Paranormal Activity 2 directly grapples with the potential conceptual uses for the franchise’s defining narrative strategy of combining security camera footage and video shot on handheld digital cameras by the film’s protagonists in ways that Paranormal Activity didn’t even attempt. We’re frequently reminded that we’re watching edited footage (i.e. a narrative that only looks like raw documentary footage), as with the massive Kubrickian intertitles that tell us the date at the start of every night of recorded footage.
Anyone watching Paranormal Activity 2 closely enough will see that the transitions between different cameras in the film isn’t motivated by any internal logic but rather a narrative one. For instance, loud late night banging coming from outside a front door isn’t explicitly shown, though there’s a security camera present to document the event. That scene is cut in such a way that we can only see through that camera after the fact, confirming that we only get to see what the implied documentary filmmakers, as omniscient storytellers, want us to see in order to make their narrative spookier. In that sense, unlike its predecessor, Paranormal Activity 2 doesn’t even look like a video report on unexplained events anymore: It’s footage of a fake haunting transformed into a film-within-a-film.
As an imposing intertitle warns us by the film’s second reel, the events of Paranormal Activity 2 coincide with the events of Paranormal Activity, as the protagonists of the latter film are relatives of the ones in the former. Kristi, the sister of Paranormal Activity’s Katie, and husband Dan have had their newborn son Hunter safe at home with them for a whole year until Dan fires their Magic Latina housekeeper Martine. Now that Martine, who spent much of her time blessing the house and trying to protect it from evil spirits, is gone, strange goings-on start happening incrementally. And they all revolve around little Hunter and mama Kristi, who, like Katie, may or may not have previously had an encounter with a demon when she was young.
The main pleasures of Paranormal Activity 2 come from guessing what’s important in the film and what isn’t. As in John Carpenter’s Halloween, the audience is given several false-alarm build-ups to scares that never come in the film’s first two acts. A pattern of footage is established, or more accurately driven home with the subtlety of a jack hammer: We see the front of the house, then the pool, then the staircase leading upstairs, then the living room and finally Hunter’s room. And then we see that sequence of shots again the next night, and the next, and so on—to first establish the familiarity of the house and then to make us jump at the smallest potential changes in environment. We’re supposed to pore over these static compositions as if Béla Tarr shot them. For instance, you’ll note that a picture hanging over the house’s staircase is a candid shot of Paranormal Activity’s Katie and Micah that’s also featured prominently in that movie. Once you see it, you can’t stop looking at it expectantly.
The obvious difference between Halloween and Paranormal Activity 2 is that the latter is expressly about understanding what’s happening in the film through active engagement with the text’s mosaic-tile images. All of the information is there, caught on film by Kristi and Dan’s security cameras. Dan and his family just need to pore over the tapes and look at it. Thankfully, this doesn’t implicate the viewer in the film’s proceedings: Paranormal Activity 2 has clearly already been pre-assembled for us, complete with shots of the family looking at footage we’ve already seen. We’re not sutured into the protagonists’ limited field of vision: Though Katie tells Kristi that she refuses to talk about their childhood traumas because, “The more attention was paid to it, the worse it got,” the exact opposite is true. The diabolical evil forces at the heart of Paranormal Activity 2 need to be exposed to be understood or even just appreciated.