The Paranormal Activity cycle has always taken white unhomeliness as its subject matter, which has turned it into the last great flowering of the suburban horror that started mid-century and peaked in the 70s and 80s. Whereas the classic suburban horror of the 70s and 80s focused on idiosyncratic houses, full of unexpected nooks and crannies (descendants of the haunted mansions of American Gothic), the Paranormal Activity franchise has moved from a suburban to more properly exurban landscape. Rather than focusing on quarter-acre blocks that radiate out from some notional urban core, Paranormal Activity revolves around the massive swathes of California (and in one case, Las Vegas) tract housing that have become satellite cities in and of themselves. These spaces, the franchise suggests, are where the true unhomeliness of suburbia (or exurbia) now reside, partly because the suburban edifices of old are now beyond the purview of all but the most affluent upper middle-class Americans.
In that sense, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin marks a shift in the franchise. Whether this functions as a new direction or an epilogue remains to be seen, but in either case it’s congruent with a more recent wave of exurban horror that eschews exurbia altogether and instead situates white unhomeliness in rural enclaves. The forerunner of this movement was The Village, but we also see it operating in M. Night Shyamalan’s television series Servant, which admittedly unfolds almost entirely in a Philadelphia brownstone, but depends just as entirely on a digitally recorded visit to a rural farmhouse that looks very similar to what we see in Next of Kin. This combination of white rurality and digital glitch has also pervaded films like The Visit, Midsommar and The Lodge, all of which situate white characters against visual fields that are so white that they overtake them and distort the camera’s perception in turn.
Next of Kin fits this horror trajectory, starting with a brief prologue in exurbia that serves to throw the rest of the film, and its departure from the Paranormal Activity formula, into greater relief. We open in the Southwest, where Margot (Emily Bader) is waiting for Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown), a cousin who has contacted her on the genetic tracing site 23andme. Since Margot is adopted, this is the first blood relative she has ever met, and she’s planning to document the occasion with the help of Chris (Roland Buck III), a cameraman and Dale (Dan Lippert), a sound engineer. They aren’t simply remaining in the Southwest, however, but flying with Samuel back to Pennsylvania, since it turns out that Margot was adopted out of an Amish community. By returning to her roots, she hopes to discover what happened to her mother, why she was put up for adoption, and then to reconnect with her biological family.
For the first part of Next of Kin, this works as an ethnographic-tinged drama as much as a horror film, as Margot arrives at the Amish community, and then travels to the farmhouse of Jacob Beiler (Tom Nowicki), her uncle, who lives in the most remote area. She learns that her father was an “Englismnan,” someone from outside the Amish world, while her mother had always been “a non-conformist growing up in a community whose bedrock was homogeneity.” When she fell pregnant, her mother was “shunned,” meaning that she was permitted to remain on the farm, but nobody was allowed to talk to her, interact with her or even register her presence. After that part of the story, however, people fall silent, leading Margot to believe that her mother is still alive, concealed somewhere on the property. Lest this all become too anthropological, director William Eubank also peppers these early scenes with wry asides, such as a young Amish women who asks if the crew have TikTok and then, when they ask about her dress, explains that she bought it in the Amish section at Wal-Mart.
Over time, however, the horror creeps in, and it emerges first and foremost through the camera, as occurs in the other Paranormal Activity films. From the beginning, this rural locale is associated with a specific piece of glitchy footage – the security reel of Margot’s mother leaving her on the steps of the hospital on the day she was given up for adoption. Since this footage is grainy and shot from a distance, Margot spends a fair amount of time parsing it for her mother’s intention, although all she can intuit is a vague sense of fear. However, this is only a prelude to the most dramatic reinstatement of the occult power of the camera since the opening film. When Margot first meets Samuel, back in the Southwest, he instinctively recoils from the camera, despite having distanced himself somewhat from the community, since the Amish are not meant to be photographed, let alone filmed. Most of the sights and spaces we see in Amish territory (or at least on the family’s property) are being filmed for the first time, allowing the camera to become a direct conduit to the occult eighteenth-century, since we learn that the farm has been in continuous operation for over two hundred years.
If it’s alienating for Margot to come in as an outsider, then, she’s even more uncanny for arriving with a camera and sound crew. Yet the images we see take on a further occult power because there is no reception in this part of Amish territory. The crew may be capturing everything on camera, but they have no way of sharing it with the outside world, meaning that everything we’re seeing is inexorably bound up with the demonic power that we know must eventually overtake and inhabit it. Watching these images reiterates how much the power of digital images comes from their shareability. Without that capacity, their connective power turns inwards, forcing the crew to continually scrutinise their latest footage for meaning, which becomes even more difficult insofar as the demon leaves exactly the kinds of traces that are hard to discern on a phone screen – prints on a window, traces on cupboards.
By reinvesting the camera with this occult potential, Eubank (and screenwriter Christopher Landon) set the stage for a remarkably slow burn, featuring some of the longest and most suspenseful trajectories in the franchise. In the first of these, Margot makes her way up to the attic in the middle of the night, and from there investigates a small cupboard, before hiding under the bed, and then escaping out the window, when the demonic entity seems to emerge. In the second, the three visitors venture out across a nearby forest to a distant church, which they explore extensively before realising there is something hidden beneath the font that stands at the centre of the structure. Pushing the font away, they discover a massive well, and then use a pulley system to lower Margot into it, until she eventually hangs just above a makeshift rocky room, full of various traces of atrocity – the other end of the white unhomely spectrum from the endless streamlined tract housing of the main franchise.
These trajectories also usher in a richer colour scheme than we see in most of the Paranormal Activity films, which are typically black-and-white or bleached to fit the atmosphere of digital footage. We see that same bleached aesthetic here as well, especially during the night scenes, or whenever the camera crew venture out into the snow, which immediately suffuses everything with a cold digital light. But it’s offset by the warm oil lamps of the Amish community, which initially seem like a bulwark against, or a reproach to, the digital intrusion of these outsiders. Over time, however, these cool and warm light schemes begin to emerge, much as the trio discover a concealed laptop with a year’s worth of surveillance of Margot. At the same moment, the battery for their van runs down, puncturing any residual sense of technological omniscience, and a snowstorm hits, suffusing the film with the intensified whiteness that the Amish family need to execute the last part of their evil plan for Margot. Finally, Chris and Dale get a lift into town to buy a new battery charger, and learn, from the only black and Hispanic characters we see in the film (a fleetingly glimpsed postal worker and retail clerk), that Margot’s family aren’t even Amish, but a strange cult that have their roots in Scandinavia – the synecdoche for uncannily intensified whiteness in recent American film.
This all paves the way for a conclusion that completely collapses the warm and cool colour lighting schemes of the film, as if to suggest that the technologies of surveillance we see in suburban tract housing have their roots in the paranoid scrutiny of the earliest American settlers – of the American dream and promise itself. In that sense, Next of Kin has the broadest sweep of any film in the Paranormal Activity franchise, much as it plays as a period piece about, and potted history of, found footage horror itself. Coming after the longest gap between Paranormal Activity releases, and helmed by Eubank and Landon, two of the shining lights in the latest wave of horror auteurs, the action and setting traces a trajectory from the earliest moments of found footage horror to what might lie beyond it. Although the main characters spend most of their time in the Amish house, they frequently venture through the woods to the distant church. Whenever they’re walking through the woods, we revert to so many citations of The Blair Witch Project, and yet whenever we reach the church, we’re on the cusp of current found footage, epitomised by the eerie brilliant digital white of the well.
In that sense, Next of Kin is an exercise in geological media, sifting through the strata of the found footage movement, and situating it within a deeper American Gothic lineage that becomes synonymous with the well. Perhaps that’s why this film fixates so dramatically on vertical sightlines, from the trapdoor in the barn that Margot almost falls through in the opening scene (and which recurs later) to the drone footage that sets up this house-woods-church typology to begin with. These all converge on the final descent into the well, and the final exploration of the pit, which intensifies both the warm and cool lighting scheme, as Chris and Dale discover a lifeless Margot, suspended on a milky white puddle, covered in salt, with oil candles burning around her. In a final miasma of analog and digital light, the demon emerges, in the guise of Margot’s mother, and chases the characters back up the hole and outside, where the camera glitches, jumps and slo-mos in sympathy with its pursuit of them.
In the end, Dale succumbs, while Chris escapes with Margot, at which point Eubank and Landon pivot to a remarkably eerie conclusion, most of which takes place from the vantage point of a police car. Through the windscreen, we see an officer arrive at the farm, take stock of the carnage that has ensued, and then see Jacob, Margot’s cousin, who makes him shoot himself, and does the same for the next police officer who arrives. The final shot of the film is from the POV of one of these police cars cruising the area, country music playing, presumably helmed by Jacob, as he searches for Margot and Chris, or plans a more general demonic move. It’s a vision of the white gaze restored, right down to the country music, under the guise of law and order, and “proper” surveillance, but only after internalising the demonic antagonist of the entire franchise; a powerful challenge to whatever (if any) film comes next.