I remembered loving the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies. They were some of the first movies that had me sleeping with the lights on, and I recalled them being extremely popular.
With so many copy-cats out there, I wondered about the authenticity of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies. There must be a reason they’ve done so well, a reason they resonate so deeply with their audience. Ever since The Blair Witch Project sold its own authenticity with cult-status results, found-footage movies have been trying to replicate that success. How “real” can the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies get? The films are generally self-aware, creating horrifying situations within the uncanny valley of “narrative fiction” films and “documentary” films. My most important question to answer was: Am I expected to ignore my own eyes in order to understand these movies? Can the collective directors make me think people really do have a reason to film 24/7, and that they just happened to catch paranormal activity on film?
Let’s take a deep dive into why this series still matters over a decade after it began. I will be spoiling all movies…you’ve been warned.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)
The first movie in the series, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, follows Katie and Micah. Katie is a student and a crafter. Her boyfriend Micah has an obsession with technology, and he wants to make a film documenting the strange occurrences in their house. Katie semi-willingly obliges him, but she becomes more and more annoyed with Micah’s filming as unexplainable events start to happen at night.
Within the first 4 minutes of the film, we know everything we need to know about Katie and Micah. We understand that they have a relatively normal, happy relationship, but we can already see hints of Micah’s tendency to be controlling, and Katie’s irritation with Micah’s camera.
The setup is explained in detail when the couple interview a psychic about the situation. The psychic tells them a demon is haunting Katie, not specifically their home. Crucially, the psychic tells the couple that their negative energy could make the demon stronger.
The spooky shenanigans take place over the course of roughly a month. Not every night is shown, but the ones that are shown are labeled with a time and date stamp, a hallmark of (almost) all of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies. The timestamp clock creates an authentic-feeling set-up for increasingly more bonkers shit each night. I noticed my eyes scanning the room left to right over and over, glancing at the seconds, waiting for even the most minuscule of movements. This gives the movie instant replay value by making the audience play Where’s Waldo? in the dark with demons.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was clearly a passion project of Oren Peli’s—he was the director, producer, writer, cinematographer, and editor. The film looks cheap—and authentic. It is a damn good scary movie.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (2010)
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 has a distinctively different flavor than its predecessor. With a change in directors—still produced by Oren Peli, but directed by Tod Williams—the second in the series is more lighthearted and slick. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat return, along with Brian Boland (Proven Innocent), Molly Ephraim (The Front Runner), and Sprague Greyden (Dirty John).
This movie takes place in 2006, just before the events of the original. Part of the charm of the original PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was that the characters were completely aware of the camera’s presence—and it always made sense why Micah was filming. He’s tech obsessed and dying to catch a demon. The camera plays a character, a presence that irritates Katie more and more throughout the film.
This is where the style of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 starts to diverge. I kept thinking, were these characters planning on making a movie? Or do they just love to film every minute of their lives, including sexy conversations, one sided phone calls, and doing demon research on the computer? The intent is to capture unscripted realism, but it feels forced. And the camera is an accepted feature—no longer an annoyance.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 follows the Rey family, who install security cameras after their home gets broken into. The family—parents Kristi and Daniel, teenager Alli, and baby Hunter—begin to experience more and more unexplainable events. (Kristi is Katie’s sister, possibly the most important relationship in the series.) Hunter babbles in the middle of the night while the family’s German Shepard growls at nothing. The pool cleaner keeps climbing out of the pool each night. Pans dramatically fall from the ceiling. Alli desperately tries to convince her parents that something supernatural is happening, but they’re skeptical.
The room framing and prop design in this film is great. The rooms are furnished with items that you’re just waiting to be paranormally manipulated, like those hanging pans. It’s a good example of a Hitchcock’s gun scenario done right. It includes one of my favorite jump scares ever, where every cabinet in Kristi’s kitchen flies open at the same time.
Once you push past the weirdness of a family filming their every move, the family is likable and the stakes feel real. Alli in particular gives a strong performance; after she suspects the supernatural she drives the story forward. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 is a slight drop in quality from the original, but as far as sequels go, it could be far worse.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011)
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and features Lauren Bittner (Deception), Christopher Nicolas Smith (Young and Hungry), Chloe Csengery (The Good Doctor), Jessica Tyler Brown (NCIS) and Hallie Foote (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension).
The film doesn’t open with explainer text about who died and when like the previous PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films. Instead, it opens with the family taping a “welcome home” to baby Hunter. When Daniel finds some VHS tapes hidden away, the film jumps to 1988. We’re introduced to Toby, Kristi’s imaginary friend who lives in the creepy crawl space in the girl’s bedroom (because of course there’s a creepy crawl space).
There are hints of the previous movies, such as the light fixtures swinging in Julie’s bedroom and (for reasons of legitimacy I suppose) characters talking to the cameraman while brushing their teeth. The use of mirrors on the left side of the frame in Julie’s bedroom echoes the mirror in Hunter’s room from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2.
By night one, the classic blue and black camera aesthetic is back. Kristi has a one-sided conversation with her imaginary friend Toby. When Dennis asks her about Toby, Kristi says he is “old like Grandma.”
When Dennis suspects paranormal occurrences, he sets up cameras in Katie and Kristi’s bedroom, his and Julie’s bedroom, and the infamous oscillating fan cam in the living room. I could write a whole paper about why the oscillating fan camera is awesome, but I’ll just say it’s my favorite camera setup of the entire series. It’s built for jump scares. The camera quality is good…way too good, in fact. The high definition camera quality would not have existed in 1988, but it wouldn’t be commercially viable to make a lower resolution film. This movie is the first to suggest a sex tape with the cameras used for surveillance—Julie and Dennis are interrupted by an earthquake before any actual sex happens.
This movie has some great jump scares and is genuinely terrifying at times. It’s self aware— Katie and Kristi wear long white nightgowns each night, reminiscent of Reagan’s outfit in The Exorcist. This comes off as campy fun. So does Katie and Kristi playing Bloody Mary in the dark with the camera pointing at the mirror—talk about terrifying. Then there’s the “babysitter scene” which you just have to see to believe. It’s some of the finest filmmaking I’ve seen in the found-footage genre.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 is amazing overall, I highly recommend watching it in the dark.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012)
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, and features Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton (Big Little Lies), Matt Shively (Santa Clarita Diet), Aiden Lovekamp (Just Add Magic), and Brady Allen (PEN15).
In PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, a mysterious young boy named Robbie comes to stay with the Nelson family after Robbie’s mother goes to the hospital. The year is 2011, and tech-savvy teenager Alex uses web-cams to record her home after Robbie climbs into bed with her one night.
Over the course of a few days, things become more and more crazy—toys are turning on by themselves, Alex glimpses a strange blur on the family’s Kinect camera, and Robbie starts drawing strange symbols all over the house. The Kinect camera, which is made to play video games using ones body instead of a remote control, is a really intuitive addition to the story. It helps break up the monotony of the web-cameras recording around the house—and there are a lot. Alex and her love interest Ben try to get to the bottom of the paranormal activity that they suspect Robbie is bringing into their home. The actors really try with their lines, but it just feels so corny and forced.
By this point in the series, my brain was starting to melt a little. I began experiencing a deep discomfort with amount of time the characters spend recording themselves. If it is to be taken seriously, it means that Alex, Hunter’s sister, spends hours a day recording every minutia of her life, every conversation or webchat she has. It means that she has hours and hours of footage of her own life to comb through. What could the characters be doing with all of these hundreds of hours of footage? Who exactly wants to see the mediocre conversations with her family and friends? It’s kind of existentially haunting just apart and aside from all the actual horror. If not the audience watching PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, I ask: who are you recording for?
And there, of course, lies the truth of these movies all along: they can’t pretend they’re just “homemade” forever. At this point, they’re showing their hand. Shrugging, accepting that the film is made for the audience and is not just coincidental spookage. And the more obvious that becomes, as it does quite clearly in this film, the less scary and convincing. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 feels self-aware, knowing it exists in a world that could never quite be real. It sometimes abandons the ghost hunting pretense, and to me, this makes the movie suffer.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (2014)
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES is directed by Christopher Landon and features Andrew Jacobs (Lasso), Jorge Diaz (The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants), Gabrielle Walsh (The Flash), Renee Victor (The Green Ghost), and Noemi Gonzalez (Dark/Web).
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES deviates from the storyline of the previous four films. The film opens on a scene of Jesse graduating high school and celebrating with his friends and family. This is heartwarming and is a natural introduction to the characters (with the exception of some of the acting, which is not always great.)
We get to know Jesse, his grandmother, father, and best fiends Hector and Marisol. At first, the friends use the camera just for tricks and to document their day to day lives. But when Jesse’s mean downstairs neighbor Anna passes away, he and his friends get high and sneak into her house. What they ultimately find there is the stuff of nightmares.
This was my favorite of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies: the vibrant characters, the homey settings, and the truly frightening scenes in Anna’s apartment set this film apart from the others.
There are a few laugh out loud moments. This is definitely the zaniest film; all the characters are just bursting with charisma. Hector and Jesse are both funny and play off each other well. Fun times, like Jesse dancing his chihuahua around, or the teens setting off fireworks, are contrasted with spine-chilling events, like when the teens get trapped in Anna’s basement. That gives it feeling of genuineness, and it feels like the heir apparent to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES has some amazingly creepy scenes. For example, there are moments where the friends talk with a ghost via an electronic Simon Says game, and an infamous scene of Jesse using telepathy to hold his crying chihuahua up to the ceiling. The acting in these scenes is convincing and the pacing of the film is brisk.
While there are a few issues I had with it—some poor acting and an incident where the characters are hiding but don’t turn off the camera light—the film is very good. I was shocked that the fifth movie of a series was my favorite, but it’s irresistibly fun.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION (2015)
It’s lucky that this is the last in the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series, because it’s the worst!
The film is directed by Gregory Plotkin (Hell Fest) and features Chris J. Murray (Love ’N’ Oven), Brit Shaw (Between Worlds), Ivy George (Big Little Lies), Dan Gill (Thin Ice), and Olivia Taylor Dudley (The Magicians).
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION is like the college student who only goes to class for the exams and fails miserably. It fails to capture the essence of the source material so completely that it’s almost its own separate franchise.
The film opens in 1988, where we see the aftermath of the witch scene from the end of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3. Ryan and his brother Mike discover a cache of VHS tapes from the 1980’s, and you’ll never guess whats on them. They find the sort-of sex tape Julie and Dennis made, and begin watching the VHS tapes in hopes of finding more homemade porn.
Ryan begins filming with Dennis’ old camera after he realizes it picks up mysterious black clouds throughout the house that are invisible to the naked eye. These characters break the fourth wall in the best way, asking “Did they just film everything?” And at this point in the series, the characters are just talking to the camera, explaining things for the audience. It’s so tired.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION is heavy-handed in the way it portrays the demon, which we finally get to see for the first time. The demon is silly FX and hammy jump scares.
The monster shows up constantly—but conveniently it can only be seen by the camera.
For me, the worst part of the series was the transition from the memorable, charming lower-class family in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES to yet another boring upper-middle class white family in the suburbs. It’s not at all interesting to see what happens, and boy is the acting silly.
Overall Ratings From Best to Worst:
1. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
2. Paranormal Activity
3. Paranormal Activity 3
4. Paranormal Activity 2
5. Paranormal Activity 4
6. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
After watching all six PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, I came to the conclusion that the series overall is brilliant. I think even as technology advances, these movies will stand the test of time. It’s not really about the technology, it’s about the authenticity. They succeed at invoking our most primal fears of the dark.
I love so much about this series, such as the versatility despite the limits of the found-footage format. I love the campiness towards the end of the series; I love the memorable characters. I wish the series had ended on a better note, but I have hope for more sequels of quality. There is so much in these movies to take in, and I can’t wait to watch them all again.