Paranormal Found-Footage Fizzle: The Rise and Fall of the Paranormal Activity Franchise

by William D. Prystauk

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 99] Hollywood and independent filmmakers are no strangers to the horror franchise. Early on, Universal delivered Dracula (1931), followed by Dracula’s Daughter (1936)—without Bela Lugosi—and after Frankenstein (1931), they brought audiences back for more with Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Though Hammer Films revamped the Dracula mythos in the 1960s, moviemakers did not bombard audiences with a multitude of sequels until Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street came along, followed by Alien, Hellraiser, Final Destination, Feast, Saw, and what-have-you. As with most horror franchises, where the first installment captures the imagination and intrigue of the audience, the subsequent sequels usually fall short, become repetitive, and never live up to the verve of the original. Writer/director Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity franchise seems to have suffered the same fate.

Originally, Peli, a software programmer, had an idea for a horror film based on the quirky noises from his new home. He learned how to edit digital footage, came up with a story, rented a camera, got some friends together as cast and crew, hired make-up artist Crystal Cartwright, and shot the movie in seven days on a $15,000 budget (Hall), Half of the money went towards remodeling his own home, as the house served as the single location and he felt that the place did not offer the right aesthetics. After some festival appearances, which generated a lot of love for the film, DreamWorks became interested. Spielberg recommended a new ending, and the movie was ultimately distributed through Paramount. Like the previous found-footage phenomenon of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), the initial, minimal investment led to remarkable profits, thanks to an exceptional word-of-mouth campaign that went viral. For Paranormal Activity, the worldwide gross was $195 million, and Peli received an office at Paramount.

In 2009, I sat in a theatre waiting for the much-hyped Paranormal Activity to begin. I had hoped it would not be a bust since I was among the many thousands who had petitioned Paramount for a national release. The movie did not disappoint. When we watch any film, supernatural or otherwise, we bring our life experiences to that project. What Peli captured on-screen were my childhood nightmares: detached noises, footsteps in the dark, and something unforeseen and malevolent trudging [page 100] patiently out from the abyss. Although award-winning screenwriter/ director Paul J. Williams did not care for the film because “nothing happened,” many audiences felt differently: the suspense never let up.

In the found-footage film, which begat a significant subgenre in the horror market, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) live in a small California home where things go bump in the night. Wanting to capture whatever may be lurking, Micah rents a video camera and gets to work. In short order, he starts to capture a moving door here and a shadow there. He wants more footage, however, and, out of a desire to protect his home and his girlfriend, he calls out the entity to show “it” who is boss. This leads to a disintegration of his relationship with Katie, and the entity’s visits and mischief escalate to horrendous proportions.

The supernatural element within the movie is far from a simple ghost or even a poltergeist that Micah and Katie could drive out. The entity is a demon attracted to Katie, and has stalked her since early childhood. Peli’s premise is refreshing on its own, and the story has little in common with ghost tales or cases of outright possession. His idea may have inspired Leigh Whannell’s (of Saw franchise fame) Insidious, where a boy is haunted and subsequently possessed. This twist on old and maybe even hackneyed foundations of horror delivers another thematic device to Paranormal Activity. Although the identity of the unseen force is never revealed, there seems to be a sense that this demon is gendered and is a “he.” The entity does exhibit traditionally masculine traits: obsession, violence, and a desire to take what he wants. This is mirrored in the character of Micah. Where the creature is obsessed with Katie, Micah is obsessed by the demon. Micah’s desire to save Katie and drive out the demon overwhelms his thinking. As the demon stalks Katie, Micah stalks the entity—even at the expense of their relationship. Like the demon, Micah is compelled, and he cannot stop himself.

Katie, tired and emotionally drained by the experience, simply wants both Micah and the demon to stop. Her reaction should not be deemed as sending up a white flag: Katie should not be viewed as weak. She stands up to Micah to prevent him from provoking the beast, but after all of the years of fighting off her monster, mostly through sheer force of will, she has been worn down. After all, her essence has been under siege for nearly two decades. The enemy she faces is unseen, relentless, and not corporeal. Katie’s biggest mistake may have been not finding help sooner to combat such a nemesis.

Beyond the demon’s lust, the story also dives into the tried and true, reveling in Freud’s “uncanny” to keep characters and audience on edge. As reviewer James Berardinelli so eloquently states: “The familiar looks different at night. Incandescent lights don’t quite chase away the shadows with the effectiveness of the sun. The rooms and hallways of a home, so [page 101] comforting at noon, can become cloaked with unease past the witching hour.” As audiences watch the couple suffer the torment of the unseen in their otherwise welcoming abode, so does the audience suffer, and many will no doubt take the angst conjured by the film into their own homes long after leaving the theatre.

Peli has played upon the idea that the sanctity of home is an illusion. Where can one run when home, the protective womb, is not safe? Even Dr. Frederichs announces to the couple that escaping to a hotel will offer no respite, for Katie is haunted, not the house. It is akin to Katie having an autoimmune disease—imagine never having a reprieve from an outside force that can get to you at any time and on its own terms. The demon wants her, and nothing on Earth will deny him of what he most desires. This prompts Micah to call out the entity, asking it to manifest so that the pair can do battle. Yet Micah is powerless and has no control, which Katie tells him, and her boyfriend is left frustrated as well as emasculated. This feeling of emasculation and impotency falls directly in line with Freud’s uncanny as explained by David J. Skal: “our sense of the uncanny has much of its roots in the castration complex, or primal fear of genital mutilation” (56). As the frustration mounts and the couple falls into despair, the demon makes its final move.

Not letting such a success go to waste in a bad economy, Paranormal Activity 2 came to theatres in 2010. Sadly, the movie suffered the sophomore jinx for many and simply picked at the bones of the original while playing with the pre-established reality in a parallel prequel. Directed by Tod Williams, who had helmed the fantastic drama The Door in the Floor (2004), the movie looked good, but the weakness rested within the narrative. Peli had little to do with this project, and the writing was left in too many hands: Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst all received screenwriting credit—if too many chefs spoil the soup, too many writers spoil the film.

In this installment, the Rey family, including Katie and her sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), moves to a new home in Carlsbad, California. After what seems to be a break-in, security cameras are installed and capture some unexplainable footage. Their housekeeper, Martine (Vivas Colembetti), suspects evil within the home’s walls and performs prayer and ritual to keep the family safe. She is soon fired, and the nightmare continues for the Rey family. The implication is that the lusty demon stalker wants both Katie and Kristi for his otherworldly self.

The budget this time had shot up to $3 million, and this investment earned Paramount $178 million worldwide, though the multitude of fans were disappointed. The suspense in the film worked, but the payoff never came at story’s end. Even worse, the writing team relied on the old trick [page 102] of having someone from the “old country” use his or her religious beliefs to try to thwart the evil entity. Horror fans have seen this clichéd device used many times before when fighting the supernatural in myriad films, such as Dolly Dearest (1991), The Believers (1987), and Poltergeist 2 (1986). Out to save the second movie and to reveal more of the story, Peli teamed up with scribe Landon to make a better prequel, with Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman of Catfish (2010) fame helming the project. Though many reviewers panned the film, Cinema Blend reported, “The movie now holds the top spot for midnight opener for a horror film (bringing in $8 million), best opening day for a horror film in the US ($26.2 million) and best opening for a October/fall movie ($54 million)” (Rich).

Of the third installments of horror movie franchises, to my mind, the only intriguing one is Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which may be blasphemy to Michael Myer’s fans, since the film completely divorced itself from the storyline of the first two features. Writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace explains: “What we had worked out was the idea that Halloween was going to become a yearly franchise. A new launch… so there was just endless possibility… year in and year out there would be a new theme” (Halloween III: A Second Look”). Due to the film’s poor reception, producers left supernatural druidism behind and reverted to “The Shape,” bringing back Myers for Halloween IV in 1988. Afterwards, like many of the other aforementioned franchises, the movies seem to be shot on autopilot, churning out new ways to kill the same old stock characters in one derivative slasher after another.

Though far removed from the supernatural vein, Saw creators did try to deliver a powerful throughline for the series, though the narrative became too interwoven and convoluted to make much sense overall. Most importantly, the implausibility of the Saw series limits any real scares. In contrast, due to Peli’s found-footage approach to the series, his use of unknown actors, and lifestyles most can relate to (save for the pseudo-opulence of the Rey family), the films evoke an element of believability. Audiences can completely grasp the concepts of home, wanting to protect one’s self and what one possesses, and the need to feel safe where one sleeps. This is exactly what happens in the well-crafted third sequence.

Paranormal Activity 3 takes us back to 1988 when Katie and sister Kristi are young. Their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), invites her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), to live with her, and the psychic trauma begins. Katie’s sister announces that she has an invisible friend named Tobi (as in “to be or not Tobi,” akin to the Cyclops’s adversary “No Man”). Once some strange auditory and visual phenomena occur, cinematographer Dennis and his friend set up cameras around the home to capture the goings-on. The film had a $5 million budget, which one can see in the many phenomenal special effects, and earned $207 [page 103] million worldwide, the best earnings of the franchise to date: the special effects were compelling in the first two movies, but in the third, they significantly increase the shock level, but, as with all exceptional special visual effects, their primary function is to better tell the tale instead of simply capturing the awe of the audience. The effects from the three films are not gratuitous, but inherent to the plot. What works best is Peli and company’s approach to a bygone era of filmmaking, when audiences would see little beyond a closed door. There would be hints about what was to come before the scene cut away, or we would only be shown just enough to rattle our minds—think Hitchcock’s heart-stopping shower scene in Psycho (1960) or the pounding sounds and the seemingly breathing door of The Haunting (UK/USA, 1963) and its subsequent hysteria. Even in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the fear of what might be coming reigns supreme, and many felt the need to crane their necks and try to peek around that apartment door to catch sight of the nosy neighbor. Most supernatural films left something, or better yet, many things, to the imagination. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, moviegoers wanted to see much more, and independent filmmakers delivered by opening the door and not cutting away when the tension rose. I Spit On Your Grave (1978), Alien (UK/USA, 1979), and Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, 1980) shocked audiences yet had them coming back to indulge in the forbidden fruit of disturbing cinema. Even with the now-tame looking Alien, audience members vomited and an usher fainted at a Dallas theatre preview, thanks to the visceral, bloody, and close-up effects (“Nightmare Fulfilled”).

When special effects, whether visual or auditory, are limited, audience members, like the on-screen characters, are apt to wonder about the supernatural happenings instead of turning away from the screen. Identical to the characters, we have a desire to learn more—see more—to gain a better idea as to what we are up against. By not seeing Tobi the demon, we are left to wonder. Horror fans have always loved a good scare, especially from the haunted house subgenre, and the lack of a reveal amps up the suspense—that demon could be anywhere. In 1927, Paul Leni’s silent romp, The Cat and the Canary, not only thrilled audiences but set the standard for many future haunted house tales. They work because of the uncanny element, as Steve Bottari reports from Syracuse University after viewing Paranormal Activity 3: “‘When you watch these movies and you’re into them you walk out of the theatre and all of a sudden your world changes,’ one viewer said, adding that things like doors closing and phones vibrating all of a sudden seem scarier right after seeing the film” (Bottari). Suddenly, every noise sounds like a potential enemy on the march. We may pay attention to the sound of the refrigerator’s compressor coming on, or the furnace igniting, or the change in pitch [page 104] from the air conditioner that could leave us on edge. We had heard these sounds so often that we had blocked them from our consciousness, but now, the noises take on new life, and we must reacquaint ourselves with the world in which we live.

Paranormal Activity, its prequels, and all of the haunted house films that came before remind us that we do not have all of the answers that we may want, and that safety, even in the confines of our homes, is an illusion. In 2007, the Associated Press had conducted a pre-Halloween poll in which 34% of responders stated that they believed in ghosts (“Poll”). Science and Religion Today subsequently reported in 2010 that “Two-thirds of all Americans believe not only that angels and demons exist, but also that they are ‘active in the world’” (Kuhn). With numbers this large in the United States, it is no wonder that haunted house movies do so well. Believing in ghosts and demons, the audience has their beliefs rationalized and indulged by the films. The now-clichéd posting of “based on true events” kicked off the Paranormal Activity series, but based on interviews with and writing by Peli, the only true event that took place was several strange sounds in the writer’s new home. Nothing of this magnitude happened to a young couple, and no bona fide footage exists. Superficial research into the topic indicates that Paranormal Activity and the other installments are pure fiction, yet this does not prevent audiences from accepting the tale as fact or believing that the ghostlike happenings can actually occur. What happens in Peli’s franchise is not what is referred to as a “residual haunting.” Noted paranormal investigator Jason Hawes of TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society), who spearheads the celebrated series “Ghost Hunters,” explains: “A residual haunting is like having an impression made in time…. The spirit really isn’t there, only the energy is.” This means that the ghost will replay a specific moment that occurred in the past—a perpetual supernatural rewind of an event. Intelligent hauntings, however, imply that the entity is aware of the physical world in which it resides and may even try to make contact with the living. Hawes also explains that demonic haunting, as in the case of Katie, does exist. The demonic entity’s goal is to “break down a person’s free will in order to make way for possession. This can take days, months, or years. This is exactly what happens to Katie.

The idea that Katie’s pursuer may be a ghost (rather than a demon) reassures many people who want to believe that something does indeed exist when we shuffle off this mortal coil and move on to whatever comes after death. Whether one believes in ghosts or demons, the notion that some ghosts maintain intelligence supports the idea of a soul. Therefore, moviegoers adhering to such beliefs find an odd comfort in knowing that somehow, some way, they will survive physical death—even while Peli and the actors are doing their best to scare them. [page 105]

Another element to the success of Peli’s Paranormal franchise is that the graininess of the footage and the hand-held elements “keep it real.” We are led to believe we are not dealing with a cinematographer’s artistry, but with the work of real people in a real situation, one in which we may find ourselves if we purchase the wrong home. Even at the time of the first release, and increasingly since then, many people own video recording equipment and most have a phone or camera with the same capabilities. Seeing found footage is not a stretch of the imagination any longer, but something that theatregoers can easily buy into as genuine. Since the cameras are set up to capture what happens when one sleeps, there is no need to question why someone would run with a camera when that person should be running for his or her life. Once the “realness” is established, we settle in to get unsettled.

The problem with the series is that it may have run its course. Although the third movie proved to be compelling, Paranormal Activity 4 came to theatres in 2012 on another $5 million budget and earned $138 million, the lowest ebb for the franchise. Horror fans certainly want their shocks and jolts, but this third sequel is unimaginative, with a somewhat convoluted and lackluster plot. Teenager Alex (Kathyrn Newton) and her family take in a new neighbor boy whom they do not know well after his mother is hospitalized for a few weeks. In short order, there is Hell in the house, and Alex’s young brother, as well as everyone else, may be in danger. The fourth movie in the series began with some promise, but once the family took in the neighbor’s child, the film went off the rails. The realism that Peli worked so hard to establish throughout the previous films was completely undermined and ultimately abandoned. To give one glaring example, many viewers would be aware that California’s Children and Family Services Division would have taken the child, especially since no relatives existed. Afterward, the few scares turn into expected ventures; the movie falls flat, “despite a terrific beginning, quickly grew stale and repetitive and the third sequel is easily the most lifeless. It’s as if all the first movie’s assets have been turned into liabilities and all the energy has been leeched away” (Ryan C.). Directors Joost and Schulman, as well as returning screenwriter Landon, failed with the fourth version as if they had lost their passion for the project. What they attempted to bring into this movie was another supernatural twist: the demon may be controlled by a coven of witches. However, this backstory is poorly introduced, and many opportunities for a strong narrative and compelling visuals are lost. While the first and third movies were polished, this edition seems to have been created off of the back of a first-draft script.

However, in 2014, Christopher Landon did bring theater-goers a solid script with Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. In this tale, we leave [page 106] the usual setting, as well as Katie, Kristi, and the Rey family, for high school graduate Jesse Arista (Andrew Jacobs) of Oxnard, California. After he graduates, Jesse purchases a video camera and starts filming, mostly his friends Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabriel Walsh), who reside in the same apartment complex. Directly below where Jesse lives with his grandmother (Renee Victor) resides Ana (Gloria Sandoval), who is supposedly a witch. In short order, Ana is found dead, and Jesse and company investigate with camera in hand. Like a “Scooby gang,” they discover what appears to be an altar with pictures of Jesse and his friend Oscar (Carlos Pratts). Soon after, Jesse’s behavior changes, and we learn that he was a “marked one,” chosen by the coven to be possessed by a demon unless Hector and Marisol can prevent that from happening.

There is solid acting from the young troupe, and the story unfolds quite well. Landon even has the wherewithal to abandon the overused Ouija board by having the entity communicate through the much more innocuous game of Simon. As Ryan C. aptly states, “[B]y taking the concept of ‘hand-held horror’ into the inner city and adding a dash of Santeria-influenced spice, Landon… has managed here to breathe some new life into a franchise that was sorely in need of it.” However, the issue with The Marked Ones is that minimal suspense leads to no scares. The shock and jolts from the first and third films have been abandoned, as though Landon wanted to make certain he had a definitive three-act story that worked and not much more. Ultimately, this $5 million venture brought in the worst worldwide take at $90.9 million. Peli and company needed to create something special to recapture the flair of the original or to abandon the series. Paramount decided to give it one more go with a $10 million budget for what may be the final feature in the franchise.

In October 2016, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension came to screens in 3-D across the United States. Even with an intriguing trailer, the movie did poorly statewide as well as overseas and within two months, it was released on DVD for the home market. A new family moves into Katie and Kristi’s childhood home. In short order, Ryan (Chris J. Murray) finds a strange VHS camera that has the ability to see into the “ghost dimension,” and he starts filming bizarre goings-on in the home. He also discovers abandoned VHS tapes that show a man who is seemingly the leader of the coven working with Katie and Kristi to help them get closer to Tobi the demon. Ryan soon realizes that his daughter, Leila (Ivy George) is next on the list to be possessed by this unseen force – and that his family had been chosen to move into the empty home for that sole purpose.

Ghost Dimension seems out of sync with the series at times. For instance, if the coven wanted Ryan’s family to move into this particular house, why commit the error of leaving the special camera, as well as VHS [page 107] footage about them and their plans, behind? After all, Ryan takes what he learns from the footage to try to save his family while combatting Tobi. There is no indication that the coven had hoped to taunt the family, which means that there is no reason to leave such vital items behind. In addition, throughout the series, all of the prospective victims for the demon are female, and whenever human males enter into the story, Tobi becomes agitated, as if he sees the men as corporeal competition. For instance, Tobi never reveals himself to Katie’s friend Amber (Amber Armstrong) in the original film because he didn’t view another woman as a threat. In all of the features, there is only one women supposedly killed by Tobi. Otherwise, he seeks out young girls to possess and the women of the coven protect him. The four male writers who crafted Ghost Dimension somehow decided to abandon their matriarchal setup and chose a male leader for the coven. Although this may be intended to mirror Tobi’s hyper-masculinity, it does not seem that the demon would tolerate any male. After all, when psychic Dr. Frederichs (Mark Frederichs) pays a second visit Katie and Micah at the house in the first movie, the doctor states: “The guy’s very angry I’m here” and leaves. Men cannot help Katie, Kristi, and Leila, for their presence rouses the demon’s wrath. Other story issues include the sudden introduction of a biblical slant from the Book of Revelation to Tobi’s desires.

The more significant issues, though, are failures of realism: when images appear like runes about Leila’s bed, instead of trying to erase or paint over them, Ryan and his wife leave them there, even though the husband recognizes them as demonic symbols. Even more disturbing is that Tobi often visits Leila in her room. Why both parents didn’t sleep with their daughter to protect her is illogical. Instead, they remain far down the hall in their own room; the mother sleeps in Leila’s room on just one occasion. The characters’ actions are jarringly not what one would expect as a normal response from concerned parents. Besides major story issues with Ghost Dimension, another item to keep the audience at bay are some of the computer-generated effects, which are sub-standard and distracting. Paramount may have spent more money on this film than on previous installments, but the special visual effects are the worst of any in the series, creating another distraction to sideline the audience.

What was once a strong and viable series, with a unique twist on an old theme, has simply gone the way of every other horror franchise. For those who love supernatural horror, it may prove best to put their faith in standalone features with something thematic to stimulate the senses. As for haunted houses and ghostly happenings, besides the aforementioned The Haunting, The Changeling (1980) from Canada and Spain’s The Orphanage (2007) offer phenomenal storytelling that have left audiences astounded [page 108] and terrified in their wake. Peli, along with Jason Blum, who has produced all of the segments, may want to sit back and watch these quality films before adding another installment to the now-tepid series.[jg3] Then again, they can always review the magic from the first and third segments of the franchise to try to recapture what had captivated the world and kept us all awake at night.

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Works Cited

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Rich, Katey. “Paranormal Activity 3 Scores Impressive $8 Million From Midnight Showings.” Cinema Blend. Cinema Blend LLC, 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Ryan C. “Oops, My Bad – A Belated Look at ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’.” Trash Film Guru. Trash Film Guru, 18 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

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MLA citation (print):

Prystauk, William D. "Paranormal Found-Footage Fizzle: The Rise and Fall of the Paranormal Activity Franchise." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 99-