‘Paranormal Activity’ Made the 2010s Horror Scene What it Was

paranormal activity

Back in 2009, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity was something of a ghost itself. The infamous found footage movie spent years in development. A favorable festival showing, some Steven Spielberg lore, one Miramax Films Senior Executive Jason Blum (yes, that Jason Blum), and $200,000 later, Paranormal Activity was ready to be unleashed on the world writ large in the fall of 2009. Unconventionally, early access was contingent on fan demand. Peli hosted a link at Eventful, urging fans to “demand” Paranormal Activity be brought to their town next. That’s how I caught it in early October 2009, weeks before demand skyrocketed and Peli announced the film would be getting a conventional wide release on October 16. The rest is haunted history.

A handy franchise timeline.

Paranormal Activity has been deemed this generation’s The Blair Witch Project for good reason. What it lacks in ostensible veracity—nobody went into the theater thinking the demonic shenanigans here had really happened—it more than makes up for in earnest ad-hoc filmmaking. Peli, on account of cultivating audience investment (and forgoing a camera crew), decided to center his scares around a tripod and static frame, now iconographic with the franchise itself. Performers retro-scripted their dialogue, working from a broad outline of what to expect and filling in the blanks from there.

Hundreds of people were reportedly auditioned, though Peli settled on unknowns Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, both of whom use their real names for their respective characters. For their work, both were paid $500. Shot non-consecutively over the course of a week, Peli concluded with a raw assemblage of footage that would soon springboard into a franchise worth just shy of $1 billion. For reference, Peli’s original iteration reportedly cost just a few thousand.

Paranormal Activity remains guerilla filmmaking of the highest order. While its success is both enviable and strikingly unlikely, it ultimately does amount to a filmmaker, with a little bit of money. drawing from horror history to try something new. In other words, if Peli could do it, it remains an option for every aspiring filmmaker out there. That’s what the movies are about.

Paranormal Activity 2

After the success of the first—$194 million at the worldwide box office—a sequel was inevitable. Franchising remains the one thing every Hollywood story has in common, and the executives wouldn’t have it any other way, dammit. A year later, Paranormal Activity 2 was released on October 22. The budget was wildly buttressed, the scares were more frequent, and the scope expanded to an entire family, this time following Katie Featherston’s sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), and her brood.

While the first Paranormal Activity featured the broad brushstrokes of demonic possession, the sequel doubled down and dabbled considerably more in Kristi’s and Katie’s possession lore. There’s burning sage, talk of evil spirits, and a wallop of an ending that sees Katie appearing shortly after the first film to murder her sister and brother-in-law before kidnapping their infant son, Hunter. The lore only grew more complicated from there, but the exceptional filmmaking—the sequel was helmed by Tod Williams—remained as viciously effective as it was the first time around.

The first film was met with plenty of derision. Some horror fans, God bless them, are innately inclined to hate everything new and popular, and Paranormal Activity 2 does little to assuage them. It’s more of the same, just bigger. If that “same” worked in the first—the sudden jolts, suffocating night-vision stationary frames—the sequel worked even better. Kitchen cabinets have never been this terrifying. The scares are simple, but within the found footage conceit, they work with vicious aplomb, no more so than in the franchise’s third entry, Paranormal Activity 3.

Paranormal Activity 3

If Paranormal Activity 2 was “Paranormal Activity, but bigger,” then Paranormal Activity 3 was the franchise getting smaller. The scale may have been reduced, but the scares certainly weren’t. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s co-directed effort is a prequel for sisters Kristi and Katie. The tagline boldly announces, “Discover how the activity began,” and sure enough, audiences do. It’s gothic cult terror that successfully introduces franchise mainstay Tobi, imaginary friend (and demon) to Kristi.

Here, however, the franchise would also back itself into a corner from which it would never leave. Make no mistake, Paranormal Activity 3 is the scariest entry in the series and my personal favorite. Yet, with the claustrophobic, Blair Witch final act and standout oscillating fan sequence, the series would firmly shift into gimmick territory from this point out. Static cameras became more dynamic, the lore got denser, and the scares became less viciously simple and more macabrely machinated. Not a bad thing innately, though certainly much harder to sustain.

Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity 2 opened to $40.6 million and Paranormal Activity 3 opened to a staggering $52.6 million. Paranormal Activity 4 managed a respectable $29 million, though it was notably considerably less than its predecessors. Part of that was undoubtedly franchise fatigue, though Paranormal Activity 4 is also widely considered the weakest entry in the series.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost return to direct, and writer Christopher Landon (writer of every entry beyond the first and The Ghost Dimension), remarkably reliable, unfortunately manages more misses than hits here. The much-touted Kinect scare falls flat, and too often, Paranormal Activity 4 feels akin to a greatest-hits reel of the prior entries. Several scares from past movies are recreated verbatim, and where Paranormal Activity 3 moved the franchise forward, Paranormal Activity 4 barely registered. New lore additions are nonexistent, and its ending is barely an ending, succumbing in dismaying fashion to the found footage regular “scary image, camera drop” finale. Unfortunately, Paranormal Activity 4 might well have ended the activity altogether. It’s nothing but a bumpy road ahead.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Christopher Landon would take over the director’s chair for Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a compellingly conceived way to diversify both the audience and on-screen rep for the franchise. That’s about all it does differently, though. Despite being billed as a quasi-spinoff, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is unequivocally tethered to the four films that came before it. Rather than breaking out to do its own thing, it’s constrained by the need for franchise callbacks, easter eggs, and full-tilt narrative connections to its predecessors. With a January release and the lowest opening weekend the franchise had seen thus far, the once lucrative activity, almost overnight, had fallen out of favor.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

That favor would account for why Paramount Pictures controversially partnered with AMC for an unconventional theatrical release strategy for Gregory Plotkins’ Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. Rather than a standard wide release, both Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (written and directed, interestingly, by Christopher Landon) would release in fewer theaters followed by a VOD release just 17 days after their theatrical premiere.

That might not seem like much in a post-COVID theatrical landscape where new releases are available at premium prices sometimes days after they open, but back in 2015, it was massive, a potentially groundbreaking experiment for theatrical releases writ large. It never caught on, though it did successfully bury the Paranormal Activity franchise for several years. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension was moderately successful, though it cemented that somewhere between the third and fourth film, the franchise didn’t just lose steam—it categorically failed to do anything new.

Here, audiences were promised the opportunity to finally see the activity. That activity is a lot of CG black sludge, Poltergeist-esque doorways, and prickly, static figures. Not to be that guy, but it’s worth remembering that what isn’t seen is often scariest. The long-running activity here was the same activity every found footage movie had conceived of before. It came, it went, and years later, few if any remember much of anything about Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. Worse still? It barely registers as a franchise conclusion despite being ostensibly pitched as such at the time. It was more of the same, leading the franchise into a resigned dimension of its own for six years.

Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin

Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin is a bad Paranormal Activity movie but a good found footage horror movie. Make of that what you will. It’s worth remembering that the found footage boon of the 2010s is inextricably linked to Paranormal Activity’s success. Love it or hate it, it was the last decade’s most influential horror title, full stop. It defined an entire era of horror, writing its own lo-fi rules and compelling adjacent titles to follow suit. That’s no small feat and it has rightly earned its place in horror history.

In 2021, however, those rules had changed. Paranormal Activity wasn’t Paranormal Activity anymore. While Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin gives it a good shot, it’s the equivalent of meeting your high school boyfriend at the ten-year reunion; that’s the guy you swooned over for years? William Eubank and returning writer Christopher Landon do enough to shake things up, and there’s plenty of claustrophobic terror here. It’s visually polished but narratively inert. The cult activity of the third, once promising new ground, proved to be the knife in the franchise’s heart. It never knew how to move forward, and this long-gestating sequel’s attempts at revitalizing a dormant franchise were no more successful than the three entries that came before. A curious case study with some great scares, it succeeds as a frightening found footage movie but absolutely fails as Paranormal Activity progenitor.

That, then, is a brief history of the franchise. Once a Halloween staple, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the first two decades of this century. First Saw, then Paranormal Activity, October used to mean something. There was always a celebratory franchise entry—Halloween used to matter, I swear it.

I’m getting too old man yelling at birds right now, though for as unsteady as the Paranormal Activity franchise had been overall, looking back, it’s easy to see why it was something special. And it was something special. No, they didn’t scare everyone. Yes, plenty of horror fans and general audiences still can’t see what all the fuss was about, but almost fifteen years ago, a little scary movie hit theaters. The poster pleaded with audiences not to go alone. For a few years, everyone came together to sit in a dark auditorium, watch some fools prop up cameras, and collectively have the crap scared out of them. That meant something. In the grand landscape of horror history, it will always mean something.

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