The 13th Floor

A Brief History of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

This story is part of a series done in partnership between Blumhouse.com and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION.

We’re down to the final hours before the long-awaited premiere of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION – the fifth and possibly final chapter in the cinematic saga, which began eight years ago with Oren Peli’s micro-budgeted independent horror project that soon became an international sensation. Over that time, the series developed its own canon, spawned two spin-offs and dozens of parodies, and basically birthed an entire generation of independent filmmakers looking to capture similar success with the same “Found Footage” technique that quickly polarized the opinions of viewers (particularly horror fans).

I’m not going to weigh in here on the virtues and/or sins of the genre – let’s save that for another article. Instead, I’d like to look back at all the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films from one viewer’s perspective (mine, of course), and if you’re not fully versed in the PA canon, I’ll try to get you up to speed — with as few spoilers as possible — in case you’re down for binge-watching the entire series before you see GHOST DIMENSION.

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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)

The setup for Oren Peli’s original film is about as simple as it gets: lock down a camera and point it at a bed. That’s the backbone of the project, which Peli shot in his own house, to tell the story of a young couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) whose San Diego home is the focus of increasingly threatening phenomena – all of which is mysteriously linked to strange events in Katie’s childhood. Special effects were minimal (mostly in-camera trickery), and it was mainly up to the actors to sustain believability. Not only did this choice keep costs down, but it enabled audiences to fill in much of the story with their imaginations. Horror buffs expecting a special effects extravaganza were intensely disappointed (the exact same thing happened in 1999 with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), but Peli’s slow-burn approach — which harkens back to the subtle chills of Robert Wise’s 1963 classic THE HAUNTING – attracted legions of new fans.

The film failed to find a distributor following its Screamfest 2007 premiere, but it caught the attention of Jason Blum (an executive at Miramax at the time), who championed the project and encouraged Peli to make some modifications to the film. It was this version which fell into the hands of legendary director Steven Spielberg, who heartily endorsed it as one of the scariest movies he’d ever seen. (It’s been claimed that Spielberg was so terrified by PA that he refused to keep his screener copy in the house… but that might have been a very useful exaggeration.) After a very successful test screening, Paramount picked up the rights and asked for a few more modifications — including a new ending, which left the story open for a sequel…

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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (2010)

Spielberg’s instincts turned out to be true (which is usually the case), and audiences began screaming for a second PA film as soon as possible. Instead of a linear sequel, Peli (now co-producer) and director Tod Williams opted for a parallel story, which focused on Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her family, including their newborn son Hunter. The events of PA2 are prefaced by earlier scenes between the two which tie the demonic occurrences of the first film to both sisters, and the timelines of both films briefly cross over. The sequel ups the ante from its predecessor, putting an entire family at risk – with particular focus on Hunter, whom we learn is the first male child born to Katie & Kristi’s family in the past two generations – and the single-camera approach is upgraded to multiple security cameras situated throughout the house. The timelines finally collide in the film’s shocking final minutes, which once again leaves an opening to expand the PA canon even further…

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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: TOKYO NIGHT (2010)

Not an official sequel, and not quite a spinoff, TOKYO NIGHT is the result of a Japanese distributor obtaining the rights to create their own sequel to the first film. It involves a young woman (Noriko Aoyama) injured in a car accident while visiting San Diego; once home in Tokyo, she begins to suspect that her wheelchair is moving by itself at night. Her brother (Aoi Nakamura) decides to investigate the matter by placing a camera in her room, and upon viewing the evidence, tries to convince his skeptical sister that the unseen menace is real. By the time our protagonist discovers the link between the increasingly threatening occurrences and the events of the first film, it’s already too late. The look and feel of the original PA is well-replicated in this production, all the way down to the bedroom footage and the sub-bass rumble that foreshadows a scary event (which tends to trigger an instinctive fear response in the audience after it’s happened a few times), but it also employs many of the same tropes now familiar to fans of Asian horror cinema.

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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011)

While PA2 elaborated on the series’ backstory by revealing a dark secret shared by sisters Katie and Kristi (excellently portrayed as children by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown), the filmmakers opted to delve deeper into the girls’ past by setting this installment in 1988, and explores the origins of the triangular occult symbol that featured prominently in second film. A box filled with videotapes given to Kristi by her sister has gone missing, and the content of those tapes, which dates back 18 years, is presented as the source footage for Part 3. This leads to a particularly clever conceit: the limitations of that decade’s technology compel the boyfriend (Chris Dennis) of the girls’ mother (Lauren Bittner), a freelance wedding videographer, to build a low-tech camera rig out of an oscillating fan, enabling the bulky camcorder to automatically pan back and forth across the room. This gadget enables one of the creepiest, most effective scenes in the entire franchise (involving the babysitter and a white sheet). The final act reveals a horrible secret about the girls’ grandmother Lois (Hallie Foote), and the invisible demon who terrorized the characters in the previous films – whom Kristi names “Toby” – claims his first onscreen victims.

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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012)

Returning to the general timeline of the first two films, PA 4 turns its focus on a different suburban family, whose adopted son Wyatt (Aiden Lovecamp) befriends Robbie (Brady Allen), a strange boy living with his unseen “mother” across the street. The main chronicler of this film’s events is teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton), who at first is concerned for Robbie’s well-being, but later becomes suspicious of his strange behavior – especially when strange phenomena begin to occur, including the return of the occult symbol, and the presence of the boy’s imaginary friend… who, of course, turns out to be Toby. While the series loses some dramatic traction by following a family otherwise unrelated to Katie and Kristi, there are nevertheless some chilling moments – the best of which supplied by the display of an Xbox Kinect, which plays out in the darkness of the family’s living room, covered in a matrix of infrared reference dots. The climax also delivers some intense shocks as Alex finally learns the truth about Robbie and his “mother,” and discovers Wyatt’s true identity.

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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (2014)

This “sidequel” to the PA canon is actually one of the best entries in the series, despite only a tangential relation to the events of the previous films, and benefits from a different cultural perspective. The story follows college-bound teen Jesse, who lives with his family in a predominantly Hispanic apartment complex in East L.A. After the apparent murder of Ana — an elderly tenant whom neighbors believed to be a witch — Jesse sneaks into her apartment and discovers the text of an occult ritual. After performing the rite as a joke, Jesse suddenly finds himself gifted with superhuman strength and telekinetic powers… but his identity is shifting into something unnatural and menacing. We finally learn that Ana was affiliated with “The Midwives” — a sinister coven whose practices were discovered in Part 3 – and Jesse may be one of their newest “recruits.” Ironically, this spinoff explores some intriguing aspects of the PA mythos that the other films barely touch, and it’s also the most action-packed film in the franchise to date.

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With the premiere of THE GHOST DIMENSION mere hours away (depending on when it opens in your area), I’m hoping for two things most of all: first, I’d like to see the filmmakers tie up all the loose theads from the previous films (nothing overboard, but in keeping with the surreal logic of the franchise mythology); and second, I’d like them do justice to the film’s new POV hook: a camera which can apparently record images from a parallel dimension. It’s a concept reminiscent of the “Resonator” from H.P. Lovecraft’s FROM BEYOND, which enabled human senses to detect beings which exist on a separate dimensional plane from us, but occupy the same physical space. The only drawback is that if we can see them, they can see us…

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