It’s unlikely the Paranormal Activity series will go down in history as one of the great horror franchises, but it’s better than most. People dismiss the series because it is modern, low-budget, and found footage. However, stacked up against the Halloween, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, it holds its own. In fact, it’s definitely better than Friday the 13th, and probably better than the other two franchises if you take all the films into account. Through six films in seven years, the franchise has become the pillar of found footage, pioneered the minimisation of horror, and made hundreds of millions of dollars against miniscule production budgets. The Paranormal Activity films were financial successes but they were also noteworthy horror films in their own right.
In the spirit of Halloween Horror, I’ve decided to rank the six films in the franchise and discuss some of what makes each film noteworthy (and in the case of The Ghost Dimension, what makes it forgettable.)
1. Paranormal Activity (2009) dir. Oren Peli
There’s no real competition here. All the sequels and spinoffs have tried to replicate the success of this film, which is the most minimal and effective use of found footage horror aside from The Blair Witch Project. They can’t, as Paranormal Activity’s purity and originality is what makes it so remarkable. Its mixture of mundane terror and formal stiltedness could only be done so effectively once. Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) start noticing strange happenings in their new San Diego home. Micah buys a video camera and installs it in the corner of their master bedroom to try to capture whatever it is that’s tormenting him. He ends up recording the activities of a demon that is terrorizing their home in escalating fashion.
Paranormal Activity is about simplicity. There is one camera recording the nighttime haunting. That camera is fixed to a tripod in the corner of the bedroom for the majority of the horror scenes. Those limitations allow director Oren Peli to explore the audience’s imagination, which makes or breaks any horror film. He builds tension through floorboard creaks or slowly-opening doors. Most of the scares would be mundane to the point of boredom if they were removed from the story context, but context is important in a horror film and Peli plays the audience perfectly. The final 20 minutes are some of the scariest filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
Paranormal Activity’s greatness might be a fluke—Peli’s long-awaited follow-up, Area 51, was a boring dud—but it’s still a landmark horror film and the definitive film of horror’s found footage years.
2. Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman took over the franchise and turned it into an exploration of technology and paranoid mythology. Paring down the multiple cameras from the first sequel and moving the setting back to the late 80s, the film was innovative in its own right while advancing the story world well beyond anything imagined in the first film. It helps that the film has the best acting of the franchise, especially in the two girls playing younger versions of Katie and Kristi.
The secret weapon of Paranormal Activity 3 is the revolving fan camera set-up, where the nighttime surveillance cam is attached to a fan that pivots between the living room and the kitchen. When a blanket ghost appears in the living room, we’re curious but the camera unwittingly moves us into the kitchen, so that by the time we return to the living room, the ghost is gone. It’s this manipulation of on-screen space and tension that makes the film so effective.
3. Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) dir. Tod Williams
Paranormal Activity 2 is a classic case of sequelitis, where the limited setting and formal technique of the original are ballooned out until it nears breaking point. Instead of one camera, there are six. Instead of two people being haunted, there is a whole family, including friends and a dog. Still, the film is surprisingly effective. Much of this is the film’s canny use of jump scares, usually to comic effect, such as a creepy appearance by an automated pool cleaner. In other moments, the film plays on more classical horror tropes, especially when centring the scares around the family dog and the baby in his crib. Paranormal Activity 2 might be more conventional than its predecessor, but it’s still scary, and its scares are rooted in genuinely unsettling imagery and mythology.
4. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) dir. Christopher B. Landon
This spinoff was meant to target the Latino community, with only a minor connection to the other films, as Mexican Americans were huge fans of the original films. While that description seems grossly commercial (and it is), The Marked Ones is a decent mixture of horror and superhero origin story. High schooler Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) gets “marked” by an evil spirit and starts exhibiting superpowers. However, he also starts going insane and becoming haunted by demonic presences. The Marked Ones is not nearly as scary as the first three films, but it takes the mythology of the franchise and executes in a different formal direction. It’s not minimal, but it’s unique and entertaining in its specificity.
5. Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Paranormal Activity 4 suffers from diminished returns, but it still gets the job done. Again set in a large southern Californian home terrorized by a spectre, the film uses all the creaks, door-slams, and rumbling sound design that scared viewers in previous installments. None of this is as scary as it is in the previous three films, but it’s still effective and well-done. The film’s smartest moments come from its play on the technology of the moment, as video tech had improved drastically in the years between the first film and this fourth installment. The standout scene involves a Skype conversation that delays due to a poor Internet connection. It’s an example of Joost and Schulman’s particular cleverness: they know how to take something that has become conventional (the slow-build shadow scare that defines the franchise) and show it in a new context rooted in our mundane reality.
6. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) dir. Gregory Plotkin
The Ghost Dimension fails because it does the one thing that is antithetical to the series’ strengths: it shows the monster. Paranormal Activity was scary because it played on the viewer’s imagination. Because we could not see the monster terrorizing Micah and Katie, only the consequences of its actions, we imagined it in every corner of every room. Its invisibility made it omnipresent, which in turn suffused every scene with dread. Like a shadow in the corner of a spooky basement as a child, what we didn’t see was torture to our imaginations. However, this entry throws the patient, dread-based horror of the other films out the window in favour of 3D-spectral photography and CGI demons. The notion of a VHS camcorder that can witness the “ghost dimension” is neat in concept, but juvenile in execution. It removes all the tension from the concept, ending the series with a damp squib.
Paranormal Activity (2009, USA)
Written and directed by Oren Peli; starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, USA)
Directed by Tod Williams; written by Christopher B. Landon, Tom Pabst, and Michael R. Perry, based on a story by Michael R. Perry; starring Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011, USA)
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman; written by Christopher B. Landon; starring Lauren Bittner, Chris Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown.
Paranormal Activity 4 (2012, USA)
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman; written by Christopher B. Landon, based on a story by Chad Feehan; starring Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Aiden Lovekamp, Brady Allen, Stephen Dunham, Alexondra Lee, Katie Featherston.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014, USA)
Written and directed by Christopher B. Landon; starring Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015, USA)
Directed by Gregory Plotkin; written by Adam Black, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, Gavin Heffernan, based on a story by Brantley Aufill, Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschman; starring Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Dan Gill, Ivy George, Olivia Taylor Dudley.