Hello, Faithful Reader! I recently saw Paranormal Activity 3, and I wanted to share my thoughts on the whole series now that it is complete. There are spoilers below, so don’t scream at me…you’ve been warned!
So by now, everyone is familiar with both the subject and style of the series. In the first film, a couple (Katie and Micah) is harassed by an invisible and hostile entity, and the evidence of this is all recorded on personal video cameras. As the first film progresses, it is revealed that Katie had similar experiences as a child, and that it seemed like the “demon” (they eventually establish it is not a normal haunting by a ghost) was following her. Towards the end, in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, Katie, apparently possessed by the demon, stands motionless next the bed, watching Micah sleep, while the video goes into fast forward to show her standing that way for hours. At the end of the film, the possessed Katie murders Micah, and then grins evilly at the camera and lunges at it. While there were alternative versions (the one with Katie simply sitting and rocking until the cops find her was, in my opinion, more powerful), the theatrical ending fits the sequels better, so it was, in fact, the better choice.
In the second film, we focus on the events leading up to part one, where Kristi, Katie’s sister, and her family are threatened by the same entity. Over the course of this film, various theories are evaluated about people making deals with demons, and it is made clear that the demon’s primary interest is Hunter, Kristi’s newborn son, as payment for…something which is never really explained other than wealth and power. It is shown that Kristi’s husband chose to ask his housekeeper, who is apparently versed in some form of witchcraft, to “transfer” the demon to Katie rather than Kristi. The first couple of minutes of the first movie are then shown, and then Katie is shown asking Kristi about the “strange stuff” happening, and mentions it has begun happening at her and Micah’s house. The movie then moves to three nights after the end of the first film. A possessed Katie comes to Kristi’s house, kills her husband, kills Katie, and then takes the baby, Hunter, and disappears.
The third movie works to explain the first two. It is also a prequel, this time showing a group of tapes that were recorded in 1988, when both Katie and Kristi are children. It is shown that “Toby”, Kristi’s imaginary friend, is actually the demon, and over the course of the film it tries to get her to do something, which at first she refuses, which leads to “Toby” tormenting Katie and their parents. The whole time, the events are being recorded by their stepfather, while their mother gets more and more angry (like Dan, Kristi’s husband in the first film, and Micah in the first film) at the whole affair. After a particularly violent attack, the whole family runs to the kid’s grandmother’s house, where it quickly descends into a type of Rosemary’s Baby cliche. It turns out that Kristi’s grandmother is a member of some sort of demonolatry cult, intent on performing a marriage ceremony between Kristi and the demon Toby. After both the parents are killed, grandma takes both girls to prepare for the wedding, and we see Kristi say “Come on, Toby”. The movie closes with demonic breathing and grunting until the camera cuts off, seemingly destroyed by Toby.
Now, before the ending of the third film, I really liked this series. First and foremost, the use of the “found footage” technique, which can often be tiresome, was well-handled in all three films. In addition to this, the real horror factor was at work…this is the sort of things people really do experience. Consider the such luminaries as Bishop James Pike have experienced poltergeist activity, and that whether you believe in ghosts (or other entities) or not, when people get spooked out, it is by the kinds of things that happen in these films. We never run into the special-effects laden monstrosities in real life, but like serial killers, paranormal horror takes an experience that many of us have had, or know other people have had, and uses it to scare the willies out of us. It works because, on some level, it feels very real, like it could really happen.
Which is why I feel like they took the easy way out with the third movie. Blaming everything on a witch-cult not only has a sort of inherent 70s cheeziness, when showing elements of a non-Christian religion could evoke fear simply by existing, but nowadays many of us know real witches or are pagan ourselves, and we know for a fact that a bunch of middle-aged women dancing around a bonfire (they don’t dance, but the circle around the bonfire is shown) is no more inherently threatening than a coffee-klatch after a Bible study. On top of this, I feel like the writer lost a chance to really ramp up the scary.
You see, by making the threat all about the actions and judgments of a group of adults, it moved “Toby” out of the world of children, with their generally odd behaviors, wild creativity, and imaginary friends. To my mind, the idea that there are malevolent entities simply wandering around the planet, befriending children, and then trying to harm them or get them to harm themselves or others, and that we just forget all about this world of supernatural dangers as we become adults, is far more frightening. The idea that there is a whole other world, with its own predators, rules, and sensorium, that only children interact with, cuts straight down to the bottom of many different fears. That’s a fear that, once activated, would have kept me awake all night, remembering the strangeness and visions of my own childhood…and making sure to close to the closet door and leave the light on. Instead, I just chuckled at the old scare-the-Christians-with-paganism bugaboo showing up in a modern horror film.
There is an otherness to childhood. There is something about the world they inhabit that we love…but also fear. They do things for reasons we can’t understand. They see things we do not, hear things we cannot. Their toys are creepy. By keeping the threat fundamentally about the kids, rather than making it a matter of volition for some group of adults, I feel like the final resulting tale of all three movies would have been far more powerful. The notion that not only could adults not stop it, that they have no volition over the situation whatsoever, and that the “demon” Toby was something truly of, and only of, the world of children, would have taken this series from “entertaining and a good scare” to “one of the best horror franchises of all time”.
What are your thoughts, Faithful Reader? Am I simply jaded, or did the “explanation” for the series significantly decrease the horrors implied?
- Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman Returning For ‘Paranormal Activity 4;’ Where Will The Story Go? (slashfilm.com)
- Paranormal Activity 3: Actually scary, unlike Paranormal Activity 2 [Video] (io9.com)
- ‘Paranormal Activity’ to ruin your sleep for a fourth time, but where can – or should – the franchise go next? (popwatch.ew.com)