Review: Paranormal Activity 1-3 (Spoilers!)

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 3 (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

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?

10 thoughts on “Review: Paranormal Activity 1-3 (Spoilers!)

  1. Helene B.

    I’ve seen Paranormal 1 and 2 but I haven’t seen the part 3 yet. Geez, I’m quite excited to see it. They must have unlocked the secret to their family’s encounter with the demon. How long does the part 3 last?

    Thanks for the review. Very creepy!

    -Helene

    Reply
    1. Neal Jansons Post author

      Helene,

      That’s pretty much the premise of this one, the family’s past and the demon itself. The third seemed about as long as the second, but without the draggy beginning (I felt part 2 could have been tightened a great deal). They did a great job with the series.

      If you want to see a very good movie in a similar style (the whole found footage ghost thing), check out “Grave Encounters”. It’s available on Netflix Watch Instantly. I very much enjoyed it.

      Reply
  2. Eren Mckay

    This sounds really scary to tell you the truth. Thanks for your review.. I still don’t know for sure that I’ll watch it .. but thanks for the review.
    All the best,
    Eren

    Reply
  3. Steve Kudlak

    I am more curious about the progression of ideas about “Paranormal Things” over the decades. Wayback when when the scientific worldview reigned supreme in public perception,or at least what mostly made it past editors and the like there was a whole attempt to just justify that something was going on. THere was concerns about “ectoplasm” and theories about what might be going bump in the night. After the cultural opening up in the 1960s and 1970s many more things became accepted, to me it seems accepted in the same way religious belief is accepted. There was great interest in things like witchcraft and other occult practices. Then it seemed that ghosties and such things were gentle or bewildered beings who needed to be shown how “go on” to whatever is next. Now it seems we have gone back to the ghosties and whatever else are back to being nasty a la “Paranormal Activity” which uses the shopworn “deals with demons” motifs. Maybe I am just getting old but would like to see something new under the sun/moon/planets and stars or some creative reworking of things. The other problem is no practioner of the occult I know ever does these things. EEven successful ones areat the “did a, did b and did c and something happened” and then go on from whether they liked what happen or not. These things still seem to dance around the edges and don’t come out fully into the open or even moderately into the open.

    Reply
    1. Neal Jansons Post author

      That’s an interesting take on things, Steve. I think you’re correct, in general; there definitely was a flood of movies during the 70s and even into the early 80s where the ghosts were sympathetic characters that needed their bodies found or to work out some issue from their lives. But ghost stories, specifically, have always had that element to them. I recently read through some of the classic ghost story collections of M.R. James, and that trope was present in many of the tales. The recent remake of “The Woman in Black” has that classic theme as well, though it turns out that the ghost can’t be appeased, and is still filled with rage and the desire to cause children to commit suicide.

      I think that the reason that element isn’t nearly as present in modern horror is that horror’s function is to cause fear, or at least a sort of uncanny unease, and for the most part the sympathetic, unhappy ghost trope just isn’t scary or disconcerting. The most effective recent ghost stories I’ve seen were “Grave Encounters” and “The Haunting of #24”, and both featured ghosts that were destructive and intent on devouring life in all its forms. The sympathetic ghost is, in my opinion, a better trope for fantasy stories. Horror has a particular goal, and that trope just isn’t very scary. At the most it is sad, and while that can be a part of a fiction (I like works of a nihilistic, negative, and pessimistic bent, and I can’t abide a happy ending), a horror story needs to evoke certain emotions that the sympathetic ghost motif seldom accomplishes.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Reply
  4. Samantha

    I was looking for a review of the first three, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen them. You did a phenomenal job with your review and touched on some good points of connection between them all that alot of reviews were lacking. I really want to know what you think about this fourth one coming out. I’m glad they’re playing out the story of the little boy, it felt unfinished to me as the whole point between all the movies was the ‘first born son’ getting to belong to ‘Tobi’. What do you think of them making a fourth one? I hope you review it once it’s out!

    Reply
    1. Neal Alan Spurlock Post author

      All I have seen thus far is the trailer. After enjoying the first three as much as I did, I have ceased to be skeptical of the series, so I actually care about spoilers, etc. I want to see it fresh.

      And thanks for your kind words. I do my best.

      Reply
  5. Rolando

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    Reply

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