As return-on-investment goes, The Paranormal Activity franchise has to be considered one of the most successful movie series of all time. It’s also the movie that launched Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, one of the most profitable production companies in Hollywood. Blum invested in the original Paranormal Activity, which was made for only $15,000, and it would go on to make nearly $200 million. Four more Paranormal Activity movies have since been released, and the franchise has earned $811 million on a production budget; all told, of $18 million, or $2 million less than Jennifer Lawrence will earn to star in one film.
For better or worse, Paranormal Activity also revitalized the found-footage conceit (initially popularized by The Blair Witch Project) and established the micro-budget model that Jason Blum has since used to finance the successful Sinister, The Purge and Insidious franchises.
On Oct. 23, the Paranormal Activity franchise will finally come to a close with The Ghost Dimension, which is expected to answer many of the questions posed by the first four films. If the past movies are any indication, we should not expect a satisfying or happy conclusion.
Why has the Paranormal Activity franchise been so successful? Critical reception to the five films, so far, has been trending downwards (from 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with the original to 24 percent and 37 percent on the last two), but audiences have still turned out, in spite of middling reviews from the audiences themselves. So what is it that keeps them coming back?
You could argue that it is the mystery underlying the franchise, namely a demon who goes by the name of Toby. You’d be hard-pressed, however, to find anyone who could successfully piece together the Paranormal Activity mythology (or even recall that the demon’s name is Toby). The bits and pieces of clues in each of the films doesn’t add up to much, and the only other through line for the series is Katie Featherston’s Katie, a character who starred in the first film and has appeared in all four of the others in various capacities (she is also slated to appear in the final film).
The mythology is incoherent, but the one plot element that each of the five movies has utilized is also why, I think, the franchise has been so successful: The supernatural force at the root of the story cannot be defeated.
There is no Freddy or Jason that can be killed. There’s no demon that can be exorcised. It’s not a haunted house movie where you can simply move away. The ghost can’t be beaten with a stick. The supernatural force follows the characters wherever they go, and it cannot be vanquished. The only thing certain through five films is that in the end, everyone will die and the camera shooting the film will fall to the ground and go black.
There is no hope for the Paranormal Activity characters, and that’s a terrifying thing for viewers to recognize. The suspense in the franchise is never if the characters will die; it lies in when and how. It’s like flying in an airplane that we know will eventually crash, and all we can do is wait for the inevitable. The dread of it can sometimes feel so intense that the audience finds itself wishing for the characters to die already so that the tension can be released and we can go home.
Granted, the success of any film often depends on the mood of the movie-theater audience. Paranormal Activity lives on that fine line between terrifying and laughable or, worse, boring. If the audience gives themselves over to it and allows themselves to suspend disbelief, the Paranormal Activity can do a number on viewers. However, one loud sigh or a guffaw from a crowded theater can take the audience completely out of it and destroy the experience. As a result, there are as many people — or more — who hate the franchise as those of us who appreciate it.
When it works, however, it works supremely well. Dread is the secret sauce. It’s an uncomfortable, disquieting and helpless experience, helpless because there are no answers, because there’s nothing you can say to convince yourself that the characters are going to be okay. There will be no heroics. No deus ex machina. There are no silver bullets in the Paranormal Activity franchise, no wooden stakes, and no axes to the brain. The characters can’t escape by leaving the house, because it’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s the people. Paranormal Activity movies are an endeavor in the inevitable: No one can save themselves; the culminating deaths in these films feel like a relief, an end to the tension and tedium. If anything, that tedium plays into into the success of the films: Impatience breeds anxiety, and by the end of the film, the audience finds itself torn between wanting to forestall the inevitable and wanting to get it over with already.
It’s an effective series of films, even if they’re not always entertaining (and they are never satisfying, save for the relief the audience feels when a particularly grating or obnoxious character has been dispatched).
The sense of helplessness is further exacerbated by the fact that neither the characters nor the audience understands the paranormal power behind the series. If the characters could figure out what it was that was haunting them, then maybe they could figure out how to stop it. But so far, that knowledge has remained elusive. They can’t even see what’s haunting them. Moreover, there are no exposition dumps. There are no clues. Characters from one movie can’t pass on information to characters in the next movie, because they are all dead. Not that it matters: The characters aren’t trying to figure it out as much as they are trying to get away from it. But they are trapped, and as long as the demon apparition remains unknown, it cannot be tamed.
Therein lies the power of the franchise: It’s a ghost mystery whose solution is an entity that cannot be communicated with. It’s bad lighting, low-production values, shaky cams, middling actors, and death by invisible forces, every single time.