Film Topic: Why Was Paranormal Activity Successful?

Updated on April 1, 2017

Found Footage

Katie and Micah are disturbed by noises coming from the door.
Katie and Micah are disturbed by noises coming from the door.

Film naturally brings attention to itself. We go to the movies to watch our favorite actors on the screen. What role are they playing this time? How will their performance hold up? How good will the film's soundtrack mesh with the movie? The point is we are well aware that what we are watching is for our entertainment.

When it comes to horror, arguably nothing gets the job done more than found footage. Found-footage films relies on the snuff film aesthetic. It is immensely scary if what we were watching somehow turned out to be real. As the name suggests, the film needs to appear as it was found somewhere and then shown. There are slight edits and the lack of a soundtrack. What makes these movie scary are that the people in the film are normal people like you and me. The audience when leaving should be disturbed that the film they are watching somehow made its way onto their screens.

Unknown Actors

Katie and Micah's cracked portrait.
Katie and Micah's cracked portrait.

Actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat prior to the Paranormal Activity series were not well known. From 2005 - 2006, Katie landed small roles in movies such as Mutation, Private Lives, and The Scorekeeper. Clearly, Katie has shown interest in pursuing an acting career but as an up and comer failed to get that breakout role. Micah on the other hand did not catch the acting bug. As it stands, the series will serve as his only notable role in acting.

Attempting to see into the mind of director Oren Peli, the casting of actors who are not well known allows the film to appear more realistic. Even for sequels to come, the actors in the film continue to be actors who aren't famous. The appearance of famous stars breaks the immersion and reminds us that we are watching a movie. For this very reason, the names of the actors are left unchanged.

Low Budget

Micah films Katie in the bathroom.
Micah films Katie in the bathroom.

The first film in series was created on a budget of $15,000. Needless to say, for a Hollywood movie that's really cheap. Actually, the movie started off as a small indie movie project which was shown at Screamfest in 2007. It was not until later, that the rights to the movie was acquired by Paramount Pictures for a larger sum of money. When put in movie theaters the film went out to make hundreds of millions of dollars. Needless, the film was a huge success.

So why did the movie appeal to so many people? Found-footage films flourish on the appearance of realism. Using normal houses as sets gives the movie goer that feeling of dread knowing the person in the film could be them. Since there is no need for elaborate sets, the cost for each movie is immensely low making way for a better return on investment.

Self Filming

Ryan films Leila after she is scared by the girl in the television. (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension).
Ryan films Leila after she is scared by the girl in the television. (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension).

Very common and essential to the success of the found footage genre is the first-person camera perspective. It is how we see the world on a daily basis. This way of filming allows the audience to see the world of the character through his or her eyes. This perspective has its advantages and disadvantages. We don't know anything other than what the character knows. However, what the character sees, we see. When the character is attacked, we are as well. For better or worst, we are immersed inside the film. Details are more noticeable and there are no barrier between us and the film. First person gives us the opportunity to hear the heavy breathing, the camera shake, (the sometimes predictable) jump scares and reveals.

The Cameras

The camera catches Katie standing over Micah watching him as he sleeps.
The camera catches Katie standing over Micah watching him as he sleeps.

Setup cameras which are not commonly seen in found footage films were one of the defining characteristics of the Paranormal Activity series. As part of the narrative, cameras were set up in places around the house in an attempt to capture the paranormal. The audience is now apart of the hunt. During night time sequences, we pay close attention because are now as much involved in the ghost hunt as the characters are. The third-person camera perspective also has a way of amplifying the harm that is being done to a person on-screen.


Young Katie and Kristi looking into the camera.
Young Katie and Kristi looking into the camera.

The PA film series (ever since the first film) has not shied away from using effects in its films. In Paranormal Activity 1,there are several effects that are designed to scare the audience. When Katie and Micah are sleeping the sheets move. Katie is dragged out of her bed screaming as the door is slammed shut by an unseen force. Micah is thrown to the camera towards the end. Afterwards, a possessed Katie growls into the camera as her demonic face is shown. These effects and sound effects help tremendously to convey the fear of the situation. As the series went on the effects become more prominent.

Innovation and Technology

Somebody is in Alex's webcam.
Somebody is in Alex's webcam.

Films later on the series dared themselves to be more than just a copy of the original movie. Each sequel had at least one gimmick or new camera technique that makes it unique. Despite, the messy plot moviegoers would at least have something new to look forward to with each sequel. Paranormal Activity 2 is the exception because admittedly (despite being a good sequel) does not bring anything new to the series. Instead it brings more of what the first movie offered. More ghost dragging, door slamming and jump scares. In any case, the sequels that followed (good or bad) have done more to set themselves apart.

Paranormal Activity 3, 4, The Marked Ones, and The Ghost Dimension all contained at least one or more "innovative" camera tricks or technique. To start, Paranormal Activity 3's camera technique where the camera is setup in a way that has it move horizontally back and forth. The slow moving of the camera this way builds suspense through the scene. The camera will slowly pan to the left and then by time we come to the right something is happening. Maybe, we don't fully get to see what is happening before it pans back but we knows it's there. The suspense is killing us. When the camera pans back to the right we can either confirm that there's nothing and feel a sense of relief. Or, be surprised by something jumping towards the camera! This technique was used throughout the film and worked in delivering suspense and revealing plot detail.

Paranormal Activity 4 marks the film's territory into the digital age. The panning camera is gone but we are introduced to the webcam and the kinect dots. Using the Xbox 360 gaming console, the kinect dots is actually a neat trick. Turn off the lights and get a night vision camera. Now you'll see the dots everywhere bouncing off not only the person in front of the TV but everywhere. In the film, the kinect dots are used to show the silhouette of a child moving around in the living room.

Being given a numbered title, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is more of a spin-off then a sequel in the series. This does not stop the film however from adding something new to the series. In the film, Jessie marvels that he has "super powers" as he stands on a chair and attempts to fall backwards. As he fall backwards, his body is immediately grabbed by an invisible force. In another scene, he is getting beaten down by two thugs and unbeknownst to him his demonic strength pushes them away leaving them with heavy injuries.

Paranormal Activity 5: The Ghost Dimension's gimmick was heaqvily marketed from the start. 3D movies now in the industry is very popular and this film marks the film series debut in the series. Through 3D glasses, the audience can see or touch spiritual residue or particles in the air. The audience can now see the ghost. Out of all the movies in the series, this is by far the only camera trick that hurts the series.

Good sequels


As with most film series, sequels can either build or destroy a film series. In PA's case, both claims can be made. However, for this article at least we will focus on the sequels that helped the series gain traction and popularity.

Paranormal Activity 2

  • More characters
  • A backstory
  • It doesn't change much to the formula (If it's not broken don't fix it.)
  • More ghost/demon activity

Paranormal Activity 3

  • Backstory explained
  • More camera techniques
  • Included younger versions of protagonist
  • More or the same amount of the ghost/demon activity
  • Witchcraft

Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones

  • Comedy (Superpower scene)
  • Action (Shotgun scene)
  • Fresh face of characters
  • Connections and plot holes covered (Time travel).
  • Different ethnic setting (Targeted towards Latino audiences)

Bottom Line, It's Scary

The cinema has the tendency to make it clear that we're watching a film; which is why the Paranormal Activity series' found-footage format helped greatly. Found-footage relies on the unknown. It is scarier to not know the bigger scale of events. Films that have used this format like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, or Quarantine present the narrative of real people in danger. Ultimately, Paranormal Activity was a film that introduced audiences to a niche, authentic format of horror which resonated with people's innermost fears.


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