How ‘Paranormal Activity’ Was Both Good (and Bad) for Horror

Paranormal Activity
Source: Paramount

The horror genre is one that’s constantly evolved over the last decade. It’s seen its fair share of ups and downs, while studios have looked to capitalize on trends to make a quick buck. One such trend is the found footage genre, started by The Blair Witch Project, and proliferated by Paranormal Activity. It’s a trend that’s made for some amazingly terrifying horror, but also one that’s been carried almost too far by other films. The most egregious of these movies? They just so happen to be the five sequels to the original that released over the last eight years.

Before we go any further though, it’s worth looking into why found footage films caught on in the first place. The idea behind them is brilliantly simple at its core: The barrier between reality and fiction runs a lot thinner when seen through the lens of a handheld video camera. When we see a found footage movie, in some small corner of our minds, it feels real. It in turn makes it far easier to frighten an audience with subtle, rather than cheap, jump scares and gore, all on a shoestring budget that costs the studio next to nothing.

But the sword cuts both ways, demonstrated firsthand by the Paranormal Activity franchise. Everything seemed fine at first, with the first installment in the series numbering itself among the elite of horror classics. We see very little of the monster terrorizing our main characters, while still feeling like they’re constantly in peril, all while never actually leaving their suburban home. Making $193 million on a $15,000 budget, it became one of the most profitable films in Hollywood history. But then along came the franchise.

With the exception of Paranormal Activity 3, every sequel in the series has failed to score above 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the latest rating at a paltry 12%. What this shows more than anything is a devotion to making money rather than quality cinema, and in turn it’s inspired a whole mess of found footage imitators. While Paranormal Activity continued to churn out sequels, the rest of Hollywood followed suit, putting out cheap found footage movies with little attention to craft.

The upside to all this is that we’re finally beginning to see some modicum of innovation within the genre. Movies like Unfriended have played around with the format enough to make it feel new, and it’s hard not to feel a little hopeful for the future of the genre in light of this. But while all this is going on, Paranormal Activity continues to rage on with subpar offerings. Outside of Unfriended, it’s only encouraged laziness on the part of found footage filmmakers, taking an amazing tool and dulling it into submission.

The latest from the franchise is supposedly the last installment, but we wouldn’t be at all shocked to see more in the near future anyway. Whether or not it continues on though, there’s no denying the influence the original has had on horror filmmaking. It’s certainly inspired some great work, but in many ways it’s also become the harbinger of the genre’s death. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see innovative new takes on the format in the wake of Paranormal‘s end. The original did a lot to show the potential for found footage, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to show they can adapt on a good idea, rather than simply copying it.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest

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