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There was never anything normal about Paranormal Activity. But did you know that Steven Spielberg was convinced his copy of the movie was haunted? We’re taking a look back at how this low-budget flick became the standard when it comes to found-footage-style terror. 

Spielberg was spooked by an incident in his home 

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2009, The Los Angeles Times reported something rather alarming. Spielberg had reportedly taken a DVD of Paranormal Activity to his estate in Pacific Palisades in 2008. DreamWorks was mulling over a decision on whether or not to get involved with the $15,000 independent film. 

He watched it, and not long afterward, his bedroom door locked. No big deal, except that it was empty, and it locked from the inside. According to The L.A. Times, Spielberg, unreasonably spooked, hired a locksmith and removed the disc from his home, delivering it back to DreamWorks in a garbage bag of all things. 

He didn’t dispose of it altogether because, well, he liked the movie. Oren Peli had crafted a nicely terrifying little movie about what happens when a demonic possession occurs in the mundane normalcy of a suburban cookie-cutter home. It managed to achieve something tricky that The Blair Witch Project had mastered previously–terrify audiences without gore.  

And that’s where the lore surrounding this 2006 shoestring-budget movie begins. It ends, of course, with the movie becoming a surprise hit and spawning a franchise, along with a glut of found-footage copycats. 

It may have been part of a marketing campaign

Ultimately, Dreamworks was acquired by Paramount, and Paramount released the film to critical acclaim and cult adoration. The compelling story about Spielberg didn’t exactly hurt the movie; some speculated that it was part of a marketing campaign meant to drum up publicity with high profile, realistic stories like Spielberg’s. Found-footage movies rely on a sense of realism to fuel the fear, and Spielberg’s incident fit the bill perfectly. 

He genuinely liked the movie, and somebody with Spielberg’s clout merely liking a movie is an endorsement in itself. Paranormal Activity went gangbusters, spawning a gnarly oversupply of sequels. Following the 2007 release of the original, there were five—count em, five—sequels between 2010 and 2015. Yes, that’s one per year.

Paranormal Activity 7 is reportedly in development with a projected release of 2022. Chalk it up to the simple and inexpensive nature of making found-footage movies, or perhaps the ease with which production companies bite off earlier successes. In any case, Spielberg’s moment of terror turned out to be contagious. 

‘Paranormal Activity’ relied on the power of the web to create buzz

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg | Steven Henry/Getty Images

80% of This Found Footage Horror Movie Is True, According to the Director

Remember the original Blair Witch website? It wasn’t merely interesting. It was completely believable. The Blair Witch Project’s web campaign tapped into the emerging dark side of the internet, using realistic lore to capture gullible consumers into believing it was authentic and spreading it to viral success. It was real, they insisted! The found footage was genuine and The Blair Witch existed; why would this shocking ‘snuff documentary’ have been produced otherwise? Nearly overnight, The Blair Witch Project went from being a wickedly stealthy little campaign into a full-blown modern urban legend. 

Similarly, Paranormal Activity’s producers let the Spielberg story take on a life of its own. Like the best rumors, this one was rooted in truth; a story had appeared in the journalistic behemoth The Los Angeles Times. Spielberg hadn’t refuted it–at least not to anyone’s knowledge–and before anyone knew it, Paranormal Activity was its own complete phenomenon. Who could blame anyone for sharing and re-sharing this deliciously creepy story? Nobody, that’s who. We all need a good, creepy, escape from time to time. Thanks in part to Spielberg’s paranoia, we now enjoy at least one more.