With The Ghost Dimension’s release, the Paranormal Activity series now stands at six entries, though the story they weave doesn’t unfold in anything resembling a linear fashion. Though the first film starts in the fall of 2006, subsequent installments jump backwards and forwards in time (oftentimes within the very same movie), with story threads that run parallel to events in previous films. And just to ensure that the narrative is as convoluted as possible, the most recent entry even throws time travel into the mix, allowing the characters to hop about the timeline as freely as the plots of the movies they inhabit do.
It’s a surprising amount to keep straight in one’s head as he ventures out to movie theaters to witness the final chapter of the Paranormal Activity story, so Screen Rant is here to help – we’ll be spelling the backstory out in chronological fashion, mysterious step by mysterious step.
Let’s dive into the 10 Things You Have to Know about Paranormal Activity.
As the overarching narrative is spelled out bit by bit, it’s still important to establish a touchstone for viewers to fall back on; besides allowing a base reference point, it may also sharpen audiences’ appreciation for the narrative footwork that is being done throughout the six-film series.
The first Paranormal Activity, released on September 25, 2009, takes place in September and October 2006. The second film, imaginatively called Paranormal Activity 2 (released on October 22, 2010), mostly takes place in August 2006, leading up to the events of the first film, before jumping ahead several weeks to end on October 9, one day after the original ends.
Paranormal Activity 3 (October 21, 2011) has a brief prologue that is set in the summer of 2005 but then jumps squarely back to September 1988, showing the series’s main protagonist, Katie (Katie Featherston), as a (roughly) eight-year-old girl. It is the only installment not set in the present day.
Paranormal Activity 4 (October 19, 2012) and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (January 3, 2014) are full-on sequels to the first two chapters and help move the setting closer to the present day: the movies take place in November 2011 and June 2012, respectively.
There is a worldwide – and, presumably, incredibly long-lived – coven of witches known unofficially as the Midwives. Allied with at least one demon, which is a non-human lifeform that seeks to affect existence on the corporeal plane, the midwives arrange bargains for those women who are desperate enough to seek them out: in exchange for forfeiting the soul of their first-born son, wealth and power (including the supernatural kind) will be bestowed upon them and their family line.
As is the case with most of Paranormal Activity’s mythos, a lot of the specifics of these plot points are mostly undefined; the franchise’s stewards apparently take the X-Files approach of less not only being more, but also scarier. What we do know for certain is that the witches engage in stereotypically witchy rituals, including putting occult imagery on both the walls of their homes and on the bellies of pregnant women. (We also know that, in certain cases, the women in question are made to be pregnant and even give birth without any memory of the events happening. These measures are presumably taken when willing “partners” can’t be found.)
The marked ones
Once these women do produce a son, no matter how many generations down the family line it may take, these first-born males are prepared for their eventual role in the cabal. The demon marks them as its territory in ways both symbolic (scratching the word meus [Latin for “mine”] on the walls of their bedrooms) and literal (biting them).
It takes the Midwives to initiate the final stage, however – once they are of age, these Marked Ones undergo certain ceremonies, during which time the demon more and more fully takes possession of them. This transitional phase includes the young men obtaining what can only be described as supernatural abilities, such as being protected from physical harm (such as falling off of a chair) and being granted superhuman strength.
Once completed, the Marked Ones are fully under the control of the demon, becoming vessels for its will. In this way, the Midwives are essentially furnishing an army of super-soldiers for the non-corporeal entity (or entities), which will eventually be amassed for an endgame that is entirely unknown at this point in the series.
At some unknown point in the past, believed to be sometime in the 1930s, Lois (Hallie Foote) joins the Midwife coven and makes her own demonic vows for worldly success. Unfortunately for her, she only has a daughter, Julie (Lauren Bittner), who, in turn, only has daughters of her own – Katie and Kristi (Sprague Grayden). Lois’s end of the bargain, providing a son for ultimate inclusion into the growing ranks of the possessed army, has to wait until the distant year of 2005, when Kristi finally gives birth to Hunter.
Katie and Kristi’s entanglement with the coven begins well before then, however. As Grandma Lois continues to secretly pepper them with all the appropriate (and obligatory) occult symbolism, Kristi is able to commune with the demon directly; children’s minds are more open to the ghost realm, it seems, and Katie is already too old to commune with “imaginary friends.” Calling the demon Toby, she ultimately agrees to do his bidding, which includes undergoing what viewers can only assume is a symbolic wedding ceremony, binding her to the malevolent force. The groundwork has been sufficiently prepared.
The haunting of Kristi
By the year 2006, Kristi has settled down into a comfortable life with her husband, Daniel Rey (Brian Boland), and her step-daughter, Ali (Molly Ephraim). Her grandmother’s pact with Toby seems to have paid off in full for her: they have all the accruements of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, including a beautiful home, a nanny/maid combo in the form of Martine (Vivis Cortez), and all the technological doo-dads that they could ever possibly want, including tons of cameras (which, in an interesting [and meta!] twist, provides the justification for the franchise’s found-footage nature).
All of this comes crashing to a halt, however, when Toby comes collecting for his long-awaited prize. Recognizing the evil nature of the presence that has settled on the house, Martine attempts to repel it, but it’s actually Daniel, Kristi’s husband, who decides on a last-ditch effort to save his family: he helps perform a ritual that transfers the demon onto a blood relative.
The possession of Katie
After a troubled childhood that is only partially remembered, Katie is distraught to find herself once again the target of a series of increasingly hostile paranormal activities. Her live-in boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), is dismissive of the idea, inadvertently egging Toby on by a series of mocking gestures (such as a farcical Ouija board session) and a whole torrent of negative energy, which the demon only feeds off of.
After only three weeks, Toby successfully takes total control of Katie, invoking the same strategy as the Marked Ones – including the nasty-looking bite marks on her body – to possess her. With her newfound superhuman strength, Katie is able to effortlessly go on a killing rampage, dropping Micah, her brother-in-law, Daniel, and her sister, Kristi, over the span of 24 hours. The coup de grace, of course, is calmly walking into Hunter’s bedroom, collecting up the toddler, and then waltzing out into the night with him. Authorities never see either one of them again.
Hunter’s displacement… and relocation
Paranormal Activity 4 seems, at first, to break entirely away from its predecessors: it is set five years after Katie and Hunter’s disappearance, in a different location (Henderson, Nevada instead of Southern California), and, for the very first time, with an entirely new family that has no connections at all to Grandma Lois or her tainted offspring.
But appearances, of course, are deceiving. The Nelson family’s new neighbor is none other than a normal-looking and normal-acting Katie, who arrives with her six-year-old “son,” Robbie (Brady Allen). She quickly takes ill, however, leaving Robbie to stay with teenager Alex Nelson (Kathryn Newton), her six-year-old brother, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and their parents. Robbie takes an express interest in painting Occult-looking symbols on Wyatt’s back and in his room and introducing him to his invisible friend, Toby. Even worse, Alex discovers that in Katie’s (purported) absence, her home has apparently become the secret meeting ground for a large and mysterious cabal of creepy-looking women.
The whole scenario, of course, is revealed to be a ruse, one conducted in order to return Robbie – who is actually the abducted Hunter Rey – back to her and her coven’s clutches. The Nelson family is killed one by one, and the demonic Katie is once again triumphant… although the reasoning behind why she gave up the prodigal son in the first place is never revealed.
But the biggest twist in the Paranormal Activity mythology is actually one step beyond the mysterious dealings of Grandma Lois’s group of Midwives, Hunter’s displacement and recovery, and the ongoing maneuverings of the possessed Katie – it has to do with portals that cut across space and time.
As Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones follows the slow possession of yet another first-born son, Jesse Arista (Andrew Jacobs), and how his best buddy, Hector Estrella (Jorge Diaz), attempts to stave off the inevitable, more of the coven’s mysterious inner workings are revealed, starting with the giant revelation of Toby’s ever-growing super-soldier army. As Hector is being pursued by these supernatural forces from one of the Midwives’ various meeting areas (which is Grandma Lois’s house, incidentally), he stumbles into a special “doorway to an unholy land,” a special spell the witches have received from Toby. He is deposited into Katie and Micah’s house from the original film, just in time to see – and inadvertently help – the possessed Katie kill her boyfriend, nearly six years earlier. Yes, that’s right – Toby and his minions can time travel.
It may be that Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is the last installment in the extremely profitable horror series (for now), but the business strategy behind the film’s release may actually point to an alternate cinematic future.
We’ll need to leave the movie narrative behind and slip into the real world of pop culture filmmaking consumption. Paramount, the studio behind the films, has cooked up an intriguing distribution model for Ghost Dimension: 17 days after the movie drops below 300 theaters, it’ll be available for streaming (read: “video on demand”) at home. This means the traditional home video turnaround time of three to four months will be cut drastically – a pretty substantial change in the studios’ thinking from past decades.
Paramount says the move is a necessary one, in an era when viewers have thousands of titles available at home (via streaming), film companies need to shorten the amount of time it takes to make money from a title in the home market. That said, many theater owners have reservations about the idea, claiming that shortening theater-exclusivity will hurt the long-term health of the movie business rather than help it. In fact, Regal Entertainment, the largest exhibitor in the US, is refusing to participate in the strategy (whereas AMC Entertainment, the number-two chain, is receiving a chunk of Paramount’s streaming revenue in order to ensure its compliance with the strategy).
The revelation that Toby’s ever-growing forces have access to seemingly any point along the space-time continuum is a game-changing one, a development that instantly transforms the Paranormal Activity franchise from the chronicles of just one family’s hauntings to a depiction of a globe-spanning showdown, apparently, of good versus evil.
That’s a major transformation, particularly for the subjective-heavy found-footage sub-genre, and it leaves a heaping helping on Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’s plate to try and resolve. There are now two groupings of questions to answer. On the one hand, there are the developments relating to Hunter and Katie – why was the boy temporarily given up, especially if he could’ve just been sent through a doorway to a future point, when he’s needed for the events that are to come? And is Katie the only vessel that Toby actively possesses who is not a Marked One?
And, on the other hand, are the more “cosmic” considerations. Is Toby the only demon to be involved in this long-lived worldwide cabal? Why is a legion of superpowered henchmen required? What is their endgame – and who, if anyone, are they fighting against?