What’s going on in the Paranormal Activity franchise
Update: You can find all of my articles and reviews at my new website: viewfromthedark.com.
We are two days away from the concluding chapter in the Paranormal Activity franchise (disappointingly titled “The Ghost Dimension”). Producer and indie horror maven Jason Blum insists that this last entry will wrap up the storyline and answer lingering questions posed by the previous films.
I have been a fan of the franchise since its beginning in 2009 and, despite its flaws, consider it a modern classic. I am thrilled that it took the place of the Saw franchise as the go-to Halloween horror flick for the past six years. As a huge fan, I have seen these movies dozens of times and have constructed an outline of what I think is occurring within the Paranormal Activity universe based on the facts as we have them.
I do not claim that this is authoritative and this may be overturned in whole, or in part, with the forthcoming film. However, I think what I will describe is the most plausible and straightforward understanding of what is going on in the Paranormal Activity franchise and I attempt to reconcile everything we have seen with as few logical leaps as possible.
Naming Conventions and Errata
For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the Paranormal Activity movies with the abbreviation “PA” followed by their order in the franchise. Paranormal Activity (2009) being PA 1, followed by PA 2, PA 3, PA 4, The Marked Ones (2014) as PA 5 and The Ghost Dimension as PA 6.
Additionally, it seems like the Paranormal Activity writers and producers backed away from using last names, but they did establish that Katie’s last name is Featherston in PA 1 (her actor’s last name). I will refer to Katie and Kristi’s family as the Featherstons.
Finally, I am going to assume baseline knowledge of the plot of PA 1 through PA 5. A deep understanding and familiarity is not necessary to follow this outline, but you should have seen the movies or at least skimmed their Wikipedia pages to follow along.
The “Normal” Process
The Paranormal Activity movies revolve around demonic activity that is focused on a person with the express intent being the possession of that person. This activity is also linked to a coven of witches that seem to be led by Lois, the matriarch of the Featherston family. All of the films, with the exception of PA 3, have followed this process.
A woman, either an adult (as in PA 5) or a child (as is hinted at in PA 3), is brought to one of the coven and is consecrated with the circle-within-a-triangle symbol on her stomach, literally and symbolically “marking” her and her family.
Traditionally, this has been a transactional relationship between the demon and the woman, as Micah discovered in PA 1. In return for the first male descendent, the woman will be given power or wealth. This seems to be what happened with Lois — although, it is indicated that it might have been her mother who initiated the process. Lois’s house is fairly opulent and she seems well off and occupies some kind of leadership position within the coven.
This may or may not be what is happening with the other women that are bearing “marked” children as Aly Rey (the only survivor of the events of PA 1 and PA 2 and now an expert in demonology and the coven) says the coven is building an army of possessed men and not just using the transaction for personal gain.
Once the male child is born, he becomes the bearer of the “mark”. At eighteen, he will begin to exhibit signs of demonic influence, including a bite mark on his body, and will eventually become possessed, although he will continue to remain in control up to the moment of possession (as Oscar was in PA 5).
PA 4 laid out the process in three steps:
- Actuation, in which the host will begin to exhibit signs of preternatural ability.
- Affirmation, in which the host has to prove its preternatural ability to the demon.
- Sacrifice, in which the host must spill the blood of an ‘inviolate’.
PA 5 indicates that either this sacrifice occurs in a sacred location (such as Lois’s house) or that there is another, final ceremony performed there.
It is unclear whether the man is literally possessed by the demon or is merely in its thrall in some way — I would argue that the evidence is that the demon does not directly possess these men, but there is evidence that some kind of spirit may be attached to them. Either way, the man will never be the same again. The only known way to avoid this is through suicide.
The “Emergency” Process
The “normal” process has been thoroughly documented in PA 4 and PA 5 and aside from one major anomaly, discussed below, it is clear that this is a process that turns young men into thralls when they turn eighteen and that the coven is gathering them into an army. But that is completely different from what we saw in the first two Paranormal Activity movies.
Clearly, there is an alternative possession vector that the coven can take. I call this the “emergency” process. In this case, a demon is released on a person (in the PA timeline, this would be Kristi at first and subsequently Katie). In this state, the demon is weak and needs to progressively increase the level of anxiety and fear in a household through supernatural occurrences. The demon feeds on these negative emotions in a vicious feedback loop.
At some point, the demon will become strong enough to “mark” the target (both Kristi and Katie receive bite marks similar to Jesse in PA 5) and complete the possession process. The target is then in thrall to the demon similarly to how the possessed men are. In the PA movies, we presume that this demon is Toby.
Based on the events of PA 2, the cold open of PA 3 and Anna possessing the Featherston family tapes in PA 5, we can make the following supposition. The coven broke into the Rey household in early August 2006 removing the incriminating videotapes. They also unleashed Toby. He began the emergency process on Kristi, finally infecting her on August 25th, 2006. Daniel Rey and his former maid, Martine, forced the spirit out of Kristi and attached it to Katie. The same cycle then occurred in Katie and Micah’s house, leading to Micah’s murder and Katie finally becoming a thrall. As of 2011, in PA 4, she is still possessed (we do not see Katie in present day in PA 5, so we cannot be certain of her current status).
I use the word “thrall” for both the normal and emergency processes intentionally. It does not seem that through either process the victim becomes literally possessed by the demon. For instance, Toby is still “active” in PA 4 while Katie is also on the scene. At the very least, it does not seem that it is Toby itself that possesses these people.
The Hunter Anomaly
The mythology fleshed out in PA 4 and PA 5 make one thing abundantly clear. Whatever the normal process or plan is, it has been completely thrown out with Kristi’s son, Hunter. Jesse was allowed to grow up largely independent of the coven as, presumably, were the other marked men. The witches felt completely safe in the knowledge that at eighteen the normal possession process would take its course and they would embrace a new drone in their ever-growing demonic corps.
So, what is the deal with Hunter?
Actually, what happened with the entire Featherston family?
We don’t have any evidence that demons, like Toby, watched over other consecrated women or their children. Jesse does not remember or mention any previously unexplained events in his past, for instance. But the events of PA 3 and dialogue between Katie and Kristi in PA 2 prove that Toby was present in their youth and possibly continued to be around until Katie and Kristi left their home (Katie indicates that unexplainable events happened throughout her youth in PA 1).
I am not certain, but I am convinced that after Hunter’s birth, the coven not only broke into the Rey house but they also dispatched Toby to gather Hunter. Why? They risked exposure in order to get a child that the evidence suggests would have come to them anyway in eighteen years. There must be something particularly special about Hunter and the Featherston family to deploy the emergency process (in the events of PA 1 and PA 2) and to trigger Hunter’s possession approximately twelve years early (in PA 4).
That’s all the further I can go without starting to speculate more than the evidence allows. However, I will detail a few of the more interesting questions still unanswered and offer my hypotheses.
- Why does Micah mention Katie’s mother in PA 1 (and Katie and Kristi allude to her in PA 2) if she is killed in PA 3? And what happened to the fire that was mentioned in PA 1? Likely just a plot hole/oversight. However, an in-universe explanation is that Lois murdered Julie and Dennis and the coven took their bodies back to their home and burned it down to cover up the evidence. Lois then brainwashed and adopted Katie and Kristi as their last remaining family member and raised them as if they were her daughters.
- Who is Robbie in PA 4? I believe that Robbie was emergency possessed. Katie, the coven, or perhaps Toby in some self-directed way, attached to Robbie’s household, made Robbie into a thrall and the family is likely dead. It is much more plausible that this happened than that Katie, while on the run from the authorities, somehow had a child. Robbie, now a thrall, gathered intelligence on the Nelson household for Katie and Toby.
- What happened with Hunter/Wyatt between PA 2 and PA 4? Katie, as a thrall of Toby, murdered her and Kristi’s families and took Hunter. Everything was recorded and available to the police, so she had to abandon Hunter who was subsequently put into foster care and adopted by the Nelsons in Nevada. Katie had to go underground to avoid the police and it took time for her to track down Hunter. Once she discovered his location, she had Toby pull an emergency possession on Robbie’s family so they could have a base of operations to prepare to take Hunter back. Why they also triggered Hunter’s normal possession is still unknown. The more interesting question is why didn’t Toby just make Katie turn herself in? Presumably, she would have gone to prison and Lois could have adopted Hunter as she probably did with Katie and Kristi.
- What was the child-shaped specter in PA 4? This is quite possibly the most baffling thing in the franchise. It is possible that this was Toby, but that does not square with young Kristi’s description of him being tall and “old like grandma” in PA 3. My guess? This was the demonic spirit that will enthrall Hunter, which is separate from Toby.
- What’s going on with the time travel doors? They may deal with this in PA 6, but I think this was just a writing element that will be abandoned. It was there to allow for stories that now won’t be told since the series is ending. I wouldn’t be surprised if one is used in PA 6 to travel back to young Katie and Kristi, but I don’t think it is integral to the story.
- What is the endgame of the coven? This is my wildest speculation. I believe that for generations, perhaps centuries as PA 4 points to the ancient Hittite civilization as a starting point for this activity, witches have made deals with demons for wealth or power. The result of this was a possessed man who had supernatural powers and abilities. At some point, they realized that instead of just accumulating power through the demonic pacts, they could start bringing in unsuspecting women and offer their children to the demons to build an army out of these men. What is the purpose of this army? Perhaps just greater power for the coven. But, armies are meant to go to war and that would seem to imply that the coven has an enemy.
- Why does everyone film themselves? Because there wouldn’t be any movies otherwise. But seriously, there may be a reason why everyone is filming stuff. I have floated a theory elsewhere that there is a reason for the recordings and that they are important to the activities of the coven (and may even implicate us, the audience, in their work). Possible? Sure. Likely? Probably not.
- And, finally, what is so special about Hunter? Could he be the demonic general the coven needs to lead their army? An anti-Christ figure that will usher in an apocalypse? Just one more drone in the army that the coven needed to be extra careful with? Something else entirely? If Jason Blum is to be believed, we should find out on October 23rd…