Tag Archives: Paranormal Activity 3

In ‘Paranormal Activity 3,’ Family Comes First

Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re here, you’ve read the title of this piece, and you know I’m going to search for connective tissue between two seemingly unrelated films. But there’s also a secret agenda at play because I want to sell you on Paranormal Activity 3, the franchise’s prequel. I’m committed—a “stan”—and I’ve watched PA3 an alarming number of times since its 2011 release. I’ve tried (and failed) to convince others of its worth—its ingenuity and heart. Which is odd considering PA3 shares so much in common with another widely beloved haunted house film: 1982’s Poltergeist

PA3 acts as an origin story for Katie and Kristi, the respective protagonists of the previous two films. Childhood traumas and events are introduced in Paranormal Activity that effortlessly set the stage for this type of backwards-looking story. Franchise prequels rarely seem necessary and often come across like afterthoughts, crammed with information we didn’t want or need. But to PA3’s credit, nothing about it feels ham-handed. It successfully expands the franchise’s ever-growing lore. Going in, we know about a fire that destroyed the women’s childhood home. We know about an entity that would stand by the foot of Katie’s bed. In short, we know that the girls didn’t have it easy growing up. PA3 takes the franchise’s unfollowed threads and turns them into a rich story about a young family trying to navigate horrific happenings inside their home.

It reminds me of another young family, the Freelings of Cuesta Verde, California. The similarities between PA3 and Poltergeist are abundant and compelling. Both take place in the ‘80s and depict a haunting that primarily affects the children. In both cases, the activity originates in the kids’ rooms, specifically the closet. In Poltergeist, the closet acts as a portal, sucking Carol Anne inside and stealing her from the mortal plane. In PA3, Katie gets trapped inside their small closet crawlspace. She bangs on the door, pleading for Kristi to let her out. But as viewers, we see there’s nothing tangible keeping her inside; young Kristi insists her imaginary friend Toby is responsible. Later, Katie gets pulled across the floor toward the closet, the girl’s beds following close behind. It harkens back to visuals in Poltergeist; even Katie’s bed frame is reminiscent of the one Carol Anne clings to as the closet reaches out for her.

The parents’ relationships in both films provide another parallel. In Poltergeist, Diane and Steven are clearly in love, a united front even before the ghostly happenings begin. The same is true of Julie and Dennis in PA3. The couple are kind and communicative, their rapport easy and flirtatious. In a scene that mirrors one of my favorites from Poltergeist, Julie and Dennis smoke a joint and goof off. It humanizes the pair—as it did with Diane and Steven—letting us know they are people as well as parents. Such an intimate scene allows us into the family, and because of our proximity, we care more. We become invested and protective.

While the parents-getting-high sequence in Poltergeist remains PG, PA3 pushes into spicier territory. As if in direct response to the original Paranormal Activity, Dennis hesitantly asks his partner if she’d be interested in filming their sexual exploits. She consents, and they fool around before being interrupted by an earthquake. This interaction, and their relationship as a whole, stands in stark contrast to adult Katie’s relationship with Micah in the first film. While Micah is an overwhelmingly toxic and negative force, Dennis is nothing but loving and kind. The fact that Dennis isn’t Katie and Kristi’s biological father has no bearing on his dedication. It’s refreshing to see a family so full of love and acceptance, especially considering the interpersonal strife present in earlier installments.

The kitchen is an important setting in both films. In Poltergeist, it’s where we first see tangible evidence of the haunting: the chairs move and mysteriously stack; Carol Anne slides across the floor unaided. In PA3, we get one of the best gags in the whole series. Through the lens of Dennis’s oscillating fan-mounted camera, we see a small figure draped in a bedsheet. It slowly traverses the house, slipping out of frame before appearing behind the babysitter. The sheet drops before our eyes, leaving a pile of fabric on the kitchen floor. 

Later in the film, Julie enters the kitchen to find it empty—the dining table is missing, the countertops are bare. Without warning, the kitchen’s contents come crashing down from the ceiling landing in a calamitous heap. It’s the inciting incident that pushes the narrative forward, driving Julie and her family from the house and into the film’s final act. While using the home’s domestic center to motivate the mothers in these films is insidious, it’s not wholly unique. But don’t worry because I have more.

One of the most iconic visuals in Poltergeist is Robbie’s clown doll. Whether it’s ominously perched on a chair watching him sleep, or wrapped around him like a snake, that clown is bad news. There’s no direct analog in PA3, but the girls’ Teddy Ruxpin toy makes a handful of appearances, watching and talking when it shouldn’t. In Poltergeist, a paranormal investigator watches in horror as he rips his face off in front of a mirror. In PA3, a family friend plays Bloody Mary with Katie in a darkened bathroom. In response, the lurking demon terrorizes the pair and leaves a long, red mark streaking across the friend’s abdomen. And in one of the most delightful parallels, Kristi’s imaginary friend is named Toby—you know, like the director of Poltergeist. The moniker will persist as the franchise continues, but this is the first time the demon is named. 

With its caring, empathetic characters, the third installment in the Paranormal Activity franchise stands apart from its predecessors. Julie and Dennis put their children above all else, communicating clearly in the face of the unknown. There is no manufactured strife, no doubting partner refusing to see the truth in front of them. Like Poltergeist, PA3 focuses on familial bonds and the scars of childhood. It plays out like a coy homage, the soft-spoken Kristi a modern incarnation of Carol Anne. And while PA3’s ending is decidedly less happy, the fact that it manages to stand toe to toe with an emotionally resonant classic like Poltergeist underscores what a powerful film it truly is.