Beginning all the way back in 2007 when writer/director Oren Peli released the low-budget, low-fi shocker Paranormal Activity, the franchise has rapidly become synonymous with found footage scares. In fact, it's become a staple of the genre, even while some of the six installments may have become repetitive, anemic, or simply bogged down with internal mythology.
In June of 2019, Paramount Pictures announced something new—plans for a seventh installment that was supposed to offer an “unexpected retooling” of the franchise. Paranormal Activity 7 was originally slated for release in March of 2021, with Underwater director Will Eubank at the helm and a script from frequent franchise contributor and Happy Death Day writer/director Christopher Landon. Then COVID happened.
The pandemic delayed production on the newest installment in the Paranormal Activity saga, which led Paramount to push the release date back a full year. Now, we can hopefully look forward to seeing more spooky shenanigans on grainy video on March 4, 2022—though who knows what the movie-watching landscape will look like by then. Will we be catching it in theaters? Streaming it on our TVs? Watching huddled over our own laptops in the dark?
Plot details on this franchise “reboot” are still being kept pretty tightly under wraps, so we don’t yet know whether Paranormal Activity 7 will tackle, say, the realities of quarantine living, now with added ghosts, a la last year’s “filmed during lockdown” haunted Zoom call movie Host. In the meantime, though, if you need your fix of unpleasant poltergeists haunting sometimes awful people, we’ve broken down the six extant Paranormal Activity movies, ranked from worst to best, for your viewing pleasure.
6. Paranormal Activity 4
Look around online and you’ll generally find the same couple of titles dominating the bottom tier of anyone’s Paranormal Activity lists. The thing that makes the series’ fourth installment so disappointing isn’t really even anything that the movie itself does. Not its cop-out ending, or its lackluster fleshing out of the franchise’s growing mythology—though those are certainly both sticking points for many. It's what it doesn’t do. Returning filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman fail to deliver on the promise of their previous outing, one of the series’ best installments, and at the end of the day, Paranormal Activity 4 just feels like it’s treading water.
5. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
While the first four films in the Paranormal Activity saga followed the hauntings of the same family over the course of decades, the franchise began to branch out with the fifth installment, The Marked Ones. Directed by film editor Gregory Plotkin, the final (thus far) film in the series takes a further step away by at least partly abandoning the found footage format that had defined the franchise up to this point. This was done in favor of a convoluted—and 3D—installment that involves time-hopping and more. While bolder than some of the series’ other installments, Ghost Dimension is bogged down by a complicated plot, probably not helped along by the fact that there are no less than four names in the screenwriter credits. We’re all eager to see if Paranormal Activity 7 can offer a course correction, but for now we’ll just have to be patient…
4. Paranormal Activity 2
When it was released, the first Paranormal Activity had the advantage of being a breath of fresh air in a crowded horror market. However, the first sequel was saddled with the unenviable task of trying to follow up what had been a breakout hit, as well as establishing the format that these sequels would follow, building the mythology that would come to define most of the franchise. To its credit, it does so in a variety of interesting ways, including the surprise reveal that what at first appears to be an unrelated haunting is actually the sister of Katie, from the first film, and that these events are happening just before the events of its predecessor, beginning the series’ obsession with time-jumped trickery. For all that, however, Paranormal Activity 2 can’t quite generate the scares or tension that its predecessor did, and sometimes feels too much like it is just mortaring-in the somewhat shaky edifice required by building a sequel from a standalone story, rather than being able to stand on its own two feet.
3. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
This film is directed by Christopher Landon, who has had a screenwriter credit on the series since Paranormal Activity 2, and sole screenwriter credit on installments three, four, and now five—not to mention credit for providing the script for the upcoming reboot. The Marked Ones follows the series’ first real deviation from the family that it has been tracking since the first film hit screens. This also provides the fifth installment’s greatest strength, leaving behind affluent, white families in the suburbs for a mostly Latinx cast in Oxnard, California. This changes not only the visual architecture of the film, in ways both large and small, but also the tone of the haunting itself, helping to freshen up a franchise that, after four somewhat same-y installments, threatened to grow stale.
2. Paranormal Activity
In many movie franchises, the first one is the best, and that’s… pretty close to true with Paranormal Activity. While the convoluted mythology of later installments is part of the series’ charm, there’s something to be said for the almost vicious simplicity of the first film, which doesn’t want to do anything but engineer scares and then let the audience stumble into them. It’s fresh, it’s simple, and it works; lacking the necessary suspension of disbelief or buy-in on the part of the audience to the series’ byzantine inner workings. You don’t even have to care about the characters—which, in the case of jerky protagonist Micah, is hard to do anyway. It’s enough to simply join them in the dark and wait for a jolt. That simplicity wouldn’t continue to work for an entire franchise, but here it still feels refreshingly direct.
1. Paranormal Activity 3
Part of the problem with found footage horror movies is accepting the premise that these people are filming all this weird stuff, rather than throwing the camera and running like hell. It’s a hang-up that is all the more difficult to leave behind in this time-shifted installment, which takes place when Katie and her sister are kids, and recording technology was less ubiquitous than it had become by 2007. Fortunately, the scares in Paranormal Activity 3 are often engineered so cunningly, so ingeniously, that it makes it much easier to forget any quibbles about verisimilitude and just embrace the film’s dark ride. Directors Joost and Schulman are firing on all cylinders here, bringing to life many of the best scares in the entire franchise—which is what makes their next (and only other) installment feel so lackluster by comparison.