The Blair Witch Project
The celebrated horror film The Blair Witch Project released a coincidental ten years before Paranormal Activity's first theatrical release and laid the groundwork for much of that film's production. For one, Blair Witch pioneered the "found footage" sub-genre of movies, to the point where it's almost exclusively used in a horror venue. The film centered around a group of film students investigating a local legend, only to go missing in the process, leaving just their video camera behind. Produced on a minuscule budget of $60,000, Blair Witch would go on to gross almost a quarter of a billion at the box office. Paranormal Activity was a similar financial success story. Costing only $15,000, it made over $193 million in total. The monetary success of Blair Witch compared to its budget made it the most profitable film of all time, only to be surpassed by Paranormal Activity.
The films also shared similar production methods. The Blair Witch Project had only a rudimentary screenplay for the actors to understand the general premise. From there, they would improvise their own lines according to the situation to provide more authentic performances. Paranormal Activity used this exact same method, having no real script at all. Similarly, the latter shunned an actual camera crew, instead opting to use only a home video camera. This attempt at authenticity was also used in Blair Witch, where the actors were simply let loose with handheld cameras.
Release and Word of Mouth
Paranormal Activity had its first limited release at 2007's Screamfest Horror Film Festival, where its positive reception earned it attention from several studios. Eventually, it was acquired by Paramount Pictures, who chose a rather odd way of marketing the movie. After showing it at twelve different college towns on September 25th, 2009, Paramount used the site Eventful to request from interested viewers as to where it should be screened next. This put in moviegoers' hands the opportunity to decide the fate of what was now a movie that the studio was putting a lot of faith in. The hype already surrounding the movie made it an event, and viewers had the chance to bring it to their local theater if they so demanded it.
The film quickly sold out at all of the expanded venues that it was brought to. The obvious interest in the film led Paramount to offer a full release if one million demands on Eventful were made. The goal was quickly achieved, with the movie hitting theaters nationwide for the Halloween season, and worldwide by November. This made the movie one of the first films to successfully integrate still burgeoning social media into its marketing. The official marketing of the film was sparse with actual footage and details, showcasing only the reactions from previous screenings. This further drove up interest in the film, leaving viewers wondering just what was so scary about it. As a final curtain call of success, Paramount allowed those who had demanded the film to be referenced as part of a "Special Thanks" section of the DVD release.
Though present in the horror genre beforehand, jump scares were popularized for modern films with Paranormal Activity. Part of what made the film's jump scares so terrifying were how relatively mundane they seemed. Lights flickered on and off, while doors slammed loudly shut. The creepiness was amped up by the film's lack of a budget and grainy footage. A version of the film with a big budget and slicker visuals would instantly lose the creepy charm of what makes these things so scary. The relative lack of gore meant that the film would need to do something else to shock audiences. Similar to the aforementioned Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity was released as the genre was oversaturated with mindless, interchangeable slasher films. This made their more ordinary brand of horror stand out better against the competition, also explaining their influence on the genre.
Unfortunately, Paranormal Activity would eventually become as humdrum as that which it once stood against. Along with an unofficial Japanese sequel, there were also numerous follow-ups from Paramount, with another one currently in development. Initially released at nearly an annual basis, diminishing returns soon set in. The jump scares that made the original film such a success had also proven to become old in time. Even to this day, reliance on the cheap spook technique is a constant sore point for the genre.
Despite what it became as a series, the original Paranormal Activity was an indisputable success. Not only did it change the game as a horror film, but it also pioneered unique methods of film marketing. To say nothing of its very scary content would also be a disservice.