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Idiot's Guide to the 'Paranormal Activity' Movies

Paranormal Activity 4 Paramount

The "Paranormal Activity" movies are credited with taking the terror out of art-directed dungeons and dilapidated bathrooms and putting it right smack dab in the middle of our bedrooms. The "Saw" series raised a white flag of surrender after "Paranormal Activity" took most of the Halloween box office dollars in 2009, bringing an end to Jigsaw's legacy and returning us to the land of lo-fi horror.

Since then, the "Paranormal" series has become something of its own "Saw"-sized franchise, with the fourth installment set to hit theaters this Friday. Somewhat unfortunately (though probably inevitably), the more this decades-spanning haunted house tale expands and explains its increasingly silly mythology, the less scary and interesting it becomes — though we have to give props to the producers for maintaining the low-budget, "found footage" aesthetic that the first film incorporated so brilliantly.

Here's a refresher on all the bumps in the night (and, sometimes, in the day) so far as we prepare for "Paranormal Activity 4."

'Paranormal Activity' (2009)

Paranormal Activity Paramount

The first chapter takes place in September and October of 2006 and introduces us to Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Micah (Micah Sloat), a young couple who have recently moved into a house in suburban San Diego. Katie talks of an "evil presence" that has haunted her since childhood and claims that the entity has followed her into her new home, which inspires Micah to set up a video camera in their bedroom in the hopes of capturing any "paranormal activity" that may occur while they sleep (or with which to make a sex tape, whichever happens first).

The camera records some strange phenomena during the first few nights, including the sounds of footsteps coming from the hallway outside the bedroom, the hallway light turning on and off and the bedroom door moving by itself. Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs), a paranormal psychic, reveals that Katie is being haunted not by a ghost but a demon, one that will torment her no matter where she goes. He instructs the couple not to taunt or communicate with the creature in any way; while Katie is invested in this analysis, Micah laughs it off in an attempt to be the worst boyfriend ever.

The activity increases as Katie awakens from a nightmare and it is revealed that something was whispering to her as she slept ... and things only get worse as Micah begins to mock the demon. The nighttime noises get more intense as growls, screeches and crashes are heard, and physical contact increases as the entity crawls under the covers with the sleeping couple. Katie's behavior also becomes more bizarre as she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and stands unmoving for hours on end over a sleeping Micah and seemingly sleepwalks into the yard — and remembers nothing of her nocturnal adventures the next day.

Micah further irritates Katie when, despite Dr. Fredrichs' warnings, he brings home a Ouija board. The two leave the house that night, leaving the Ouija board in the living room, where it soon bursts into flames and quickly extinguishes itself, leaving some sort of message. Micah lines the floor with talcum powder on another night and they wake up the next morning to discover inhuman footprints leading into the attic, where they find a charred photograph of Katie as a child that was previously thought to have been destroyed in a mysterious fire that occurred years ago.

The nighttime incidents get more violent as the bedroom door slams shut and loud pounding on the door is heard, as if something is trying to get in. The couple also discovers that the glass of a framed photograph of them has been smashed, with Micah's image scratched out. Dr. Fredrichs pays them a visit but promptly leaves almost immediately upon his arrival, claiming that his presence is enraging the demon even further — indeed, later that night, the creature pulls Katie from her bed and drags her screaming into the hallway.

Freaked out beyond all reason, Micah and Katie flee the house and spend the night in a motel, but Katie's behavior only gets worse as she clutches a crucifix so tightly that it makes her hand bleed. Micah burns the crucifix and the photo found in the attic, after which Katie goes into a near-catatonic state of calm, claiming — in a voice that's not quite her own — that they should return to the house and that everything is going to be okay now.

On the final night, Katie awakens and stands over Micah for over two hours before walking into a hallway. She is soon heard screaming for Micah, who awakens and rushes into the hallway. We hear Micah screaming for a moment and then silence, followed by heavy footsteps coming up the staircase. After a moment, Micah's body is hurled toward the camera, knocking it over. Katie enters the bedroom, her shirt bloodied, and crouches over the seemingly murdered Micah. She looks to the camera and her face takes on a brief demonic appearance before we cut to black. DEAR LORD.

A title card tells us that the police discovered Micah's body in the house on Oct. 11, 2006, and that Katie's whereabouts are unknown.

'Paranormal Activity 2' (2010)

Paranormal Activity 2 Paramount

A prequel, sequel and parallel story to the first film, "Paranormal Activity 2" introduces us to Katie's older sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), and her husband, Dan (Brian Boland). They have an infant son, Hunter, and Dan has a teenage daughter, Ali (Molly Ephraim), from a previous marriage, with Abby the German Shepherd filling the role of family dog.

A couple of months before the events of "Paranormal Activity," Kristi's house is seemingly burglarized, with every room left trashed except for young Hunter's bedroom. The only thing apparently stolen was a necklace that Katie had given Kristi, which will probably have some sort of significance in a later chapter.

Dan has security cameras installed in the house, which provide views of Hunter's room, the kitchen and living room, the front door and staircase and the backyard (gotta go at least somewhat "bigger" for the sequel). He also fires Martine (Vivis Cortez), the family housekeeper and nanny, after she is caught burning sage in an attempt to clean the house of "evil spirits."

Ali begins investigating the "paranormal activity" of the house in earnest after she is lured outside by a strange noise and the front door slams shut behind her, locking her out of the house. She discovers that humans can make deals with demons for wealth or power in exchange for the life of their first-born son ... and Hunter happens to be the first male child born in Kristi and Katie's family since the time of their great-great grandmother.

The phenomena increases as, in the film's best jump scare, all of the cabinets in the kitchen suddenly slam open and poor Abby is attacked by an unseen presence. Dan and Ali take the wounded dog to the vet, leaving Kristi alone with Hunter. After Kristi checks on the baby, she is attacked by the demon and dragged into the basement ... from which she emerges about an hour later, in a near-catatonic state similar to Katie's during her "sleepwalking" fits in the first film.

The next day Kristi won't get out of bed (demons hate mornings). After hearing noises, Ali investigates the basement, where she finds the Latin word "Meus" ("Mine") scratched into the door (something that, obviously, only a demon would do). She later discovers Kristi in Hunter's bedroom with a strange bite mark on her leg (demon!). Ali shows the security camera footage of Kristi's attack to Dan, who calls Martine and begs her to exorcise the creature that has now possessed his wife. Despite Ali's protests, Dan arranges to have the "curse" passed over to Katie, the only way he can think to save his wife and son.

That night, Kristi attacks Dan when he tries to use the crucifix on her and all the lights in the house go out. Using his camcorder's trusty night vision, Dan tracks Kristi and Hunter to the basement, where he touches her with the crucifix. The ground rumbles and shakes (and not just because of the handheld camera work) and demonic roars are heard until, finally, all of the activity stops. Dan puts Kristi to bed and burns the photo of Katie as a child (the one found in the attic in the first film).

A few weeks later, Katie visits her sister and tells her that some strange things have started happening in her house (ah ha!). Kristi tells her not to talk about it, just as Katie had told her to do before. Katie returns home and finds that Micah has bought a new video camera, which takes us into the events of the first "Paranormal Activity."

The epilogue features a possessed Katie, her shirt bloodied after killing Micah, entering Kristi's house, where she murders both Kristi and Dan and kidnaps Hunter. A title card tells us that Ali, who had been away on a school trip, discovered Kristi and Dan's bodies on Oct. 12, 2006 (the day after police discovered Micah's body) and that the whereabouts of Katie and Hunter are unknown.

'Paranormal Activity 3' (2011)

Paranormal Activity 3 Paramount

Instead of continuing the story of Katie and Hunter, "Paranormal Activity 3" goes full prequel and takes us back to 1988, where we meet Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) as young girls, their story captured on the best-looking analog VHS footage ever.

A prologue that takes place in 2005 has older Katie (Featherstone) visiting her pregnant (with Hunter) sister Kristi (Grayden) and giving her a box of old videotapes. A year later, the videotapes go missing during the "burglary" that also claimed Kristi's necklace (as seen in "PA 2").

From there, it's back to the '80s, where the sisters live with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Chris Smith). Ever since Kristi has started talking to an "imaginary" friend named Toby (uh oh), strange events have been occurring in the house ... events like, while in the middle of making a sex tape (finally!), Julie and Chris are interrupted by an earthquake, which causes dust to fall from the ceiling and create an outline of a seemingly invisible (and perverted) person in the room.

While reviewing the would-be sex tape, Chris notices this freakiness and invites his friend Randy (Dustin Ingram) to watch the footage. Randy suggests that Chris set up several cameras (which Chris has, being a professional wedding videographer) around the house in the hopes of capturing more completely terrifying crap that really should inspire them all to leave the house immediately.

More stuff indeed happens, including Kristi talking to some invisible person (whom she claims is "Toby") and the discovery of some sort of demonic symbol in the girls' closet. The demon also gets the better of a babysitter after it counter-mocks her previous bedtime shenanigans by sneaking up on her while wearing a white sheet, only to have the sheet crumple to the floor right as she turns around.

[HORRIBLE.]

Soon, Kristi falls ill and Randy stays with Katie as Chris and Julie take her to the hospital. Because they're both damn fools, Katie and Randy decide to play "Bloody Mary" in the bathroom, which results in Randy getting bitten by some unseen creature and furniture getting tossed all over the place. Randy makes a run for it as soon as Chris and Julie come home, vowing never to play the kind of games that really shouldn't be played until Katie is at least in the seventh grade.

Chris tells Julie that the symbol found in the girls' closet is the mark of a witches' coven that brainwashed girls of child-bearing age into having sons. Julie laughs this off, apparently holding out for some other explanation for her kids being terrorized by invisible forces.

Things get worse, as things do in "Paranormal Activity" movies, with the demon locking Katie in the closet and refusing to let her go until Kristi does what it asks. Kristi asks Julie to take her to her grandmother Lois' house, which Julie agrees to after experiencing some of the "activity" herself and finally becoming a true believer.

At Grandma's house, the movie — and the entire "Paranormal Activity" series with it — goes completely bonkers as we discover that Lois is part of the witches' coven that has made some sort of pact with "Toby," holding secret meetings in the garage and swaying around a bonfire in the backyard. Both Julie and Dennis are killed (the latter by unseen forces contorting his body backwards until his back breaks), and the sisters are last seen with their grandmother, Kristi calling for Toby to join them as they ascend the staircase.

"Paranormal Activity 4" takes place in 2011, five years after Katie killed Micah, Kristi and Dan and kidnapped Hunter. The story focuses on young Alice (Kathryn Newton), her boyfriend Alex (Matt Shively) and her brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) as Alice's mother takes in six-year-old "Robbie" (Brady Allen) ... after his "mother," Katie, goes to the hospital.

The "Activity" rages on ... now with Skype and Xbox Kinnect!

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