After two prequels in the Paranormal Activity franchise revealed that a demon (named “Toby”) had been haunting one family for generations, particularly two sisters named Kristi and Katie, with the latter running off with nephew Hunter, whereabouts unknown, the fourth film in the series brings us back to the present. Now a new family gets some strange goings-on once a mysterious neighbor kid named Robbie comes to stay with them, and they document the process for our viewing enjoyment. Returning to helm Paranormal 4 are directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who provided the scares in 3 and sparked much debate with their “Can this be for real?” thriller Catfish (soon to become a MTV series). Joost and Schulman chatted with Vulture about summoning demons, bodily fluids, and how David Copperfield came up with one of their stunts.
You were offering your glasses at the premiere for anyone who threw up first. But you still have them, so did nobody throw up?
Schulman: One girl said she threw up, but I was looking for vomit residue on her sweater, and I didn’t see any, so I didn’t believe her.
Joost: Did you check the floor?
Schulman: I said, “Show me!” and she backed down.
Joost: Some people said they needed new pants.
Schulman: The glasses were a reward for throwing up, not pooping your pants. I do hope people poop their pants, though. That’s true. I don’t often wish that upon people, because that would be embarrassing, but it’s a safe place. A Paranormal screening is a safe place to let bodily fluids fly. You will not be judged.
David Copperfield is a superfan of the Paranormal series. How did he end up consulting on this last one, and what illusions did he help construct?
Joost: We met him through a friend who is a magician, David Kwong, and he was like, “Hey, Copperfield is a huge movie buff, and you guys should come to Vegas and hang out with him.” So we went to Vegas and spent a whole day with him, and it was crazy. He took us around his private magic museum [the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts], and we sat down and had a great creative brainstorm. It was just cool that the biggest magician in the world was like, “Let me throw some ideas to you guys.”
Schulman: He admired the simplicity of the scares in Paranormal 3, even just the bed sheet rising above young Katie when she’s sleeping, and he wanted to know how we did it — that was a golf ball under a blanket. And he was like, “That’s what I do! No strings attached, everything is out there, only I do it with an audience completely surrounding me.” So the levitation of the girl in Paranormal 4, that was David’s idea that she should levitate.
Joost: It’s a practical effect that’s cleaned up with visual effects. She really is lifted up in the air and everything, and there’s an incredible amount of painting to remove the apparatus that lifted her up. I think we tried to make things as difficult as possible for the visual-effects company. When she’s lifted up, you’ll see a lot of skin showing, which is really hard for them to do for stuff like that, and you’ll be like, “This looks real!” Usually people wear big, baggy clothes to conceal the harness and wires, but we wanted her to look like she was actually going to bed.
You shot two endings, including one that answered more of the questions people might have about the series’ mythology, about the characters, like what’s the deal with this kid Robbie?
Joost: We shot scenes that explained a little bit about what Robbie’s character is doing and where he’s coming from, and we ultimately decided it was more satisfying to leave questions unanswered instead of tying everything up, because I think that’s one of the things people like about this series. Each time, we just answer enough. We don’t overload with too much backstory, but it’s important that we and everyone on the creative team have this big picture of what’s going on, and we just give a little bit at a time.
Schulman: We have an idea for the master plan of this coven, of this enterprise, of this army of darkness, and Toby’s role, Toby’s powers and abilities, who’s Robbie, what’s Hunter’s true purpose, and the answers to those questions we reveal piece by piece.
What do you think about the fan theory that Toby is Bloody Mary?
Schulman: By another name? That sounds reasonable. Bloody Mary is just sort of a metaphor, so that makes perfect sense.
Joost: I think we start to see Toby as more of a shape shifter in this movie, and the way I see it, Toby — we’ve learned from 3 and 4 that children can see him, sometimes. And I think that he takes different forms to be more appealing to a child, so sometimes he appears as another child or something else.
You used some new technology this time around — Kinect, Skype, cell-phone cameras.
Joost: The last one, we were really constrained by eighties technology, which was fun to have, creatively. But this time, it was fun to have everything that’s available to us in the modern day. We wanted to use these everyday things and make you think twice the next time you use your Xbox. I feel like most people don’t know how that works, that there’s a reality that you can’t see that’s happening around you, and it’s such an amazing technology.
Schulman: We were looking up Xbox hacks on YouTube.
Joost: At first we thought about using the Xbox as a camera, and then we started learning more how it works, and we saw a video of dots filling the room, and we thought it was incredible.
Schulman: The kids create an avatar of Toby, and that’s how Toby looks to them. It’s not like he lives in the Xbox or anything. And that’s just where he’s standing later on. I don’t think Toby is dexterous enough to use technology, but he can manipulate it, like when he pushes Wyatt under the water in the bathtub, his presence distorts the laptop. The video signal goes out.
So, if my computer goes on the fritz …
Schulman: Be careful. It could be a presence. My iPhone 4 is on the fritz, and it’s probably from doing this all the time. I’m actually genuinely scared that by taunting this demon and drawing this demonic symbol over and over, hundreds and hundreds of times, we are actually summoning something that might haunt the franchise, might haunt us personally, possess us …
Joost: Or repossess your car. Very scary.