“Long before I was old enough to stomach them myself, I could regurgitate comprehensive summaries and character analyses of the originals and the remakes, Hitchcock and James Wan and Wes Craven, enumerate all of Paris Hilton’s fatal snafus, compare and contrast a low-budget slasher with a titanic studio blockbuster. ” A story of a family, grief, and horror films.
In any case, you will be scared. And also, perhaps even more scarily, moved.
—A.O. Scott on The Babadook (2014)
Before my mother died, we four would pack ourselves and our overfilled suitcases, boogie boards, and beach towels into the family minivan, a forest green Jeep Cherokee, and drive from suburban Westchester to New England’s sequestered upper-class haven, Martha’s Vineyard. The last two weeks in August were sacrosanct. My father took off from work, the white-collar sports marketing position he kept in midtown, and my mother, the therapist, scheduled no clients. My brother and I, finished with summer-camp sessions, bid our friends adieu and embraced the break. The six-hour road trip was one of few opportunities I had as a child to bond with my father, whose demanding career stole him from our Katonah home and kept him preoccupied, five days a week, slipping out before we awoke each morning only to arrive home after dinner dishes had been cleaned, dried, and returned to the cupboards every night. Even on weekends, which he had free, the corporate sector left him burned-out, able to do little more than cook pancakes and toss a football in the yard. Sometimes even he was too tired to do that.
In the car, to pass time, we played word games and tallied license plate states—standard automobile odyssey procedure. My parents wanted little trouble. Keep the sibling fracas to a minimum, and the bathroom breaks, complaints of carsickness (of which I’ll admit there were many; I suffered from incorrigible vertigo much of my childhood), and ETA inquiries. My father, after hours on I-95, animating around 10 a.m. with a rest-stop croissant and coffee in hand, took full reign of in-drive entertainment. “Please Daddy, please tell us another one,” echoed our exuberant cries from the back seat. Since I was very small, five or six or perhaps younger, my father every year regaled us with the plots of his favorite horror movies. He delivered with bonfire ghost story narration and timely suspense, a storytelling finesse otherwise dormant, an assiduous synopsis of everything from Psycho to Saw.
Long before I was old enough to stomach them myself, I could regurgitate comprehensive summaries and character analyses of the originals and the remakes, Hitchcock and James Wan and Wes Craven, enumerate all of Paris Hilton’s fatal snafus, compare and contrast a low-budget slasher with a titanic studio blockbuster. He loved the classics, the creature features he’d attended at the drive-in near his college campus before CGI and practical effects became indistinguishable and monsters real, the postwar zombie films and those which responded to the advent of technology, anything Stephen King. He loved all of it.
He loved best Halloween (1978). (And not for nothing; his fraught relationship with his older sisters begged a sororicidal impulse.) When High Tension (2003) premiered it supplanted the grisly—and expiring—Carpenter flick. Then came Sinister (2012). A masterpiece on which we could agree; I was old enough to brave the theater by his side, had been seeing for years pictures of tantamount brutality, though was not yet of regulation age to attend unaccompanied.
I had spent middle school playing catch-up, viewing with my group of friends a different scary movie whenever possible; late-night spooky sleepovers and snow-day marathons, homework breaks on Sunday afternoons, we were voracious. We consumed with an insatiable appetite the ever-changing On Demand listings. I’ve wasted probably two days of my life on the shitty subgenre Cabin in the Woods (2012) seeks to mock. Around ninth grade, I felt literate enough, and finally confident in my stoicism—lest I scream too often and render myself a fool—to go to the cinema with my father.
I knew then when a director paid homage to Cronenberg or when the Japanese prototype prevailed. I could defend the merits of grindhouse, could appreciate with the appropriate vocabulary hair-raising camerawork or the devastation of a villain’s failed acting. Hence when we went to see Sinister, I was equipped not only to handle the horror, but to talk about it. I wanted my dad to think I was smart. I wanted him to see I cared about the things he cared about. I craved, desperately, guilelessly, his respect.
It was the week of my fifteenth birthday and he came home early one evening to take me to the nearby multiplex. We’d screened the trailers. We’d bought our tickets using the theater’s members-only reservation system that allows guests to select their seats in advance—just rear of mid-orchestra, dead center. I’d forced myself to relinquish my distaste for Ethan Hawke, an aversion which came largely from his boorish role in the Before trilogy and would be later cemented by the perpetuation of his Pseudo-Intellectual-Man-Child-You-Love-to-Hate-Whom-the-Producers-Think-You-Hate-to-Love routine in Rebecca Miller’s disappointing Greta Gerwig rom-com I try to forget stars Greta Gerwig (Maggie’s Plan, 2013). We were ready, we thought.
Another story exploring the narcissism of the patriarch artist who in an attempt to realize his creative destiny endangers his family, Sinister’s scare tactics work threefold: conventional jumps, breakage of the fourth wall, and honesty about the human condition. I liked Sinister because it’s more damning of Ethan Hawke’s archetype than the rest of his oeuvre, which continue to rely on his elusive sex appeal (is it the bad teeth?) to redeem him. In this one, rather than win the girl and the sympathy of the viewer à la Linklater, writer-director Scott Derrickson punishes Hawke’s pretentious bullshit, the philosophizing Reality Bites (1994) validates, with death.
After incapacitating career flops, washed-up true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) relocates his family to an alleged murder house to feed his forthcoming novel. Not only does he keep the property’s deadly secret to himself, but he continues to gaslight his cohabitants who suspect foul play, alienating his wife (Juliet Rylance) and young kids in a selfish quest for redemption and recognition. When finally Oswalt reckons with the reality that one should prioritize life over art—in this case accepting the presence of a pagan deity who slaughters everyone who populates the premises to consume the souls of children—it’s too late; his fate is sealed. In the final terrifying moments his daughter (Clare Foley) exacts her own revenge, by some means punishing him for compromising her, for neglecting her, and for imploding their family. Her drawing of the carnage proves his estrangement: She illustrates with black ink and a blood-spattered fist disemboweled “Trevor” and “Mom” shoulder to shoulder, across the room from “Daddy,” whose severed limbs lay to rest alone. She may have literally slayed her family, but it was his negligence, his egoism, which truly tore them apart.
Sinister uses the genre’s convention of self-reference to amplify fright, but not derivatively. The way many newer releases play with the nagging, intrinsic anxiety that supernatural forces can outlast the runtime, movies like The Bye Bye Man (2017) with the tagline, “Don’t say it, don’t think it,” threaten not only the characters, but the viewer. Bughuul, Sinister’s monster, survives through its visual representations. “Early Christians believed that Bughuul actually lived in the pictures themselves,” a professor specializing in the occult warns Oswalt as they peruse archival documents. “They were gateways into his realm.” Photographs, forensic sketches, the VHS home videos Oswalt finds in the attic all summon and channel the demon—so too, then, would the prints of the movie itself, leaving every spectator vulnerable to possession.
And surely it did. Sinister lingers still in my mind. Whenever I see a tire swing, or The Room (2003)—Bughuul looks uncannily like Tommy Wiseau with his mouth slathered in Krazy Glue—or an eight-millimeter film reel, I remember the way I felt watching it that first time. That’s how we hold onto moments, through motifs, icons to which we ascribe significance, and shadows of sentiment. Not the experience of emotions themselves but projections of them, phantasms.
My dad loved this movie, still loves it, still cites it anytime someone bemoans the present state of horror in the United States, and I do too. But the associations I have, temporal rather than thematic, mangle its memory. A few days after we left that theater, hours after I turned fifteen, my mother was struck and killed by a negligent driver.
That night I stayed at a friend’s house. (I couldn’t bear the emptiness of my own.) We nested beneath blankets in her parents’ king-sized bed, whispering, not about death or futility or atheism—no, it was much too soon for that—but about the fictional worlds we entered as children. As if they were our past lives we recounted the plotlines of all the novels we devoured growing up, the post-apocalyptic thrillers, the YA romances, the American classics, because it is fiction which provides at once escape and recognition. We spoke in softer tenors with every passing hour until the terrible, inevitable betrayal: she fell asleep. I lay suspended in the vast blackness before dawn. From the crest of my pillow not even moonlight escaped the curtains to pierce the slate. No stars shone in the corner of the sky visible to me. I wondered then if I was, in that moment, the only living person in the universe.
Two years later, Jennifer Kent made The Babadook. The plot, likewise relying on images (in this case a picture book rather than film reel) to summon diablerie, chronicles a bereaved mother’s struggles to parent her only son while managing her own overwhelming grief. Whilst in labor six years earlier, en route to the hospital she (Essie Davis) and her husband (Benjamin Winspear) had suffered a fatal car accident, leaving her widowed, and, shortly thereafter, a single parent. Cursed to nurture the living reminder of her trauma, much like Oedipus with Antigone, Amelia exists in a sort of perpetual darkness, enhanced by the unsaturated dim lighting and the bleak Australian cityscape. After the boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), displays alarming behavioral issues and crippling anxiety due to his conviction that evil lurks in their home, Amelia procures new bedtime reading material, The Babadook.
“I had the dream again,” he cries at the foot of her bed, the script’s first line, rousing her from her own nightmare—an impressionistic rendering of her husband’s death. They are suffering together. It’s a shared experience, but whether her protective duty or her resentment keeps her from letting him in, letting him see her reciprocal vulnerability, she buries her pain. Looking under the bed, opening and closing the closet doors, she shows him there is no monster hiding in the shadows. She knows the monster isn’t there. She knows this because she is aware that the monster is in their minds, in the air they breathe, all around them. And she knows too that in spite of their efforts, in spite of Samuel’s promise to “kill the monster when it comes…[to] smash its head in,” that it, elusive, incorporeal, will always endure. They have to learn to live with it.
“Don’t let it in,” read The Babadook’s advertisements. Though in truth, the film advises the opposite. Let it in. Let it breathe, the screenplay instructs. Process grief.
When I saw The Babadook, two years into my own mourning, I cried. I cried for a very long time afterwards. Then, with feverish urgency, fingers flying across the keypad, I texted my dad, who had been meaning to see it himself, not to watch it.
“Why?” he wrote back.
I did not know what to say.
He texted again, “Was it not good? I read such great reviews. 98% on Rotten Tomatoes!!!!!”
“No, yeah. It was great. Just, content-wise might be upsetting. Probably good to avoid it.” And then I added, “For a little while at least.”
Recently, my father called me to tell me he watched The Babadook.
“Oh,” I replied, nervously. “What did you think of it?”
“Good. But, yeah, I see what you mean about it being upsetting.”
There were a few too many seconds of silence on the phone. It hung there between us, in cellular cyberspace. We listened to the other’s soft inhalation. We exhaled together.
“Yeah,” I said. “I hear you.”