With the mass-produced barrage of horror movies available to us – sometimes formulaic, sometimes cheaply made – it can be tempting for the jaded horror-goer to presume that nothing is truly scary anymore. I offer no new argument, after all, when I contend that in our increasingly sensationalized visual culture, we become (or at least risk becoming) desensitized to so many horrible things, immune to so much tragedy. It takes far more, at least from a visual standpoint, to scare us than it did sixty years ago (a fact that will be evident to anyone who compares The Haunting to an Eli Roth film). This may not be the case universally, but it’s a general rule. And still, scary movies are manufactured, and the passionate horror fan does encounter, every now and then, a film that is particularly, unexpectedly scary. Such was my experience with the film Sinister, released about two weeks before Halloween in 2012 (although I saw it much later ). Granted, Sinister is not as artistically scintillating as my two favorite horror movies of reference – The Shining and It Follows – but it’s still a well-made, incredibly unsettling film. When I told Michael I wanted to write a piece about it, he reassured me that he wouldn’t be upset if I re-watched it without him; one time was enough for him. So I sat down tonight, in my little Indiana apartment, with a focusing question in mind: What makes this film so scary? While I may discuss other things in the post below, I am particularly interested in exploring possible answers to this question.
In order to discuss what’s scary about Sinister, you need to know the background of the movie. (As usual, if you haven’t seen it, I suggest watching it. You might even want to watch it before you read this, in case I spoil anything…). Crime Writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is experiencing a lag in popularity after the dissipating hype about his first novel, Kentucky Blood. Though he’s written other novels since his debut, none of them are as popular, and he’s faced with the difficult task of providing for a family of four on what is becoming a starving artist’s budget. Though he hasn’t sold many books lately, Ellison prides himself on his keen detective work and his ability to solve bizarre cases that the police can’t figure out.
In an effort to revitalize his career, Ellison moves his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and their two children, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) into a small town that is also the location of a grisly family murder involving four victims who were hung from a tree and a child who has ostensibly disappeared. What Tracy doesn’t know – and what infuriates her when she finds out – is that Ellison hasn’t just moved his family into the town where the murders took place; he’s moved them into the house where the quadruple hanging occurred. Ellison quickly sets up a spacious, private office and prepares to embark on detective work when he conveniently stumbles on a box of Super 8 film reels. Out of curiosity, he puts one on a projector, and the image of four bodies, attached to a tree branch by rope, waiting to be pulled up and hung, appears on the screen. Then he witnesses the process of the hanging, (and here things get more graphic), including the kicking, flailing legs of the victims as they’re slowly suspended in the air by their necks. As he continues to view Super 8 reels, he realizes they all film bizarre, carefully contrived multiple murders. Eventually, Ellison teams up with a local deputy (James Ransone) and consults occult expert, Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio), to try and figure out the story behind the murders. Finally, he learns about (and sees) Bughuul, an evil pagan deity who steals children’s souls and provokes them to kill their families in unusual ways. But will Ellison figure out how the curse works before it’s too late for his own family? In case you haven’t seen it, I won’t tell you the answer.
There are many elements of this film that are both fascinating and terrifying. The Super 8 footage is obviously anachronistic in a contemporary film otherwise rife with computers, skyping, and cell phones, but that anachronism inverts our expectations. In most (not as terrifying) films, old film is synonymous with nostalgia and it records silent pictures of what once was. Watching Super 8 footage is a process of trying to recapture a usually pleasant history and to reminisce about the past. And indeed, the Super 8 footage in Sinister wreaks with this ambiance of nostalgia – at first. Then, quickly, the shot switches, and a backyard party turns into a hanging, or a pool party turns into a filmed, carefully contrived method of drowning a family. Not only does Sinister take a form of technology that we equate with nostalgia and “the good old days” and turn it into a mechanism for and purveyor of murder and destruction; it also juxtaposes ordinary but enjoyable aspects of daily life with almost unimaginably brutal murders, sending the viewer the implicit message that he or she is never really safe, that an ugly, painful death can happen to anyone at any time.
And that’s another element of this film I find fascinating: it turns death into a spectacle. It’s like a few slightly twisted, macabre minds got in a room together, and instead of coming up with jokes like a room full of comic writers, they came up with some of the most brutal, horrific ways to die. This is refreshing, (which I grant is a weird word to use here) for the horror fan, as murders tend to follow a typical pattern in horror films, a pattern that Sinister obviously not just tinkers with but collapses and rebuilds completely. The interesting paradox is that these deaths, by and large, are grotesque without being gruesome. While directors like Eli Roth like to show us as much blood and physical discomfort as possible, in Sinister, the film pans away from much of the Super 8 footage that Ellison watches before the violent, culminating point of the murders unfolds. When, in one reel, each family member is tied to a lawn chair that’s connected to the pool, we see the lawn chairs fall into the pool, and we know everyone will drown, but we don’t see them thrashing. In one particularly troubling scene, a group of people are tied up on the grass when we see a lawnmower slowly begin to move over the bodies. Though Ellison turns away from the film in disgust, we never see the gory details. The bottom line is that these deaths embody some of the worst ways one could imagine dying without showing us the worst part of the death, which allows our imagination to enter. And their deviation from typical horror fodder amplifies the fright factor.
And of course, the fact that children are committing the murders is obviously supposed to be scary. I say “supposed to be” because I think the trope of the evil and/or demonic and/or possessed child is only really scary if you do it effectively. Sinister tries to, and does at least a decent job. In one scene, Ellison is walking around the house with a baseball bat after sensing an unfriendly presence, when we see gray, half-dead specters of children with wide, mischievous eyes popping up behind him or sitting in a corner, just out of his field of vision. They move toward and around him without ever touching him, engulfing his body, spatially, although he cannot see them. This scene is decently scary – in part because we’re not sure what the children will do, and they seem to have a lot of potential for harmful machinations –but on the whole, evil children don’t really scare me. This is probably just a personal preference. Children of the Corn is good, but not incredibly scary, and the old Village of the Damned probably does the evil child maneuver best (though I haven’t seen the film in ages). Still, the trope functions at least effectively in Sinister and augments the already highly unsettling ambiance of the film.
Still, if you ask me (and you kind of did, indirectly, because you’re reading this post), I think the scariest part of this film is unquestionably the pagan deity, Bughuul, who moves the children to kill. Yes, the evil pagan deity sounds tiresomely cliché and borderline offensive (albeit to no particular culture in this film), but Bughuul’s terrifying presence is executed phenomenally in Sinister. And this, I think, is where the crux of my analysis lies. Bughuul is scary for three reasons: 1.) He’s situated uncomfortably between the human and the inhuman, 2.) He moves seamlessly between terrestrial and technological space, 3.) We all have a preconceived notion of pure evil, and Bughuul embodies it almost to a tee. I’ll explain these more below, of course.
For my first observation, I have Sigmund Freud to thank, and I’ve used him a little bit before on this blog. In The Uncanny, Freud tries to evaluate why certain things scare us. When he evaluates dolls, he concludes that they sit on both sides of the human-inhuman boundary, and our inability to categorize them, their partial human-ness, makes them scary in some contexts. Bughuul, the ancient deity who looks like an amalgam of the devil and a member of the band Kiss, embodies this uncomfortable dualism perfectly. His dark eyes and angular cheekbones make him absolutely terrifying, even though in the wrong light he might look like your angsty goth cousin. Though he is pure evil, he at least partially reflects us, while also remaining a being from another realm entirely – and an unknown realm, at that. There is, along with his human resemblance, the depiction of his “thing-ness” in the film. In drawings that Ellison finds of the murders, done by the children who committed them, an elusive figure entitled “Mister Boogie” is featured off to the side of each scene. Calling Bughuul “Mister Boogie” thing-izes him (and of course I made that word up), even as the title “Mister” makes him part human. Like the “it” that follows a band of teenagers in It Follows, and like the terrifying Babdook (which I have yet to write about), we’re not sure how to categorize him, really. I would argue, actually, that all three of these entities are sort of diabolical monsters in human or relatively human form. In any case, they are all scary because they fit no category we’ve constructed already.
Beyond Bughuul’s inability to be categorized as an entity, and the fact that he sits precariously on the border of the human and the inhuman, he also has remarkable powers in this film. Unlike the ghosts in Insidious, who are banished to the land of the dead unless they inhabit the body of somebody who enters the land through astral travel, or unlike so many other (kind of pathetic) ghosts in haunted houses who are restricted to one location, Bughuul can go anywhere. While he tends to focus on one family and one location (thus filling a specific space with evil) he can travel to any home and can walk in and out of film effortlessly (think Samara in The Ring but with far more graceful, easy movements than Samara’s cumbersome, waterlogged crawl out of the television). Bughuul can also inhibit terrestrial space and technological space, another indicator that we still greatly fear the reach of technology, so much so that we actually envision evil coming out of it and capturing us (which I talk about in my piece about The Ring). Interestingly, in this film, the most contemporary technology – smartphones, laptops, the internet, and skyping – provide useful information and allow Ellison to connect with help. The antiquated Super 8’s contain the real danger (or reel danger, ha ha, ha…) which is a fact worth pondering.
And though Bughuul’s mobility makes him scary, the scariest thing about him is both that he is pure evil and he embodies pure evil (I’m conceiving of these points as related but different right now, but of course they’ll merge to an extent). On the first point, I’ve written about Terry Eagleton’s definition of evil in many posts on this blog. Eagleton believes that a truly evil person commits evil acts for the sake of committing them, for the sake of causing pain, when there is no other gain to be had from the actions. The truly evil person does not do harm for selfish motives, per se; he or she does harm simply for harm’s sake. This characterization seems to aptly characterize Bughuul’s method of operation. He not only kills (or provokes killing) for the sake of killing; he contrives especially brutal ways to enact these murders, to people who he has no ostensible reason to target. While not all horror villains fit Eagleton’s definition of evil, Bughuul certainly does.
But when I say Bughuul embodies pure evil, I mean something similar but slightly different. And I think a little philosophy would be fun here. St. Anselm once said, “[Even a fool], when he hears of…a being than which nothing greater can be conceived…understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding…And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in understanding alone.” In other words, God must exist because we have some notion in our minds of a God, some idea or understanding of a God. St. Thomas Aquinas, similarly, argues in his Argument of Degree that the nature of evaluation implies a God; we evaluate everything from the standpoint of “more,” or “less,” according to how good it is. Therefore, we must have some belief in the ultimate good, which is God.
I mention these philosophers hesitantly because I’m over 10 years removed from my Intro to Philosophy class, but I think we can invert their understanding. I don’t think we necessarily have a preconceived notion of “the devil” – which is a byproduct of Western theology – but we certainly have a preconceived notion of evil, and an understanding of the ultimate evil – which, in Western theology, is embodied by the devil. I don’t know if this understanding is innate to humans or culturally constructed, but it seems to me that we have some vague conceptual understanding of evil, or “the bad,” early in our lives – perhaps innately – and culture augments and shapes this understanding as we get older. Perhaps for the reasons listed in the previous paragraph, and because of the way Bughuul is cinematically depicted, we understand him as the embodiment of pure evil as we watch the film. I could almost feel his evil in certain shots, when Ellison would pause the Super 8 footage and an obscure shot of his emaciated face would appear, hiding, in the background. Allegorically he proposes to us the possibility that evil is all around us, can move about easily, and – like his elusiveness in the Super 8 footage – it’s often hiding where we can’t see it. And since evil is a relatively broad concept, Bughuul’s face may come to stand for a range of fears felt by the viewer, from the socially constructed to, perhaps, the primal. In a genre full of insidious villains, Bughuul is easily among the evilest.
Which is to say, the movie’s constituent parts come together smoothly to create a really frightening film. Sinister consistently taps into the ugliest, bleakest areas of life without ever lapsing into something that resembles, in any way, the cheesy or the campy. And by and large, it doesn’t look like it’s trying too hard, which I consider an achievement for a film like this. Indeed, it’s not a view for the faint of heart, and I’d imagine even for some horror fans, it’s not the kind of movie that gets inserted into the DVD player all that frequently. But if you want to see death at its most terrifying and evil at its most malicious – or hey, at its most sinister – then this film is definitely for you.