It goes without saying that mothers bear the brunt of blame in horror films. Most often it’s monstrous mothers to blame for allowing evil into the sacred temple of the family home. Sinister is one of the few films centered on the ineffective father. More importantly, it is part of a smaller subsect of horror films that critiques the biological father rather than the interloping step-father. Scholars such as Vivian Sobchack and Tony Williams suggest that the horrific father is often indicative of challenged patriarchal power. If indeed this is correct, then who is challenging the power and why?
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) most noticeably elicits images of Guy Woodhouse from Rosemary’s Baby. Both fathers are obsessed with money and power. Both men are dismissive or unaware of the problems festering inside of their loved ones. Both are married more to their work than to their family, thus opening doors for evil to seethe from within. Much like Guy Woodhouse, Ellison Oswalt is not the monster per se. However, I argue that in the case of Sinister, the actual monster Bughuul poses no threat to the family without the negligent acts of the father. Henceforth, Ellison is actually the conduit for horror to enter the world. Without Ellison, Bughuul seems to be an impotent threat especially in comparison to the devil in Rosemary’s Baby.
Vivian Sobchack calls Rosemary’s Baby the “radical beginning of patriarchal failure”. Scholars write about horrific fathers as representations of both challenged and repressed patriarchy manifesting in bursts of anger and fear. During the 80s and 90s fathers in horror struggled to maintain patriarchal hegemony amid notable women’s advancement. That is not the case with Sinister. Weakened patriarchy is never restored as Ellison’s daughter Ashley overpowers the family and assumes control. On one hand we could immediately read this text as if children threaten the balance of power within the household today. However, this couldn’t happen without the ineffective parenting of the father. In fact, Sinister seems to blame the transfer of power from parent to child on ineffective parenting. Therefore, the greater narrative seems to be that only through responsible parenting can one prevent children from becoming horrific.
An extension of this argument for patriarchal failure is articulated by Vivian Sobchack in “Bringing It All Back Home”. Sobchack argues that during the dynamic between father and child, the father gives up his power and authority to the children thus rendering himself childlike in status. This brings up an interesting point as Ellison in Sinister is likened to a child. Professor Jonas states that Bughuul lures children through images so that he can eat them. In this case it is the father who is lured in through the images which by association likens him to a child. This is solidified by both Ellison’s childlike egocentrism and Deputy So and So who reminds Ellison, “You put yourself in it”. Interestingly enough I can think of no time when the daughter Ashley is exposed to any of the images. Therefore, in this case Sobchack is dead right when she argues that “In the contemporary horror film, the sins of the fathers are truly visited upon the sons and daughters”.[i]
Ellison indulges in almost all of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is interesting to juxtapose the box of home videos that Ellison watches with his own preferred viewing material. Ellison has no videos of his own family; all he has is the perverse family moments of others combined with a stack of VHS recordings of his own interviews about “Kentucky Blood”. One of his taped interviews asks Ellison why he writes and he thinly jests that it is for “fame and money”. This rings truer and truer throughout the film as Ellison neglects his family to chase the elusive dragon of success.
Ellison ignores his family. His son Trevor suffers from dramatic night terrors exacerbated by stress. His wife Tracy points out Ellison’s inability to protect his children from his work by not locking his door. In addition, Ellison opts out of tucking his children into bed, and shuts the door on his daughter who thoughtfully brings him his morning coffee. When his wife begs him to drop the book he forcefully lies to her and rants on about this being “his shot” at a movie, a book, and television which will make it all worth it “I promise”. This argument solidifies the egotistic, prideful world in which Ellison lives, where his success surpasses the safety and sanity of his family.
Eighty minutes into the film Tracy finds out Ellison lied to her by moving the family into the scene of a crime. She calls him out for the “jeopardy you put your children in, your marriage in. YOU put your family at risk…what you’ll do for a book…this book isn’t for us, it’s for you. There are plenty of other ways to provide for this family.” In a final blow she attacks Ellison’s justification that his books are his legacy, she reminds him that his children are his legacy. His inability to provide is less imperative to the family when faced with Ellison’s callous disregard for his parental duties. In an interesting twist of fate, Ellison’s daughter Ashley is his legacy as she stands over his flaccid poisoned body, “Don’t worry daddy, I’ll make you famous again”. And she sure will.
The Sinister DVD extra “Living in a House of Death” discusses the stigma attached to a house of murder. I found it poetic that this excerpt used the word stigma to describe the lasting problems linked to a home involved in a tragedy. The definition of stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. In the case of Sinister, it is not the house that is stained with disgrace but rather the family which is marred by association with the ineffective and unfit patriarchal failure of a father that is Ellison Oswalt.
Without a doubt Ellison Oswalt’s egoism and neglectful parenting provide the necessary environment for evil to seep into the home. His disregard for those around him positions him as the active monster within the film. On the surface both Ashley and Bughuul seem like viable candidates for the monster. However, Oswalt’s work and his perverse choice to live inside a crime scene exposed Ashely to evil. Similarly, without Ellison’s hurtful words and actions, Bughuul had no power to enter the family. Even in the death of the family Bughuul never acts out any forms of aggression or intent. He only collects the murdering children who are presumably a product of their environment. If anything Bughuul is doing society the favor or remedying the wrongs of neglectful, weak parents by eliminating both the product and the cause.
[i] Sobchack, V. (1996). Bringing it All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange. In BKG Ed., The
Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. (pp. 143-163). Austin: University of Texas Press. (p.153)