Sinister (2012)

Horror is a fascinating genre. It’s often called the most moral genre, where the wicked are punished and only the innocent survive. And some would even take it further and call the genre Christian propaganda. This begs the question of how many horror directors are Christian. I’d guess less than five, and the only mainstream one is Scott Derrickson. It’s therefore hilarious that his film Sinister, by his own admission, is a film without God.

Alongside co-writer C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson weaves a chilling tale of a series of families slaughtered by within as a young child murders each family. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a crime writer investigating these murders who stumbles across Super 8 footage of the heinous acts taking place. And in each film he gets a glimpse of a mysterious, sinister figure.

At the heart of the film is the question: does watching evil perpetuate evil? Unlike most genres, horror faces evil head-on. Villains aren’t misunderstood and evil isn’t some outdated moral concept. Evil is a real, primordial force that seeks to kill and destroy. So in the face of such evil, is the philosophy of see no evil mean that simply watching evil expands its power?

Essentially snuff films, the Super 8 footage is an encapsulation of evil. But when that evil is kept in a tin, it can do no harm. Once it’s opened and viewed, Pandora’s Box has been unleashed on the world. Watching is not a passive experience, it changes the viewer, pushes them places, and where does the horror genre push us?

Is there anything redeeming in the horror genre? Why see evil when it can have an effect on us? To address that, it’s worth considering what Derrickson said in one interview: “It’s not about putting something evil in the world. It’s about reckoning with evil. We don’t need any more evil in the world. We need a lot more reckoning with it.”

Evil isn’t some nebulous, otherworldly force or some abstract concept. It’s a real force in the universe, a force that everyone confronts at some point. To simply avoid looking at it is to deny the problem. Horror confronts the problem, and while its resolutions aren’t always happy, it does depict a battle worth fighting.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing