I’m tempted to interpret Sinister (Derrickson, 2012) as Scott Derrickson’s confession about his family life. (And I’m not the only one to notice the similarities between Derrickson’s life and the film.) Sinister is a horror movie about a writer named Elliot Oswalt (played by Ethan Hawke) who tells stories about horrific events, the memories of which haunt him into drinking too much and eventually spill over into his children’s souls. Oswalt fools himself into believing that telling the horrific stories can right the wrongs that have been done and that he’s motivated by justice, but really he just wants to write a bestseller. And he tells himself he wants to sell books to make money to provide for his family, but he could easily make more than enough money by writing journalism textbooks instead. Oswalt is ultimately motivated by fame. He has sold out his family, trading in a healthy relationship with them in search of “meaningful” life’s work and an important “legacy”. In a key scene, his wife reminds him that, “Your marriage is the meaning of your life. Your kids are your legacy.”
I’m tempted to think this is Derrickson’s apology to his wife for making the same mistakes in his own life. But really it’s the story of my life. Like Oswalt, I too often let my work – even the “good” and “important” work I would characterize as furthering “the kingdom of God” – come before my family. Sinister prophetically exhorts me to stop pursuing my own work at the expense of my children and to move my family back “home”.
I want to think of myself as helping make the world a better place – as helping teach my students how to be good and avoid the evil influences of non-Christian culture. But how exactly are goodness and evil transmitted? In the film, Oswalt finds a box of old home movies with images of horrific murders on them. Eventually he realizes that the murders have something to do with a demonic figure who shows up in the shadows of each of the movies. An occult historian tells Oswalt of a demon associated with similar imagery. He claims that “ancient Christians” believed the demon lived “in the images themselves” and that children who saw these images would have their souls devoured by the demon. When I first saw the trailer of for Sinister, I thought Derrickson was critiquing the horror genre itself. This is basically what fundamentalist Christians claim about horror movies: if you watch them, demons will swallow your soul.
But that’s not quite what happens in the film. As far as I could tell, the children never see the film itself. Like a good fundamentalist, Oswalt keeps his horrific images locked up and eventually destroys them. But it doesn’t prevent the spread of evil. The problem isn’t the horror films hidden in the attic. Instead, the evil seems to be transmitted from the father to his children. Oswalt tries to shelter his children from the evil by, for example, keeping his office door locked. But this doesn’t work. It is interesting that all the other families that are killed by the demon are first seen having family fun: having a pool party or a barbecue, watching TV together or just hanging out. We never see Oswalt do anything with his family. He’s too busy doing his “good work”.
Instead of literally locking himself away from his children so he can focus on fighting evil, he should have been spending more time with his family. Likewise, neither is goodness transmitted through movies and books. Oswalt wants to find justice and make the world a better place through his writing. Yet the film argues that this doesn’t happen through writing or filmmaking but through raising a good family.
In the past, Derrickson has taken great Christian films and remade them as horror films. This time, he’s taken a great horror film –The Shining – and remade it as a Christian film. Yet it is his most subtle Christian film yet. Many viewers won’t even notice the “message” about the importance of family. In fact, the ending of the film could easily seem nihilistic. Nevertheless, beneath the blood spatter, Sinister is an interesting metafictional contribution to the theology of culture. It is a rebuke to those of us who think culture is transformed primarily through art and philosophy. Instead, we should be looking to our children as our legacy.