“We should have never come to this house”: Freud’s Uncanny & the Modern Gothic in SINISTER


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Sinister. 2012. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Screenplay by C. Robert Cargill & Derrickson.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Nicholas King, & Vincent D’Onofrio.
Blumhouse Productions / Automatik Entertainment / Possessed Pictures
Rated 14A. 110 minutes.
Horror / Mystery

Sinister (2012) - Mr. BoogieTrue crime has become one of the hottest genres over the past few years. Sinister came along right around the time people were starting to get more wildly obsessed than ever— worse than the 1990s. Scott Derrickson’s film cleverly uses true crime as a way of incorporating the Gothic past into the present, in several ways.

The screenplay, by C. Robert Cargill, involves writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) trying to research and write his latest true crime novel. Ellison moves his family into a new home where he’ll write his book, except he doesn’t tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) it’s the house where a whole family was murdered. He also has no idea he’s put himself and his family in the path of an ancient, malevolent entity.

Derrickson gives us what appears on the surface as a semi-typical haunted house film, yet it’s so much more because of the Gothic elements and the presence of what Sigmund Freud would call ‘unheimlich.’ The Gothic past of tragic deaths lingers into the present, then modern technologies— first the Super-8 canisters, then the digital video clips— allow a horrifying piece of the past to become flesh and blood. The entity Bughuul effectively consumes the present and prevents a future by destroying generations of children.
Sinister (2012) - Ethan Hawke

“Don’t worry, daddy. I’ll make you famous again.”

Sinister (2012) - Hanging BodiesOne of the earliest indications of Ellison’s troubles with the past is at home with his family. Aside from the fact he’s not told his wife the history of their new home, he watches the Gothic creep under his family’s skin. Early on, Ellison and Tracy’s son— a sleepwalker with night terrors— wakes up in a moving box, coming out of it like a creature crawling from a hole. The kid’s like one of the house’s ghosts emerging right out of the family’s own belongings, not unlike the tapes Ellison finds upstairs.

The focus on family is significant because, as Ellison discovers on those tapes, the entity Bughuul targets families. The taped murders reflect the home, showing families and the everyday lifestyle of a modern family, from mowing the lawn to BBQs and so on. Most, if not all, the families depicted on the tapes have two kids and two parents (a.k.a the nuclear family). In this light, Bughuul is not only of the past, he represents a pagan deity destroying contemporary views of family. He’s described as an entity similar to Moloch, an “eater of children.” He uses children to destroy the families from within.

Part of the Gothic which operates throughout Sinister is the concept of Freud’s Uncanny or ‘unheimlich’: the estrangement we feel when we encounter something in the intimate spaces of our lives that’s familiar and simultaneously threatening or mysterious. Ellison’s discovery of the home movies box in the attic is a perfect example. After discovering the tapes he’s totally unmoored from comfort and the general familiarity of his new home. Ghosts of the dead children appear and the home becomes a veritable haunted house. The supernatural (‘unheimlich’) is juxtaposed with Ellison’s rational, true crime writer’s mind consisting of fact and logic. Fear of ambiguity is a symptom of modernity: we seek to rationalise, quantify, and qualify. Ellison, and in turn his family, are displaced by an Uncanny sensation from the comfortable logic of the modern into an ambiguous past full of ghosts.Sinister (2012)

“What happened here happened to all of us”

Sinister (2012) - Ethan HawkeNothing modern is safe from the ancient evil of Bughuul. A Gothic repetition of the past occurs as each new family to move into a home already touched by death is fated to the same violent ends. Ellison’s disrespect of the past— moving into a house where murders occurred to write a book about them, the questionable morality of using real life tragedies to make money— puts him in the way of Bughuul.

Bughuul is allowed to become a physical part of Ellison’s reality in the present after the conversion of the tapes. The ancient entity first becomes part of the modern world by its appearance on the Super-8 tapes. This parallels the mythology behind Bughuul in the screenplay: early Christians believed an image of the entity was its gateway into the corporeality. It crosses over entirely into reality once Ellison’s spliced and edited the tapes together on his computer. Modern technologies bridge the gap between pre-modern past and modernity. Antiquity isn’t the only past. The murders themselves are only decades apart, all in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, so they’re all contemporary to the film’s main plot.

The Gothic in Sinister comes mainly out of the power of the past to physically affect the present. This is a story of the suburban Gothic, illustrating everyday fears like not knowing the history of a new house into which you’ve moved, not knowing the prior tragedies, violent or otherwise, that have occurred where you and your children will now lay your heads at night expecting safety. These are fears most of us know— just a few anxieties intrinsic to urban existence. The Uncanny reoccurs in these urban spaces, and these supposedly safe, familiar neighbourhoods in a city’s suburban area become— via connection with the Gothic past— mysterious and scary. This is why Ellison originally works to keep the history of his family’s new house away from his wife and children. He knows they’ll be irreparably unsettled by an eerie disruption of the familiar.
Sinister (2012) - Ethan Hawke

“When bad things happen to good people they still need to have their stories told…”

Sinister (2012) - Bughuul ScorpionSinister is easily one of the creepiest and most enjoyable horrors of the 21st century so far for Father Gore. Derrickson and Cargill play along similar unsettling lines as The Ring (Cargill got the idea for his story from having a strange dream after watching it), using modern technology to deepen our sense of fear about the supernatural and how the Gothic past can carry on into current day.

A great allegory to pull out concerns the past v. the present, in how Derrickson’s film explores the true crime media landscape. Ellison’s treatment of true crime— his latest case is, above all, mainly about money and reclaiming the fame he once had with his book Kentucky Blood— and what it brings into his life is a warning. We must respect the past, and specifically tragic, violent events visited upon innocent people, or else become susceptible to the psychic violence of ghosts.

Once a supernatural entity enters the logical world of rational thought, Sinister illustrates how the Gothic past can damage our present, though not without our disrespect. If Ellison didn’t move into that house and disturb the past’s ghosts so directly, he might have written his book, helped solve a crime, and put those ghosts to rest. If we can treat the past with the right consideration, it’s possible we can quiet the ghosts, or at the least help them settle. If not, then maybe we get what we deserve.

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