Like a Halloween-themed episode of America’s Next Top Model, 35 terrifying films stand before us, but Science only has one DVD in its hands. According to a study that we should probably take as the gospel truth, the scariest movie ever made is… Sinister, the 2012 horror movie starring Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer, husband, and father of two!
Sinister is, indeed, a truly frightening film. Hawke’s writer moves his entire family into the house in which an entire family was gruesomely murdered. (They’re the subject of his upcoming book.) Soon enough, he’s plagued by visions and some very graphic home-video snuff films that keep unspooling every night in the attic.
What no one mentioned at the time of the film’s release was that the movie is not actually about a pagan deity that feeds on the souls of children, despite what the plot twists might have us believe. The true horror of Sinister is the heteronormative family structure that results in mass slaughter.
As Hawke watches each family get tortured and killed on flickering Super 8 (the celluloid of fear), he sees the suburban dream vivisected and the nuclear family structure dismembered (er… dismantled). Meanwhile, his own family is interfering with his work; his wife, when she learns of why they’ve moved into this bargain-bin house, is appalled. But Hawke’s ambitions necessitate immersing himself in this world; he abandons his work because his family is endangered.
But Hawke’s character is only in danger because he is a father. A childless couple in that same house, gay or straight, would not be under demonic attack.
The end of Sinister finds the family doing what all families should do in similar circumstances: fleeing the haunted house for safety elsewhere. But the trap of heteronormativity is insidious (to borrow the title of a similar horror movie about families in peril) and they cannot escape it. And that is where true horror lives: The free-falling terror of making choices because of societal pressure—only to be undone by them.