Sinister Is a Tragic Cautionary Tale Under a Demonic Veneer

The first time I saw Scott Derrickon’s breakout hit Sinister, I hated it. I found it really mean-spirited, and I thought it displayed a disturbing fascination with evil for evil’s sake. But then I gave it another shot several years later, and I completely changed my mind about the film. I don’t know what happened that first time, but on this second watch I saw a dramatically different movie, one that doesn’t revel in evil but instead uses it to convey a deep and timely message that we would all do well to heed.

At its core, this is a story about a man who prioritizes his work over his family, and it tears them apart, quite literally. The supernatural evil they experience is just a metaphor for that deeper reality, so even though the film ends on one of the bleakest and most depressing notes I’ve ever seen, it’s not just evil for evil’s sake. Rather, it shows us the deepest, darkest depths of evil in order to unmask it and reveal its true face. The movie shows us just how bad it really is to neglect your family, and that, in turn, should compel us to give our own families the love, care, and attention they deserve. Sinister hammers this point home in multiple ways from beginning to end, so if we go through the film with an eye toward this theme, it’s just about impossible to miss.

The Premise

Ellison looking at a crime report

Let’s begin on a very general level. Sinister is about a family named the Oswalts that moves into a new neighborhood so the father, Ellison, can write a true crime book about some grisly murders that happened there. Unbeknownst to them, their new house is haunted by a demon named Bughuul, and he immediately goes to work on his latest victims. Unlike most demons, this one doesn’t just make random spooky noises or try to possess people. No, his ultimate goal is to compel one of the children to kill their siblings and parents, and then he steals the kid away to a mystical plane where nobody can ever find them.

If that isn’t a great metaphor for the dangers of neglecting your family, then I don’t know what is. By moving into a new house, Ellison literally allowed a demon to invade his family and destroy it, and he did it just so he could write a book. His attachment to his work above all other concerns was the direct cause of the evil that befell his family, so the supernatural element works perfectly as a metaphor for the movie’s theme.

The Effect on the Kids

Trevor coming out of a box and screaming

When we move from the premise to some specific plot details, we find that the theme of familial neglect is prevalent there as well. To begin, one of the opening scenes features Ellison talking to his daughter, Ashley, as they’re moving into their new home, and Ashley tells her father that she didn’t like having to move. In response, Ellison basically just poo-poos her concerns and says that they needed to move so he could write his book.

When you watch Sinister for the first time, you don’t realize how important this brief exchange is. It seems like a typical conversation that any parent would have with their kid in the midst of a move, and Ellison approaches it with a kind and loving demeanor. However, if we look back on it after the credits roll, we realize that it actually sets the stage for the rest of the story. No matter how nice Ellison may have seemed, the fact is that the Oswalts moved simply so he could write his book, and he doesn’t care if it’s bad for his children. He just wants to do what he wants to do, and his family is simply along for the ride.

Soon, after this, we begin to see more concretely just how bad the move has been for the kids. For example, Ellison wakes up one night and finds Ashley in the laundry room asking where the bathroom is. Similarly, there’s another scene where he wakes up and finds his son, Trevor, in a cardboard box, and as Trevor comes out of the box, he begins to scream in abject terror.

These are not normal behaviors. In particular, the incident with Trevor is depicted in an almost demonic way, so we know that something is very wrong here. Unsurprisingly, though, Ellison doesn’t see it. He doesn’t think these odd occurrences are anything more than sleepwalking and getting lost in a new house, so he just continues researching and writing like nothing ever happened. But we know better. No matter how oblivious Ellison may be, we know that his kids are beginning to come under the influence of something much more, well, sinister, and it’s all because he just has to write that damn book.

Conversations with Tracy

Ellison and Tracy talking as they move into their new home

Those are some of the ways Sinister shows us its theme, but I want to switch gears now and look at how the movie explicitly tells us what its theme is. Ellison has multiple conversations with his wife Tracy that touch on the topic of familial neglect, and two of them pretty much smack us upside the head with it. First, there’s a scene where they talk right after Trevor has another “sleepwalking” incident, and Tracy confronts Ellison about everything that’s been going on. She points out that writing the new book is having a negative impact on him and their children, and she asks him to stop working on it. Naturally, he refuses. He says he’s onto something big, so he can’t stop.

With this scene, the theme of the film really comes into focus. This isn’t just a metaphor or a subtle hint. No, this time, one of the characters comes out and says that Ellison’s attachment to his work is hurting his family, so he should give it up. Can it get any clearer than that? Actually, yes it can. When Ellison refuses to stop working on his book, that just reinforces the theme even more. He makes it apparent that his work is more important to him than his wife and kids, and he’s completely unwilling to stop even though it’s clearly hurting them.

At this point, the meaning of the film should be pretty obvious, but in case there’s still any doubt left, there’s one more scene that lays it out even more explicitly. When Tracy finds out that they moved into the house where the murders actually took place, they have another big argument, and Ellison says that he has to write the book because it’s his legacy. Writing, he says, is what gives his life meaning. In response, Tracy points out that his children are his real legacy, and his family should be the thing that gives his life meaning.

This is our smoking gun. Ellison straight up admits that his work is more important to him than his family. Granted, he doesn’t use those exact words, but that’s the obvious implication of the words he does use. By saying that his life is meaningful because of his writing, not because of his wife and kids, he’s essentially saying that his work is more important than they are. It occupies the place in his heart that should belong to them, and he gives it the love and devotion that he should be giving his wife and children. Simply put, he’s a neglectful father and husband, and as we find out soon after this scene, that neglect leads to the literal destruction of his family.

A Tragic Cautionary Tale

When we put all these pieces together, we find that under the veneer of a fun and scary horror movie, Sinister is actually a tragic cautionary tale about the dangers of familial neglect. Once you become a parent, your children immediately skyrocket to the number one priority in your life. They take precedence over everything else, including your work, and forgetting that can lead to disastrous consequences. Sadly, Ellison Oswalt did just that, focusing so much on his book that he was blind to the negative effects it was having on his kids, and it led to the brutal murder of himself, his son, Trevor, and his wife, Tracy, as well the demonic abduction of his daughter, Ashley.

In this way, Sinister does one of the most important things a good horror movie can do; it unmasks evil and shows us just how bad it truly is. Granted, real life isn’t quite as dramatic as the Bughuul myth, but the exaggerated nature of the story just makes its point that much clearer: familial neglect has very real, very harmful consequences, and those of us who either currently have a family or who would like to have one someday would do well to take this message to heart.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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