This post originally appeared in Summer 2014 for a now-retired blog called The Write Place.
I slipped off to the theater one night last year to check out the horror film, Oculus, starring Karen Gillan as Kaylie Russell and Brenton Thwaites as her younger brother Tim. As the film opens, Tim has just been released from a mental institution following the deaths of their parents ten years ago. By the time I left the theater, I realized the story in Oculus is a lot like the stories of families in other horror movies. Think Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror or The Conjuring.
Both Kaylie and Tim are in their early 20s now and, upon Tim’s release, Kaylie offers him a quick, welcoming hug before reminding him of the promise they made to each other just before he was stuffed into a police car and carted away for the murder of their father.
Kaylie believes (and Tim did too, before the institution showed him “the error of his thinking”), a mirror their parents had purchased all those years ago is possessed by a spirit whose occasional incarnation as a freaky girl is only slightly more disturbing than the mirror’s ability to create illusions in the eyes and minds of whoever is near it.
Promise me, Tim…
Right after their parents died, Kaylie made Tim promise they would destroy the mirror once Tim was released back into society, since Kaylie holds it responsible for their parents’ death.
The spirit possessing the mirror drove Kaylie and Tim’s mother Marie crazy, and then possessed and made their father Alan kill Marie. Only Tim’s ability to get his hands on Alan’s gun and shoot him dead prevented Alan from killing him and his sister.
The story provides a slightly new perspective on family dynamics within horror films.
The Treatment of Family in Horror Films
The treatment of family in horror films typically goes either one of two ways. You have the Poltergeist approach, where families rely on the bond between family members to survive the horrors afflicting them. In 2013’s The Conjuring, it was a well-meaning family that had to stick together to survive the evils of a possessed home. Going back a year earlier to Insidious, father Josh Lambert had to enter the spirit world to retrieve his son Dalton who had been stolen away by malevolent, bad-ass demon.
The other approach to family dynamics is the one set up before Alan and Marie’s death in Oculus, and which has parallels in such films as Sinister and The Shining.
In this approach, the horror that besets the family is a projection of strife within the family: a stressful move to a new town, or a workaholic or frustrated parent trying to win back something lost to the past, or some other attempted recovery from disappointment or tragedy.
Obviously, kids must be part of this equation since they will be the ones who suffer the most.
In Oculus, Alan is trying to launch a new business from a small office in the Russells’ new home (the same office where the supernatural mirror is hung) and has a short fuse. When we first meet him, he’s juggling phone calls, trying to help Marie with the movers and telling the kids not to play in his office.
Think about the similarities with The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, a frustrated playwright who has a wife and son to support and not much in the way of steady employment, or Ellison Oswalt of Sinister who has been struggling to recapture the fame that came from the publication of his first book and who ignores his family as a result.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the paternal heads in horror films have significant personal flaws.
In most cases, the horror successfully overtakes and destroys the family (Sinister) or the family narrowly escapes and must live with the memory of how a terrible experience destroyed someone they loved (The Shining).
So Kaylie and Tim are the kids who narrowly escaped the destructive force that killed their parents, which would classify them under the Shining model. However, THAT is only the backstory. That is where the movie begins.
After Tim’s release from incarceration, Oculus heads in a new direction.
Kaylie Won’t Forget….
Kaylie has held fast during her brother’s incarceration to the promise she committed him to a decade ago. She wants revenge and is committed to destroy the mirror that killed their parents.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising.
Kaylie has had the freedom to lead her life in whatever direction she chose. She chose obsession. Institutionalized, Tim had the benefit of mental health support following the deaths of their parents.
Viewers won’t exactly be enamored with Kaylie’s intense desire to drag the newly-released Tim back to confront the demons of their past.
Kaylie represents a staple in horror films, a sweet young thing in a snug t-shirt and jeans going up against the baddies. But there is a slightly deranged quality to the way she sets up the mirror in the old family home and prepares to destroy it with a winch and metal hammer contraption attached to the ceiling. She has also set up multiple defenses against any attempt by the mirror to stop her from destroying it.
When Tim sees what she’s up to, he is aghast and explains what he learned in the hospital, that there was nothing supernatural about the mirror, that their father went crazy and killed their mother and that he (Tim) killed Alan to protect Kaylie and himself. The problem, says Tim, is that he and Kaylie both went through an awful experience and have not learned to accept what happened.
In real life, this is usually true. One’s inability to accept and manage the emotions that accompany the tragedies in life often lead to internal disturbances. This is where the real horror of life begins–in the failure to get a grip. This is what Tim believes is bothering his sister.
Kaylie stubbornly will not accept that explanation and ultimately, after viewers begin to suspect that she may indeed be a tad bit off kilter, she ends up being right. The mirror is possessed.
It’s not my intent to delve into the whole film. It is enough to simply highlight the back story and show how two survivors of a supernatural creature choose to face the presence that killed their parents rather than move on in their lives.
In the end, this flips values within the horror genre. Most survivors of a supernatural attack feel lucky just to escape. If even one teenager can escape Jason Vorhees’s blade or Leatherface’s chainsaw, count your blessings.
But for Kaylie, survival isn’t enough. I doubt she even notices. She’s just angry. Family, it seems, is worth getting revenge for. We’ve seen this before, in a way. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left is a kind of mirror image of Oculus (no pun intended). Rather than children seeking revenge on those that killed the parents, in Craven’s film, it is the parents who go after the men who killed their children.
The difference between the two is that, in Oculus, the mirror represents more than vulnerable, mortal evil; it is supernatural evil with powers the siblings can’t quite understand or know how to fight. This same supernatural evil, mind you, killed their parents.
Oculus examines how those who have lost loved ones will go back and fight regardless of the consequences or their chances of survival. That’s unusual in the horror genre. Again, survivors typically consider themselves lucky to escape despite the fate of other victims.
But perhaps Oculus isn’t really a horror story. Perhaps it is actually a love story. If something killed your parents, wouldn’t you get a little pissed off too?