When I returned to writing last year, it felt like I had found a part of myself I thought was lost forever.
I had given it up back in 2015 thanks to a cocktail of disillusionment, poor mental health, and substance abuse-induced disinterest, and I thought I’d never put words to paper again. But then, after getting sober, my brain chemistry changed, and a fog lifted from my mind: the desire was back. My passion for the horror genre had never left me and there were so many movies, film scores, and other pieces of media I desperately wanted to talk to the world about. I didn’t just want to write again — I needed to, like I was being physically pulled back to the keyboard.
I began to take some tentative steps towards regaining some of my skills that had dulled thanks to five years of disuse. This process was terrifying at first; it was like sticking a key into the ignition of a rusted old heap of a car you badly need to use but have no idea whether it will turn over or not. As luck would have it, there was a little bit of gas left in the tank, and once that ride got running once more, it felt like it had never stopped.
From a creative standpoint, those first couple of months were some of my happiest. As I plugged along, working on my Instagram account-turned-movie-blog, it began to feel like the part of my identity that had slipped away was stitching itself back onto my psyche. I’ve never been great at expressing myself in conversation, maybe it’s because of my intense shyness or piss poor self-esteem, but whenever I try to articulate vocally what I feel internally, things go sideways. I stumble, mumble, and go blank as anxiety and neuroticism overwhelm me. With writing, I feel like I have a voice. The words don’t desert me the way they normally do, and suddenly it’s like I’m the person I’ve always wanted to be.
After a while posting film reviews on social media wasn’t enough. I was gaining confidence and wanted to see how far I could take this thing, so I decided to make a proper go of it and start sending out pitches. To my great surprise, I found (at least in my mind) some modest success. A couple of sites I grew up loving were nice enough to publish some of my pieces, and newer publications with bold visions for the kind of content they wanted to produce generously allowed me to join their ranks. On top of this, people were actually reading what I wrote. Complete strangers who had no obligation to support me were enjoying my work.
It was all absolutely intoxicating, and pretty soon I began to lose sight of why I loved writing to begin with.
Scott Derrickson’s 2012 surprise hit Sinister is the kind of horror film that clings to you long after you’ve finished watching it. From its first frame and onwards, the movie feels heavy with an ever-intensifying sense of dread that isn’t often seen in mainstream genre filmmaking. It tells the story of a true-crime writer named Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) who moves into a house where a family was brutally murdered. As he attempts to piece together what exactly happened for a book he hopes to write, Oswalt finds in his attic a collection of Super 8 snuff films documenting the annihilation of several families, including the house’s previous occupants. Turns out all of the murders are not only connected but feature the exact same modus operandi: every member of the clan is killed except for one of the children, who is never seen again. As he digs deeper and deeper into the mystery, Oswalt discovers that the murders are part of a ritual meant to appease an ancient pagan demon known as Bughuul. Obsession soon takes hold of the writer, and as strange events begin to take place, he starts to question his own grip on reality.
Sinister is a damn fine supernatural horror film, but as we’ve seen in the past what can elevate a movie from “good” to “great” is the attention paid to something other than scares. The movie is pushed into that latter category by the relatability of Ellison Oswalt’s journey towards his eventual destruction. It’s a story about the dark side of success, how the need for praise and recognition can sometimes take a backseat to an artist’s initial ambition to create meaningful work, and the uncanny ways in which we delude ourselves regarding our intentions.
As Fangoria Editor-in-Chief Phil Nobile Jr. recently joked in an entry of The Terror Teletype, “Writing sucks. Having written? The best.” There’s a truth to this statement that most scribes can admit to inwardly if not publicly. For most of us, writing is as frustrating, isolating, and terrifying as it is invigorating, but the sensation of holding the finished product of all that hard work in your hands always seems to make the difficulties of the process fade from your memory.
In Oswalt’s case, he appears to have lost his love of writing altogether. Instead, he’s more focused on what he dreams the end result of his new project will be: he hopes it will make him famous again. With his last two true crime books flopping, Oswalt craves relevancy, chasing the high of the media spotlight he experienced after the massive success of his first offering, “Kentucky Blood.” So, with funds running low and the possibility of a day job looming on Ellison’s horizon, he deceives his unknowing family and moves them into the site of his next horrific study.
It’s as reprehensible an act as it is brazen, and while it’s certainly the most overtly selfish one we’ve seen from him in terms of putting career above family, you get the sense that there have been countless other instances of Oswalt’s writing inadvertently disrupting the lives of his wife and kids. “I’m tired of driving five miles under the speed limit only to get ticketed anyways,” Tracy (Juliet Rylance) says to him at one point, referencing how the law enforcement groups of every new community they move to always hassle them as a result of some comments he made in the past about true crime writing being able to offset lackluster police work. You wonder how many awkward situations the woman has been put in thanks to her husband’s bravado.
Then there are the ordeals his children experience because of Oswalt’s work. Every new book leads to them being uprooted and needing to learn how to adapt to life in a different school with peers who often ostracize them because of their father’s reputation. As if this weren’t bad enough, at least one of Oswalt’s kids appears to have been traumatized by the dark material he writes about. It’s alluded to that his son may have walked into his father’s unlocked study and seen some of the more horrific crime scene evidence that was on display. Though it’s never clearly stated in the film, it’s not a stretch to assume that this experience may be where his son’s night terrors stem from, and if that’s the case, then Oswalt’s carelessness may have damaged the boy’s psyche for life.
Sometimes well-intentioned people can be oblivious to the harm they do to those around them. A more optimistic viewer might choose to believe that Oswalt is a victim of his own tunnel vision due to how sincerely he believes that his writing can help bring justice to those who’ve fallen between the cracks. “When bad things happen to good people, they still need to have their stories told. They deserve that much!” he yells while in a row with his wife after she’s found out the history of their new home. You want to believe that he truly means this, and maybe at one point in his career he did, but it’s a little hard to do so when earlier in the film we hear him saying that writing about these horrible family murders could be his In Cold Blood, a reference to the quintessential true crime book by the legendary Truman Capote.
Does Oswalt long to write something as poetic and rich as Capote’s masterpiece? Possibly a small part of him does, but it’s far more likely (especially given how many times we witness him moodily watching old tapes of his talk show appearances from years before) that he’s praying for the type of success and adulation that would come with writing another bestseller, and in a way, his prayers are answered…but not by the entity he was hoping for.
Having inadvertently gone through all the same steps the previous families had before meeting their doom, Oswalt’s hubris seals his and his loved ones’ fate. Seconds before she brings an axe down on his neck, his daughter (corrupted by Bughuul’s influence) reassures him that she’ll “make him famous again.” In those final moments of terror, you can’t help but wonder if there’s a small part of Oswalt that finds comfort in that grim reality.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I understand a little bit where Oswalt’s motivations are coming from. I’ve never experienced the type of success the character had, but I do know what it’s like to have the need for recognition pollute my motivations. Recently, in fact, the stress that comes hand-in-hand with an over-reliance on praise nearly caused me to have a breakdown.
I often joke that writing is all I have going for me. I’m a short, stocky bald guy who can’t dance, isn’t particularly athletic, and has a below-average musical ability at best. This is meant to be a bit of funny self-deprecation, but there’s also truth to it. During the years I stopped writing I felt completely rudderless, and it took coming back to the craft for me to realize how much of my identity I’ve tied to my ability to string together a few sentences all pretty-like. Unfortunately, I also hitch a huge amount of self-worth to that talent, and it’s easy to enter some dangerous territory when you start doing that to yourself.
Whether it was intentional or not, Scott Derrickson does something really interesting with the way he lights Oswalt throughout Sinister. As he toils away in his study after his family has gone to bed (a habit many writers with children can certainly relate to) the character is bathed in shadows. The darkness is almost oppressive, threatening at points to swallow him whole. It would be easy to chalk this up to the fact that he’s working during the wee hours of the night, but then something fascinating happens. During a scene where Ellison is confronted by Tracy regarding his dishonesty, the writer happens to be standing in the only shadowy spot in an otherwise sunlight-saturated room. It’s as if that darkness is refusing to let him go while silently pulling his strings as he limply tries to argue that it’s the benefit of his family that’s guiding him as he attempts to write his new book.
I believe that the shadows surrounding Oswalt in those moments are his own struggles with self-hatred. It’s the voice many writers hear that gently whispers in their ear: “This isn’t good enough. You’re not good enough. And you never will be.” His lust for the spotlight (while certainly narcissistic) is also deeply sad because it’s the longing of someone who just wants to feel like they matter.
I’m not sure when the need to receive likes and comments on social media began to overshadow my love of writing itself. I do know that it wasn’t all at once. It crept in silently and made itself a home without me understanding what was happening. Then one morning I walked over to my keyboard and, after realizing that the ideas which normally came so quickly were nowhere to be seen, promptly had a panic attack.
It was like suddenly having all the oxygen sucked from my lungs. I’d love to say that this terrible feeling came out of some noble part of my soul that needed to express itself but had suddenly forgotten how to, but I’m embarrassed to admit that that wasn’t the case. My panicking mind was drawing a line (one that makes me cringe when I think about it now) and it looked like this: If you don’t have ideas, then you can’t write; if you don’t write, you won’t get published; if you don’t get published, people won’t care about what you have to say; if people don’t care about what you have to say, then you are worthless.
Looking back at that reasoning, I’m absolutely terrified of how much sense it made to me at the time. Nothing about those thoughts caused red flags to be tossed up in my head. It was just my reality, and I became obsessed with being heard even if I didn’t have anything to say that I really believed in or was passionate about. My entire sense of self now hinged on having a byline, and if that wasn’t happening, then I could barely look back at the person I saw in the mirror each day.
So, I thrust myself into the drive to create content. I needed ideas and didn’t give a shit if I was actually interested in them or not. Words like “topical” and “timely” suddenly became the only thing I could think about, and false starts began to happen again and again. Traction on any and all articles illuded me, and the harder it was to write, the fewer reasons I had to care about myself. It was a spiral of tension, frustration, and self-pity that was making me second guess my dreams altogether.
Which is why I can relate to Ellison Oswalt. When I imagine what he must be feeling in the opening scenes of Sinister as he moves his family into the house that will lead to their doom, it feels to me like it’s more a sense of desperation than hope. It isn’t the sound of opportunity knocking that he hears — it’s the wolves clawing at his door. One more book with lackluster sales, one more failure, means he’s finished. And that pursuit of success causes him to make the worst mistake of his life.
“The writing has to be enough for you before it will ever matter to anyone else.” That’s another quote from the Phil Nobile Jr. piece I mentioned earlier. Reading it back in April, I felt like someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water in my face. At the time, my wheels were still spinning as I jumped from half-written article to half-written article, trying to find something I could finish. I was beginning to grow bitter about the success of some of my peers, which was a selfish impulse I’m incredibly ashamed of now because it is completely opposite to the supportive member of our community I normally strive to be. I was basically at my worst, but reading that line made something in my brain click.
When I came back to writing, it was because I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the stories and artistry I loved. It wasn’t about getting pats on the back or flattering comments. It was about telling everyone how freaking amazing Keith Emerson’s score to Inferno was and why Bad Dreams isn’t an Elm Street rehash and how Blue Sunshine was a fantastic commentary on the failure of the Hippie generation and hey did you know that Marvel published the first Hellraiser spin-off comic series?!
If these thoughts hadn’t been committed to paper, I would have blabbed them to anyone near who would listen be it my wife, a friend, or some random at the bus stop, and I’d be doing so because these are the things that have made me want to get out of bed in the morning for as far back as I can remember. They’ve helped guide me through adolescent loneliness, crippling grief, and the deepest of depressive episodes just to name a few of life’s follies. And if tomorrow I wake up and find that not a single word I type will ever get published again, then just having the luxury of being able to get them out of my head needs to be what keeps me picking away at my worn-out keyboard.
However, more important than any of this is the big picture that Ellison Oswalt and I appeared to have been missing all along. At one point during Sinister, Tracy says to him: “Writing isn’t the meaning of your life. You and me, right here, this marriage: that’s the meaning of your life. And your legacy? That’s Ashley and Trevor. Your kids are your legacy.” If Oswalt had listened to these words, understood that there were people who loved him more than any reader, critic, or talk show host ever could, then he might have been able to save all their lives.
A review of the latest indie-darling horror movie won’t make me feel whole the way a smile from my wife will, just as a piece harping on my favorite film score won’t give me hope for the future like playing with my son does. Writing is wonderful but it’s not all life has to offer. Not by a long shot.
It’s 6:05 AM and birds are chirping outside the window next to me as I type this. The house has been quiet since I woke up to write about an hour ago, save for the gurgling of our coffeemaker and the clickety-clack of my keyboard. Now, I can hear my son squawking upstairs as he wakes from whatever dream he’ll tell me about in a few short moments over blueberry Eggos and rivers of maple syrup. I hesitate before getting up, slightly afraid to lose the hard-won momentum I’ve built during the past hour, but that fear is overridden by my excitement for the absolute chaos that fills every morning of fatherhood.
These words will still be here when I return and, as long as I stay out of my own way, they’ll flow again.
Pat Brennan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Rue Morgue, Dread Central, Certified Forgotten, and Killer Horror Critic. He lives in New Brunswick with his wife, son, and very needy cat. Follow him on Twitter @PBrennan87.
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