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‘Sinister’ and the Obsession of True Crime

By: Taylor Hunsberger | August 14, 2020
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‘Sinister’ and the Obsession of True Crime

The 2012 supernatural horror film ​Sinister​ is incredibly ​chilling​ ​with its well-crafted jump scares and dark themes of violence within the family unit. Our protagonist, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), moves his family to a new home to begin work on a true crime book. Ellison hasn't published anything since his bestseller "Kentucky Blood," released ten years earlier, and he is eager to get back to work in hopes of regaining his fame. Ellison chose this home because it was the site of a family's grisly murder. Knowing it would upset his family, Ellison hides it from them.

In the attic of the house, Ellison finds a super 8mm film box and decides to surreptitiously set up a projector and screen the footage for himself. What Ellison uncovers is a snuff film of the previous family, the Stevensons, being hanged in the backyard. Despite being startled by the horrific finding, Ellison makes his way through the box of film, discovering a continuation in the series, each family murdered differently. Ellison decides to notify the authorities, but when he sees a copy of his first book, he hangs up the phone and begins work on the case on his own. This is the start of his obsession. 

Obsession and the true crime genre go hand in hand in this film and in contemporary culture. We can see this explored in the 2007 true crime classic ​Zodiac, a film based on the real-life story of Robert Graysmith, who wrote two nonfiction books on the Zodiac Killer case. This case has never actually been solved and was a particularly difficult one, as there was only circumstantial evidence and the crimes were committed across multiple jurisdictions. The suspect sent cryptograms to the press in the Bay Area of California for attention, turning them into a "persona" for the media and public to consume and share.

Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist interested in solving the cryptograms, beginning his obsession with the case. We see Graysmith's progression from interest to obsession and the gradual impact this has on his marriage. Graysmith becomes so consumed in solving the Zodiac Killer case that he alienates his family, ultimately losing them in sacrifice for his dedication. Throughout the film, we can feel the frustration building in Graysmith's second wife, Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), a true-to-life testament as to how a case can consume someone. In the end, Melanie serves Graysmith with divorce papers, along with a scanned image of the license of Arthur Allen Lee (John Carroll Lynch), Graysmith's number one suspect. There's no doubt that this is the reason their marriage fell apart.

Due to all of the mysteries and questions left open in the Zodiac case, Graysmith's obsession and search for a solution is seemingly empty and endless. With no ability to charge a suspect and little attention given to the survivors, it appears that Graysmith's obsession is more rooted in his desire for answers than justice. This is where we see similarities to Ellison. Both men seek answers for their own self-fulfillment, allowing their relationships to the people around them to fall through the cracks. While we learn about the survivors in Zodiac, this film is ultimately telling the story of Graysmith, as Sinister tells the story of Ellison. In Sinister, we do not learn anything about the victims other than their names and how they died. Both of these examples point to narratives that primarily benefit the investigator's drive and no one else.

The behaviors we see in Ellison in Sinister can be seen in the writing and production of the true crime genre in this cultural ideation of crime as an industry. To understand this, let's first look at Ellison's behavior. His first action as a character in the film is to lie to his family, going against their wishes of being put in harm's way. It seems clear that this has happened before, so his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is firm about protecting their family. She questions his ability to even regain his former popularity with a new novel, stating, "What if that was your fifteen minutes?" 

Tracy puts her family first, which contrasts with Ellison, who does the exact opposite. Ellison betrays his wife, removes his daughter, Ashley (Clare Foley), from her friends and school, and eventually leads his son, Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), to become possessed by a demon named Bughuul. Ashley expresses her disappointment in leaving her place of comfort. Trevor has previous experiences with night terrors, so Ellison is entirely aware of what he is doing and chooses to put his opportunity for remuneration over his family. 

As Ellison dives further into his investigation, he realizes that the murders presented in the super 8 films all have one thing in common: one of the children of each family had gone missing following the events. Along with this, Ashley starts drawing on the wall and tells her dad about a little girl she has seen, the same girl who went missing after the Stevensons’ murder. Despite these clues and multiple scares of his son, Trevor, wandering out into the night, Ellison continues to push the case, entering a state of addiction. He is so motivated by his own search for success that he becomes enveloped in his own dramatic irony, blind to the possession of Ashley, which ultimately leads to the murder of his family at her hands. 

In the Author's Note to her poetry collection about true crime, Life of the Party, Olivia Gatwood writes: "True crime, while being a genre that so many women rely on for contorted validation, is, simultaneously, a perpetrator of misogyny, racism, and sexual violence... It is a genre primarily produced by men. A genre that complicates how we bond over our love for it, often unsure who identifies with the victim and who identifies with the perpetrator." 

While so many consumers of the true crime genre report that they engage in it for the justice it provides the victim and their family, there are still elements of profit and the sensationalizing of murder at play here. If we are really engaging in the genre of true crime for the sake of the victim, why has the genre's popularity only boomed with the rise in streaming media? True crime has always existed, but there are more shows, more documentaries, and more podcasts than ever before about the genre. 

Media production companies have found new ways to engage with an audience to profit from crime and obsession, all of which continue to be perpetuated. When consuming a multiple part series on a streaming service such as Netflix, we spend time obsessing over the case, looking up anything we can find online, and coming up with our own theories. All of which is then shared with others, and the cycle continues. There are Internet communities, conventions, and even subscription boxes where you can have fictional crime cases sent to you to solve. The obsession over a case is not unlike a franchise, it is profitable, and if it does not have a convicted killer, it never really has an ending. The murder of another person can become endlessly profitable. 

Sinister’s condemnation of this notion is unequivocal: Ellison seeks to investigate this case for profit, which only results in his karmic murder. The death of his family is a direct result of his actions and neglect. A similar occurrence is present in 2018's Halloween

This sequel eschews all the previous entries and serves as a follow-up to Laurie Strode 40 years later with a daughter of her own, Karen (Judi Greer) and granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), struggling with the trauma she experienced during her first encounter with Michael Myers (Nick Castle). The film opens with true crime podcasters, Dana (Rhian Rees) and Aaron (Jefferson Hall), searching to report on the story and get down to understanding what could cause Michael to be the killer that he is. This rhetoric can be found in the current true crime industry, which seems to be more interested in the villain themselves and how they could have possibly come to that level of evil rather than providing support and a voice to the actual survivors. 

With permission from Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), Dana and Aaron approach Michael Meyers (James Jude Courtney & Nick Castle) in Smith's Grove Psychiatric Hospital with the original mask donned during his attack. Recording the interaction, all three hope to get a response from Michael, but it's to no avail. The two investigators then set their sights on Laurie, who they push into having a conversation with Michael since they believe that he may open up to her. By doing this, they encourage her to do something that would put her in harm's way. They're not interested in allowing Laurie to heal, but instead, want her to confront someone who terrorized her in the hopes he'll speak and make their story more enticing. Doctor Sartain, Dana, and Aaron all get consumed by their obsession with Michael Meyers. They all end up being caught in the violent cycle of evil, another karmic end to people who are more interested in a story than a solution.

The 2020 HBO docu-series I'll Be Gone in The Dark, based on the book by the late Michelle McNamara of the same name, provides a counter-argument to the exploitative methods of creating true crime media. The six-part series is a retelling of the life of Michelle McNamara, who spent many years investigating the case of the "Golden State Killer," and was the one who coined the aforementioned name. McNamara's work was ultimately continued by her research team after her sudden death in 2016, which lead to the identification and arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, who was responsible for at least fifty counts of rape and thirteen murders, as well as burglary throughout California in the '70s and '80s. Rather than focus on the case itself, I'll Be Gone in the Dark places Michelle, her work, and the lives of the survivors and their families at the forefront. This story is about Michelle and the incredible writer, investigator, and woman that she was, not the man who committed these horrific crimes. 

This series and Michelle's work as a collective whole turns true crime into a platform that provides rehabilitation rather than the fetishization of serial killers and the violence against women that this genre often perpetuates. Instead of superficially and obsessively consuming the crimes, the series shows the dangers the obsession posed to Michelle's life. We're able to gain an understanding of the survivors, their families, and the family of Joseph himself. This method of storytelling is more ethical: humanizing a story of trauma rather than using it for shock value. 

The final episode of I'll Be Gone in the Dark follows the aftermath of Joseph's arrest, providing accounts of the survivor's feelings and the reactions of Joseph's family members who knew him in a much different light. Though there is a sense of relief that this man is no longer on the loose, the survivors and their families choose the path of moving forward, acknowledging their experiences, and healing among each other. A gathering is held for the survivors to meet and find solidarity as women who have experienced unimaginable violence. 

The series does not tell us that something good was gained from something so terrible, a narrative that can be dangerous when approaching trauma. It lets us know that there can be healing and that one woman worked until her last day to find answers and provide a voice for these women. Michelle did not capitalize on them, nor did she exploit their pain. Her focus was never about this one man. She sought to uplift these women that the criminal justice system failed, a feeling conveyed in the final moments of the series by everyone impacted by her work. I'll Be Gone in the Dark breaks free from the mold and creates a new model for true crime to follow that benefits the victims and helps us understand them with the hope of a cathartic ending.