Genre fans can be the most devoted supporters in film, but they can also be the biggest sticklers hung up on minutiae or continuity. While some creators are content with simply saying “a wizard did it,” others wish to dive in to the conversation and explain their thought processes and creative tenets to better elucidate their work. Mike Flanagan, writer/director of Absentia, Oculus, and Hush, is part of the latter camp and took to the internet to discuss his thought process behind a character in his most recent film.
Hush, now available to stream on Netflix, is an excellent home invasion film (it’s so good that Stephen King has sung its praises on Twitter) that pits a deaf woman against a masked assailant who terrorizes her throughout the night. The woman (Kate Siegel, who also cowrote the film) must find a way to get help or fend off the attacker, while the psychopath (John Gallagher Jr.) finds new ways to torture the young woman for his own purposes. That “own purposes” part is something that has stuck in the craw of a few viewers of the film. They want to know more about the motive and backstory of Gallagher’s villain, why he’s doing what he does, and what he gets out of such terrible acts. Flanagan understands that desire, but ultimately rejects it in a very well-thought-out post he wrote over the weekend on his Facebook page:
When it comes to horror, I strongly believe two things to be true:
1) What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do, and
2) The explanation is never as satisfying as the question.
He then goes on to discuss how budget limitations, when coupled with these tenets, forced him to scale back on how much is seen of the monster in Absentia and how much is explained about the mirror in Oculus (to be fair, there is an infodump in Oculus about its terrifying history). Flanagan goes on to explain how there are no easy answers for why people do what they do in the real world, and that eerie lack of understanding is more haunting than being able to pinpoint a specific trauma or impetus for turning into a killer. When dealing with the antagonist of Hush, would anything really be as unsettling as never knowing what drove a man to become a monster? And doesn’t that make audiences more sympathetic to the main character who doesn’t know why she must endure such punishment from the hands of a stranger?
And the bottom line is that anything else we try to shove in there isn’t going to be as frightening. I could have written in a scene where he says “I kill people because I was rejected by women all of my life.” I could have him say “I was abused by my father and I grew up to want to inflict that kind of pain on innocents.” He could say “I served two tours in Afghanistan and came back traumatized, so I don’t have an outlet for my violent tendencies.”
But is that REALLY what you want to hear? Which of those reasons is going to be more horrifying than the answer given by the killers in The Strangers when asked why they chose their victims…
“Because you were home.”
At the SXSW premiere of Hush, the director did say he worked out a backstory (at the behest of Gallagher Jr.) to help the actor get into the right headspace; but Flanagan also had no intention of ever exploring that in the film itself. He keeps the character’s history shrouded in mystery, which makes him malleable to whatever the audience fears or dreams up on their own. It’s an excellent piece that explores what can make good horror fiction work so well, when handled as well as it is in Hush, when showing something is too much and when restraint can be much scarier than unbridled id.