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Why Are Horror Movie Dads So Pathetic?

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is just the latest example of a family undone by its feeble father

“I can fix it.”

Hugh Crain’s mantra could also be his epitaph in the new version of The Haunting of Hill House, an adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel that chronicles the traumas that visit his luckless family. Whether played by Henry Thomas in the past or Timothy Hutton in the present, Hugh is an utterly milquetoast father — the quintessential nice guy who knows that a dad should be a provider and a rock, except he isn’t quite assertive enough to fulfill either role. There’s something hopelessly passive about him — he’s like a human shrug — and so his constant refrain of “I can fix it” soon proves to be comically pathetic. Fathers are supposed to protect us, but in this acclaimed Netflix series, where horrors seemingly can spring up from anywhere, there are few things more upsetting than the fact that the Crain family’s patriarch is utterly ineffectual.

He also reminded me how many horror films feature weak men who fail to be proper patriarchs — or at least the sort of noble, brave, morally upstanding fathers we idealize. In Hugh’s case, it’s not just that he’s wimpy — he projects a self-defeated, emasculated air. He walks around almost in a defensive crouch, as if life itself is overwhelming. (By comparison his wife, played by Carla Gugino, is a far more dynamic, nuanced and compelling character.) During the show’s 1992 segment, Thomas portrays him as a loving guy who cares about his wife and five children, but he isn’t quite connected to any of them. Although the Crains live in a house riddled with spooky spirits, Hugh is the guy who’s the most ephemeral — he has no real passions beyond flipping this mansion for a tidy profit.

In the present-day segment, Hutton is equally ghost-like. Sure, that’s a product of Hugh being permanently disturbed by what went down at Hill House, but he’s no better equipped at safeguarding his brood than he was as a younger man. He’s still insisting he can fix things, unaware that he can’t — and that his children no longer have much respect for him or faith in his parenting skills.

Horror dads habitually must face the fact that they’re unequal to the task of being patriarchs. Instead of rising to the challenge, they crumble. Sometimes not from lack of trying either: Think of Craig T. Nelson’s Steven in Poltergeist, an honorable father who does everything in his power to stop the nasty forces plaguing his family. Or Gabriel Byrne’s Steve in Hereditary, who loves his tormented wife but may not be able to prevent her from destroying herself and those around her.

More often, though, horror dads come in the form of Ethan Hawke’s Ellison, a pretentious, ego-driven true-crime novelist who in Sinister moves his family to a house where multiple murders occurred. Ellison smells another bestseller — his ambition is more important than his wife and kids, a personal failing that will lead to their downfall. A film like Sinister hints at one of the primal fears being triggered in these kinds of horror movies — deep down, the man who’s supposed to keep the rest of us safe won’t.

That anxiety also ripples throughout The Shining, which might seem like a film that runs counter to the ineffectual-dad trope. After all, as played by a wide-eyed, sneering Jack Nicholson, Jack Torrance would hardly seem like a pushover — he’s an axe-swinging, hyperactive madman. But Stanley Kubrick’s film, based on the Stephen King novel, is actually a pretty damning indictment of weak patriarchs. As we’ll learn, Jack is the kind of guy who stumbled into fatherhood without giving it any thought, and now he’s resentful that his wife and boy have robbed his life of vitality. He buries that resentment in alcohol and delusions of grandeur. Jack has quit his teaching job — he was too good for something so pedestrian, you see — and prepares himself to become a great author, writing his masterpiece in the seclusion of the Overlook Hotel. He’ll show the world.

Part of The Shining’s brilliance is its ability to support multiple interpretations, but it’s not hard to read the film as a critique of a failure who, unable to live with his inadequacy as a father, husband and novelist, is susceptible to the Overlook’s evil spirits, resulting in insanity and death. The domestic abuse Jack inflicted on his son before the film began is symptomatic of how so many maladjusted men resort to violence when they feel stymied. If anything, The Shining stands as a warning about the monstrousness that lurks inside seemingly weak men who are ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

Interestingly, the one subgenre of horror where dads are usually reliable is the post-apocalyptic thriller. Especially in recent years, there’s been a wave of films — including A Quiet Place — in which fathers manfully protect their family from unspeakable terrors. But, tellingly, it’s often an important plot point near the end of these movies that the dad dies — eventually, the rest of the family must learn how to survive without him. So even in the post-apocalyptic horror movie, dads can’t be depended on.

Worse yet, they sometimes may be actively dangerous because of some ill-informed beliefs. In both 2001’s Frailty and 2015’s The Witch, passionately religious fathers put their families in jeopardy due to their adherence to God. Frailty stars Bill Paxton (who also directed the film) as a dad who’s convinced that he’s meant to kill demons disguised as humans — and he wants his boys to take part in this homicidal lunacy. In The Witch, set during colonial times, a father (Ralph Ineson) moves his family to the middle of nowhere, confident that they must abandon their community lest they displease God. Soon, a mysterious force begins to torment the family, prompting the father to believe that one of his children has been seduced by witchcraft.

In both films, it’s a weakness of mind that powers the horror. We want to think that our fathers are smart, steady men. But Frailty and The Witch create scenarios in which the head of the household has succumbed to irrationality, and these men’s foolish surety causes all types of terrors for those living under their roof. In a sense, both fathers trust that they can “fix it,” when they, in fact, are the problem.

Hugh’s meager assurances that he can fix things — explaining away his kids’ fears about Hill House during their childhood, then trying to reassert his role as their guardian during their shattered adulthoods — have echoes in other horror movies, too. The finest example is 1960’s Eyes Without a Face, a deeply creepy and poignant French film about a tragedy: A brilliant plastic surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) is devastated after his daughter (Édith Scob) is badly disfigured in a car accident. But rather than simply grieving, the doctor decides to utilize his expertise, kidnapping unsuspecting young women and killing them, using their faces to repair his daughter’s.

Like Jack Torrance, Eyes Without a Face’s surgeon might not seem like a weak man. But the ease by which his sorrow turns to murder becomes a cruel, sick riff on the old notion that fathers would do anything for their little girls. (Basically, in horror movies, you should never let a grieving father call the shots: Consider how the dad in Pet Semetary makes everything worse by burying his dead child in that cursed cemetery in the vain hope that he’ll rise again.)

Overall, whether it’s The Shining, Eyes Without a Face or Sinister, it’s clear that we as a society have major daddy issues. We cling to this fragile notion that our fathers are good, kind, wise people who will keep us safe from the bad things out there in the world. But as The Haunting of Hill House demonstrates once again, perhaps our faith in our fathers is misplaced. Maybe they can’t protect us because they’re not the men we thought they were — and sometimes, maybe they’re the ones causing the horror in the first place.