Let’s talk about what it means to be a father. In our culture, a father is supposed to be a protector, a provider, the person responsible for the physical, mental, and existential well-being of his family. While both mothers and fathers face conflicts regarding their individuality and the demands of having a family, their duties are wholly distinct.
In many horror movies, a mother’s fears are tied to her biological function and are restricted to her relationship with her children. The anxiety here is that a mother might lose her autonomy to her children, that she might selfishly betray the sacred bond between mother and child, or that she will fail as a mother and be subject to a multitude of punishments. I delve into a lot of these movies in my post about mothers in horror movies, which you can read here.
When it comes to fathers, horror movies seem divided into two camps. In the first, a father struggles to fulfill his obligations (whether he’s aware of this or not is left to the individual film), thereby putting his family at risk. It’s only through his re-dedication to idealized fatherhood that he can protect his family. In the second, a man rebukes his fatherhood and the responsibilities that come with it because he is the nefarious threat to his family. On the whole, his obligations are to both his children and his wife (heteronormative families rule the roost in horror movies so far), and his duties arise more from social code than biological function.
It’s with these thoughts in mind that I created this list of horror movies that examine fatherhood. In these films, fatherhood is the glue that holds the family together and allows the family unit to become the fundamental building block of communities, societies, and civilizations. Whether these fathers fail or succeed in living up to the standard has profound ramifications for his family, which reflects our deeply held fears about the stability of our society.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The evil stepfather is a popular figure in thrillers and horror films, and for good reason. As a child, there’s something sinister and threatening about a strange, scary man who earns your mother’s trust and suddenly has near limitless authority over you. It speaks to deep-seated distrust between a man and another man’s children, one ripe for the horror treatment. Of all the horror movie stepfathers, my personal favorite is the Reverend Harry Powell from horror/thriller The Night of the Hunter, which explores the destructiveness of shitty fathers and toxic masculinity.
Male Role models are few and far between for John and Pearl Harper. Their father is a bank robber who accidentally kills two people, hides the money at home, and is later executed for his crimes. Before his death, he tells his cellmate, Powell, about the money. Powell is a violently misogynistic serial murderer and creepy self-declared preacher always ready with some justification for his crimes. He quickly hatches a plan to get the money by marrying John and Pearl’s mother. And so Powell presents himself as the perfect man: a respectable gentleman with a healthy fear of God and all the makings of a good husband and sturdy father. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that doesn’t stop him from carrying out his nefarious plan by murdering their mother (not before being emotionally abusive towards her) and terrorizing the children. The real gut punch comes when the audience realize that John has conflicting emotions about his stepdad because all he ever wanted was a father to love him.
The Omen (1976)
It’s an unthinkable outcome—your child is the literal antichrist. Do you adhere to your role as protector of a seemingly innocent child, or do you uphold the social order and protect the world by killing your child? Is there a worse dilemma for a father to face? Especially when it was your secretive but well-intentioned plotting that brought the demon child into your house?
The fear represented in The Omen—being the parent of an unholy abomination—is as enduring and frightening as any parents’ fear. Part of what makes The Omen so compelling is that both fathers and mothers share this fear. However, The Omen is specifically about Robert Thorn’s choice between being a father and being a good man. The film is rooted in conflicted masculine responsibility and the struggle between good and evil. Additionally, the really hellish part of this nightmare is that Robert is solely responsible for exposing his family (and the world) to the antichrist, however well-intentioned his mistake.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Yes, this movie is super cheesy and hasn’t aged well, but it does present an intriguing portrayal of one man’s struggles with his new fatherhood. No one ever said being a father wasn’t a challenge, especially when life isn’t going your way and you face new pressures from marrying a woman with three kids. (Not that marrying a woman with children from a previous marriage is bad, but it will be an adjustment. Be prepared!) And men have a weird way of lashing out when they realize they aren’t living up to their standards.
In The Amityville Horror, George wants to be a good father, and that means being a certain kind of provider. Money is tight, so the very best the family can do is buying a large, cheap murder house. At first, it seems like their dream home. But then things start going wrong immediately; stuff break, pipes spew nasty gook, the bills pile up, and the family begins experiencing unsettling phenomena. It’s easy for George to take it personally, given his frustration and disappointment in failing to be the kind of father he wants to be. However, his solution to be controlling and abusive is…um…very wrong and makes him vulnerable to dark influences that threaten to turn him into full a blown psycho dad.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King famously hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his classic novel, claiming that the film is a “poor” adaptation of the novel. I have to agree with King in that limited scope—The Shining film is a very different story from the novel, with different themes and lessons. But I think King’s real problem with the film is that it the Torrance family dynamic is fundamentally different, and Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is an utterly irredeemable father. Given King’s profoundly autobiographical connection to The Shining and Jack Torrance, I think Kubrick’s The Shining goes too far for King’s comfort. Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is firmly in the horror pantheon of Worst Fathers Ever.
Where King’s Jack is a good man tormented by his inner demons, Kubrick’s Jack is a mean man hiding behind a thin veneer of respectable masculinity (check out any of the early scenes to see his barely contained contempt). The film heavily suggests that he has abused Wendy for quite some time and has started abusing Danny, such that the family is already terrified of him before he goes full blown Bad Daddy. And Kubrick’s Jack doesn’t need much of a push from the evil hotel—his deep resentment towards his wife and child make it easy for him to embrace his monstrous side. Worse still, Kubrick’s Jack never enjoys the redemptive arc Jack receives in the novel. He does not perish as a man finally overcoming his demons long enough to save his family; he dies an abusive asshole trying to murder his family. Any genuinely loving father, however flawed, would bristle at such a depiction.
Like a few movies on this list, Poltergeist explores the fears and anxieties of mothers and fathers. The film explores fatherhood more than motherhood by focusing more on Craig T. Nelson’s character Steven Freeling. In doing so, Poltergeist becomes a fable about how a father can both expose his father to evil through his negligence and protect them with his renewed commitment to his role.
Steven, similar to Robert Thorn, does a lot to unwittingly put the family in harm’s way by working for a shady real estate company. He also dismisses a lot of his family’s concerns about the house after weird stuff happens. It’s really not Steven’s fault—he’s just trying to be the stern and rational dad here like he’s supposed to be. But it wouldn’t be a horror movie without a character’s honest mistakes wreaking havoc on his life.
Poltergeist combines so many fatherly anxieties. There’s the drive to provide for a comfortable life for one’s family, the desire to have an important job that brings a good paycheck and status, and the helplessness that comes from knowing something is wrong but being unable to do anything about it. All of these fatherly drives clash in Poltergeist. Thankfully, while Steven is woefully out of his element when battling the spirits, he never loses sights of what’s important.
In this underrated gem of a religious horror movie, Meiks plays an ordinary man and father who hears the voice of God telling him to kill people with an ax. Naturally, his young sons are suspicious of their father’s newfound calling, especially because their dad has been so not murderous up until this point. Though Meiks is initially worried about whether he is hearing the voice of God or not, he soon becomes convinced that he is doing the Lord’s work. And because he has the strength of his convictions, he enlists help in the form of his young sons, Fenton and Adam.
Frailty is a complicated, layered film, striking at the heart of father/child conflict, and thereby mirroring the conflict between dueling moralities as well as masculine hierarchies and power dynamics. If we’re to believe Meiks, then he has received divine instruction to kill demons. But how can we discount the horror of young Fenton, who is increasingly afraid that his father has gone insane? It’s an impossible situation between father and son, and we don’t know until the end whether or not Meiks is right or if he’s taken advantage of his fatherly authority to manipulate his sons into becoming his accomplices.
The Mist (2007)
Possibly the most tragic film on this list, The Mist is the story of a small Maine town that nearly tears itself apart when a mysterious, thick mist engulfs the town. Hidden in the mist are nightmarish creatures, which forces some of the town’s residents to take shelter in a grocery store. Among these residents are David Drayton and his son Billy, and when tensions inside quickly spiral out of control, David does everything he can to protect his son. Like Lee in A Quiet Place, he does an admirable job until things get dire, and David is forced to make an unimaginable sacrifice that proves to be for naught.
David is a good father. He’s resourceful, levelheaded, attentive, nurturing and protective of his small son. If anything, his fatherhood seems to inoculate him against the mania that grips the townspeople and prevent him partaking in any of the craziness inside the store. But his fatherly wisdom and rationality were his greatest weaknesses in the end, and he loses the very thing he worked so hard to protect. I can think of few other situations as horrifying and sorrowful for a father.
The Witch (2015)
Was anyone else deeply frustrated by the dad in The Witch? William literally had ONE JOB, which was to be the patriarch guiding his family, and he messed it up by being a proud, headstrong ass who got his family kicked out of their settlement. And he’s not even good at living off the land! It would have been one thing if he could hunt or grow crops like a decent Puritan, but all he’s good for is chopping firewood and pissing off community elders. Seriously dude? Maybe you should have thought of that before you mouthed off about your interpretation of the New Testament. It’s his fault that the family finds themselves in their perilous position, and I didn’t feel bad at all when Black Phillip finally let him have it.
Ok, that’s the end of my rant. But the father’s incompetence is central to the film’s exploration of patriarchy and unquestioned masculine authority. The Witch creates a unique kind of existential horror for the father, who realizes that his adherence to his proud (but by all accounts earnest) religious beliefs directly compromised his ability to provide for and protect his family. It’s an excellent example of the conflict between committing to a personal code and upholding one’s responsibilities as a father. It’s a somewhat similar dilemma seen in horror movies about motherhood, where the mother struggles to retain her personal identity at the expense of her child.
A Quiet Place (2018)
This movie could easily go on a list about fathers as well as mothers, especially because the family unit is such a strong element of this film. But for this list, we’ll stick to John Krasinski’s character, Lee Abbott. Because if there was one horror movie to depict a pure distillation of what our society expects a father to be, it’s A Quiet Place.
Lee is a survivalist, outdoorsman, and an engineer (?) capable of giving his family a pretty darned comfortable life, considering the circumstances. (In fact, it’s like he was built to survive this exact apocalypse.) He’s steady and calm under pressure. He’s insanely competent and handy, doing everything from fixing his daughter’s hearing aid to setting up a firework distraction system. He’s stern yet patient, serious yet caring. He shares his knowledge with his family instead of lording it over them (some fathers on this list would do that.) He knows how to get out of any scrap, and when he can’t, he’s ready and willing to sacrifice himself.
He’s the perfect dad for when shit goes down, the kind of father other kids brag about having. His whole purpose in the film is to protect his family. As far as horror movies go, I don’t think there’s a better example of perfect fatherhood than A Quiet Place.
What horror movies about fathers are your favorites? Did I leave any good ones off the list? Let me know in the comments!