Married for over thirty years, a seemingly normal, devoted husband. Father of one son and one daughter. President of the church council and Boy Scout leader. And serial killer.
Dennis Rader, aka the BTK killer, is one of the more famous and extreme examples of a heinous murderer who seemed trustworthy--provided you were unaware of or ignored some of his warning signs. An ordinary suburbanite who kept his deeds so secret even his wife and children were clueless as to his true nature. Something that sets him apart from the likes of Richard Ramirez or Jeffrey Dahmer, who were individuals already operating on the fringes of society in one way or another. Dennis Rader could be considered a pillar of his community. He was also a homicidal sadist who evaded capture for thirty -one years. In a better world his victims would be remembered better than him--and in a perfect world there'd be no victims to speak of--but he is particularly infamous and noteworthy in part not just because of what he did, but what he represents. The person who seems trustworthy and harmless, but who is in fact anything but.
Trust can often be optional--something we can choose to give or deny based on our direct experience with the individual we're declaring worthy or unworthy. Other times, though, and maybe more often than you think, trust is something we're unconsciously obliged to give without much control over who receives it.
When you step on a plane, you're trusting the pilot to get you to your destination safely. And you're also trusting mechanics you probably didn't even see to have done proper maintenance on the plane. You're trusting workers and quality checkers at a factory you definitely haven't seen to have effectively crafted and inspected the parts. You're trusting your fellow passengers not to be up to something. You're putting your fate into the faith you have to have in a hundred different hands.
The same situation essentially plays out whenever you're on the road, in a car, especially if you're not the one behind the wheel. It plays out that way in hospitals if you need a procedure done or an ailment diagnosed in a timely fashion. Even when you just go out to grab a bite to eat, you have to trust the people preparing the food, the people who provided ingredients, the health inspectors who gave the restaurant a passing grade, all to make sure that what you're eating won't make you sick. Trust plays a role in assorted scenarios you might not even think it has a role in. There are some people who like to say that they don't trust anyone, but that only applies if you're a complete hermit. Some level of trust is requisite for interacting with people you'll encounter.
But, of course, it's always most disturbing when it's someone close to home who betrays our trust. Or at least makes us think our trust is misplaced. In the previous two episodes I talked about outsiders, how scary it is to be one, and how scary it can be to be the target of one. But sometimes it's someone on the inside, someone close to you and that you believed you were safe around, who is the source of our fear.
None of Rader's victims knew him on a personal level, so he did not betray any intimate trust to gain access to them and kill them. He did have a wife and children, however, who had to cope with suddenly discovering that someone they loved and thought they knew was a serial torturer and killer of men, women and children. Of course, living with the fact that you were married to or were fathered by a murderer is nowhere close to being on the same level of victimhood as actually dying by that murderer's hands. Nonetheless, I can only imagine that it is a uniquely strange and miserable thing to live with. To endure the accusatory scrutiny of strangers from all over the world wondering, "How did they not know?" He did have a history of stalking, after all. Women had filed restraining orders against him, reported him, even changed cities to get away from him. How could his own family not have known his nature and history?
It's perhaps a little easier to contemplate that unanswerable question than it is to contemplate the question of how well can we ever truly know anyone? How much can you truly trust anyone?
Among the themes and fears explored in Jordan Peele's Get Out, one that is sometimes overlooked is the simple, fundamental betrayal of trust that is revealed at a pivotal point in the film. Uncertainty about who can or can't be trusted--who, among the ones you love, has been living a lie for as long as you've known them--is also captured in one of the final shots of Peele's film Us. Some of the fantastical horrors of both films is grounded by something as basic as whether or not you can believe in the basic decency of the family that has invited you into their home, or the family that you were born into.
This is similarly exploited in the films Ready or Not and You're Next, both of which take elements of a family drama--an unaccepted new wife; a tense family reunion--and take them to harrowing heights by turning them into survival horror stories. Ostensibly pleasant occasions and activities turn fatal, and nice houses are warped into death traps by family members who prove decidedly untrustworthy.
What of people you were close with, once, but have drifted away from? More than ever, we're now able to reconnect with people from our past. We can connect with them through online profiles where they can see whatever information we've chosen to share with the world. The moment you click a button to approve that connection, you're inherently trusting them with that information, even though you maybe haven't even spoken to them in years, and have no idea how much they may have changed since you last had them in your life, for better or for worse.
In Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, a man named Will accepts the titular invitation to dinner that he receives from his ex-wife, Eden, who he hasn't seen in years, since a tragedy led to their divorce. It gradually becomes apparent that Will should not trust Eden and her new husband, nor should any of the other invitees trust this couple.
In the underseen, late 90's serial killer thriller Switchback--and yes, I'm going to spoil this movie you likely had no interest in, and what I'm going to say should be fairly obvious based on the billing--but in Switchback Danny Glover portrays a jovial, friendly drifter who appears in and disappears from the lives of several friends who are always glad to see him when he comes back around, and have no reason to believe he's a serial killer who will not hesitate to kill one of his "friends" if necessary. Even people who've only recently met him in the film are quick to trust him, buying into his big smile and hearty laugh and jocular demeanor, never suspecting he might draw a knife and slice their femoral artery to bleed them out.
A story revolving around misplaced trust is the foundation for the horror boom of the 1970's. Rosemary's Baby may be named for a frightening newborn, but that newborn doesn't actually make an appearance until the very end of the novel. The threat that appears throughout the novel comes from Rosemary's seemingly helpful neighbors, medical professionals, and others who are even closer to her. Rosemary places trust in what turns out to be a cabal conspiring against her. By the time she realizes what's really happening and who these people really are, she is effectively trapped, reminiscent of the imperiled protagonists of a classically Gothic story, stuck in a castle, tower or manor, often by a relative--by blood or marriage--who has betrayed them. What was born in the 18th century with The Castle of Otranto was reborn 200 years later, in a New York City, Gothic-revival style apartment building, through Rosemary Woodhouse.
Another recent work adapted a classic horror setting into a new century to explore the fear that can come from trusting someone you love, and realizing too late that they have taken a turn. There are, to be sure, forces beyond the family dynamic at play in Mike Flanagan's loose yet inspired and reverential take on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. But not every member of the family is equally susceptible to those external forces, and when one fully succumbs to the haunted mansion's worst influences, she becomes a lasting threat to the ones who should be able to count on her the most.
Most ghost stories, at some point or another, have a moment where a character is called to question whether or not they can trust their own senses. Are they really seeing and hearing and maybe even speaking to the spirit of a dead person? If this experience flies in the face of what they understand to be real and possible, does it mean they can no longer trust what they previously believed, or that they cannot trust their own mind, which is causing them to hallucinate?
This features early and often in the television series The Haunting of Hill House, which centers on the Crain family. The oldest Crain brother, a determined skeptic, has an early encounter with his youngest sister who he doesn't realize has just died--miles away from where he'd seen her. What does he make of his encounter then, when he finds out what's really happened? Does he rely on his certainty that the supernatural isn't real and chalk this experience up to his brain temporarily misfiring? Or does he rely on what he saw and heard--who he spoke to--as irrefutable proof of something he was sure couldn't be real?
This sort of thing replays through parts of the rest of the series, at least among the skeptical characters. The ones who aren't, are quicker to believe--for instance, the middle sister who is effectively psychic, or the younger brother who has sought to escape the ghosts that cling to him through drug use that has led to addiction. The others take more convincing, even as the supernatural becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss.
This is often a frustrating trope in horror fiction: the character who refuses to believe in things indisputably happening around them. It's one thing not to believe in ghosts in everyday normal life where most of us have never had any sort of encounter at all, much less a blatant, undeniable encounter. It's even understandable, of course, in a more subtle ghost story such as the original Hill House novel where the facts of the haunting and a ghostly presence remain deliberately uncertain up through the last sentence of the book. In some horror stories, however, ghosts could be flying around screaming in everyone's faces, slapping children and causing traffic accidents and there'd still be at least one character shaking their head saying, "Nope, not real."
In Mike Flanagan's reimagining--and I know some people probably hate that word, but I think it fits here--in his reimagining, the skepticism of the two oldest siblings of the Crain family is not arbitrary. It's rooted in trauma from their childhood, specifically the time spent in the decidedly insane Hill House, and the effect it had on their mother, who ultimately proved too sensitive to the spirits within the house.
That sensitivity ultimately leads Olivia Crain down a path of mistrust that begins with not being able to fully trust herself and her own decisions as a mother. That dominoes into a distrust of the world at large when it comes to the safety of her children, particularly the two youngest, the twins, both of whom will go on to live very haunted lives spurred, in no small part, by the mistakes made by Olivia during their time in the house.
Mothers, perhaps even more than fathers, are often seen as a traditional, figurative safes haven for children, sometimes not even their own children, and often times well after those children have grown to adulthood. The father of a household is often traditionally seen as the protector, the one who'll have to get up in the middle of the night to investigate a noise, fend off an intruder if that noise turns out to not be nothing. They are the defenders, but mothers are often seen as an extension of home itself. How many of us, when we speak of our parent's house, call it mom's house, regardless of whether dad's still there and is maybe even the only one with his name on the mortgage? Brandon Lee's The Crow admonishes a neglectful mother by telling her that mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of children. He has no such admonition for a father, not just because he ostensibly doesn't encounter one, I imagine--it's not hard to surmise that at least one of the hoodlums he fights is an absentee father--but because that sort of dramatic weight, that of being a heavenly, loving figure, isn't often expected of fathers. One of the most interesting examples of this I've seen in fiction comes from Saving Private Ryan, where a young soldier dying horribly on Omaha Beach calls out not to his dad, but to his mom. A moment in fiction inspired by accounts from actual warfare.
Mothers represent a warm and welcome and healing safe zone, at least idyllically. Not every mother would fit in that picture, of course, but in many people's depiction of a perfect world that is what the mother figure would represent. And that's why horror always seems ready to exploit this trust we have in mothers, and turn it on its head. Just about literally in the case of the possession of the family matriarch in The Conjuring. More figuratively in most other cases, such as Mrs. Norma Bates, mother of Norman. And so it is with Olivia Crain.
She is, initially, the ideal mother, before the house gets its hooks into her. She is a great mother, through no small effort. She balances work with motherhood, working alongside her husband to renovate and flip the ponderous and exceptionally ghost-riddled Hill House. Said ghosts are largely miserable things who apparently only find any semblance of joy from making others miserable, and eventually luring them in to join their ranks.
One in particular goes out of its way to convince Olivia that she is not a great enough mother to protect her children, especially her youngest. The doubts planted in her push her to horrifying extremes that will have lasting consequences, eventually leading to a life of misery and death for some of those she thought she was protecting. It is horrifying and heartbreaking at the same time, for her and for the children.
I read and watch a fair share of horror stories. I don't think a horror story has to scare or demonstrably unnerve you to be good or effective because our fears can be so strangely unique and subjective. I, for example, really don't like needles. I've seen movies or read books that exploit a fear of needles that I would consider overall inferior despite having a moment that definitely unsettled me. Conversely you have a classic like Audition where the exploitation of the fear of needles just enhances the overall story for me, but really, if you traded out the needles for razor blades or something I'd still love the movie because I think it's great overall.
I say all of this--this mild digression--because The Haunting of Hill House had a specific moment that actually got to me in a way that most other horror stories that I really, really liked haven't for well over a decade or so now. I've had stories give me a nightmare or two that I can think of--the movie It Follows, the first trailer for the first chapter of It, Peter Straub's book Floating Dragon, just to name a few--but none of those really lingered, per se, and I've always been susceptible to nightmares so I don't think of those as really getting to me, even though I really like and would recommend any one of those. Hill House, though, had a revelatory moment at the end of one episode that felt like someone wrapped an old dry rope around my heart and started to pull from both ends to wring all the blood out. It didn't give me nightmares, it kept me up thinking about it.
And as I lay awake wondering why this moment, why this scene of the many, many, many others I consume on a regular basis--why this moment got to me the way it did--I came to a couple of conclusions. One, it represented a certain cruel inevitability. A sort of infinite loop of partially self-induced and potentially eternal emotional suffering. Secondly, it was the end result of a grotesque betrayal of trust one should reasonably have in their mother. The idea that all of the horrible things that have happened in your life--that have even impacted other people in your life by association-- and all the chances at happiness you've been denied, are the product of a mother's misbegotten attempts to save you that eventually warp into a selfish and harmful and successful attempt to keep you by her side forever, even after death... That idea as explored in this story horrified me. Maybe it caught me in a particular moment or it's something buried that I need to speak to a therapist about, but for whatever reason it got under my skin.
The notion it brought to the surface of my brain, that it might be a little healthy to fear completely trusting anyone--anyone--and a little unhealthy to have blind, absolute faith in anyone, made the story that much more affecting.
But of course, failing to trust someone else, or trusting yourself a little too much, can potentially backfire and leave you wondering whether you've made a mistake that can't be undone. This is the path taken by another family facing ordinary and potentially supernatural threats. A southern gothic film about a child losing faith in parent: Eve's Bayou.
A married man, father of three, one boy and two young girls. A respected and well-off local doctor. Also a serial
adulterer, and possibly something far, far worse.
One of Doctor Batiste's children is named Eve, and she's possibly in possession of a "second sight," which gives her occasional, vivid visions of things to come, things in the present that she couldn't otherwise be witness to, and things in the past that, again, she wasn't there to see firsthand. This is an ability she shares with her Aunt, and it's something that she is told runs in the family. That said, she does not need it to see her father mid-quickie-coitus with Matty, a woman that is not her mother. She sees this with her own eyes and plain old regular sight.
Or does she? Well, yes, the answer is yes, she does. But her sister, Cisely, especially devoted to their father, tries to convince Eve that she somehow didn't quite see what she thought she saw. And so, early on, Eve is faced with either mistrusting her own senses and memory, or distrusting her father.
Not knowing whether you can trust your own mind and remembrances is a frightening prospect. This episode is about the fear of trusting those closest to you, and there's no one closer to us than our own selves. How well can we ever really know anyone, I asked earlier. That includes ourselves. Many of us are often in denial about what we've seen, what we've done, what we truly feel. This is in part because memory is unreliable and our minds sometimes seek to suppress or rationalize the awful things done to us or that we've done to others, and because our feelings can be mixed and conflict with one another. We can come to loathe someone we still love. We can want to forgive someone, for our own peace of mind, but want revenge against them as well, to satisfy a darker impulse.
Now on top of all of that, imagine being a child experiencing all of this. Eve has just seen her beloved father cheating on her mother with Matty, and has just discovered she possibly has psychic powers by experiencing a vision of her uncle's death just before it happens. This could be too much for a mature mind to process, much less the mind of a ten-year-old. And things only get more complicated and worse from here.
What pushes Eve beyond simply having misgivings about her father to outright wanting to see him dead is when she finds out her father has done something horrendous and unforgivable: drunk one night, and alone with Cisely, Doctor Batiste briefly tries to have his way with his older daughter and strikes her when she resists him. The apparent shame he feels in the aftermath comes nowhere close to absolving him, nor does his inebriation begin to excuse him. At that point he becomes a child predator, and it's easy to see why Eve immediately loses more than just her trust in him. She loses any sense of humanity toward him. So she goes to a local woman who can place a curse on the Doctor to have him killed.
But then, as is the film's intent, the complications of memory and the mind, and what you can or can't trust even about your own past, much less someone else's past told to you second-hand, make certain reactions questionable and even regrettable.
And at this point I have to take a moment to stress that, of course, presently, trusting the word of victims--particularly of any form of sexual assault--is our understandable default setting, and proper course-correction from decades or more--probably centuries or even millenia, more accurately--of distrusting victims of such awful crimes. Ultimately Eve's Bayou lands on the side of trusting Cisely, or at least empathizing with her, even though it raises the question Doctor Batiste's guilt and then leaves it somewhat open.
Because after she's placed the curse, Eve finds a letter a father wrote to her Aunt in which he claims Cisely took advantage of his drunken state and surprised him with a lover's kiss in some misbegotten attempt to keep him from leaving the family. He impulsively struck her when he came to his senses as to what she was doing. Now, how drunk do you have to fail to realize your adolescent daughter who is sitting on your lap is trying to make out with you before she actually moves in on the kiss? As a guy who's been extraordinarily drunk before, I'd say well beyond extraordinarily. And from what we see of the doctor he seems to hold his liquor pretty well. And given how the movie ends, I think we're ultimately meant to trust her experience, not his attempted exculpation.
Nonetheless, when Eve reads this letter, her first instinct is to give her father the benefit of the doubt. A modicum of trust in him is restored, or at least enough of a desire to trust him that she runs out into the night to try to prevent his death, first by trying to withdraw the curse, and then by trying to find him directly to bring him to safety. But because it's much too late to remove the curse, it doesn't matter that she finds him in time to try to save him.
And it also might not matter that she cursed him in the first place. It might matter much more that Eve approached Matty's husband and dropped hints about his wife stepping out on him with the good Doctor. Ultimately, Eve's father doesn't die in some macabre or unusual fashion befitting a curse. He's shot dead by his mistress's enraged husband. A fairly conventional murder as such things go, and something that might have eventually come to pass without Eve's involvement, much less a supernatural curse.
Eve supernatural second-sight also, perhaps, fails to give her complete closure regarding what happened between Cisely and her father, in part because even Cisely tearfully confesses to being confused about what really happened. Again, our remembrances of wrongs done to us and done unto others can be, as the film says, "elusive." In the end though, after using her second sight to see what truly happened, Eve hugs and her sister and makes sure her father's letter will never be found. She has reason to distrust her father--who is at minimum deceitful. She has cause to be suspicious of the supernatural and even her own influence over her father's fate. But ultimately, one way or another, she stands with her sister.
As scary as it can be to place your faith in someone, it can be equally frightening to have no conscious faith in anyone or anything. We are not engineered to be alone or perpetually suspicious of our neighbors. Suspicion has its value. Being wary of trusting someone can potentially protect you. Being too afraid can, in turn, prove harmful. And yet it can seem easier to take one extreme or the other--to automatically believe in just about everyone you meet, or be vigilantly cynical--than to have to find some personal balance and middle ground, because that requires assessing each situation and regularly making a choice. And trusting yourself, first and foremost, each time, to choose the right thing.