Horror films have often been filled with complex, morally ambiguous characters. You have the parents from Last House on The Left, so distraught with the murder of their daughter they decide to take justice into their own hands. Or look at An American Werewolf in London, in which our main character transforms and rips through innocent flesh. Indeed, the blurring of the line between protagonist and antagonist isn’t new in horror cinema or film in general. However, it has been a narrative pattern in recent break out horror films, such as The Witch, Hereditary, The Babadook, and It Comes At Night. And there will be many spoilers ahead, so please do not read this article if you don’t want the endings of these films revealed.
In The Witch we’re introduced to a Calvinist family recently exiled from their community into the wilderness. At first, we aren’t sure who is the protagonist, but as the film progresses we get the sense our protagonist is Thomasin, the teenage daughter of the family. While playing peekaboo with the newborn of the family, Samuel the baby goes missing right out from under Thomasin’s nose. Thus begins the turning of the family against the protagonist, Thomasin. One could argue the witch who took baby Samuel knew the event would lead to the family going against Thomasin, treating her as the main antagonist. One by one misfortune and death befalls the rest of this colonial family until Thomasin is asked by Black Phillip if she “wants to live deliciously.” Thomasin of course agrees.
Thomasin is a sympathetic character, and we the viewer know she isn’t to blame for all that happens to her family. And this, perhaps more than any other narrative device in the film speaks to a modern sensibility of morality, and a very secular view of cosmic responsibility. From the outside, in the present, looking into the past of The Witch, shrouded in religious fear, we side with Thomasin as the rational one. Thomasin the poor family scapegoat. Yet, by the end of the film, when Thomasin goes off with the rest of the coven, after signing Black Phillip’s book, she’s a clear antagonist, siding with evil, and casting off civilized society as she literally casts off her clothes.
In Hereditary, we are introduced to the Graham family (no relation to Will from Hannibal) a somewhat typical nuclear family in much the same way as the family from The Witch. Except, of course, the Graham family is modern, of the 2018 variety. We have mother Annie, a miniature artist, and daughter to Ellen, whose funeral we observe at the beginning of the film. We meet teenage son Peter, younger daughter Charlie, and father Steve. Unlike The Witch, Hereditary seems to switch protagonists near the end. Through a series of terrible decisions and accidents, Peter ends up killing his sister Charlie in a car accident, and a previously mildly grieving Annie is suddenly deep depths of grief over her daughter. Annie attempts to go back to a support group for those who’ve lost loved ones, yet she can’t bring herself to go in. As Annie is about to drive off, she’s stopped by Joan. Joan gives Annie her number and tells her to stop by if she ever needs to. And of course she does, and eventually we hear Joan talking about a seance she had, magic words to speak, one thing leads to another, and some real demony happenings occur within the Graham household. This is where Annie’s role as protagonist flips, as she sets in motion events which lead a demon king, Paimon, to possess her son Peter’s body.
The trouble with deciding on the antagonist in Hereditary becomes the issue of control. As it could be argued Thomasin from The Witch may not be in control, subject to dark magic, so to could it be argued Annie falls victim to dark magic, and she is outright possessed by the end of Hereditary. Still, before her possession, Annie seems to have free will, and many chances to avoid the wrong path. One glaringly obvious aspect of Annie’s character is that she is not always mentally stable. She even admits to sleepwalking and almost killing her children in this state by setting them on fire. Annie sleepwalks and ends up by her son Peter’s bed at one point in the film. And this moment is very telling. Were Annie to admit she needed help and talk to a mental health professional, or begin medication, perhaps she would not have been so receptive to Joan asking her over to her place to see a séance, or at the very least might not feel like performing the ceremony herself.
In The Babadook, the Vanek family, mother Amilia and six-year-old son, Samuel, live in Australia and are trying to move on with life. Amelia’s husband and Samuel’s father, Oskar, has died in a car crash. This film is similar to Hereditary in that our protagonist could be argued to flip halfway through the film, but for the sake of argument let’s say our protagonist is Samuel, as he stays more consistent in tone throughout the film. In the case of The Babadook, it’s almost an inversion of the type of flips we’ve seen in the previously listed films. Samuel starts as a problem child, a seeming antagonist, and as the film progresses we begin to side with him and realize he’s acting out because there is a literal monster in his house, a presence that possesses his mother and nearly leads to his death. Ultimately the family defeats The Babadook and makes it their pet, so in this film, the monster may even hop from antagonist to protagonist.
Yet again we get into issues with control. Samuel never appears to be possessed, but then the rules of The Babadook’s possession are never overtly explained. Perhaps he is possessed at the beginning of the film. In any case, no one can argue his behavior in public and at school is atrocious, and for this alone he stays, in my mind, an obvious antagonist at the start of The Babadook.
In It Comes At Night a family has isolated themselves in a house in the wilderness, to escape an unexplained plague. Our protagonist appears to be either the teenaged son, Travis, or Paul, the husband. We also have the grandfather, Bud, and Sarah, Paul’s wife and Travis’ mother. Much like Hereditary, It Comes at Night begins with the death of a grandparent, in this case, Bud. The death of Bud is far more dramatic than in Hereditary, however, because Bud comes down with the nameless plague which has infected the world, and as such we see his death. Paul takes Bud to a ditch and kills him, then burns his body to keep the contagion from spreading. I should add, he does all this in front of his son, Travis. Needless to say, Travis, much like Peter from Hereditary, is very traumatized by this death in the family, seeing it firsthand. Travis has nightmares of his grandfather coming back, infected. An intruder breaks into the family’s cabin, and Paul catches him and demands he explain himself. Initially, Paul ties this intruder to a tree outside with a bag over his head, to be sure he isn’t infected. Eventually, they let Will, the intruder inside to explain himself. Will explains he was searching for water and food for his wife and son, Kim and Andrew. Paul and Travis go to find Will’s family and are attacked on the way. Paul thinks Will set them up, but Will assures him he did not. Seeds of doubt are sown. Finally, Paul, Will, and Travis come to find Will’s family and bring them back to the cabin. From here, the film becomes an exercise in paranoia, as slowly Paul and the rest of his family come to suspect Will’s small son Andrew is infected. Things come to a head, and Paul ends up killing Will when he tries to flee with his family, their son Andrew clearly infected. Will is killed, and Paul chases after and fires at Kim and Andrew as they flee. He ends up killing Andrew with his shot. Kim begs Paul to kill her, which he does. The end of the film sees Travis die from the unnamed disease, and Paul and Sarah become infected as well, sitting at the table, looking forlorn.
Travis’ role in It Comes At Night is much more morally gray than in any of the other films in question. On the one hand, he does accuse the little boy, Andrew, of being infected, which ultimately leads to the boy’s execution by his father Paul. On the other hand, Travis is only acting in his family's best interest and trying to keep them free from infection. Yet, it could be argued that Travis knows he’s infected at the same time as little Andrew, and though a terrifying prospect if Travis really cared about his family’s safety he would agree to sacrifice himself to keep them free from infection. Again, we have a teenager who appears to be the root of evil, much like Tomasin and Peter. Teenagers, am I right?
So what is the overall takeaway from these protagonists turned antagonists in so many popular horror films? It could be that filmmakers are reflecting an ever-evolving secular view of good and evil in the modern world, more or less divorced from traditional religious moralism. The days of black and white, and good and evil on the silver screen are still around with modern blockbusters, but appear to be waning in popular horror films. Even when the monster of the film comes from a traditionally evil place from a religious perspective, the protagonist's role in relation to said evil is much more nuanced than ever before. Now, audiences appear to expect to be challenged with their heroes, and their villains in horror cinema.
Another reason for this protagonist to antagonist change becoming so popular could be that as society turns inward and examines mental illness in the cold light of day the traditional view of the baddie born evil has been thrown on its head. Yes, film still depicts the sociopath, the closest we have to a clinical definition of “born evil.” But more often than not the one-note horror film hero or villain of the past has morphed into one person. Take the titular Babadook of The Babadook. The end of The Babadook sees our monster being fed and cared for, almost like a pet, by the Vanek family. Even with our literal monsters we demand nuance and to try to understand the motivations of the creature. In The Witch, the role of the evil witch is played with, as obviously good Tomasin slowly morphs into what is traditionally seen as a harbinger of evil, begging us to question our very perception of what evil is.
A through line with all of these films, a theme that ties them all together, is the perception of the unraveling of the traditional nuclear family from within. Perhaps this is because the traditional view of what a family should be nowadays has, rightly so, morphed. Gone are the days when if a family didn’t consist of 2.5 children and a husband and wife it was viewed as aberrant. Families are so many different things in our present day it’s no wonder the archaic view of the family is being deconstructed, albeit through metaphor. Take Hereditary: we see the film begin with the passing of the oldest matriarch, representing the death of the old view of the family. Then we have the rest of the Graham’s valiantly attempting to keep their more or less traditional family together, free from outside forces, i.e. modern society and its current perception of what family is. Yet, the teenager can’t help but tear the traditional family apart, the youngest living family member literally destroying the traditional family. The same is true in The Witch with Tomasin. Never mind that the film is set in the past, it was still made only a few years ago and is still a product of its time. Tomasin is a stand-in for the young woman of today fighting against traditional gender roles and stereotypes, deciding to make her own decisions based on her will rather than the expectations of her family. Again we the destruction of the traditional family from within. And the same is true of The Babadook with Samuel, and Travis from It Comes at Night; they can not help but dismantle the traditional family from within, the evil outside forces perhaps representing the old guard desperately clawing its way in to try to rigidly maintain the status quo.
Perhaps the answer is far simpler than anything I’ve previously posited. Perhaps the real reason we are seeing more protagonists as antagonists, and in particular protagonists turned antagonists as members of a family, speaks to a universal fear we all have of hurting the ones that raised us; the ones that we love. In each of the films I’ve discussed a family member often unwittingly brings about the destruction of the rest of the family; brings about the death of their loved ones. And this fear of being the spark to set the fire that burns the family to ash speaks to a very modern sensibility of individual responsibility and the individual’s role in society at large. In each of the films discussed we see a family isolated from society, and ultimately see the destruction of said family from outside forces affecting the protagonist, changing them into the antagonist. Our protagonist can’t help but be affected by outside forces, maybe representing society at large, and can’t help but have their roles change as they themselves change in reaction to outside stimulus. Maybe we’re just more afraid than ever that the world will cause us to hurt the ones we love.
Audiences demand fully formed characters in their films, or at the very least in the horror films I’ve mentioned the characters are more or less fully formed. They have realistic psychology and react to things in ways we can relate to. We cringe when we see Peter accidentally kill his sister not just because it’s a horrifying way for a child to die, but because we can remember a time when we were a teen and did something stupid, and can’t help but wonder what it would be like to fuck up in such a monumental way. And we fear for Tomasin because again, we remember being a teen, feeling like our entire family was out to get us. We are annoyed by Samuel because we remember a younger sibling, or a niece or nephew, or a classmate who acted out and couldn’t seem to behave. Or maybe we were like Samuel and can relate to wanting attention and being seen as a problem child. And then we fear for Samuel because maybe we can remember a time one of our own parents acted out of turn, which caused us to question the logic of said parent; caused us to wonder if maybe our parents were winging it much more than we thought. We cry for Travis because we remember a time we hurt our family, and we wonder what we would do when faced with the choice of revealing a devastating illness; if we would have the courage to come forward if it meant our own death but the safety of our family.
We require nuance in our protagonists in these films because the world is less clear than ever before. Between the political climate, and the rise of social media we are bombarded with stories of politicians and people, often behaving badly. We have access to more information than ever before, so we get to see and hear behind the curtain; a curtain which in decades past, remained shut. We get to see the various facets of people when in the past there was a deal more distance. Our protagonists reflect this new age, and as such we get to delve deeper into their psyche than ever before. And this casual acceptance of seeing deep into nearly anyone’s life understandably transfers to our fictional characters, to our protagonists. We require complex characters able to flip at any given moment from hero to villain because in this new age of celebrities outed as monsters, and the ever-evolving collective consciousness, the rapidly changing acceptance of mental illness, and the sheer fact we have a lot more characters to choose from, without a fully realized and engaging character the suspension of disbelief required for supernatural horror becomes a great challenge. In short, we need to see all the angles of our characters, and this leads to the realization that anyone can, in the proper circumstances, be a hero or a villain.
Sean M. Thompson is a writer from Boston. He has a B.A. in English from The University of Massachusetts. He loves horror and anything weird. You can find him on twitter @spookyseanT and his fiction at https://www.amazon.com/Sean-M.-Thompson/e/B01LZPYY4W
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