Oculus (2013): A Mirror Reflection of Childhood Trauma and False Memories
Like many of its Blumhouse peers released around the same time (such as Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister), Oculus feels like another excellent indie horror flick designed to set up a new horror mythology with the purpose of expanding the franchise with sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. But its focus on the social constructs within a nuclear family spiraling into demonic violence makes Oculus feel like a more self-contained and complete feature film than some of its horror contemporaries.
Oculus is the fourth and final film on this list that I’ve already reviewed back in 2014 for my Indie Horror-thon, during which I reviewed my favorite (at the time) indie horror flicks. And for the fourth and last time, I’m just going to move right into my dissection of the film’s core themes; so check out my original review of the supernatural psychological horror film here before continuing.
Splintered into two different timelines, one decade apart, Oculus follows Tim and Kaylie– two siblings who are terrorized by an antique mirror that slowly possessed and ultimately killed their parents. Younger brother Tim spends 11 years in psychotherapy in an attempt to process the emotional and mental abuse he experienced, while older sister Kaylie obsesses over the fine details of what happened and concludes that their family were the victims of a supernatural mirror– contrary to police reports.
Tim Russell: Look, Kaylie, you can deal with this; I did. You want to redeem the family name? You don’t need to do it for mom and dad; you only need to do it for yourself.
Kaylie Russell: Oh! They did a bang-up job on you in there, didn’t they? You were perfectly normal when they locked you up. You had to go bat-shit to get out.
When the two reunite as adults, they work to piece together what happened all those years ago in order to process the trauma. Kaylie tricks Tim into meeting at their childhood home, where Kaylie has tracked down and intercepted the mirror from their childhood and rigged it up to a “kill switch,” which is designed to destroy the mirror with a swinging anchor if the attached timer isn’t intermittently reset.
Kaylie and Tim have different recollections of what happened when their parents Marie and Alan died brutally and mysteriously. Tim has accepted that the trauma they experienced as children was the result of a toxic domestic dispute involving their unfaithful and emotionally manipulative father. Kaylie, however, has spent much of the previous decade researching the mirror’s history– all of the people who have died under mysterious circumstances while in possession of the mirror.
Armed with surveillance cameras littered around the house, Kaylie’s mission is to prove to Tim and the rest of the world the truth about the malevolent mirror.
First-time filmmaker Mike Flanagan was given the opportunity to create Oculus after directing the short film, Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, which sort of acted as a proof of concept to studios who were interested in expanding the ideas presented in the short film into a feature-length movie.
In the last six years, Flanagan has proven to be exceptionally adept at tackling mental health issues through horror films. Most recently, he’s adapted two Stephen King stories: first Gerald’s Game (2017), which revolves around a woman who must escape being handcuffed to a bedpost in an isolated house while she experiences flashbacks to her childhood– when she was sexually abused. The second Stephen King adaptation, releasing later this month, Doctor Sleep, follows the boy from The Shining, Dan Torrance, grown up and trying to recover from his traumatic experience at the Overlook Hotel.
With Flanagan’s freshman effort, the metaphors aren’t always as laser focused as they could be. While primarily the mirror seems to represent (for our protagonists at least) a reflection of their childhood trauma, it sometimes seems to be a metaphor for mental health in a more general sense.
During an earlier scene, Marie argues with Alan in his office. As she exits the room, the mirror calls Marie a “grotesque cow” in Alan’s voice. When he denies making the remark, she looks into the mirror where she sees a grossly distorted version of herself. Here, we see the malicious mirror act as an amplification for an insecurity Marie is experiencing– as she suspects her husband of cheating on her.
Tim suggests that he and his sister may have constructed false memories as a coping mechanism. In a 1994 study “The Possible Role of Source Misattributions in the Creation of False Beliefs Among Preschoolers,” psychology researchers determined that it is not typical for abused children to accurately disclose the details of the events when confronted in an open-ended manner.
The stress induced when a child is asked to recall a traumatic event may make accurately recalling these events even more difficult. In the case of the siblings in Oculus, Tim believes that (when questioned by the police officers following the death of their parents) Tim and Kaylie may have created the haunted mirror narrative as a false memory. Through psychiatric assistance, Tim accepted that they created these delusions as a manner of avoiding accepting the fact that their parents were self-destructing in an increasingly violent and abusive relationship.
Perhaps as overcompensation for how powerless she felt as a child to help save her parents from evil forces, adult Kaylie is more driven and resourceful as ever. She’s had 11 years to channel that sense of helpless she experienced as a child into a plan to stop the mirror’s string of murders once and for all.
Flanagan didn’t push the ideas of how two different siblings with different personalities coped with the tragic death of their parents with quite as much depth as the story merits. Oculus explores the psyche’s of its coming-of-age protagonists sufficiently enough to put it a few notches above the other psychological horror movies of the early 2010s. But where Oculus succeeds most is delivering consistently well-earned scares, laudable performances from its two leads, and a thoughtfully-contained story through a complicated timeline without ever becoming disorienting. It’s a shame that of all of the Blumhouse properties that have gotten the sequel treatment (including Ouija and The Gallows), Oculus isn’t one of them.