How Fatherhood Changed Me as a Horror Director

Darren Lynn Bousman, whose new film St. Agatha is in theaters now, on how his son Henry altered his perspective on life and art.

I am a father.

About 14 years ago when I was in Toronto shooting my first horror film, Saw II, those four words were incomprehensible for me.

I have always loved kids, and always knew I wanted to be a dad, but back then, as some immature “artist” in a different country getting to play make-believe and toss buckets of blood on screen, children were the last thing on my mind.

I was selfish. I wanted to be a director and make a name for myself. I wanted to emulate my heroes and make dangerous cinema. I wanted to make people cringe and cry and, fuck it, throw up in the theatre at the vileness. Why? Well, why not? I was a horror director, and wasn’t it my job to bring the most horrific movies to the audience?

Emmanuelle Vaugier in Saw II

I have always searched for the macabre. When I was in middle school, my brother introduced me to Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer and Cannibal Holocaust. Ever since that screening, I have actively sought out entertainment to frighten me and, dare I say, sicken me.

The most common question I am asked in interviews is, “Why horror?”

Why horror? Because horror makes me feel. It is the one genre that has the ability to imprint itself on me like no other. It reminds me that I am alive.

Growing up, I was obsessed with horror, and horror movies. I knew what I was watching was theatrics, that the bodies were just actors … and I was aware that somewhere there was a writer sitting in front of his computer constructing the words these people were saying … It was all fiction. But dammit, if those movies didn’t turn me on, disgust me … and stay with me.


I remember the night clearly. Henry, my son, was a little more than six months old. He was in his room, sleeping, and I was on the couch flipping through Netflix. I was scanning the true-crime documentaries looking for some light murder mystery to help me fall asleep. I ended up watching a documentary entitled Dear Zachary, about a man who was murdered by his pregnant girlfriend. The documentary follows the aftermath of the crime and the story of the girlfriend giving birth to his son, who will now never know him. The documentary takes a very, very dark turn midway through the second act, and by the end, it punches you so hard in the face with a final-moment twist that many have called it “the most disturbing documentary ever made.”

Darren Lynn Bousman and baby Henry

I remember when the film ended, sitting on the couch, in the dark, my body convulsing. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, then I felt tears rolling down my cheek. … Suddenly, I was having a complete and utter hysterical crying fit.

The film had somehow pierced the icy brick wall that constantly surrounded me, and made me feel something I had never felt before …

This moment was a huge turning point for me. I sat there crying, and having no idea why I was crying. I was weeping so goddamn hard, I couldn’t rationally think and realize what the trigger was: my son and the ever-growing emotions of becoming someone’s father.

I was watching this movie, and couldn’t stop thinking about my son. Picturing the horrors of this documentary only had me thinking of my own child and realizing that I wanted to shelter him from the dangers of the outside world. For those that have seen this documentary, you will understand how emotional and heartbreaking watching it is for a parent.

Here I was. A horror director. Paid to make people uncomfortable and toy with their emotions. I created these macabre fictions, yet something like Dear Zachary was real and a million times more fucked-up than anything I could conceive of. I felt dirty, somehow.

In the days that followed, I stepped away from watching any TV. I felt utterly raw.

It was like a discovery within myself, a well of emotions that I did not know existed.

This six-month-old kid was an anchor to my emotions. Before him, I just kind of floated. Outside of my wife, I didn’t really worry about the consequences of my actions. Maybe because I had no real responsibilities. Before having a kid, I drifted from job to job, from city to city. Nothing truly tied me down. When I had a son everything changed. I changed.

Henry was innocent and pure. I looked at him, and the only thought going through my head was, I just want to see him smile and live a happy life.

Such a stark contrast to my movie career. The last thing I want audiences to do is smile. I want them scared, and disgusted, and on edge.

My son Henry is now four years old, and in those four years I feel I have learned more about myself than the previous 36 that came before it.

The greatest gift my son has given me is allowing me to see the world through his eyes.

Where I see weeds, he sees wonder.

A recent picture of Darren and Henry

As I’ve watched him grow older, I have found myself less amused than I once was by onscreen pain and suffering. Case in point, one evening I sat down to watch Greg McLean’s film The Belko Experiment. I made it two-thirds of the way through, then had to switch it off. The film itself was excellent, the performances great. But I found myself more impacted by the on-camera deaths than I should have been. The Belko Experiment was a satire, more comedic than sinister, but still, the scene where people were lined up in a row, and executed one by one, got under my skin …

Why? Just a few years before, I was plotting the most horrific ways to inflict violence, and yet now I find watching it less exciting than it once was.

Having a child has deepened the empathy I have for others. When I was single, I hid my emotions. At times, even pretended I didn’t have them. With Henry, I continue to picture the world I want him to live in, and how I can help ensure that vision of his future is realized.

The majority of my days now are spent watching Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol, Octonauts. … The look of excitement on Henry’s face when watching these cartoons is the exact look I once had watching A Nightmare on Elm Street.

While I cannot handle most of the crap he watches, I love the act of watching it with him. Watching him react to the jokes, and sight gags. His laugh makes me laugh …

The feeling that horror once gave me, imprinting itself and causing these tidal waves of emotions, is the same thing happening here, instead of it being a movie, it’s a person. … Him.

This all said, horror is still my jam. I have no desire to make something vanilla. Or stop making horror movies.

But my approach to horror has altered. Once I cared only for the gimmick. How many gallons of blood, how many severed body parts could I subsume before the credits rolled? Now, there needs to be a reason for the violence. There needs to be a purpose for the dastardly acts I am cementing to the screen.

Since having a kid, my views have changed on what I hope to accomplish as a director. Before, it was a competition – how far could I push the envelope? That’s no longer my aim.

I want to make the world a better place for my son. I will never stop making horror films (or bloody ones), but my work must be something that will help my kids have a better future, that has a message (however macabre it may be) …

I can no longer float without responsibilities. I have a kid who asks me what I do, and why I do what I do. “Because it looked cool” can no longer be my go-to answer for that second question.

If there is blood, there must be reason, a teachable moment. To quote Jigsaw, “A lesson.”

Carolyn Hennesy and Sabrina Kern in St. Agatha

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone soft. In my new film, St. Agatha, someone is strangled with an umbilical cord, and in my mind, it’s justified and I can stand behind it.

At 25, I didn’t have the same connections and feelings of love that I have at 40 years old.

Cannibal Holocaust used to make me feel something. Now, I feel something 10 times more powerful tucking my kids into bed.

Oh, did I mention I also have a daughter??? But, that’s a whole different story.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman is best known for directing Saw II, III and IV. His latest film, St. Agatha, is now in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD through Uncork’d Entertainment. The Kansas native also directed the horror rock operas Repo! The Genetic Opera, The Devil’s Carnival and Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival, as well as the horror movies 11-11-11, The Barrens and Mother’s Day, a remake of the classic 1980 movie.