I was just sitting by the hot tub at our apartment complex, texting a friend on a hot Los Angeles summer day. Sounds harmless enough, right? But that moment. That slice of time. That otherwise innocuous, mundane series of seconds in my life preceded one of the worst moments of my existence. I’m talking about one of the worst things that ever happened to me. A moment of pure and abject terror, the likes of which most people can only count on one hand, (thankfully).
Let me back it up a little bit.
It was a hot day last July, (or maybe it was August) in Southern California and I decided to take my kids down to the pool and let them splash around, cool off, and burn some energy they’d built up. See, we’d suffered a debilitating heatwave with two weeks of temperatures in the hundreds. If you live here, you remember the two weeks I’m talking about. Anyway, this wave of heat forced us all to stay inside and play games, or head to malls and museums... Don’t get me wrong. Me and the kids kept busy, but I was becoming overcome with cabin fever, and so were they.
So there we were at the pool. My then 8 year old daughter can swim well enough. She dog paddles around the shallow half of the pool pretending she’s a mermaid or a manta ray. And my 3 year old’s not much of a swimmer at all yet, but when we’re in the pool, I’m right there with him, holding him, teaching him to hold his breath, blow bubbles, paddle his hands and kick his feet.
Having had enough of the pool, we moved to the hot tub for a quick dip. I got out and sat in one of the lawn chairs not 6 feet away. Both kids wanted to stay in the hot tub a few more minutes. Cool. No biggie. My son had his water wings on, and both of my children, essentially, were within arm’s reach.
Then my phone chimed. A text.
Funny thing. I don’t even remember what the text was, now. But I read it. And I typed a response that took probably 20 seconds.
And when I looked up, there was the 9 year old, playing at the edge of the hot tub, her back to me, and behind her, in the middle of the whirlpool, were my son’s grasping hands sticking up from the water. His water wings discarded at the side of the hot tub, he now struggled desperately beneath the water.
He was drowning.
Instinctively I jumped into the hot tub and yanked him up out of the water. He was terrified and crying and saying, “I drowned Daddy. I drowned!”
I held him close and told him he was okay. Told him it was daddy’s fault for not watching. That everything was fine now, and he was going to be okay. Sat there holding this little, shaking, terrified boy feeling like the worst dad in history. Like the biggest A-hole in the world. I’d done the unforgivable. I’d let my son down. I looked away. I wasn’t watching him when he needed me. It’s a guilt I feel even today. It’s also why I now NEVER text or take calls when I need to be watching my kids. Even in a few seconds, horrible things can happen.
Couple days passed and my son recovered psychologically, and soon he thought of me as a hero and a savior, but I knew the truth. I wasn’t a savior. I was a failure. In that moment... I’d failed him, and nothing short of the grace of God allowed me to look up at the right moment and correct my monumental fuck up. He still thinks I’m a hero and when he mentions it, he beams with pride about his daddy saving him, and I die inside a little, and silently make a promise never to let that happen again. Ever.
Like most other parents, there’s nothing I cherish more than my children, and when someone challenges me to create horror, it’s often the place I go. What horrifies me the most? Children in danger. My children, specifically, but all children. Any children. And this is a two pronged attack, creatively speaking, because even if you don’t have children of your own, (and even if you do) you can always relate from the child’s perspective. One of helplessness, weakness, and smallness.
I’m making a feature right now called THE PASSENGERS, and it’s about a young couple who lose their 6 year old on page 1 when he suffocates after becoming entangled in a plastic dry-cleaning bag. The aftermath involves ghosts and paranormal events, because I always drift toward the supernatural, but more importantly, it’s a story of loss, and grief, and remorse and incredible guilt. Guilt of failing those who need you most.
It’s a horror film that, so far, has caused everyone who has read it to be moved, often to tears, sometimes to anger. But for me, it’s been an exploration into my own psychic wounds and personal failure. What if I hadn’t looked up in time? What if I hadn’t gotten to him before something catastrophic occurred? What would happen to my daughter’s life? My marriage? How do you deal with that? That’s horror to me. Incredible, heart-destroying horror.
Is there a light side to THE PASSENGERS?
No. There isn’t.
It’s an exploration of grief, horror, dread and regret. It’s a movie I need to make right now. And if all goes well, it, like all good horror, will be a tool for other people in similar places. Bad places. People who need to go through the fire to heal burns. People who are drowning and need a hand to pull them out.
That’s my hope anyway.
Gaudium per atrox.