Scott Myers: You grew up in Colorado. How would you describe your family life as a youth?
Scott Derrickson: Through elementary and middle school I lived in a working class, blue‑collar neighborhood. An even mixture of Mexicans and whites — but I don’t recall much racial tension.
There were a lot of kids. Mostly boys. I was the youngest. I counted once — 18 boys on the same city block where I lived, and I was the youngest. So I grew up with a lot of bullying, and a lot of fear. [laughs] I was a weird little kid in an environment that was pretty hostile.
That was back in the days when everybody was physically violent — there were fights all the time. Every day it seemed. But it wasn’t like it is now — there weren’t weapons or gangs or anything like that.
Scott Myers: When you say fear, I remember reading something where you said that you thought that’s one of the strengths of horror movies, facing fear and then growing from that.
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, I’ve said a lot of about that. For sure, the predominant emotion of my childhood was fear. When that’s the case, you spend your adulthood reckoning with it.
The fear was the result of my neighborhood, my family life, certain traumatic events, and my own emotional makeup. And I think that I initially was drawn into religion in high school — specifically fundamentalist Christianity — as a way of coping with all the fear I felt.
Subsequently, fear became the hurdle I would spend most of my adult life trying to clear. A lot of my work demonstrates that plainly. It’s certainly why I ended up working in the horror genre.
Fear and the confrontation of fear has been the central occupation of my life.
Scott Myers: Did you grow up in a religious family, or was that something that you came to on your own?
Scott Derrickson: In those early years, there was no religious presence in our home. My later connection to religion came through my own discovery and choice. My parents also ended up becoming church‑going people around the same time, but their experience and mine were completely unrelated. We were all on very different paths, really.
I had a very powerful conversion at a fundamentalist Bible camp in middle school. It was a profound experience. And to this today, I still can’t un‑ring that bell. I can’t deny the power or the veracity of that experience. It had nothing to do with the charisma of the people that were there. I wasn’t caught in some emotional frenzy. It was an ineffable experience that was purely my own. It was as though I found some language to describe what I had always known to be true.
Before that, from my earliest memories, I always saw life in a weirdly spiritual way. It’s I just how I felt about the world — I had an innate instinct and belief that the immaterial world was as real or even more real than the material world. I’ve believed in God and the metaphysical for as long as I can remember. It’s just my nature. I couldn’t change it if I tried.
Because that way of experiencing the world is so innate, I have also come to understand why some people are not religious and don’t respect the nature of spirituality. If someone doesn’t instinctively see and feel that the world as something spiritually immeasurable, it’s doubtful they will ever be argued into believing otherwise. I can’t expect them to feel life as I do, anymore than I can feel life as they do.
But I should qualify these comments with the fact that I’m also a doubter and a skeptic about my specific beliefs. I question them all the time, and have definitely gotten to places in my life — in college especially — where I intellectually lost my faith. But still, I couldn’t get rid of the fact that the world felt magical and designed to me. I couldn’t deny the power and meaning of my spiritual experience.
I still struggle with doubts and strive to be a critical thinker, but I don’t think I’ve ever come close to being an atheist. It’s just too contradictory to how I experience life.
Scott Myers: I read a quote from you in an interview where you said, “The truth is that we live in a world where what we don’t know greatly outweighs what we do know. If you understand that and accept it, the world becomes a magical place.” Could you comment on that?
Scott Derrickson: That’s a solid quote. I must have put that on Twitter — it sounds so well‑forged. I think that’s my continuing rebellion against fundamentalism speaking. While I’m grateful to organized religion for setting me on a path of discovery, I’ve had to discard many if not most of my beliefs as I’ve grown intellectually. Christianity — fundamentalism and evangelicalism especially — offer too many answers and not enough mystery to the nature of life. And without that mystery, life would be stale. It make the world feel small, and I’ve never felt the world to be small.
I’m equally critical of both science and religion when it comes to this. I believe very strongly in science and the veracity of science. I believe very strongly in the legitimacy of good theology. Both cosmology and theology matter to me. But I think that anybody who is honest with themselves has to reckon with the fact that we really don’t know very much.
What we experience in our few years of life is so often formed by a kind of institutional broadcast from religion, science, and politics — science broadcasts the notion that we’re simply organisms in an environment, religion says we’re creatures under a God who demands obedience, politics tell us that we’re social beings defined by our communal stance. And of course, the Consumerism aggressively and literally broadcasts that we are here to buy things. We’re here to be occupied with Apple products and clothing lines. All of these ideas have an effect of reducing life to something that’s not mysterious and not magical.
I was fortunate be born with a natural resistance to all of that. I don’t think I’m smarter than everybody else because see thing this way. It’s just my basic nature. It’s in my basic outlook. As I have gotten older, I feel the pressure of all those major institutional broadcasts even more. Whether it be religion, science, politics, or consumerism — all things in which I’m a participant.
I just feel they’re always trying to reduce the world to be so much less than it is. And I don’t want it to be reduced. I want to walk through a world of magic. I want that, because I believe it’s true. And to be clear, to me, what is magical isn’t always enchanting. For me, more often than not, it’s frightening.
Scott Myers: I’m wondering if your interest in movies arose from that sensibility, because cinema has those unique magical ways to transport us into story. Do you think there’s any connection there?
Scott Derrickson: There’s absolutely a connection there. For me it’s been so reciprocal — the magic of movies and the magic of life. And that magic for me is usually daunting and scary. Movies — darker movies especially — were always a kind of dream‑like fiction that so often felt more like the world to me than what people were telling me [laughs] about the world.
As early four or five years old, I’d be taken into a theater by my parents or stumble upon some old black and white film on TV, and have these amazing experiences of other people and their points of view through movies. The best thing about my childhood was that my parents were avid movie goers.
It became a place where my feeling about the world was validated over and over again. At the same time, it also formed the way that I felt about the world. Whether it was an old horror film on TV or when I was eleven and “Star Wars” came out — movies reinforced and redefined how I felt about the world.
I was like every other kid when Star Wars came out. It spoke to us like the fairy tale of the generation that George Lucas intended it to be. We all connected to it, because it captured the magic of the world. This is what the world actually feels like. Isn’t that amazing?
Movies like Star Wars give us these mythologies and characters that we can connect to it and be attached to and dress up like on Halloween. The relationship of believing in the magical, mysterious nature of the world and cinema are so intertwined.
It’s also, I think, why I’m so drawn to certain eras of music — like the mid‑’60s to mid‑’70s — whether it’s the Beatles or Bob Dylan or psychedelic rock in general, it’s the same thing. It’s all about connecting to an expansive view of things that is fresh and not boring, filled with endless possibilities.