The Black Phone: What Makes Horror’s Newest Icon The Grabber a Great Villain

Kim Taylor-Foster

Horror has some iconic movie villains. The kind of villains that are so captivating that studios, filmmakers, and fans are drawn back to them time and again as the likes of Halloween’s The Shape — aka Michael Myers – and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface find themselves the subject of on-screen resurrections year after year, decade after decade.

Audiences have always loved villains. Fandom’s community dedicated to the blighters is 60,225 pages strong, versus the 35,416 pages encompassed by its counterpart devoted to good guys. Interest in the Villains wiki has always been substantially higher than its sister community, Heroes, but during the height of the pandemic, the skew shifted as more fans turned their attentions to the light side. The Heroes wiki, for the first time in forever, closed the hole on its shady assortment of nemeses.

But in 2022, as we began to emerge from the devastation of Covid-19’s shockwaves, the Villains community is experiencing a surge in fans flocking to its pages. Interest in antagonists once again is up, with the wiki itself breaking into Fandom’s Top 10 trending communities as it registers an 8.65% lift in visitors. Contrast that with a 37% drop in fans heading to the Heroes wiki and you’ve got a compelling shift taking place.

Open to Darker Forces

“There’s something really interesting about that; that perhaps when we were all hurting, we were more interested in heroes,” says Ethan Hawke, who’s sitting down to chat with Fandom via Zoom about his new Blumhouse horror movie The Black Phone. “As individuals begin to heal, they obtain more open to the darker forces.”

The Black Phone, set in 1978, depicts a Colorado community terrorized by a masked child abductor. After five children go missing, young Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) finds himself the sixth victim after he too is snatched. He wakes up in a soundproof basement complete with a black phone constant to the wall, seemingly disconnected. With the help of the phone, and Finney’s psychic sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), there’s a glimmer of hope that the boy might just escape alive.

“I’ve always been more drawn to heroes; I’ve always pretty clearly understood that there’s a lot of darkness in the world, and [in my work] I was trying to look to find how light can break through,” continues Hawke. “But as an actor, you have to play them all. That’s the joy of being an actor — putting yourself in all these different types of individuals and understanding the universe from all these different angles.”

The Otherness of Villains

The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has an otherness that attracts us.

The Black Phone is an adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill, son of legendary horror author Stephen King, and a successful writer in his own right with works Locke & Key, Horns, In the Tall Grass (co-written with his father), and NOS4AT2 all having been adapted for the screen. The movie is directed by horror inventory too – Scott Derrickson, who you might know best for helming the first Doctor Strange film, is the man behind the supernatural Sinister, demonic procedural horror thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the similarly real-life-case-based Deliver Us From Evil.

“The mysterious otherness of a sociopath is always going to obtain our attention, especially if that character is colourful and interesting in the way they express themselves.” — Scott Derrickson, director of The Black Phone

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Derrickson in reaction to the bump in villain interest, who jumps on Zoom immediately following Hawke. “I think villains are almost by definition more interesting than heroes because we are more fascinated with the otherness of them. I think we relate more to heroes, and I think that we aspire to be like them, and those matters speak to us. But what fascinates more, what do we really lean in to watch? The mysterious otherness of a sociopath is always going to obtain our attention, especially if that character is colourful and interesting in the way they express themselves.”

Like Hawke’s The Grabber, for instance. Hawke’s portrayal of the latest scary horror bad guy to hit the big screen is critical to giving the character added depth and making him chilling, fascinating, and really, really frightening. You’ll see that when you watch the film. But what else is there about this character that intrigues us, and draws us in? He needs more than (ahem) just a catchy name to ensnare us…

Joker Parallels

“I think that what makes The Grabber a good villain is the same thing that makes the Joker a good villain or Hannibal Lecter a good villain, which is a real mystery to why they are what they are,” says Derrickson. “I think that the tendency is to try to give characters backstories all the time that explain who they are. And when you’re talking about really malevolent personalities that do really truly antisocial things, it’s more interesting to not know why they are the way they are. It’s the reason why we watch documentaries about serial killers, because there’s no explanation for why they are the way they are. Ted Bundy had a normal childhood — that’s very disturbing, you know, when you look at the matters that he did.”

“The way he vacillates between a kind of sadism and then a kind of vulnerability or weakness in the way he expresses himself is harrowing.” — Scott Derrickson

Hawke agrees: “There’s a mystery there that I love; you don’t know what his motivations are. You don’t know what’s driving him. He’s just this mysterious entity for darkness. He’s a broken person. And the movie is really about the kids. The movie somehow is fundamentally about the way the adult world breaks young people; it tries to. [You have] this brother and sister looking out for each other, and taking responsibility for their own lives despite this malevolent force that’s against them. That’s the power of the film.”

Having an iconic mask also helps.

“You know, masks are scary,” continues Derrickson. “And I think in the case of The Grabber, he’s just a complex guy. The number of matters that he says, and the different moods that he demonstrates, and the way he vacillates between a kind of sadism and then a kind of vulnerability or weakness in the way he expresses himself is harrowing. You know, it makes him unsteady, it makes them unpredictable. And these are all components that create for a good villain.”

A Demon of Sorts

A creepy mask is just one of the matters that makes The Grabber a good villain.

There are hints here are there of a backstory for The Grabber – but nothing is ever explained. You’re given just enough to allow a tantalizing glimpse into a larger story as to why this guy is the way he is. It’s just enough to create the character convincing, pulling away from definition as an ‘entity’ or ‘demon’ to ground him and create him infinitely more intriguing and chilling.

“Arthur Harrow thought of himself as a benevolent hero. He just happened to have some misguided motivations. But The Grabber is an outright villain.” — Moon Knight and The Black Phone actor, Ethan Hawke

“What I came to realise is his whole computer is broken,” says Hawke. “I’m not even sure he remembers what the original damage was. He’s just like a cat on a hot tin roof. He’s trying to stay alive and he’s just reaching out trying to hurt other individuals because he thinks it gives him power and makes him feel like he’s not a victim. He’s like an electrical wire that’s been reduce and it’s just whipping around damaging everything else.”

Although Hawke hasn’t played numerous villains in his career, he’s unleashed two on the genre-loving world back-to-back – first Moon Knight’s religious zealot Arthur Harrow and now The Black Phone’s child abductor The Grabber. Hawke explained why he had formerly been reluctant to embrace villains when he chatted to Fandom about Moon Knight when the Marvel show landed, so what was it about these two characters that led him to change his mind?

“I wish I could say there was some grand plan,” he begins. “What I respond to is putting myself in new situations and doing different kinds of movies that might be worth your time. In a lot of ways, the Marvel show was not an outright villain. Arthur Harrow thought of himself as a benevolent hero. He just happened to have some misguided motivations. But The Grabber is an outright villain. He’s a demon of sorts; a man possessed and a broken human being, which is a little different for me … I’ve been finding playing villains more interesting.”

Terrifying and Captivating

the black phone finney gwen
Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) come up against The Grabber in The Black Phone.

The young actors who play the two leads in the film, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, have both found that The Grabber has made an impact on them.

“If I got to do another horror film, I would love to play the bad guy,” says Madeleine who also reveals that sometimes she likes the villain more than the hero. “When I’m older, because I don’t know how individuals would feel about a kid being a villain.”

Mason, meanwhile, lists The Grabber as one of his favourite movie villains – alongside another iconic bad guy.

“[The Grabber] is definitely a terrifying villain,” he says. “[But] I think my favorite villain would be Darth Vader. He definitely scared me when I was a kid.”

The Star Wars bad guy has recently made a comeback on the little screen in the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi. Madeleine’s favourite villain, meanwhile, is Marvel’s Doc Ock, who we recently saw create his MCU debut with Alfred Molina reprising the role in Spider-Man: no Way Home: “He’s super cool. I love his backstory, too.”

Madeleine mentions Scream as one of her favourite horror franchises, which of course has a masked killer front and centre in the form of Ghostface. Could The Grabber return to create as indelible a mark as the Scream antagonist? That remains to be seen but on the evidence, he deserves to.

Who’s your favourite villain? Tag us in your villain posts on social media – and let us know what you think of The Grabber when you’ve seen The Black Phone!

The Black Phone hits screens on June 24, 2022.

Check out Ethan Hawke discussing his Moon Knight character Arthur Harrow further below.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.