The Quick Explanation
The Black Phone adapts a short story by Joe Hill. The overall story is about Finney Blake’s attempts to escape The Grabber, a child abductor in a Denver suburb. But the film’s thematic subtext is about abuse and explores several sub-topics like the impact of abuse on children, why a parent would do such a thing, and the potential end-result of living in such a household. The Grabber isn’t just a child abductor but a victim himself who has grown up to victimize others, continuing the cycle. What Finney escapes isn’t just The Grabber but a potential future where his victimization becomes, like it did with The Grabber, the major influence on his life. Instead, as we see at the end of the movie, through the experience, Finney finds connection with other victims, learns from them, takes comfort from them, and ultimately succeeds because of them, choosing to survive and thrive in their honor. When he returns to school, it’s with a confidence that had previously been stripped from him by his father’s actions. Despite the darkness of his past, his future is bright.
And that’s the ultimate statement The Black Phone makes: there’s hope. There’s a way to move on. What happens in the movie is just a metaphor for the process of confronting your pain and fears and opening up to others who have experienced the same. Even the title itself sets the movie up as a call to those who would pick up the phone to say, “Hey, you’re not alone. There are people who will help you get through this.”
It’s a great thing to be able to make a movie that’s as entertaining as this is while being thematically powerful.
- Finney – Mason Thames
- Gwen – Madeleine McGraw
- Terence/The dad – Jeremy Davies
- The Grabber – Ethan Hawke
- The Grabber’s Brother, Max – James Ransone
- Robin – Miguel Cazarez Mora
- Bruce – Tristan Pravong
- Billy – Jacob Moran
- Vance – Brady Hepner
- Griffin – Banks Repeta
- Directed by: Scott Derrickson
The themes and meaning of The Black Phone
Part 1: Abuse
Understanding the metaphor of The Black Phone is easier, I think, when you divide the movie into two categories.
Category 1 is the everyday reality of living with an abusive parent. Everything leading up to Finney’s kidnapping is essentially this Category 1 reality. The father abuses his kids because he’s a drunk grieving the loss of his wife and taking it out on his children. It’s awful. And we see how this impacts Finney. He’s close with his sister but shy around others. He doesn’t stand up for himself outside of his home because if he does so inside the home his father is likely to hurt him for it. That leads to a lack of friends. To bullying. To hesitancy around girls. It’s n ot an entirely gloom and doom scenario for Finney. He’s kind, good at baseball, and clearly has the potential to be a happy and successful person. But it’s clear he’s been limited by the actions of his father.
Category 2 is the exaggerated reality of being in The Grabber’s basement. To be clear, I’m not suggesting everything that happens with the Grabber doesn’t actually happen. I’m merely saying that it has a heightened symbolic meaning. Like, you watch Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch and it’s just pure thrill. But movies like Babadook or Lights Out go beyond “isn’t this scary?” and use the horror medium to make a statement about grief/mental illness.
In the case of The Black Phone, Finney’s situation with The Grabber is an exaggerated recreation of the situation with his father. You’re seeing more of the stripped down essence of what it means to be in an abusive household. It’s like, an abusive household can look 100% normal. You would never know what horrible things someone is suffering behind closed doors. You might visit and just think the family has a nice home. But to the kids who live there, it might seem like a prison. That internal feeling of “My home is a prison and I live with a monster” is what The Black Phone captures when it puts Finney in The Grabber’s stark basement. He becomes a literal prisoner of a man dressed like a literal monster. And you have The Grabber providing for Finney, feeding him, trying to, initially, show paternal-like affection.
The Grabber not only represents Finney’s father but also, potentially, Finney. It’s sadly common for victims of abuse to eventually become abusive themselves. That can start early in life with a kid bullying their classmates or rear up later in life towards a romantic partner or child. The Grabber makes a passing comment about how when he was down in the basement he also heard the phone ring. The implication of his comment is that he was, like Finney, held in that basement and made a victim. Probably by his own father. So The Grabber is perpetuating this cycle of abuse. It’s not likely that Finney will become like The Grabber, right? That’s such an extreme case. But when you go back to Category 1 and the everyday reality, you could see how Finney could become like his own father. Someone struggling to cope and taking it out on those around him. The film tangentially addresses this when the father is fearful Gwen will be like her mother and be driven mad by her dreams. So there’s an establishment of how cyclical all of this can be.
The black phone in the basement connects Finney to The Grabber’s previous victims: Bruce, Billy, Griffin, Vance, and Robin. These kids share their experiences in the basement with Finney and help him in his darkest periods. They prevent him from making the same mistakes they did. He benefits from their history and progress and ultimately succeeds because of their help. Getting back to the metaphor, this is a statement on support systems. About the benefit of finding help and gaining perspective and realizing that even if the situation seems bleak as bleak gets, there’s a way through it. That you can overcome and go on to thrive and succeed. Others have been there before you and you should lean on them for support. It’s a very simple, realistic thing conveyed in an exaggerated story, defamiliarized for entertainment and artistry.
When Finney overcomes The Grabber, he overcomes his father. And we see some of the silver lining to being a survivor. Instead of being torn down by what he went through, Finney’s reborn. Heading into school, he walks with his head high. He doesn’t fear the kids because they’re just kids. After what he went through? Psh. They’re nothing. And talking to the girl he has a crush on? Instead of being scary, it’s wonderful. What a delightful thing to be able to do. My experience with this is tangential, but I’m an only child who lost both my parents early. I was 20 when my dad passed and 25 when my mom did. My dad going was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Then it happened again. And so soon. It was devastating. But also forever changed me for the better. My priorities changed. My expectations for myself and others. I was no longer so stressed out about silly things that had stressed me out before. All the drama that had caused me to have a panic attack in college became nonsense. Why would I care about superficial social happenings after losing a parent? It just didn’t compare.
So I can very much appreciate the hope The Black Phone wants to convey. That while this thing you’re dealing with is horrible and shouldn’t be happening to you, there’s a way to not only survive it but thrive in spite of it. The movie is very specific about what the horrible thing is but it translates to the tragedies and trials many of us face. And I think in that way it can be a movie that resonates with a lot of people whether they realize it or not.
Part 2: Spirituality
The fact that the black phone connects Finney to the spirits of The Grabber’s previous victims is proof that in the world of The Black Phone there’s a literal afterlife. Ghosts exists. And seem to, at a certain point, move on to somewhere else. Finney’s plot doesn’t really explore the magnitude of this in any philosophical manner. He’s busy trying to survive. But the story relies on Gwen to really dive into some of the themes of spirituality and religion and afterlife.
Gwen has visions, dreams that show her things. It’s not all that different from Finney with the phone but it’s a different mechanism. Instead of calls and conversations, it’s dreams and visuals. Both are enlightening, both are mysterious. But we see that Gwen associates her ability with God. She has a Bible she keeps in her dollhouse, a cross, and more Chrisitan accoutrements. Multiple times, she prays to God to help her find her brother.
The end result is a bit of a mixed message. On the one hand, Gwen’s visions are related to her brother and finding him. They lead her to the houses owned by The Grabber and the remains of his victims. On the other hand, she’s not actively involved in Finney defeating The Grabber. Remove her character, and nothing with Finney really changes. She doesn’t telepathically convey some bit of information. Her comforting words don’t pervade Finney’s dreams. The cops Gwen brings don’t distract or affect what The Grabber was going to do to Finney. Finney wins and escapes on his own (well, with the help of the ghosts). At one point, Gwen gets frustrated and curses at Jesus and wonders if He’s even there at all.
Some might see the mixed messages as confusing or even a failure. I think it might be worth putting it into context of the whole, as part of what the film is saying about processing abuse and working through it. I think it’s natural in the face of trauma to have a crisis of faith. To wonder why is this happening? Why is this allowed to happen? Why doesn’t God prevent it? If The Black Phone were to have Gwen be part of the solution, then it’s essentially saying religious faith must be part of the solution. And I’m not sure that’s what the movie wants to say. It can be. It helps you get through and process and learn and heal. It certainly keeps Gwen strong in the face of her father and her brother’s disappearance. So it’s not like the movie rejects faith.
But I think it’s taking a more neutral stance on the role religion plays in someone overcoming their physical and emotional prison. Clearly spirituality helped Finney, it just wasn’t a spirituality defined by a specific religion. It gave Gwen a process through which she contributed to the overall situation and led to some closure in finding the bodies. So there is positivity. It’s just not the deciding factor, in so far as The Black Phone is concerned. I think, overall, it’s a nice blend of Christianity and secularism.
Why it’s called The Black Phone
The most superficial explanation of the title is that it simply refers to the story’s main mechanic: the black phone in The Grabber’s basement. Scary movies like this tend to draw attention to a central figure or mechanic. The Exorcist, Alien, Psycho, The Thing, Rosemary’s Baby, Paranormal Activity. You could call this The Grabber or The Escape or something like that. But The Black Phone is the story’s main differentiator. So it gets the focus.
Symbolically, there might be a bit more to it. As we discussed in the themes section, the phone itself serves as means of communication between Finney and the previous victims of The Grabber. By connecting with others who had already been through this, Finney gains knowledge and perspective that helps him live through what the others couldn’t. He defeats The Grabber not just for himself but for them as well.
I think with how focused the story is on Finney’s journey as a victim of abuse to a survivor, and the role the black phone plays in that, that the title is trying to convey, “Hey, the phone is ringing. People are there to help you. Answer it.” I like to think that someone who sees the movie will be motivated to join a therapy group or find someone they can confide in and not try and carry the burden on their own.
The end of The Black Phone explained
In the original story by Joe Hill, “The Black Phone” ends like this:
Across the room, the black phone rang. The fat man choked. He stopped scratching at Finney’s face and set his fingers under the wire around his throat. He could only use his left hand, because the fingers of his right were shattered, bent in unlikely directions. The phone rang again. The fat man’s gaze flicked toward it, then back to Finney’s face. Albert’s [The Grabber] pupils were very wide, so wide the golden ring of his irises had shrunk to almost nothing. His pupils were a pair of black balloons, obscuring twin suns. The phone rang and rang. Finney pulled at the wire. On Albert’s dark, bruise colored face, was a horrified question. “It’s for you,” Finney told him.
That’s it. There’s no dog. There’s no leaving the house. No reunion with his sister. No apology from his dad. No triumphant return to school. The story starts with Finney getting grabbed and it ends with him defeating The Grabber. So why does the movie show us more?
As we talked about in the theme section, The Black Phone is more than a scary movie. It’s not simply trying to creep you out like The Blair Witch Project. It’s using the medium of the horror genre to say something about real life. Simply defeating The Grabber doesn’t accomplish that in and of itself. Because the story wasn’t about Finney trying to escape The Grabber. It was about Finney learning to stand up for himself. In order to tell that story, you first have to establish the ways in which Finney doesn’t stand up for himself. So we have the abusive father. We have the bullies at school. We have the crush he’s too shy to talk to. We get a sense of his life before The Grabber.
That sets up the entire confrontation with The Grabber. Finney can stand up for himself or be another victim. By standing up for himself against The Grabber and winning, he’s discovered his own sense of confidence. In order to show how Finney’s been changed by this experience, we actually have to see him back in those previously established dynamics. His dad? Defeated. The school bullies? Defeated. His shyness? Defeated. You 10000% need the scene of his father apologizing and him returning to school to reinforce Finney has grown. He even tells his crush to call him Finn. His childish nickname dropped for a more mature designation. It’s a little thing that doesn’t add much in terms of story but is absolutely necessary in terms of closure. A worse film would have ended at the same point as the original short story and missed out on the richness of demonstrating how the journey has affected the character.
Is The Black Phone based on a true story or book?
Not a true story and not based on a book. But based on a short story! It’s from Joe Hill’s 2004 collection called 20th Century Ghosts. The story has the same name, “The Black Phone.” It’s way more direct than the movie. The opening scene is Finney meeting The Grabber and the abduction. Instead of being a magician, The Grabber’s a clown. And instead of being jacked Ethan Hawke, he’s described as an almost obsese man. Finney does have a sister who leans towards the occult but she’s never actively in the story. Finney has a vision of her riding her bike around, looking for him, but that’s it. Finney has both parents. You get the sense his dad has a temper but nothing about hitting him or his sister. He does play baseball! You get some flashbacks where Finney recounts The Grabber’s previous victims.
What was wild to me when I read it was that Finney only answers the phone once. And he has a casual conversation with Bruce Yamada. Bruce does give some warnings and advises Finney to use the phone to defend himself. But it doesn’t get into any of the existential stuff or the bonding that we see in The Black Phone movie. Which, to be fair to Joe Hill, makes sense. It’s just a short story. It’s the minimum viable product in terms of narrative. His story is a great example of the strengths of the medium. But reading “The Black Phone” truly made me appreciate the work Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill did in adapting Hill’s story. They maintained the tone while finding a thematic and socially relevant through-line to develop the story into something that went beyond a premise and became a more fully realized narrative.
Who was The Grabber?
We don’t know much about The Grabber. We know he has a brother named Max. In the short story, he’s named Albert, but he remains mostly nameless and faceless in the movie. It seems he does perform as a magician and goes to work (according to Max). We also have several clues that he spent time in that basement as a child. That one or both of his parents would punish him for being a “naughty boy”. Because he never worked through that pain and trauma, he’s haunted by it. His experience as a victim is why he could also hear the black phone ring. But he never answered it, becoming symbolic of the worst case scenario of someone who internalizes all the pain and begins to act out on others. If he had answered the black phone, if he had sought help and guidance and allowed people to help him navigate what he was going through…maybe he wouldn’t have ended up hurting others.
Why does The Grabber wear a mask?
The mask The Grabber wears has some inspiration from a Japanese Oni mask. In Japan, oni refers to a folklore creature that is usually a demon but expands into ogres and trolls and the like. Just ugly, toothy monsters. Historically, they’re evil. The word itself comes from, according to Wikipedia, on’yomi, meaning “to hide or conceal” They’ve often been associated with spirits and the afterlife. The long history of the figures, especially in mask form, has led to a popularity and iconography. To the point of taking on new cultural meanings. Instead of being a sign of bad luck, they’ve become wards to scare negative energies away.
There’s the simple answer is that the masks look cool and that’s a huge part of a movie and selling a movie to audiences. There’s the practical answer that The Grabber’s taking precautions to protect his identity by not letting the kids see his face. And also striking some fear into them. The idea of identity expands into the thematic answer, as you can start to argue that by having a masked villain it means anyone could be under that mask. That sort of vagueness turns it from “this character played by Ethan Hawke is a monster” to “this isn’t a specific person but could be any of the monsters you’ve ever known or encountered.” That lines up with the final fight where Finney finally unmasks The Grabber right before defeating him. This monster that seemed so menacing was nothing more than a damaged person.
But it seemed The Grabber had a psychological attachment to the mask. When Finney rips it from him, The Grabber should ignore it. The two are locked in mortal combat. It’s not the time to overreact to your mask coming off. But that’s exactly what The Grabber does. He screams and cries and hides his face. He doesn’t even fight back after that. All he’s concerned with is hiding himself. So it wasn’t just the simple answer or the practical answer. The Grabber is a psychologically damaged person and the mask was part of the unhealthy way he coped with the crushing trauma he carried with him for decades. He felt powerful with the mask on. Helpless with it off. You can imagine that he grew up feeling completely powerless and, like Finney, unable to stand up for himself. So the mask became a persona through which he could stand up. It’s just at that point his entire worldview had twisted from never getting help.
As to what the different masks mean: it’s probably overthinking it for me to even try to specifically answer. Though if you’d like to come up with theories, I encourage you to go for it!
How did the black phone work?
The magic of narrative? But, seriously, it’s not really elaborated on. The Grabber mentions thinking it rings due to static electricity. And there is something to that. The…well…science of ghosts (if you’ll allow me to reference such a thing) often cites electromagnetic frequency as part of paranormal activity. Before the science nerds reading this yell at me, electromagnetism and static electricity aren’t even close to the same thing. I’m only making the connection to suggest that people like to propose that the presence of ghosts usually involves some form of energy or electricity. What The Grabber suggests doesn’t have to be specifically right but he might have the right idea that the spiritual presence of the ghosts in that room interacts with the phone and allows the calls to happen.
That’s the answer if you want there to be some kind of attempted logic. But there’s dialogue in the movie that suggests not everyone hears the phone. Meaning that it’s not just a physical thing anyone could hear if they’re down there. To me, it suggests that only victims have the extra sensory awareness to pick up on such things. Which tracks in real life. Someone who has been in an abusive relationship might pick up on body language cues from a friend that someone who hasn’t experienced anything like that might overlook. That’s why Finney can hear the phone but some of the other kids couldn’t. That’s why The Grabber could hear the phone.
So, really, the right answer is “the magic of narrative.” If the ghosts could just talk, it would take a lot of the drama out of the story. But if it’s a phenomena only accessible at certain times and through a certain medium, it’s a bit more intriguing and dramatic.
I do want to add that in both the short story and movie the phone sometimes pulses. I currently don’t have a good answer for what that was? If it’s just distorted by the presence of the ghosts in the room? Or what. But you don’t see any other areas of the room affected the way the phone is.
What happened to the mom?
The dad explains the mom thought her dreams meant something then essentially explains they told her to do bad things, she did them, and ultimately ended her own life. The dad views it as nothing more than untreated mental illness that went wrong. You can imagine he might blame himself for not getting her help. And also be frustrated at becoming a widower. That would incline you to feel some sympathy towards the dad and the burden he carries. But the fact he takes out his negative emotions on his children is really awful and inexcusable.
Given the fact Gwen’s actually seeing things, it begs the question of whether the mom was to? Were the voices simply mental illness or actually spirits or something else. The same way Gwen’s faith hints at the presence of God, you have to wonder if what happened to the mom and the presence of the oni mask hints at maybe the presence of a devil? That might be reading too far into it. But if I scale back for a second…
We see with Finney two paths. There’s the path where he never stands up for himself and internalizes his trauma and maybe ends up like The Grabber. And then there’s the path we see at the end of the movie. Having stood up for himself and connected with others, he redefines his trauma from a burden to something empowering.
There’s a similar dichotomy with Gwen. A potential negative future and a potential empowering future. So the mom serves as a cautionary tale, Gwen’s equivalent to The Grabber. And is just another example in this movie of someone dealing with something and having the opportunity to define their relationship to that thing.
If you have any more questions or topics you want to discuss, leave a comment below the post! I’ll either respond there or add to the article.