Note: This is my 100th post on Just Dread-full! And for my happy 100, I’m going to write about one of my favorite filmmakers (M. Night Shyamalan) but I’ll be exploring more spiritual themes than usual (because this particular film demands it). So, here it goes—spoilers involved!
The horror genre is inundated with myth: speculations about mysterious beings – vampires, werewolves, and the like – who help us deal with moral and practical questions and allow us to consider what evil forces may oppose the good. Each mythmaker (or writer, or filmmaker) embarks on a different exploration, but we can safely make one general observation about the horror genre: in its exploration of evil, it deliberately avoids the sacred and divine. This was Michael’s argument when I first pulled him (kicking and screaming and covering his eyes) into the macabre world of the horrific and insidious. He noted that none of the movies we watched ever acknowledged the presence of a higher power, or the possibility that the benevolent could oppose the malevolent and save the day. It’s as if, after years of production, the horror genre still hasn’t figured out how to tell its myths while acknowledging that there may be a higher power with the ability to intervene. Which is why M. Night Shyamalan’s much adored classic Signs is so refreshing. More so than any horror film I’ve watched to date, it’s a remarkably spiritual horror movie that deals with the question of a higher being and causes us to reflect on our vision of the universe: is the universe a haven of pattern and harmony, or a location of randomness and chaos?
Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives with his son Morgan (Rory Culkin), his daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his brother Merril Hess (Joaquin Phoenix) after the recent, untimely death of his wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember). Reverend Graham is a former Anglican priest who gave his position up out of anger and doubt when his wife was pinned against a tree in a car accident. The film foregrounds his crisis of faith and his inability to comfort those who still see him as a religious leader and a source of hope. What isn’t quite clear is whether he vehemently believes God doesn’t exist or just resents God for taking his wife away, but suffice it to say he’s in no mood to be on good terms with the guy upstairs, to the extent that he believes there is a guy upstairs. While the movie is traditionally considered a horror film about aliens, it is as much a spiritual exploration of how the universe works and a bold manifesto that proclaims – whether right or wrong – that there is order and purpose to everything that happens in the world. To that end, it’s probably one of the few inspirational horror films I’ve seen, certainly a comfort in 2017, when we’re enmeshed in political chaos. It’s a film that’s undeniably welcome in a culture seeking solace.
Graham wakes up one morning to find that a large section of his crops has been flattened. While he attributes the situation to local tricksters, it’s clear from the start of the film that it would be difficult for a human to bend the crops the way they’re bent. Via news reports, we learn that these gigantic crop circles have been appearing in different locations around the world. Action escalates quickly in this film, and it becomes certain relatively soon that another life form is set to land on earth – possibly with the goal of conquest. While the word “apocalypse” is never used, it’s obvious that people are beginning to prepare for the end of the world.
One of the scenes that most captivated me was a couch conversation between Graham and Merrill after extra-terrestrial spottings have been officiated. The kids are asleep, and Merrill quietly suggests to Graham that the end of the world is nigh. Graham agrees but – upon Merrill’s request – tries to give Merrill comfort with a profound – and profoundly philosophical – speech on how we explain life’s toughest events. There are two types of people, he says: people who attribute everything to luck and coincidence, and people who believe that there are no coincidences, that the extra-terrestrial encounter is a miracle and everything happens for a reason.
While intimating that he is now a proponent of luck, Graham suggests that those who believe in the miraculous pattern and purpose of the universe are sure that, if the world’s about to end, someone will be waiting for them on the other side. Merrill relaxes and embraces hope despite Graham’s doubt. It’s significant to note that Graham’s face in this scene rests half in the shadows. While I have qualms with associating “dark” with evil and “light” with good (Addison Gayle Jr. argues in Cultural Strangulation, Black Literature and the White Aesthetic, that this binary has been embraced since Ancient Greece and was ultimately used to justify racism), it is interesting that Graham’s face is half in the shadows. If Western culture tends to equate religion with light, Graham is split at this point in the film; his face is literally half in the light, as is, presumably, his psyche.
I write about this scene because it meant nothing to me when I first saw the film, and I’m about to do something I rarely do on this blog: I’m going to get a little personal. I was, perhaps, a senior in high school, and despite having undergone Catholic confirmation, I was oscillating between agnosticism and atheism, a pattern that would persist for a decade. Whether or not everything on earth happened for a reason was a chain of reasoning I never thought about much; I was not mature enough, or hadn’t lived enough yet. In any case, the question interested me little, and I saw Signs and thought it was okay, but inferior to the Sixth Sense, because aliens aren’t as scary as ghosts.
But life happens. My early 20’s were a mess of untreated/poorly treated mood disorders, loneliness and alcoholism. Years 21-26 were probably the worst five years of my life to date (I’m 32 now). After a series of unnerving events, I couldn’t function anymore, and by the grace of the higher power I talk about in this article, I realized I couldn’t drink anymore. Only by quitting drinking and entering sobriety was I introduced to a spiritual way of life. I’m not an intensely religious person, per se; I don’t know if my Higher Power is the “God” of the Bible and I’m not decidedly Christian, but I believe there is a greater force in the universe, or I would still be drinking my life away. I pray fairly regularly and meditate frequently, and when things go awry I’m really good at getting angry at the higher power I now believe in and sharing my dissent with him.
When I first stopped drinking and started exploring spirituality, I was inundated with the belief that the universe is inherently good, that it has order and purpose. I think these things must be true to an extent, but I’ve always wrestled with the assumption that Graham talks about in Signs, the belief that everything happens for a reason. In Signs, every seemingly ancillary plot point or incident combines in the end of the film to allow Graham’s family to defeat the alien they find in their house. Even events that seemed problematic or catastrophic – like his son’s asthma or the death of his wife – combine to keep everyone ultimately safe and sound during a temporary alien invasion. The glasses of water that his youngest daughter habitually wasted for seemingly no reason are thus available to defeat the water sensitive alien, and Graham’s son doesn’t breath in the poisonous gas that the alien tries to fill him with because asthma is blocking his lungs. His wife’s dying words also take on new meaning, cluing Graham into what he must do during a pivotal situation in the movie. The ending of Shyamalan’s movie answers the question that Graham raises to Merrill in their conversation the night the alien invasion is verified: the people who believe in blind luck are wrong. Everything does happen for a reason. Every element of the story line combines to save Graham’s family members’ lives at the end of the story.
But I think, especially on the heels of a Trump election (yes, this is a partisan post), it’s hard to make the argument that everything happens for a reason. Philosophers have speculated the reason for pain under the umbrella of an all-loving God for centuries, and the answer they commonly come up with is free will: pain exists because human beings have free will. I am told, when I raise these points, that I’m overanalyzing things, but if free will explains how an all-powerful, all-loving God is operating a universe so fraught with inequality, oppression, and violence, then how can we say everything happens for a reason? Doesn’t God lose some of his omnipotence? Hasn’t everything happened because our own free will has willed it that way?
In the end, I can only maintain my sanity if I yield that a higher power allows phenomena – good and bad – to happen, without forcing them or willing them. To that end, everything does not happen for a reason. How wonderful if the universe were like Signs; how relieving if the universe were a neat, tightly closed plot where every bad event had a positive outcome. Indeed, bad events can have positive outcomes, there can be silver linings and hope amidst chaos, but not every negative event happens for a reason. There is simply no way to assert that our history of slavery or bombings in Aleppo happened for a reason. Doing so suggests, frighteningly, that such atrocities are somehow necessary, from a higher power’s perspective, to achieve a greater goal, but what goal could be greater than human life? What reward does God gain from sacrificing an unlucky group?
Sometimes, the universe is senseless and cruel, because humans are senseless and cruel. I’ve come to believe that a higher power can intervene when he chooses, but he doesn’t choose to do this often. Not every event has purpose. Some cruelty is pointless. Some malice only breeds retaliation and more malice. Saying that everything happens for a reason is a result of living in privilege; it’s a hard argument to make, I would imagine, when you’re starving. There is no reason why some children in poverty and war are born only to die.
I guess that’s where I am with my faith, and that’s my take on Signs. I believe in miracles, but I also believe in random acts of malice that result in nothing greater, that have no higher purpose. I think it was absolutely brilliant that Shyamalan could explore such theological concepts in a movie about extra-terrestrials, but in the end, I’m not sure I believe in the world view that the film offers. It seems to me true that our individual paths have purpose, but not every action – or every atrocity – has meaning. When we start to believe in such a mantra – comforting and wonderful as it may be – we allow ourselves to justify so much hate and awfulness in this world. Graham says, as I’ve explained, that those who believe in the meaning of coincidences will believe that someone’s waiting for them when the world ends. As for myself, I’ll have to believe that not all coincidences have meaning, even as I maintain a faith that someone above exists who is helping me walk through life.
Faith is a funny thing, and analyzing how a higher power works is downright confusing. But the genius of Shyamalan’s Signs is that it’s a member of the horror genre that allows us to ask these questions. Indeed, the very real possibility of life on another planet raises theological questions: if there are other life forms, is there one God, presiding over all of them? Are we not as special as we thought? Shyamalan makes us believe in the possibility of receiving extra-terrestrial visitors while he ensures us that yes, despite the presence of aliens, we still are that special. There is some force, driving the universe, watching out for us.
Note: This piece is part of a series building up to the blog post I will write about M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, Split. If you haven’t had your fill of M. Night, consider checking out my analysis of the Sixth Sense’s brilliant plot, or my critique of the portrayal of mental illness in The Visit.