M Night Shyamalan's The Village

Deconstructing Fear

A Reading of M. Night Shyamalan

Shyamalan’s films ask us questions about the ways we cope with our fears in hopes of affecting our unspoken ideologies.

::: Timothy Stanley

A little boy (Haley Joel Osment) runs down the hall and hides in his blanket fort surrounded by an army of figurines. He is haunted by dead people. His sentience of their reality tortures him nearly out of his mind. Like so many of us as little kids, the boy hides under the blankets with his toys and trinkets, hoping they will protect him from the evil he sees and feels. Who hasn’t gone to bed as a kid frightened that at any moment the boogey man was going to rage out from the darkness?

Fear is part of us. It is the basic experience of facing unknown limits. We can’t see under the bed, and particularly when we’re young we recognize how vulnerable we are. Of course, at that stage we’re also imaginative enough to believe that our blankets and toys will protect us. The point is that at the root of being human is a recognition that we are finite, and thus vulnerable. This recognition doesn’t go away when we “grow up,” it just gets subverted and worked out differently. As we grow up we abandon the blankets and the pretense that our tin soldiers can actually fight. But we develop rituals and beliefs that foster the peace of mind imparted by our childhood blankets.

Consider air travel. The trip through the airport includes a host of checkpoints and interrogations. “Did you pack these bags yourself, sir?” (How are you supposed to answer? “Of course not. I let a terrorist do it.”) Then comes the scanning station. It’s like people are entering a mosque or Buddhist temple. They’re relatively quiet and respectful. They take off their jackets and shoes in order to pass through a sanctified gateway. I half expect incense to emanate out of the metal detecting wands waved in blessing over the traveler by the security priests on the other side.

The price of ‘peace’

Why do we go through these rituals? As a mother explained to a young child in line behind me, “We take off our shoes because there are mean, evil people in the world who might put nasty things in their shoes to hurt us.” This is, of course, true. There are mean, evil people in the world who want to hurt us. Still, will all of us taking off our shoes stop them? How many journalists have to smuggle pocket knives and mock cameras potentially filled with explosives through airports before we realize that these rituals are little more than grown-up versions of the blankets and teddy bears we believed would save us as children. These practices are the price we pay for “peace of mind,” even though real peace may be far from us.

Have you ever seen dead people? Have you ever been afraid of who you really are? What about aliens? Ever wonder if they’ll come to planet earth to harvest us Matrix-style? How many times have you longed for the quaint small-town yesteryears where everyone knew everyone, and authority was respected but not abused? M. Knight Shyamalan has been asking us these questions for most of the past decade. Behind these questions, however, is the fact that the director is not just trying to scare and entertain us, but to explore and explain the way human beings overcome their fear.

Earlier works

Early in his career, Shyamalan explored how people overcome experiences of disorientation and limits with films that flew under most people’s radar. In Praying with Anger (1992), for instance, Shyamalan directs and stars in a rather straightforward account of a young man getting in touch with his cultural and historical roots. Though raised in the United States, Dev (Shyamalan) returns to India and in so doing enters the frustrating experience of culture shock as he tries to sort out middle-class Indian life with all its rules and taboos. The film lacks the now-familiar eeriness we have come to expect from Shyamalan’s later work, but the theme of facing unknowns is present in a nascent state.

His next film, Wide Awake (1998), is in many ways a primordial Shyamalan soup in the guise of a Cleaveresque family comedy. Themes of God’s existence, death, and hope intertwine in a quintessential Hollywood attempt at dealing with the intangible limits of existential experiences like the death of a loved one, growing up, and falling in love. In these films, it’s as if Shyamalan was making various probing stabs toward cinematically apprehending the questions he would later explore with more depth. Straightforward comedy and drama, however, are not easily twisted to achieve the gravity necessary for the seriousness and power of his stories, and as a result these early films received little attention and some unfavorable reviews.

After shocking the world with The Sixth Sense (1999), Shyamalan seems to have found a signature style in the use of fear as a mechanism to impact his audiences. In Unbreakable (2000), Shyamalan shows us another, more middle-aged fear—the fear that you’ve lost the ability to feel. Here he has the dead-end job, dead-end marriage, and dead-end life that has nothing to do with who you really are, all morphed into the impenetrable numbness of a dead man walking. We watch a man (Bruce Willis) move zombie-like through a dazed and confused existence as a security guard. We watch him wake from his numbness into the realization that he has been living a lie. His true identity—his true purpose in life—is being drowned and subsumed each day he continues to hide in the ironic safety of his job. As with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s story insists on the fact that overcoming fear does not deny its existence. He shows, rather, the discovery of another power that overcomes the cause of that fear.


With Signs (2002) Shyamalan turns to the question of the corporate nature of fear and the ways we attempt to overcome fear as a community. He asks us if a religious community’s beliefs are of any value in the face of evil and begins to work more directly through the validity of the religious mechanisms that people use to overcome fear. The spiritual journey of Graham, his protagonist priest (Mel Gibson), is a recognition of a man’s faith in God within a specific history and a particular ritual tradition, which is a more adult, more nuanced treatment of religion than we saw in The Sixth Sense with the image of a boy hiding in a church.

In The Sixth Sense the church stands equal in power with the boy’s blanket—it no more protected him from the perceived evil than it empowered him to face it. In Signs we initially see a similar take on the role of religious belief as we are introduced to Gibson's Graham as a priest who has lost his faith. Shyamalan is careful in his camera work to show silhouettes of crosses that have been removed from walls. There are no saints or saviors anymore. Now people fall into two categories—those who see transcendently sent signs and wonders and find hope, and those who see lights and chaos and are consumed with the fear that in the end they will be alone with no one to help them.   

Shyamalan’s attempt in Signs to make sense of those who sincerely hold to belief within a historical community echoes the attempt he made earlier to deal with similar issues in Wide Awake. But where Wide Awake lacked maturity and failed to impart the seriousness of the question, Signs compels the audience by adeptly balancing an eerie mysteriousness with touching family moments. Interestingly, the priest’s path to healing goes through his greatest source of fear—the loss of God’s safety and protection. If people are one of two kinds—hopeful believers or fearful doubters—he is of the doubting kind. How does he find his way back to belief? Again, it is through his fear rather than away from it.

Paradoxically, the priest’s first step to overcoming his fear is an acknowledgement of God—“praying with anger,” as it were. “God, I hate you. I hate you,” he cries as his son suffocates in his arms. It is the first honest prayer he has prayed and the first step to seeing beyond his pain and loneliness. Eventually, rather than being blinded by the opacity of the evil around him, he sees signs that point beyond themselves to possibility and hope. What Graham finds—and by proxy what we are meant to find as filmgoers—is that belief in a God beyond the signs gives us the power to “see,” and the courage to “swing away” even though it means we have to risk striking out again and again.

The Village

But what happens when community beliefs are the very things that scare people? What does it mean when fear causes communities to purposefully blind their members to protect them from perceived dangers? Such are the questions that arise from Shyamalan’s latest, The Village (2004).

The Village portrays a nineteenth-century community founded on purity and safety. We see lists of seemingly odd rules, and villagers telling each other to “Obey the rules of the village, for they will keep us safe”:

    1. Let the bad color not be seen. It attracts them.
    2. Never enter the woods. That is where they wait.
    3. Heed the warning bell for they are coming.
    4. One man should hold post in the tower each night.
    5. The safe color should be worn upon approaching the forbidden line.

The rules represent the reproducible code that the people live by. In the film a few protagonists (played by Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard) question the rules and their relationship to the reality beyond the boundaries of the village. Does evil lurk in the forest that surrounds them? If so, what kind?

The film pushes at the rules’ boundaries, walking the line between the village and the evil ones that exist beyond. But the line it walks is not between legalism and anarchy, but rather that of determining which rules and boundaries are appropriate and which are not. What makes a rule or belief believable? What makes it valuable to a community and what makes it detrimental and worth revising? As we approach these questions, it might help if we have a way of understanding how beliefs and rules in a community function.

‘Common’ sense

The term “ideology” has a pejorative meaning in Western culture. These days it is usually used to describe the terrorist evil-doers whose ideologies of evil are vilified over against the ideology of free (usually American) do-gooding. But ideology is not necessarily so black and white as people think.

In his essay, “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser explains how communities reproduce their behaviors and practices. How is it that people living together know how to act—that they know the “rules of the game” they all are playing as a community living together? He uses the example of a police officer hailing a citizen. In response to, “Hey, you there!” the citizen turns around. Why? The citizen’s name wasn’t called. What Althusser argues is happening is that the citizen has internalized an ideological belief that shows its face in such situations. The belief may be something like, “respond to authority figures like police officers.” Such a belief goes unnoticed until it is brought to the fore in the experience of being hailed by a police officer. When the citizen turns, however, they recognize the ideological internalization.

Althusser argues that individual people are always–already inculcated in ideology. It is an inescapable predicament. On one level, it is part of communal existence and living in civil societies, but he also takes it a step further in using the language of “subject–Subject relations” to show that the subject (the citizen, for instance) is a part of an ideological system of beliefs that are shaped and formed by the Subject (the power behind the ideology). Importantly, the power behind an ideology does not have to be personal. In fact, when a system of rules is read by a person, Althusser argues that they as subjects assume an absolute Subject behind the rules.

People follow the rules and act out ideological practices because they believe they must, that they are beneficial, or that it is the Truth that they are obeying. The Subject takes on this objectified status as the Truth, or—if this is stretching Althusser too far—the ultimacy that ends up being internalized. This manifests itself in those moments of consensus where we find ourselves saying things like, “Yes, that’s true!” or “That’s simply common sense.” Common sense is “common” because of a shared network of belief. Ideology in this sense is a way of talking about the internalization of rules, values, and beliefs in such a way that we act and live automatically without even thinking about them.

Reproducing the village

The residents of The Village are part of an ideological system of beliefs that can be seen in the way they reproduce their daily routines. The reproduction is itemized in the rules of the community listed above, but the reproduction is so internalized that for most of the people it happens automatically. Most, that is, except for the few who question the absolute Subject/Truth of the rules and beliefs of the community. In a community such as this, the question “Why do we do things the way we do?” becomes as powerful and dangerous as physically crossing the line between the village and their enemy’s demarcations. This question pushes the film forward and unmasks the ideology of the village for what it is. Throughout the film the audience is constantly being asked to decide whether the rules are creating the fear or whether the rules reflect the Subject/Truth of an evil that exists beyond them.

The film ends with the question being posed cinematically after having explored the ideological beliefs of the village and how they are related to the realities of the world outside. The camera pans around the characters of the village and then back to the audience, which is made to take the perspective of one of the protagonists in the film (Joaquin Phoenix’s character).

So. Should we villagers continue to reproduce the way of life of the village, or should we change it? Are the rules of the community oppressive or liberating? Are they worth their costs to the community? Did they truly protect the people from harm? Do they still? Are they—needlessly or needfully—creating a culture of fear? The answers are left to us.

The ideology of Rosa Parks

The need for making such decisions about continuing ideological beliefs in a society are not without parallel in history. For instance, in the American civil rights movement, African-Americans made decisions about how to respond to the ideological oppression that attempted to inculcate them into a culture that reproduced their conditions of living as second-class citizens. Rosa Parks’s decision to remain sitting in a “whites only” area of the bus was not a failure to realize her always–already subjection to this ideology. It was a decision not to respond to the hail and to stand against the ideological hailing with an alternative. She had a choice beyond the recognition of her always–alreadyness.

But this was not a choice to escape ideology. She had the choice of recognizing an alternative ideology. Were this not the case, she would simply be failing to recognize her always–alreadyness—that she was a second-class African-American citizen of the United States. But her response affirmed a new ideology, as did the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speeches (along with countless others in their hymns and campaigning). They presented a counter vision with a corresponding ideology that presents all people, no matter the color of their skin, as equally valuable and equally deserving of congruent rights and privileges in American society. Ideology in this sense had a constitutive function of fighting the exclusionary ideology of segregation with an embracing one.

Redeeming ideology

What Althusser points out is that we will always be ideologically inculcated. People live together according to all sorts of rules and behavioral practices that we do not—most times should not and many times cannot—even think about. We reproduce the cultures we live in every single day. The way we dress, the way we talk are all being reproduced automatically. We know how to behave based on where we are and in what social context we live.

This is what makes cross-cultural experiences so stressful. When living in another country, all the little things you normally don’t even think about become chores. For the first few years you live in a state of near-panic as you find yourself constantly dancing out of step. But slowly you internalize the new steps of the social dance and begin to move with everyone else. After two weeks of driving on the left side of the road in England, it becomes natural, to the point that driving on the right becomes the “wrong” way to drive.

Shyamalan’s early film Praying with Anger becomes more relevant to his later work in The Village as we notice the role ideological deconstruction plays in both. Both films explore the human potential to morph and adapt to changed conditions and reproduce them without thinking. Without this ability we’d go mad, but without deconstructing it we potentially reproduce the very fears we hope to avoid.

Althusser says that ideology is an always–already experience that cannot be escaped, but he offers no account of a positive or healthful ideology. In response to this, it is critical to learn from the lesson of Rosa Parks and her compatriots that the solution to ideology is ideology. This is a notion that is made explicit in the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in a bound compilation of essays on ideology and utopia.

If we take Althusser seriously, Ricoeur points out, the question is then not about how to escape ideology but how to redeem it. For some ideologies are better than others at fostering a relationship to Truth, to the way things are outside a given Village. Finding their relationship to Truth requires a constant testing and seeking.

Ricoeur builds on the way that people are constantly representing the world with symbols—we are linguistically bound, in other words. Because our understanding of the world is symbolically mediated through things like language, we must conduct constant testing on the accuracy of our language. Ideology, then, is a systematized symbolic representation of reality. It can be accurate or inaccurate—empowering or oppressive. Because ideology pushes out to the limits and toward the absolute Subject/Truth, we must make sense of how well our reproduced ways of living match up with the reality of our circumstances.

Night’s Questions

What Shyamalan does in his films is to push the boundaries that we fear crossing. He doesn’t just want to scare us. He wants to transform the way we live and act in light of our fear. He challenges us to ask what we are really afraid of, to look at the deeper questions raised by the limitations of human existence. Is it the case that the rules and ideas we assume every day are in fact true to reality? Are they true to what really exists beyond what we can perceive, touch, and know? What is on the other side of death? Is it to be feared? What would it mean to see dead people? Do ghosts have to be scary?

What about living up to a heroic life of risk and adventure? Why do we fear who we really are? Is living a life that is truly alive—a life that risks being who we really are—so bad in the end? Do we keep the secure “safe” job and continue walking in numbness?

Why is it that the unknown is so often seen as a 50/50 chance at death rather than an opportunity to surprise the world with hope?

When it comes to how we live in our communities we have to push those boundaries and ask what we are afraid of and why. In the end this may be the scariest thing to do because to push the boundaries of the ideological assumptions we live with on a daily basis is to radically shake our societies, punctuating their core convictions with a question mark.

In a world where terrorism warnings go from yellow to red, where we desperately take off our shoes and jackets to enter airport sanctums of safety, where we fear the air, water, economy, neighbors, hackers, worms, viruses, cancer, Ebola, war, bombs, black people, white people, dead people, ourselves—we need to challenge our assumptions and ask why. Are our fears based on ideologies that foster courage, hope, and community? Or on ideologies that foster isolation and despair? Why do we believe what we do? Is it the beyond that is so scary, or is it that we fail to seek what’s really there—that we fail to ask about the assumptions we reproduce all the time?

Consistently, the message Shyamalan seems to stress is that courage is not the absence of fear, but the power to overcome it. What is that power? For Shyamalan it seems to be an experience of enlightenment, a shift from one ideology to another. From believing ghosts are malevolent beings come to scare us, to those who come in need of our help. Belief doesn’t make the difference between evil existing or not. Belief can, however, make the difference between whether we run from evil or turn to face it.

If we believe that at the other side of the unknown is Someone, Something, a Subject so absolute its Truth is unshakably there when we face evil, we find that power to overcome fear. In each of Shyamalan’s protagonists—be it a young boy, a middle aged security guard, a faithless priest, or a young nineteenth-century couple—the deconstruction of their ideologies leads to their redemption. If we agree with Althusser that belief is necessary and impossible to escape—that we are all inculcated in ideology and that the question is not if, but which ideology—then it is appropriate and necessary to ask what kind of beliefs lead to hope, healing, and courage and which reproduce fear and despair. It seems that these are the kinds of questions that led people like Jesus to say things like, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” :::

Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. Edited by George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Essays on Ideology. London: Verso, 1984.

Timothy Stanley is a doctoral student in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester and author of “Redeeming the Icons” in the April 2005 issue of The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory and “Punch-Drunk Love: Popeye the Novelty Toilet Accessory Man” here at metaphilm. He typically avoids scary movies like a kindergartner.

Posted by: editor on Apr 19, 2005 | 9:00 pm

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