2019 Film Essays

The Fear of Losing Faith: On M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’

In 2002, after having watched multiple seasons of The X-Files, I felt secure in the certainty that I was not afraid of aliens. Thus, walking into the theater to watch M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs elicited no apprehension. About 13 minutes into the film, when a humanoid figure appears on the roof of a farmhouse, I felt immediately terrified, a feeling which only increased throughout the movie. As a result, I avoided watching it again until a few days ago. Does Signs hold up after all these years? Does it still have the power to evoke terror?

One of the biggest criticisms lobbied at Shyamalan’s filmmaking is his penchant for twists. Despite The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable both utilizing a big narrative reveal, Signs (the director’s third film) does not. The audience experiences the events of the movie along with the characters; in fact, there are several instances when the characters’ reaction to something is shown before the event itself is revealed.

For example, in the aforementioned scene with the alien on the roof, Graham Hess’ (Mel Gibson) startled expression is shown before the camera cuts to the figure on the roof. Only then is there a flourish of non-diegetic music, one meant to signify a shock.

Similarly, when Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix) watches news reports from his perch inside the closet, the audience hears the reporter setting up the video of the children’s birthday party and witnesses Merrill’s agitated face and movements as he gets closer to the TV screen. Then Shyamalan shows the character’s point of view, almost as if the audience is watching along with him. When the alien creeps out from behind the plants on the TV screen, a similar musical flourish is played and Merrill’s horrified reaction is then shown.

Shyamalan employs similar types of POV and reaction shots throughout Signs in order to not only help the audience identify with the characters, but also to allow the audience to go on the journey of discovery along with them. In Bill Bria’s Vague Visages article on Unbreakable, he addresses this exact thing by remarking on the continued comparison of Shyamalan’s filmmaking to that of Steven Spielberg: “Spielberg was a master at awe and tension, creating scenes that read as horrific to his characters and the audience before context either explains the situation or dispels the threat.”

Signs definitely has a Spielberg vibe from the outset, but it’s the audience’s connection to the Hess family that overshadows even the film’s more obvious nods to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Indeed, what sets Signs apart from many other alien films is that it isn’t actually about the aliens at all; it’s about coincidences and crises of faith. That faith isn’t even necessarily a faith in a god, although it certainly is for the retired Reverend Graham Hess, who stopped believing in God after the untimely death of his wife six months before the film’s narrative begins.

Consider Merrill’s speech to Graham after the alien attack has ended:

“Listen, there’s things I can take and a couple things I can’t, and one of them I can’t take is when my older brother, who is everything I want to be, starts losing faith in things. I saw your eyes last night. I don’t want to ever see your eyes like that again, okay? I’m serious.”

Though Merrill admits that he does believe in miracles (and by extension, that there is “someone looking out for us”), one gets the impression that his faith in his brother is almost more important to him than his faith in God.

This is where the real horror of Signs lies, not in whether or not aliens are real, or whether there is a god watching out for us, but the horror in watching the people we love lose faith in anything, especially themselves. Yes, the alien scenes in Signs remain startling and scary 17 years later, but it’s the film’s depiction of what happens to people who lose faith that truly resonates and terrifies.

Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.