Tim Drake

Wednesday, June 04, 2003
Fear of Evil: The “Catholic” Imagination of M. Night Shyamalan
by Tim Drake

M. Night Shyamalan’s (pronounced Sha-ma-lawn) career has skyrocketed. With six films to his name, the 31-year-old writer/producer/director has already established himself as Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter. His salary has quadrupled since the release of his blockbuster The Sixth Sense in 1999.

His vision and style is traceable through his small, but successful, body of work. Although a Hindu, Shyamalan’s artistic imagination is decidedly Catholic. Like most of his movie’s endings, it’s rather unexpected.

Born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan during one of his parents’ trips back to Pondicherry, India in 1970, Shyamalan was raised in the affluent Penn Valley of Philadelphia and attended private schools there. The Waldron Mercy Academy for boys, the Catholic gradeschool Shyamalan attended, serves as the backdrop for his second film Wide Awake.

The child of physician parents Jayalakshmi and Nelliate, Shyamalan grew up on films such as Star Wars, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the age of eight he had been given a Super-8 camera, launching his early passion for filmmaking. By age 17 he had completed 45 homemade movies.

A 1988 graduate of Episcopal Academy, Shyamalan went onto graduate from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1992. It was there that he created his middle name, “Night” — a name he chose not only for its entertainment value, but also because one can see the universe only at night.

Following film school, Shyamalan arranged financing for his first script, Wide Awake. When the financing collapsed, he wrote Praying with Anger, took part of the Wide Awake financing, found new investors, and flew to India to shoot the feature-length film. Not only did Shyamalan raise all of the funds necessary, but he also wrote, starred in, produced and directed the film at a cost of $750,000. Loosely based upon his own trip back to India, the film is a story about an Indian-American sent to a university in India for a year to straighten him out. The film made $7,000.

In 1994, Shyamalan wrote the script “Labor of Love,” about a man who walks from Philadelphia to California to prove his love for his recently deceased wife. He sold the script to Twentieth Century Fox for $750,000 with the understanding that he would be able to direct the film. Later, it became evident that he would not be allowed to direct. “It was a story about what I felt about first being married,” Shyamalan told Newsweek. “It was pure.” Fox has still not turned the script into a movie.

Meanwhile, Praying with Anger got him noticed. After making it, Miramax funded Shyamalan’s Wide Awake, a film about a fifth-grader’s search for God.

“I’m wide awake now.” – Joshua Beal from Wide Awake

Spiritual Bookends
Shyamalan’s first studio film, Wide Awake (Miramax, 1998), along with his most recent film, Signs (Touchstone, 2002) serve as spiritual bookends to his other films. Both focus on the relationship between man and his creator.

The most Catholic of his films, Wide Awake takes place at Waldron Academy. Shyamalan admits that in some respects the film is autobiographical.

In the film, ten-year-old Joshua A. Beal (Joseph Cross) has lost his grandfather (Robert Loggia), leaving him desperate to know where he has gone and whether he is all right.

The film is separated into three parts, each patterned after the school year. It opens in September with a section called “The Questions.” The middle section takes place in December and is termed “The Signs.” The final third is set in May and is called “The Answers.” The three parts mirror Joshua’s journey of faith.

When Joshua asks his best friend, Dave, whether he ever thinks about God, Dave responds, “I go to a Catholic school. God is like our homework. No I don’t think about God.” When Joshua presses, asking Dave whether he thinks that God is real, David responds, “Nope. Too many bad things happen to people for no reason.”

This sets Joshua forth on a mission to find God. In his quest, Joshua watches television, searches the Internet, sneaks into the girl’s school to speak with a cardinal, talks to the school priest, and suggests a family vacation to Rome. “Why Rome?” his parents inquire. “It’s a nice city,” he responds. They point out that Rome is where the Vatican and the pope is. “The pope is not God,” they tell him. “I know that, but he’s his best friend,” responds Joshua. Joshua has little success.

Dave advises Joshua, “Look, Joshua. Either there is no God, or he doesn’t really care that you are looking for him.” This line signals a turn of events that opens the eyes of both the cynical Dave and the seeking Joshua.

The film’s humor is not a “Do Patent Leather Shoes Reflect Up?” style of humor, poking fun at things Catholic. Rather, the Catholicism in the film is respectful. Rosie O’Donnell plays a baseball-loving nun. Father Peters plays a respectable priest. And in a particularly moving scene, Joshua’s grandfather is shown receiving the Eucharist at a healing mass. It is the first time that Joshua realizes his grandfather is ill.

One night Joshua begins to doubt his mission. Out of desperation, he utters a prayer. “Please, I need one bad,” he says, asking God for a sign. “My grandpa believed in two things,” he says, “Always keep your hands on the ball, and hold onto your faith. Faith will get you through. I don’t think I believe in anything at all.”

Next, Joshua has a flashback: Joshua’s grandfather points to the snow as proof of God’s existence. His grandfather asks Joshua, “How do you think the snow appears?” Joshua offers a scientific explanation. “You’re right, but there’s more. Much more. Maybe you’re going to have to find your own proof,” the grandfather concludes.

That night, Joshua gets his sign. It snows.

The sign signals Joshua’s epiphany as he begins seeing things that he’s never seen before. At the film’s conclusion, Joshua says, “Before… Bullies were bullies for no reason. Weirdos were just weird, and daredevils weren’t afraid of anything. Before this year, people I loved live forever. I was asleep. I spent this year looking for something and ended up seeing everything around me. You know what? I’m wide awake now.”

The final piece to the puzzle is Joshua’s encounter with an angel that’s been with him all along. The angel, referring to Joshua’s grandfather, tells him, “You don’t have to worry, he’s happy now,” and then disappears. In the end, Joshua makes his own statement of belief. “I believe that not all angels have wings,” he says.

Joshua Beal’s name and character remind us of Job. It is Job’s story presented for our time. Joshua is struggling with Job’s question, “Why do people you love die?”

Ultimately, Wide Awake is a film about faith. Although through the filter of a non-Catholic, the film is filled with Catholic symbols and rituals — religious statues, confession, a May crowning, guardian angels, heaven, and the Eucharist. In fact, the film was so Catholic that some critics, such as the New York Time’s Stephen Holden were offended. Holden felt the film was too Catholic. Perhaps in response to such criticisms, the Catholicism in Shyamalan’s later films has been more subtle.

“I see dead people.” – Cole Sear from The Sixth Sense

Visions of Purgatory
After Wide Awake, Shyamalan focused on two projects. During the day he worked on the screenplay for the children’s film Stuart Little — about an adopted mouse’s challenge of fitting in with his adoptive family. At night, he worked on The Sixth Sense (Spyglass, 1999) — a film about a young boy that sees dead people. While more subtle in its Catholic vision, the film is essentially an allegory for purgatory.

Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a beloved child psychologist. Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), is a brilliant but terrified eight-year-old boy.

After a gunshot wound from Vincent Grey, a former patient and one of Malcolm’s few failures, Crowe feels he has been given an opportunity for redemption by helping young Cole, whose psychological problems are virtually identical to Grey's.

Cole is thought a "freak" not just by other kids, but by his teachers as well. Only his mother (Toni Collette) is there for him, but he dares not share his dark secret with her.

Crowe and Sear’s first conversation takes place in a Catholic Church. The Church’s white interior stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s darkness. Cole is playing with his toy soldiers and speaking Latin —"De profundis clamo ad te Domine!" (Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord.)

“In the old days, people used to hide out in churches?,” Crowe tells Sear. “What were they hiding from?,” Sear asks. “Bad people mostly,” says Crowe. On the way out of the Church, Cole grabs a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which he will use in the red-tent sanctuary he has built in his bedroom to protect himself from the terrifying presences that surround him. Cole tells Crowe, “I don’t want to be scared anymore.”

Meanwhile, Crowe has serious problems of his own. He spends too much time working, his marriage is deteriorating, and his wife begins seeing another man.

Eventually, Cole reveals his secret to Crowe. “I see dead people,” he says, “They see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” Crowe, naturally, struggles with disbelief.

It is when Crowe admits that he cannot help Cole that salvation becomes possible. Cole realizes that the problem is that Crowe doesn’t believe him. What he needs most is someone to listen and believe. Crowe is required to make a leap of faith beyond the limits of his own worldview to accept the unbelievable. It turns out that the dead are in need of the same.

It is not all the dead that are walking the earth, but only those with regrets or unfinished business. They need the help of the living. In this way the film plays with the idea of the communion of saints. Cole serves to finish what the dead could not, helping to release them from their state of unhappiness.

Resolution, therefore, comes in embracing the truth. That truth, revealed in the film’s surprise ending, shows that Malcolm has been dead all along. In the end he tells his wife as she lays sleeping, “I think I can go now. I just needed to do a couple of things. I needed to help someone. I think I did. And I needed to tell you something. You were never second, ever. I love you. Everything will be different in the morning.”

“Water. It’s like your kryptonite.” – Elijah Price from Unbreakable

Good vs. Evil
In Unbreakable (Touchstone, 2000), Shyamalan, an avid comic book fan, creates a film about the mythology of super heroes. It’s a film about good and evil and ultimately a film about sin.

Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a soft-spoken security guard. While on a train ride home from a New York job interview, Dunn survives a derailment that kills everyone else on board. This prompts Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a mysterious comic book collector with a degenerative bone disease to contact David. Price offers Dunn an outrageous explanation as to how he managed to survive unscathed. He proposes that they are on the opposite end of the "breakable" continuum, a fact he wishes to explore to support his theory that there are real-life super heroes in the world.

Dunn, of course, has reservations about his strange fate. However, reflecting on his youth, Dunn realizes that he has never been hurt or sick, and that has instincts for identifying bad people.

The more Price talks to Dunn about his gift the more Dunn and his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) experiment with his unnatural powers. This sets up the film’s most amusing and terrifying scenes. In the humorous scene Dunn and Joseph are in the basement bench-pressing. Instead of removing weight, his son adds weight, demonstrating that Dunn does, in fact, have extraordinary strength.

In the film’s most terrifying scene, Joseph confronts his father in the kitchen with a pistol, threatening to shoot him. Joseph believes that his father is a superhero and that his father will not die. Adding a moment of levity to a tense situation, Dunn tells Joseph, “Friends don’t shoot each other.” Resolution comes only when Dunn threatens to leave. Joseph fears his father leaving more than he fears his father’s death.

Dunn’s discovery of this gift rekindles his interest in life and renews his love for his wife (Robin Wright Penn). Once he embraces his gift, he dons a monk-like smock and hood and fulfills his role of protecting and defending people. Price, in the end, is revealed to be the archetypal intellectual villain.

While Unbreakable is neither explicitly Christian nor Catholic, themes of virtue run through the film. It is a classic tale of good vs. evil. Dunn is a faithful father working to preserve his marriage and family. Aside from an early scene on the train, Dunn acts honorably always trying to do what is right.

The film also calls to mind the parable of the talents with the message that we each have God-given talents, and that when we do not use the gifts God has blessed us with, we are an offense to God and to humanity. Dunn’s choice to spurn his natural gift leads to the near-death of his marriage, his career, and his heart. Dunn, in some ways, is like Moses — a reluctant hero-leader, fearful to use his gift. Price recognizes this as well, albeit in a twisted way.

There is, in the film, dignity in the human person. At the film’s end, Price asks, “Do you know the scariest thing, David? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here. That’s just an awful feeling. I almost gave up hope, but I found you…. Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake.”

“There’s a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?” – Bo Hess from Signs

Signs of Contradiction
Shyamalan’s most recent film, Signs serves as the bookend opposite to Wide Awake. Again, it is a multi-layered film that explores similar spiritual themes, but in a much different way. Whereas Wide Awake was a young boy’s conversation with God, Signs is essentially God’s conversation with a man.

In Signs, farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopalian minister, renounces God following the tragic death of his wife. The film opens with the shadow on the wall where a cross once hung, a testament to Hess’ loss of faith. Much to Hess’ chagrin, residents still call him “Father.”

Set in Bucks County, Pa., Hess lives with his two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a washed-up baseball player.

Graham wakes up one morning to find five geometric shapes carved into his cornfield. Graham’s lack of belief leads him to suspect that teenagers created the crop circles.

Yet, the crop circles are only a small part of a much larger tale. Shyamalan uses the crop circles to get the audience thinking about divine providence. Does coincidence guide our lives or is there a pattern to it all?

Upon learning from the television news that similar circles have been discovered elsewhere around the world, Hess is also forced to come to terms with issues of faith. Not only is the family wrestling with an invasion of potential aliens, but its protagonist is also wrestling with his demons of unbelief. Some may question whether the first are merely a manifestation of the latter.

As the family sits watching the global crisis unfold on TV, Hess explains his philosophy. He declares that there are two kinds of people: those who believe in miracles and those who believe things happen for no particular reason. At this point Hess belongs to the second group, convincing himself that humans are alone in the world.

In a pivotal scene, Graham acknowledges God. The scene bears similarity to the one in Wide Awake where Joshua, in desperation, speaks to God and asks for a sign.

In Signs, the first time we see Graham talk to God is as he holds his struggling asthmatic son in his arms. He tells God he hates him. “Don’t do this to me again. I hate you. I hate you,” Hess says.

The similarity, of course, is that it is only when the protagonists acknowledge God, even if in desperation or anger, that God begins to move again in their lives. In Wide Awake, Joshua is given a sign and begins to really see things for the first time. In Signs, God honors Hess’ prayer.

As it turns out, not only do the details matter, but God is in the details. Suddenly, Hess’ wife’s dying words, his brother’s moving in with them, his daughter’s idiosyncrasy with water, and even his son’s asthma make sense. In the end, the invaders are defeated and Morgan is saved.

“Did someone save me?” Morgan asks his father. “Yes, I think someone did,” his father replies, weeping.

The film purposefully touches on each of the Church’s sacraments – sacred signs meant to convey God’s grace. Baptism is revealed through the presence of water in the film. Holy Orders are touched upon through Graham’s vocation. Confession is dealt with through a humorous interaction between “Father” Graham and a teenager in the drugstore. Confirmation is alluded to in the scene in the basement where the father and the son breathe as one. The Eucharist is hinted at through the “last supper” scene. And Matrimony and Last Rites are evident, through Graham’s relationship with his wife, and later in his encounter with his dying wife.

Shymalan ends the film as it began. As the camera pulls away it reveals Hess dressing in his clerics. While the image of a faded cross is no longer visible on the wall, one is very evident in the architecture of the bathroom door, symbolizing that Hess has again made his faith a part of his life.

In Signs, as in Shyamalan’s previous films, tangible proof has entered people’s lives demonstrating that reality has dimensions beyond that of everyday. To believe in God, one must agree that there is more to the universe than what we can see. Ultimately, this is what Joshua Beal, Malcolm Crowe, David Dunn, and Graham Hess all come to realize.

“They called me Mr. Glass” – Elijah Price from Unbreakable

Windows on our Souls
One technique that Shyamalan frequently uses in his films is the appearance of windows and reflections.

Oftentimes our first glimpses of evil are caught as reflections, perhaps suggesting that the evil in his films is merely a reflection of the potential evil in all of us.

In Unbreakable, the film opens shortly after the birth of Elijah Price. The scene is played out in the mirror of a department store. Later, when we are first introduced to Price as a young boy, the scene between he and his mother (Charlayne Woodard) is played out in the reflection of an old television set. Later still, he is seen in the reflection of a piece of glass framing a piece of his comic book art. Price is later revealed to be the evil, Mr. Glass — David Dunn’s archenemy.

Likewise, in Signs, Hess first attempts to catch a glimpse of the alien intruders in the reflection from a butcher knife. When he first sees one face to face, it is in the reflection from his television screen. Later, we see an image of the creature through a glass of water.

Shyamalan also makes frequent use of windows. Windows can be channels of grace, or metaphors.

In Wide Awake, a window in school, with light pouring through, serves as the starting point for Joshua’s thinking about God. Joshua says, “It’s funny when you first get an idea. Sometimes it comes when you look at something you’ve looked at 100 million times.” It is also through a window that Joshua receives his sign. It is the light through the window, which reappears at the film’s end, that is Joshua’s proof of God’s existence.

In Signs, a window serves as a metaphor for Graham Hess’ faith. In the beginning, awakened by a noise, Hess looks at the cornfield from his bedroom window. As we see him, from the outside, he is distorted by the window’s aged and wavy glass. It represents Hess’ faith. He can’t see clearly. Later in the film, Hess boards up the windows in an effort to keep out the alien intruders. His bedroom window is one of the last to be boarded. At this point, Hess has shut out his faith completely. In the film’s end, however, Hess’ faith has been restored. The window has been shattered and the view through the empty pane is clear.

“Believe it’s going to pass. Don’t be afraid.” – Graham Hess in Signs

Shyamalan’s Formula for Success
Shyamalan’s films demonstrate an imagination influenced not only by Lucas, Spielberg and Hitchcock, but also by his own Catholic education. They make use of both Catholic imagery and Catholic themes. Rooted by his own experiences, Catholicism shapes his moral vision as he cinematically renders themes such as redemption, purgatory, human dignity, and miracles.

Catholicism and its liturgy are mind-expanding. Shyamalan, a non-Catholic, demonstrates that his mere exposure to things Catholic has allowed him to produce films with a Catholic sensibility. It, no doubt, stems from his exposure during his formative years to Catholic teachings, rituals, and practices – imagery that has made its way into his films.

Alfred Hitchcock once acknowledged that “one’s early upbringing influences a man’s life and guides his instinct.” He admitted that his own Catholic education developed in him “a strong sense of… moral fear — the fear of being involved in anything evil.”

One wonders whether the same influence hasn’t shaped Shyamlan.

It is not the only similarity Shyamalan shares with the Catholic from across the Atlantic. Not only were both educated in Catholic schools, but they both started their film work at a young age and both became the highest paid individuals in their profession.

Likewise Hitchcock, Shyamalan recognizes that it is the things that we cannot see that scare us the most. Shyamalan’s cinematography, and even the opening music in Signs owes to Hitchcock. Also like his mentor, Shyamalan makes cameo appearances in each of his films. In the Sixth Sense he plays a doctor. In Unbreakable, he is a stadium drug dealer. In Signs, he plays the town veterinarian. Finally, Shyamalan’s fondness for surprise endings also recalls the late British-born director.

There are additional recurring techniques in Shyamalan’s films that contribute to his success. His films are all set in Philadelphia. He frequently makes use of windows and reflections. His films often feature children. He softens the terror with humor. Such techniques breed familiarity. They let viewers know what to expect, even when they do not know what lurks around the corner. They also help viewers to identify with Shyamalan’s films, even when they are very different from one another.

Clearly, Shyamalan’s Catholic experiences encompass all of the themes found in his work — fear, family, faith, and redemption. Yet, even when his films deal with the paranormal or supernatural, they are ultimately about relationships — relationships between a parent and child and the relationship between God and man.

Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register and editor of Saints of the Jubilee. He resides in St. Cloud, Minnesota. A version of this article previously appeared in Catholic World Report.

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