From Signs to A Quiet Place: Perspective in Apocalyptic Horror
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I am an easily frightened person, prone to nightmares and ideation of horror scenarios at the mere suggestion of frightful imagery. As such, I tend to avoid horror movies and scary stories, despite the value many such stories can hold. I do, however, make a few notable exceptions. When a scary story revolves around speculation of the end of the world, I find my interest to be piqued. Apocalyptic horror, whether it is dystopian in nature or of the world-ending variety, is a type of story in which we come face-to-face with the reality of our own fragility in a finite world. These stories are rife with theological questions and implications because, as the old expression goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. Most interesting and (I think) valuable of all, though, is when these stories are told from a narrow perspective.
Stories of the Apocalypse are a favorite genre in Hollywood, but ways to tell these stories can be as varied as the human imagination. Plagues, zombies, monsters, oppressive regimes, alternative history, aliens, biblical narratives, giant asteroids, killer robots, climate disasters . . . the ways in which storytellers and filmmakers imagine the end of the world are legion. Action-adventure approaches adopt a perspective that, in the writing world, is known as omniscient. Through the use of multiple cameras, sets, and ensemble casts, the audience sees and knows everything that is happening. We are brought along for the ride—into helicopters, government decision rooms, and the president’s secret councils; allowed out on war campaigns and onto the decks of alien vessels. Such movies tend to be the most popular in the apocalyptic genre and promise to bring in the most money for production studios, but they spread themselves too thin to strike deep into the human psyche and really explore the ramifications of events such as an alien invasion.The claustrophobic feeling of the not-knowing forces us inside ourselves to examine our own reactions to the scenarios presented in the stories and—in the case of movies—on the screen.
In a movie like 1996’s Independence Day, we can see everything that is happening, and because of that, the story explores very little of the human condition. As the cameras chase Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith around America in a heroic attempt to save the world, nothing is left out of sight. Even Area 51 is brought out of the mysterious darkness of American myth and laid bare for our examination. What should be a terrifying premise becomes an American monomyth and testament to humanistic power and ingenuity. The aliens are gross, but not terrifying. There is no real horror to the destruction of the White House or tens of thousands of people. The world is saved by all-American heroes.
Less common, but more powerful, are narrow-perspective apocalyptic horror stories. Omniscient stories invite us to see the story as God; but limited perspective stories restrict us to the roles we play in real life—unable to see anything more than what is happening to the immediate characters, who are ordinary people, in their immediate settings. There are many good examples, but I particularly like 2002’s Signs and 2018’s A Quiet Place. A narrative thread connects these two movies, both of which are stories of families caught on farms, disconnected from society and almost all outside knowledge of the monsters that are invading or have invaded the world.
In Signs, the Hess family weathers an alien invasion, slowly retreating to the isolation of their farmhouse, hoping for safety behind boarded up windows and doors. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former reverend who loses his faith after the tragic death of his wife, and as he and his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and his children become increasingly cut off from the world in their struggle to stay alive, Graham runs through his final moments with his wife in an attempt to make sense of the providential nature of the darkness now threatening his family.
In John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, the isolation of the Abbott family extends to one of the senses, as the monsters they face will kill any person, or creature, that makes a noise. In a truly unique movie experience, most of the film is silent to hyper-focus the audience’s senses on what it takes the Abbotts to survive, to grieve, to love, and to protect each other on a farm, alone in a world where there is no seeming explanation for the tragedy that has unfolded—and continues to unfold—around them. The audience, just as the Abbotts, has to piece together what has happened in this apocalyptic hellscape through visuals and visual cues, because there is no omniscient voice telling us, no camera taking us to Washington, D.C., no narrative exposition.
The narrowed perspective of only allowing the audience to see the catastrophic events through the eyes of a single family heightens the horror. It’s an effect writers of the Gothic genre understood long ago—the use of limiting the setting to increase fear. The claustrophobic feeling of the not-knowing forces us inside ourselves to examine our own reactions to the scenarios presented in the stories and—in the case of movies—on the screen. The “What if?” factor is strong, and strongly empathetic. What is unseen is, in many ways, more affecting than what is; what is unknown more terrifying than what is known. This is why we are afraid of the dark—not because it is intrinsically more evil than the light, but because it narrows our perspective. In the dark, we cannot see. It causes us to question what we know to be true in the light.
Storytellers are manipulators—that’s part of the job of storytelling. The manipulation of our senses is what we sign up for when we enter a darkened movie theater, open a book, turn on the TV. We want to be swept away from real life into a world of other, and through that other to have our known world become a little bit sharper. This is the unique power and magic of story, and it is what keeps us coming back to it again and again, no matter the genre, no matter our awareness of the manipulation. Choosing voice and perspective are two of the most powerful tools in a storyteller’s arsenal. It is in these things, almost more than any others, that the author has the ability for a total manipulation of the audience’s experience. Storytellers determine what their audiences will see. By leaving empty spaces—by giving them darkness—they invite viewers and readers in to fill it with their own imaginations. This can be done in any sort of story, in which the storyteller is the architect of the parameters that will be filled, but in an apocalyptic horror story, it is an especially powerful effect because fear is so strong.
The less we see, the more our senses are manipulated, the more the story imitates life, and the deeper we can delve into the chief matter of the story itself, asking questions such as, what does it all mean? A movie like Signs asks us to consider if God is in control or if everything is up to chance. A Quiet Place is a movie about family, love, survival, and protection. In it, mother Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) asks her husband (John Krasinski), “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” And when the Abbott family bows in silent prayer over their supper, we’re given opportunity to wonder if God is listening in the midst of their silent pain… and if he listens in the midst of ours, too.
These narrow-perspective stories are some of the most true-to-life. Rarely do we ever have the privilege, really, of knowing the big picture of world events, even in the internet age that tricks us into believing that because we hold a device in our hands that contains a lot of information, we are somehow informed—somehow wise. We need to be reminded that we are not omniscient. To be theological about it, we don’t get to know the mind of God, aside from what is revealed in Scripture. When tragedies strike, we often find ourselves in the dark, asking why. Unable to perceive aside from what we can see and touch and hear and smell with our own senses. Our need for faith and hope and trust in a good God, who often feels silent, and tangible family and friends, who are often hurting as badly as we are, become the most clear in the darkest times. Stories that reflect these realities give stark relief to truth that is felt by us all.
A family sitting down to pray around a dinner table, without words, implying faith that God hears us, sees us, and helps us, is rightly placed even when the world is dark and violent and quiet. The wordless visuals of a field bathed in red light as a husband rushes to save his wife, a son to save his mother. “Tell Merrill to swing away,” Graham’s wife said before she died, long before any aliens invaded. Words Graham remembers in his darkest moment—a sign that God has not abandoned him. When such stories narrow the perspective to people like us in extraordinary circumstances, they can remind us that our lack of sight requires faith in a God who sees. There is nothing wrong with omniscient storytelling, which has virtues of other sorts, but narrow perspective, especially in apocalyptic horror, places us in the dark. There we might meet the God who sees the big picture when we cannot.