Director M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs tells the story of a farmer and his family in eastern Pennsylvania who are among the first to experience the onset of an alien invasion of the Earth. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is an ex-Episcopal priest who lost his Christian faith after his wife was hit and killed by a truck whose driver fell asleep at the wheel. After the accident, Graham quit the priesthood, turned to farming, and, as the movie begins, is trying his best to raise his two children, Morgan and Bo (Rory Caulkin and Abigail Breslin). Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has moved in with his brother in an effort to comfort him and help with the child-rearing.
Mysterious events begin to occur on the Hess farm. First a crop circle is found in the cornfield; next, the family dog attempts to attack the Hess children; then someone is seen climbing at night onto the roof of the family’s house. Graham reports the events to the police, and soon it is learned via television news that such strange happenings are taking place around the world. Strange lights appear in the sky, and a frightening creature is captured on video at a kids’ birthday party in Brazil. Graham has two disturbing close encounters of his own with apparent alien beings. The Hess family eventually is forced to barricade themselves in their farmhouse, where they wage a final confrontation with the attacking aliens.
Using a technique that made his earlier film The Sixth Sense a smashing success, director Shyamalan introduces a “payoff,” a shocking revelation that gives new meaning to film’s prior events, at the end of Signs. Here the aliens are defeated by the Hess family through a combination of seemingly meaningless and unrelated earlier events. Graham’s dying wife had told him vaguely to “see” and instructed him to tell Merrill, a former baseball player, to “swing away.” When the Hesses confront the lone remaining alien, Graham recalls his wife’s words and looks up to see one of Merrill’s baseball bats–with which he set a home run record–hanging on the wall. As Merrill begins to club the alien with it, a glass of water falls on the alien’s skin, burning it. Little Bo has a habit of leaving half-finished glasses of water around the house; an annoying routine has suddenly become a crucial survival factor. Too, Morgan’s asthma, a life-threatening condition, now saves his life when the alien sprays poison gas into his face. This series of events seems to answer the central question of the film: Are life’s events random and meaningless, or are our actions fated and our souls the intimate concern of God?
Signs is a masterpiece and can be enjoyed if one simply interprets the film as described above. However, there is an alternative way of looking at the movie. For it can be argued that the creatures that come to earth are not aliens from another planet…but demons from Hell.
One clue to this other meaning is the seeming absurdity of the central plot element: The aliens, who possess such advanced technology that they are able to travel across galaxies, are yet incapable of breaking through simple doors and bring no weapons with them to combat their human enemy. Too, they are easily vanquished, humans learn quite accidentally, by water. Though the film was premiered to general critical acclaim, some critics blasted the script for these very reasons.
But the demon theory of the film solves this problem. The water left around the house by little Bo can be interpreted as holy water, famed among Roman Catholic exorcists for warding off demons and evil. And Bo herself? In a seemingly out-of-place exchange during the final confrontation with the creatures, Graham tells his daughter that when she was born, “all the ladies in the room gasped–I mean, they literally gasped–and they go, ‘Oh, she’s like an angel.'” In old Norse, Bo (Búi or Bua) means “to live”; the angel has brought the main weapon of life to be used against the forces of Satan. In a classic line from an earlier scene in the film, Bo wakes up her father to tell him, “There’s a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?” This line deservedly elicits a great laugh from the audience; kids will be kids, right? But there is indeed a monster outside her window, as her father soon sees. Under the demon/angel interpretation, here Bo the messenger from Heaven is asking for the very weapon that she alone somehow senses will combat the demon/monster.
As in the case of the demonically possessed in the real world, Signs‘ “alien” is seemingly burnt by contact with the (holy) water. Note also that the “aliens” have cloven hooves, a classic depiction of demons in Western art since early medieval times. As stated above, the “aliens” also have no technological weapons; they rely on primarily on terror….as does Satan and his minions, who want nothing more than to have humans despair of their salvation and their survival.
As the Hesses take refuge in their basement, Merrill tells his brother Graham, whose loss of faith leads him to give up hope of defeating the creatures:
You didn’t think we’d make it through the night, did you?
Listen…there’s things I can take and a couple things I can’t.
One of them I can’t take is when my older brother,
who’s 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.
Graham has been obviously struggling with demons of a kind prior to and throughout the film: his loss of faith, his anger at God for the death of his wife. “I am not wasting one more minute of my life on prayer,” the former priest thunders when Morgan suggests saying grace before the family’s “last supper” the night of the “alien” attack. When the creatures try to break their way through the basement door, Graham says aloud to himself: “I’m not ready.” Under any interpretation of the film, this can be construed as Graham recognizing that his soul is unprepared for death. Under the demon interpretation, Graham might well be recognizing that he is not ready for the spiritual battle that has been thrust upon him.
Too, the man who fell asleep at the wheel, Ray Reddy (played by director Shymalan) literally has his own “demon”: his unrelieved guilt for killing Graham’s wife. When Graham visits Reddy’s house, he finds the veterinarian packed up and ready to seek refuge elsewhere from the invasion. “I guess if this is the end of the world, I’m screwed, right?” Reddy tells Graham. “People who kill reverends’ wives aren’t exactly ushered to the front of the line in Heaven.”
In parting Reddy warns Graham: “And don’t open my pantry, Father. I found one of them in there and locked him in.” Perhaps Reddy is still struggling to lock his guilt away, and to flee from it.
Note that never do we see the alien ships that have brought these creatures to Earth. Oh, there are lights in the sky, but neither the characters nor the viewers see an actual spacecraft. TV reporters are left to theorize about the alien use of a “cloak of invisibility.” Again, interpreting the “aliens” as demons solves this problem.
Of course, there are the crop circles, supposedly a “sign” of extraterrestrial activity, and here seen by the characters as such (though note that the one in Graham’s cornfield looks decidedly like a pitchfork, the traditional tool of demons); and there are reports on the TV and radio about the “aliens” being defeated by humans in the end. Here the TV broadcaster speaks cryptically, reporting that “the battle turned around in the Middle East. Three small cities there found a primitive method to defeat them.” Could that primitive method be the use of holy water? And this happened in the birthplace of Christianity, among a trinity of cities?
The viewer of Signs must ask himself: Are the events happening as the main characters perceive them? After all, the news media, as well as young Morgan, develop all kinds of wild theories about the intentions, strengths, and weaknesses of the “aliens” without much evidence. A major clue given to us by Mr. Shyamalan that all is not as it appears is given to us when Graham asks at one point, “Is this really happening?”
Mr. Shyamalan has dealt with the supernatural and with angels before and since 2002’s Signs. Wide Awake (1998) tells the story of an all-boys Catholic school where one boy, grieving the loss of his grandfather, is visited by an angel in the guise of a fellow student. The Sixth Sense (1999) uses the “payoff” device of having the protagonist–and the audience–held unaware until the film’s conclusion that he was dead all along; Unbreakable (2000) suggests that some humans possess truly supernatural powers. Mr. Shyamalan also provided the story idea for Devil (2010), which portrays the manifestation of Satan himself among a group of people trapped in an elevator. Mr. Shyamalan is a Hundu who attended Episcopalian and Catholic schools in eastern Pennsylvania and whose work often is imbued with Christian themes and theology. In addressing the great issues of the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the fate of the soul, is it unreasonable to think that he would pit as the enemy of man not far-fetched aliens, but very real demons?
That is the true “payoff” of Signs that Mr. Shyamalan hopes his audience will be savvy enough to discern.
The author wishes to thank his friend, Veronica Burchard, and reader James Isabella for the insight about the meaning of the TV report of the defeat of the “aliens” by a primitive method. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.