[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 3.]
What’s more terrifying: the things you cannot see that are outside the walls, or the things inside the walls that you may not fully understand? And so the question is begged: what comes at night? I had wanted to see It Comes At Night as soon as I found out that the writer/director was Trey Edward Shults, who made one of the best films of 2015, Krisha (which is magnificent and terrifying in its own way as an examination of family and mental illness).
It Comes At Night is not a typical horror. There’s a minuscule amount of blood, and the terror is mostly confined to wondering what might happen. But, as with any worthwhile horror, the tension is used to tell a deeper story. What are we scared of and why? Are things that should terrify us played down because we know them well? Is the unknown and unnamed fear only fearful because we don’t know it?
There have been any number of post-apocalyptic films in recent years. Perhaps when the anxiety in the world ratchets up, we use such devices to process our very typical human emotions, desires, and experiences. It Comes At Night could easily have become a template zombie film as the “sickness” encroaches on the security that Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have created behind their boarded-up windows and strict protocols and routines. But when they discover a man—just a man, without any of the sores or lethargy of those who are sick—trying to break into their house, the fact that Paul tells Travis not to trust anyone but family has consequences that they do not expect.
In some ways, the narrative itself is incidental to the emotional breakage that happens when Paul tries to keep his family safe. Will is trying to do the same for his family, and the fact that both families are three, with husband, wife, and son, heightens the drama. Everything that Paul has set up to bring his family safety seems to come apart, but does the fault lie with allowing Will and his family to live with them, or does it lie with Paul’s certainty that he can actually keep his family safe?
This is a fear that nearly every father must struggle with. Doing what seems best in a given situation, for the sake of your family, may end up costing you that very thing. The question raised by the film is whether Paul’s fear directed outward to others, to the sick, to the world, might be better turned inward in distrust of his own heart.
That last point should resonate with Christians and with pastors in particular. It’s very easy to drum up fears about things “out there,” while ignoring the deceitfulness of our own hearts. It’s easier to talk about how bad “the world” is (and how good, after all, do you expect the unbelieving world to be?) while ignoring the sins among the people gathered to hear the Word of God. We sometimes pretend as if the sickness is only out there, rather than recognizing that it runs through each of our hearts.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are not to beware the dangers and temptations of sin, especially of false teaching and false teachers. It is right for us to take that into account; it is right for preachers to warn of evil and false doctrine. The danger is in thinking ourselves righteous over against some big, bad evil outside our walls. When we forget the evil that lurks inside the walls and think we’ve been adequately inoculated to it because of all of our careful precautions—that’s when it’s most dangerous.
Whatever “it” is that comes at night: don’t trust stated good motives, but be careful of thinking of your own motivations as pure. Take precautions, but not only against the evil on the outside. Understand the danger out there but, even more, understand the danger in here. And don’t let fear overwhelm the right actions because, finally, whatever you do you cannot control everything. And, remember, there are worse things than death.