M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs released on August 2, 2002. My friends and I didn’t see it in theaters until near the end of September. Miraculously, it was still playing and it was still packing houses. That era of cinema, where mid-budget movies got long runs and huge returns, might be gone or at least on its last legs, but the indelible mark that film’s images left on our impressionable preteen minds won’t erase so quickly, if ever. Twenty years later, there are still so many sequences that haunt my memories of that movie and the night I watched it with my friends in the theater. It was my buddy’s 12th birthday and he had a sleepover planned. When the alien scurried in the background of a kid’s birthday party in Brazil, it quickly became clear that we weren’t going to get much sleep at all.
What’s remarkable about Shyamalan’s early work is his ability to build tension and fear despite letting the cats out of the bag fairly early. In The Sixth Sense, the revelation of seeing ghosts is relayed pretty early on. In Signs, we see the visage of the alien on a news broadcast but we’re still anticipating in terror its eventual reveal towards the end. Instead, the “terrifying creatures” were never the actual source of dread in Signs or The Sixth Sense or even The Village, where it was revealed before the trek in the woods that the red-hooded creatures were a hoax.
What bites at the soul and creates these films’ sinking feelings is the theoretical void of humanity’s place in the universe, where elements from outside human existence are in an ambiguous state of existence and nonexistence. When Morgan (Rory Culkin) climbs atop the car and holds the baby monitor in the sky, and it starts to read signals, it was a revelatory moment because it assigned to the ambiguous monster an attempt at real communication with the protagonists. After the movie, my friends and I went into the backyard and tried the same thing with walkie-talkies. As kids, we never saw or cared to see anything outside our immediate reality. Now, looking up at the night sky—unable to sleep from a movie that so deeply affected our psyches, contemplating the idea of turning into teenagers and eventually adults—we thought about the loneliness of our species, and planet, in the universe for the first time.
Most of my childhood friends were Indian and grew up in households that practiced Hinduism. Shyamalan did too. But what was unique about his upbringing was that he went to Catholic school. This conflict of religion and spirituality is intrinsic to his understanding of horror and fear in his early films (his latter ones are much more concerned with tangible biological horror, specifically the horror of aging like in The Visit, Glass and Old). In Signs, Reverend Graham (Mel Gibson) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) have a deep and penetrating discussion where the existence of God is deliberated as they see the crop circles begin to show up all around the world. Gibson is fantastic throughout the entire movie, but in this scene his acting—especially his delivery of “There is no one watching out for us Merrill. We are all on our own.”—is guttingly frank. Shyamalan ends that scene with a colossal crash of a statement that makes it feel like an endless pit opening up for us to fall into.
Catholicism and the guilt associated with it, often portrayed with Gibson center stage, shows up most potently in the harrowing Thanksgiving dinner scene where he angrily gorges on food to the terror of his kids and brother. But Shyamalan’s exposure to Hindu mythology rears its head at the end of Signs. It’s not an ending that I particularly cared for when I first saw it, and I still think it renders itself as rather goofy (a guileless Spielbergian denouement capping off a perfect 21st century rendering of Hitchcock was a jarring shift that never sat right with me), but the idea behind it, regardless of execution, is a ripe one.
Philosophies of karma (consequence) and samsara (circles of life) often take place in the form of his characters’ collective destiny. Graham asks Merrill, “Are you one of the people who sees signs, sees miracles, or do you believe people just get lucky?” Characters’ individual lives, embodied in personal interests, histories, personality quirks and disabilities (often a point of criticism), are woven into the fabric of the story and manifest themselves in ultimate answers to ambiguous questions. This is not explicitly stated with religious purpose, however, because as Shyamalan mentions in an interview with the New York Times, he is agnostic: “I’m not religious at all…but I am somebody who really believes in whatever you want to call it, the universe and our place in it.”
The sense that people are all alone but form a spiritual bond to create a greater destiny is a humanistic perspective to horror and science fiction that makes Shyamalan’s fantastical premises still seem possible to touch and adapt into our daily perceptions of the world. His films function centrally as dramas about family, relationships and communities more than about monsters and aliens, which tend to live in the peripheries. It lends Signs a deeper dramatic heft that is often overlooked when considering our relation to the “other,” or to a dimension or existence beyond our own in genre filmmaking. Shyamalan makes his philosophy explicit in tangible man-made objects and behaviors: The swinging of a baseball bat; glasses half-filled with water lying around the house. When we held the walkie-talkies up to the night sky, nothing of real significance came through. But every crackle made us believe that there could be something else out there. This human element at the forefront of his films made it easier for us kids to think about our own place in the galaxy more than, say, Steven Spielberg’s films, which sometimes exist on a magical plane that seemed just out of reach.
As an adult, I still think a lot about the night I saw Signs. I thought about it most when one of my friends who was there that night, who sat next to me in the theater and almost walked out because he was so scared, died in a flood a few years ago. I thought about what Graham said about luck, that certain people “feel whatever happens, they’re on their own.” I began to relate to that a lot after his death, during his funeral and especially lately, in the wake of everything that has been going on in the world and in this country in particular. My friends, both in this world and whatever comes next, and I live further away from each other now, and have our own lives. I wonder what the collective destiny of our paths might be and if there even is one. Perhaps, like in Shyamalan’s Signs, it builds quietly to a moment we’d never expect—a twist in the narrative revealing that the separate floating pieces were working towards a bigger answer.
Soham Gadre is an entertainment and culture writer based in Washington D.C. He has written for Polygon, MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, and Film Inquiry among other publications. He has a Twitter account where he talks about movies, basketball, and food.