SFC Cunningham: I’ve got it figured. I’ve had two separate folk tell me that there have been strangers around. Can’t tell what they look like, ’cause they’re staying in the shadows… covert-like. Nobody’s been hurt yet, and that’s the giveaway.
Merrill: I see.
SFC Cunningham: It’s called “probing”. It’s a military procedure. You send in a reconnaissance group, very small… to check things out. Not to engage, but to evaluate the situation… evaluate the level of danger. Make sure things are all clear.
Merrill: Clear for what?
SFC Cunningham: For the rest of them. – Signs, M. Night Shyamalan
Early American Gothic Literature is concerned with settlers overcome by fear linked to the unexplored territory which engulfed them. Fear of the unknown stemming from environmental factors like darkness and vastness is notable. This was shown in the film The Village by director M. Night Shyamalan. The incredible characters in this film are not from the 17th century but the present day. Notably, one character ventures beyond the confines to a shunned, violent world to retrieve medicine. She does not stay in that world though but retreats back to her tribe with much needed cross cultural information.
M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs is about something connected though different. The film is set almost entirely on a farmhouse cocooned by cornfields with only one scene in the town and at a neighbour’s. It’s about a widower priest raising his son and daughter with his brother who also lives on the property.The territory has been long explored but soon fenced in. There is no fear of the unknown but the known and a withdrawal from dark forces is the only option. Conservation becomes paramount, particularly when the television and radio emit only white noise when before they provided global information. Not just the stockpiling of goods but the fortification of souls. When the alien forces are pounding at the door and windows of the family house, the father does not panic, he turns to his children;
Do you know what happened when you were born Morgan? You came out and your mama kept bleeding so the doctors rushed you out of the room before I even had time to see you. While they were fixing her up, all she kept asking about was you. I wanted your mama to see you first because she had dreamed about you her whole life. And she got feeling better and they brought you in and they placed you in her arms. And she looked at you and you looked at her and you just stared at each other for the longest time. And then she said real soft, “Hello Morgan, I’m your mama. You look just how I dreamed.”
Wherever corn grew in the Americas, it was held by the people to be the symbol of life and fertility. The cornfield in Signs is no accident. It features in the Bible, is significant in dream interpretations. It’s been eaten for millenia. The film opens when the corn is high and obscures vision. So what happens when it gets contaminated? Stephen King is fond of the cornfield. It’s famously represented in The Stand where Mother Abigail lives. I have always felt that she was inspired by a very old American, Harriet Tubman. She too was a prophet, visionary, the Moses of her people. Whatever festers in the corn is no match for her deep conviction as seen in 2:50. A strong homestead is essential for evil must be confronted and withstood, you can’t run away. Signs is about the antithesis of a fashionable but meaningless border less world.
Destruction of the family is no more as can be found in a Shirley Jackson novel. It is the construction that matters. There is an inability of many American Gothic characters to overcome perversity by rational thought. In Signs, we see the ability of the characters to overcome perversity with faith and the rejection of coincidence. Collective consciousness is used as a force for good when the family breathes together for the asthmatic boy. It is not used hysterically as you’d find in The Scarlet Letter. Collective consciousness saves the family at the end of the film. Ignores the signs in your life which are not coincidence at your peril. And when the borders are breached, there is no compassion, they physically fight back. One of the last scenes of the film is water tumbling down onto the alien and thus obliterating it. Water, the essence of life. Signs reminds us what is necessary for our survival, not surplus to it. Conservative values are key; serve your self, serve your family, serve your God.