The Spiritual Musings of M. Night Shyamalan: A Brief Retrospective on His Horror Films

Posted: September 10, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized

MV5BMTg3OTM2OTc5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjMxNDM0NTE@._V1__SX1394_SY669_M. Night Shyamalan returns to the big screen this week with the found-footage creeper, The Visit; and one question looms large: will The Visit resurrect Shyamalan’s once-promising career? While I suppose that only time will tell, I am—in the meantime—more curious about how Shyamalan’s latest effort will fit into his horror canon that, I contend, embodies its creator’s search for the spiritual and transcendent. Shyamalan is, after all, known for his cameos in his films. And while some chalk this up to the director’s desire to solidify his oft-spoken-of comparisons to Hitchcock (and there may be a certain degree of truth to this claim), I tend to think that there is a sense in which Shyamalan appears in his films precisely because they are already about him, a creative outpouring of his deeply personal investigation of the spiritual and metaphysical realm.

Shyamalan’s horror breakthrough came in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. His remarkable display of cinematic restraint, his refusal to immediately satiate our desires to see the spirits that haunt Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) , made manifest his understanding of the Hitchcokian principle that what is unseen is often more terrifying than the visible. At its core, however, The Sixth Sense is a film obsessed with finding comfort in the fact that loved ones have a life after death.

Signs (2002), which masquerades as an alien-invasion flick, is all about Graham Hess’s (Mel Gibson) crisis of faith that comes about as a result of his wife’s untimely death. It grapples with issues of belief and unbelief in a markedly earnest manner that is so often missing from so-called faith-based films.

The Village (2004) is set in cultic/religious community and explores one woman’s faith and courage in the face of the Hawthornesque deception perpetrated by the town’s leaders. More recently, Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines television show (which was quite good until its disastrous final episode) carries with it an implicit critique of organized religion and a Calvinistic understanding of God. Given the religious nature of Shyamalan’s entires into the genre thus far, it seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that his latest film will revisit (pun intended) many of these themes.

On a larger scale, however, Shyamalan’s cinema shows that Horror is an intrinsically spiritual genre that reveals our deepest fears and longings. Some horror films—slasher flicks, for instance, which have often been read as a conservative reaction to the metaphysical implications of premarital sex—prefer to explore spiritual themes and motifs in a (thinly) veiled manner, while others (see It Follows) are more content to let their inherent religiosity bubble to the surface.[1] The films of M. Night Shyamalan are, in my opinion, firmly grounded in the latter category; and Christians would do well to pay attention.


  1. This statement is somewhat reductionistic. I recognize that horror films are not a monolith, and my goal here isn’t to create a classification system for the genre. My aim here is to illustrate my earlier point about the spiritual nature of horror films.  ↩
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