The director of The Village, M Night Shyamalan, became known for the twist toward the end of his movies, the most renowned being The Sixth Sense (1999). This narrative feature eventually became something of a gimmick utilised by many other movies and The Village (2004) was seen as a particularly weak example of a tired formula. That is a shame since the evocation of both contemporary and universal themes along with high quality acting, music, and cinematography combine to produce a very impressive work.
The Village is presented to us as an example of the horror/suspense genre, depicting a community of settlers in Pennsylvania in 1897. They appear to live a simple pre-industrial life akin to the early Quakers or the present day Amish. There is however an undercurrent of fear circulating amid them, caused by the presence of strange creatures living in the surrounding woods:
Those We Don’t Speak Of have not breached our borders in many years. We do not go into their woods; they do not come into our valley. It is a truce. We do not threaten them.
This short exposition is spoken early on by one of the Elders, Edward Walker, to a group of schoolchildren. The twist in the tale, revealed towards the end, is that it is in fact closer to 1997, and the valley and woods are located in a wildlife preserve using the wealth of Edward Walker’s father to ensure there are no intrusions of the modern world such as overhead airplanes. The Creatures are fabricated monsters created by the Elders to keep the villagers within the bounds of the valley. Sometime in the late 1970’s these Elders decided to retreat from the violence and lawlessness of modern urban existence and create an alternative environment and community. There is a brief voice-over with each Elder detailing the experience which provoked their retreat:
My father was shot by a business partner, who then hanged himself in my father’s closet. They had argued over money…
My sister did not live past her twenty-third birthday. A group of men raped and killed her. They stuffed her body in a dumpster, three blocks from our apartment…
My brother worked in an emergency room downtown. A drug addict came in with a wound to his ribs. My brother tried to dress the wound. He pulled a gun from his jacket, then he shot my brother through his left eye…
My husband, Michael, left for the supermarket at a quarter past nine in the morning. He was found with no money and no clothes, in the East River, three days later…
This reaction to the alienating and destructive aspects of modern life is not uncommon and has resulted in artistic, political or religious collectives attempting to achieve a level of self-sufficiency and independence. The anonymity and isolation experienced by the town or city dweller is a relatively recent development caused by the industrial and technological revolutions of the last two centuries. The paradigm of a small village as the cradle of a growing consciousness has an enduring resonance, since it manifests the basic elements of communal existence on a small scale typical of many pre-industrial societies. The pressure of religious or ethnic persecution can also forge a collective and the Elders are not averse to using fear of the Creatures to create cohesion among the villagers. This aspect has been interpreted as an oblique reference to the post 9/11 atmosphere in American foreign and domestic policy (The War on Terror and Homeland Security) but it has a universal quality which is emphasised by the presentation of the details within a narrative structure echoing that of a fairy-tale or parable.
The movie centers on the blind Ivy Walker, daughter of Edward, and her quest to retrieve medicine from the towns to save the life of her fiancé, Lucius Hunt, victim of a stabbing at the hands of the simple-minded Noah. The towns are spoken of as ‘wicked places where wicked people live’ and the woods are the dwelling place of The Creatures. Hence her journey is perilous and her love must overcome her fear.
This simple scenario is at the very core of so many myths and parables that it informs and reflects real human behaviour. Bravery and cowardice are characteristics universally praised and scorned in the folklore of all cultures even if the nature of what constitutes bravery or cowardice can be relative and culturally specific. Within the universe of The Village, Ivy’s actions are of the highest nobility regardless of the fact that they occur in an artificially constructed world.
It is these qualities inherent within the human heart which the Elders wish to protect by their lies. Lucius, though unaware of the reality, senses the suppressed truth as ‘secrets in every corner of this village’. This suppression creates a dissonant and unpredictable undertone which permeates the social order which the Elders have constructed through the control of clothing and language and rituals. There is a beautiful clarity in the simple outlines which define the world for the villagers especially when seen against the violence and confusion of the modern world experienced by the Elders. This is reinforced by the cinematography and especially the use of red and yellow primary colours to denote the boundaries of danger and safety. There is a vivid pulse of freshness and life in the village, which even extends to the lucid and precise manner of speech created by the Elders: a vocabulary styled after 19th century American prose writers such as Thoreau and Hawthorne. The environment of a wildlife preserve has been utilised by the Elders as a human preserve away from the corrosive atmosphere of a decadent society. Nevertheless there is awareness among the Elders that they are living on borrowed time, that innocence must one day encounter experience despite their best efforts to delay it. Before each communal meal the ritual incantation is made:
We are thankful for the time we have been given.
August, whose child has recently died from an illness that could have been prevented by modern medicine, tells Lucius:
You may run from sorrow, as we have. Sorrow will find you.
The retreat from reality undertaken by the Elders is symbolised by the deficiencies of their offspring: Ivy, Lucius, and Noah. Blindness: a refusal to look any more on the horrors of the modern world; excessive silence: the unwillingness to engage in dialogue; simple-mindedness: a rejection of the consequences of knowledge and experience. Though not without its virtuous aspect this defensive position (see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil) is untenable and entails the creation of an artificial environment and a radical isolation from history and context. The fallen nature of human beings (the sorrow August speaks of) can be denied or held at bay for a time but never escaped from.
The form of the creatures is an amalgamation of claws, teeth, straw and a boar’s head. These animal and plant elements in a semi-human form are a conscious condensation of the Elder’s knowledge of the ‘monster’ in folklore. Mythological figures of folklore continue to speak to us across the ages as they express universal aspects of existence. The Creatures fabricated by the Elders as a ‘bogeyman’ nevertheless inherit that otherworldly quality contained in the folklore they ransacked. The modern mentality which confines itself to empirical data is no freer from the powers represented by mythologies than any other age. Secular mythology takes the form of ideological and political visions:
All politics are based on myth. At the level of politics, positivism, strictly taken, is thus intolerable. The political myth is therefore neither positive reality nor pure fiction; it is an effective fiction… One doesn’t reach a clear political reality by trying to justify or reveal the political myth, as if it were a matter of simple subtraction. The ‘end of ideologies’ of which much talk is made today, would not mean the beginning of a new time when politics would be sincere and controllable and based only on social realities and public spirit. The end of ideologies would bring with it the underestimation of the true nature of politics. The results would be either the blind and dull role of an unknown, ignored, and unchallenged ideology, or the disappearance of the political to the advantage of a pure technocracy, whose value and purpose would be regarded as self-evident, and which would, in turn, therefore, also rule undoubted and unchallenged. In both cases the people would be marked by a tyranny so deep that freedom would leave their spirits, and the people would cease to exist.
Jeanne Hersch (Myth and Politics)
The ‘effective fiction’ of the Creatures reflects the ‘strawman’ opposition created by political ideologies as well as the ‘Red Scare’ of the Cold War. There is a degree to which the Village becomes a microcosm of the modernity it sought to free itself from. Both are engaged in the struggle to construct a moral universe in the shipwreck of traditional values consequent upon the industrial and technological revolutions. Where modernity has embraced the faith in ‘progress’ as a secular eschatology, the Elders have sought to reconstruct a form of pre-industrial life modeled on Edward Walker’s knowledge of 19th century American history. The reactionary impulse in the face of the incredible transformations brought about in the 20th century and the desire to turn back to an earlier time is understandable and we may stand on the brink of yet another era of radical upheavals and equally radical reactions.
The Elders see themselves as an outpost, holding at bay the forces of modern nihilism which may steal in like the night mists of the valley and there is a tragic pathos in the futile yellow flags of the border.
After Noah stabs Lucius in a fit of jealousy, Ivy is entrusted with the mission to seek medicine in the towns and her father has to reveal part of the fabricated reality to her, to some extent destroying the very innocence he wished to protect. He shows her the costumes of the creatures which the elders wear while informing her that:
There did exist rumours of creatures in these woods. It is in one of the history books I used to teach in the towns
This remark leaves space for doubt in both the audience and Ivy, so that when Ivy does in fact seem to encounter one of these Creatures and kills it, the suspense is maintained. We learn later that this was Noah wearing one of the Elder’s costumes. As Edward Walker tells Noah’s parents:
We will find him. We will give him a proper burial. We will tell the others he was killed by the Creatures. Your son has made our stories real. Noah has given us a chance to continue this place. If that is something we still wish for.
So the ‘effective fiction’ has been reinforced in spite of Walker’s revelation. It is likely that Ivy will be told the creature she encountered was in fact real and her life will continue as before. One question that lingers in the aftermath is the moral justification of containing the next generation in a false universe to spare them the encounter with a corrupting knowledge. This question brings into play the near universal cultural myth of a lost paradise and specifically The Garden of Eden from Genesis.
Noah takes his name from the patriarch of Genesis, the preserver of life after the flood. In the movie he is, in contrast, a potential destroyer of the life preserved in the village. His simple-mindedness renders him a dangerously unpredictable element in the social construct. Like Adam in the Eden myth he has attained forbidden knowledge regarding the Creatures, namely that they are a fiction, and like Cain he murders another through envy. We discover that it is Noah who is strewing skinned animals around the village while dressed in a stolen Creature costume and he readily plucks the forbidden red berries. It is through Noah’s volatile mix of innocence and ignorance that evil enters the carefully constructed paradise and necessitates the journey of Ivy into the dark woods. These echoes of profoundly embedded myths function not as exact parallels but rather as tonalities: suggestive and atmospheric ingredients matched by the cinematography and the score.
When Ivy encounters a towns-person in the figure of a warden she says:
You have kindness in your voice. I did not expect that
This sows another seed of doubt and curiosity which may bring about the end of the village: the towns are not completely wicked. Even as we see in a newspaper the litany of crime and violence rife in the modern world it is clear from the example of the warden who helps her that the essence of some people is untouched and they can retain a degree of hope and not succumb to despair as did the Elders.
Each of the Elders possesses a locked black box kept in plain view. These contain fragments of the shattered lives they fled and serve as a memento to strengthen their resolve to leave the modern world behind forever. They also intentionally evoke the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box. There are varying interpretations of the myth but for our modern era it has come to suggest the consequences of scientific knowledge, the dangers of increased technological power, and the doubts concerning its benefits to human life.
Along with modern technology the village has rejected money from its social structure as the Elders know of its dangers. As Edward Walker tells his daughter:
You do not know of money. It is not part of our life here. Money can be a wicked thing. It can turn men’s hearts black. Good men’s hearts. My father could not see this, for all his gifts. He was a poor judge of a man’s character.
A pertinent example of the role of money in the expansion of technology and the corruption of values is the growth of the railroads and the rise of the ‘robber barons’ of 19th century America, the same period of history which the Elders chose to recreate. In our own age the alliance of money and technology is on track to bring about momentous changes which may well lead to what Jeanne Hersch describes above as the disappearance of the political to the advantage of a pure technocracy. The abuses and excesses of captains of industry from the 19th century pale in comparison to the looming threat of Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering:
At the dawn of the third millennium, the future of evolutionary humanism is unclear. For sixty years after the end of the war against Hitler it was taboo to link humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological methods to ‘upgrade’ Homo Sapiens. But today such projects are back in vogue. No one speaks about exterminating lower races or inferior people, but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to create super-humans.
At the same time, a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences, a gulf we cannot ignore much longer. Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each individual. Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will – the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees, wolves and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?
(Sapiens: Yuval Noah Harari)
The technocratic ideology coming into view, which might be termed Scientism, appears to dispense with myth altogether, justifying itself ultimately by reference to material reality alone. Whether this could ever attain dominance is questionable as the power of myth has been central to the validation of socio-political projects including our own liberal democracy.
The Village portrays one example of a reaction to the corrosive impact of technology and materialism on civic and human values. As Edward tells his daughter:
There is no one in this village (among the Elders) who has not lost someone irreplaceable, who has not felt loss so deeply that they questioned the very merit of living at all
The death of a loved one alone would not initiate a wholesale rejection of the modern world. It is the threat of a even greater loss through the dehumanising influences pervading the society which compels the Elders to make a solemn oath never to return.
The global village and the international community are a simulacrum of social relations if not an outright parody or inversion at times. The alternative community created by the Elders also relies on coercion, deception and social engineering to maintain its project and raises the question of whether the ends justify the means. When Edward is rebuked for his action of allowing Ivy to go into the towns for medicine and jeopardising everything, the following dialogue occurs:
Edward: Who do you think will continue this place, this life? Do you plan to live forever? It is in them that our future lies! It is in Ivy and Lucius that this … this way of life will continue. Yes, I have risked. I hope I am always able to risk everything for the just and right cause! If we did not make this decision, we could never again call ourselves innocent. And that, in the end, is what we have protected here! Innocence! That, I’m not ready to give up.
August: Let her go. If it ends, it ends. We can move toward hope. It’s what’s beautiful about this place. We must not run from heartache. You know, my brother was slain in the towns. The rest of my family died here. Heartache is a part of life. We know that now. Ivy’s running towards hope, let her run. If this place is worthy she’ll be successful in her quest.
Mrs Clack: How could you have sent her? She’s blind!
Edward: She’s more capable than most in this village… and she is led by love. The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.
The language of myth and symbol has certainly become less accessible to the modern mentality which on the surface relies on empirical data and confines itself to the conscious articulation of facts. However the principles manifested through these representations continue to operate in our lives even if we have lost the language to convey them effectively. The plain-spoken idiom of the villagers hearkens back to a time when the perception of such principles was still commonplace, embedded in folklore.
Our truths are worth no more than those of our ancestors. Having substituted concepts for their myths and symbols, we consider ourselves advanced; but these myths and symbols expressed no less than our concepts. The Tree of Life, the Serpent, Eve, and Paradise signify as much as Life, Knowledge, Temptation, Unconsciousness. The concrete figurations of good and evil in mythology go as far as the Good and Evil of Ethics. Knowledge – if it is profound – never changes: only its decor varies… the paraphernalia of formulas merely replace the pomp of the old legends, without the constants of human life being thereby modified, science apprehending them no more intimately than poetic narratives.
(A Short History of Decay: Emile Cioran)