Back in the day, a.k.a. “The Nineties,” I was a huge fan of The X-Files. Despite the show’s obsession with revealing the truth about aliens among us, that aspect of the ongoing mythology didn’t freak me out very much. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t secretly wishing that aliens would abduct me. I just thought aliens were more interesting than scary. I even read Transformation, the sequel to Whitley Streiber’s infamous alien visitation saga Communion, and while it was definitely eerie, it didn’t keep me up at night the way Stephen King’s The Shining had back when I was in high school.
Like many Americans, I liked M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, so I was pretty stoked when Signs was announced. Keep in mind that Mel Gibson hadn’t gone full-Holocaust-denier-crazy yet, so he was still a viable Hollywood property. Keep in mind, too, that people still thought of Shyamalan as a viable Hollywood property, i.e., The Happening was still a few years away.
Maybe I was tired and overemotional that night in the theater, but I was simply not prepared for the terror that Signs would inflict upon my naïve little brain.
I saw it with my then-fiance, now-husband, so it’s not like I was by myself. But when I say I was scared, I mean, I was SCARED. Like “screaming, bursting into unexpected tears, and seriously considering leaving the theater” scared. This had never happened to me in a movie theater before and to be honest, it was a little embarrassing.
One of the few Shyamalan movies that doesn’t rely on the “twist ending” for which he is so reviled (and which I actually think is a misnomer and does his movies a disservice, but I digress), Signs is like a good, old-fashioned horror movie. We see the signs (pun intended) of the aliens before we see them and when we do see them, they appear briefly and are all the more frightening because of it.
When the alien showed up on the roof of the farmhouse? That’s when I first lost it. It was so quick that I wasn’t even sure that I’d actually seen it happen. It was so unexpectedly shocking to me that it felt like I was a little kid in my upstairs bedroom being afraid of looking out of the window and seeing a face, inexplicably looking back at me.
The reaction shot of Joaquin Phoenix’s character seeing the alien show up in news footage of a kid’s birthday party was even more upsetting. Now someone else had seen the alien, too, and I felt like I was right there in the movie, watching it all go down.
I think I reached peak fear in the scene towards the end of the film when the alien is trapped in the pantry. Again, I didn’t even realize I was scared of creepy fingers poking under a door until I actually saw it onscreen. I remember thinking it should be illegal to put a scene that scary in a film.
Of course, the end, when we see the full alien, has been roundly criticized for “showing too much,” but in a way, it was a relief to be a little less frightened at that point in the movie.
Here’s the most embarrassing part of this story: I’ve never seen Signs since. I don’t know if it would hold the same sway over me that it did then. After all, in the interim I’ve seen countless horror movies that have evoked the same reaction, such as The Descent, Inside, Insidious, Citadel, and I Saw The Devil. Yet, I’m leery of finding out if Signs is still as scary was it was because that means I actually have to watch it again and I don’t know that I’m spiritually prepared.
Say what you will about the erratic quality of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, Signs is a masterpiece. By carefully keeping the aliens in the shadows, he managed to tap into primal terrors that would resonate with me for years.