The Mist: Terror in Times of Uncertainty
This year marks the tenth anniversary of The Mist, Frank Darabont’s third adaptation of a Stephen King story. Though that might make it sound like a continuation, it certainly isn’t. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1994), were distinguished period piece dramas (albeit with a little supernatural twist to the latter). But The Mist is unmistakably a horror film, filled with many of King’s trademarks.
While Darabont’s previous King adaptations had some politics to them (The Shawshank Redemption touches on the fallacy of the American penitentiary system and The Green Mile points out the senselessness of capital punishment), the human drama always takes center stage. The Mist however, wears its politics on its sleeve. Wrapped in effective horror thrills, it serves up a disturbing message about human nature and the fragility of civilization in times of crisis.
Local or global
In a nutshell, The Mist is about an unnamed New England town getting covered in a thick mist that houses a variety of killer creatures. But in the tradition of King’s best work, this simple story is elevated by a superb execution, which makes it about much more than this banal synopsis. As a majority of the town’s inhabitants takes shelter in a grocery store (almost everyone is out shopping after a storm took away the electricity which caused all food to go bad), it soon becomes clear that it is not just the monsters outside the store that need to be feared, but those inside as well. Perhaps even more so.
Darabont does not waste time setting up the initial threat. As the mist is swallowing the town, a blood covered man is seen running away from it and entering the store, shouting that there is something in the mist that took his friend. He urges everyone to shut the doors and stay inside. One person ignores this warning and runs out to his car. As soon as the mist reaches him, he disappears from sight but his screams can still be heard and those make it very clear that the threat is real. It is a classic case of association: the monster cannot be seen, but the knowledge that it is out there gives the mist in which it lures its own sense of dread. Much like how Jaws (1975) made its viewers afraid of the water.
The thing with mist is that it limits the eyesight to only a few meters. So even though the whole front side of the store is made of glass, the people inside are not able to see what they are facing, until it comes straight at them. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative. Since communication with the outside world is not possible (the storm killed all the electricity) there is no way of knowing whether the supernatural phenomenon is only taking place in this small town or that humanity is facing it on a global level. The lack of knowledge about the situation gives birth to a desperation that quickly turns people against each another.
Our very own Jim Jones
This whole fog of war layer did not come out of nowhere. The Mist was made and released during the George W. Bush administration and it shows. Although based on a novella from the early eighties, the film clearly delves into the fears that plagued American society when the so-called War on Terror was on everyone’s minds. These were the days when the United States was recovering from an unexpected attack by rushing head over heels into a war against a mostly unknown enemy.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not a period of unity, or at least not one that lasted very long. People backed into their own corners rather quickly. The idea that people can overcome their differences and stand together against a common enemy might not be untrue, but The Mist shows that this does not happen when the threat is shrouded in uncertainty.
Darabont’s main point seems to be that uncertain situations drive people desperate for leaders who bring clarity, no matter how extreme their ideas might have sounded pre-crisis. This idea is personified by Mrs. Carmody, the extremely religious town nut who quickly becomes “our very own Jim Jones”, as the main character describes her. The interesting thing about this woman is that her fundamentalist beliefs are not awoken by the apocalyptic event, but have always been there. She has not changed, nor has her rhetoric, but the situation certainly has. Before the mist there was simply no reason to take anything of what said she seriously, but now that there is something going on that lacks explanation her quotations of the Book of Revelations become appealing to a growing number of people.
This has a lot to do with the certainty of Carmody’s views. This comes through early on when the mist has just claimed its first victim and a mix of fear and confusion is felt as everyone is staring outside in silence. Everyone except for Carmody, who immediately knows what is up: “It’s Death.” She does not need to think, investigate or look further than to the Bible she carries around with her; there is a wrath of God narrative in there she has always believed in and it fits this situation too well to consider any alternatives. The power of her words is contrasted nicely when a man confronts her by saying: “I believe in God too. I just don’t think he is the bloodthirsty asshole you make him out to be.” Carmody never uses words like ‘believe’ or ‘think’.
What if you’re wrong?
Though Mrs. Carmody is clearly portrayed as the film’s antagonist, the way she functions in the story makes it very easy to tweak her into a classic Hollywood hero. She is the only person who saw it all coming and has always been mocked for her beliefs, but is now looked at for guidance in times of trouble. She could be almost every main character in a disaster movie by Roland Emmerich. We have been acclimatized to sympathize with this type of outsider, who never compromises their beliefs and holds true to what they thinks to be right, yet the person who actually functions as our hero is a nuanced guy who is liked by most people. Too bad for this David Drayton he cannot provide any answers.
Usually Hollywood tells us that doubt is a sign of weakness, but The Mist is making a strong case for the idea it might just be what makes us human. As every living creature on this earth we too have a fight-or-flight response, but the human condition is not binary. We are the only species who can take into consideration that there are things we have no knowledge of and thus chose to not take things at face value. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is not what will get people’s attention when confronted by an unknown enemy. Drayton’s rational approach to find out what is going on is lost on Carmody, who already has her truth and is preaching it to everyone who will listen. All Drayton has to offer, is an uneasy “I don’t know”.
Early on the Carmody’s religious fanatics are balanced out by another fraction: a group of sceptics, led by Drayton’s neighbor Brent Norton, who believe that there is no reason to fear the mist. When this group intends to leave the store, Drayton asks his neighbor if there is any possibility to talk him out of this plan. Norton answers with an absolute certainty that there is nothing in the mist. Drayton then asks: “What if you’re wrong?” He’s given an interesting reply: “Then, I guess the joke will be on me after all.” Where Carmody would simply deny the whole ‘if’ and just say that she is not wrong, Norton seems willing to entertain the thought of an alternative possibility, but he seems to have simply made up his mind and now feel like he can only stick to the choice he made. A fatal decision.
Always certain is evil
Almost ten years after its release The Mist feels at least as relevant as it did back in the day. In fact, some elements that were not particularly exemplary of the Bush-era, really fit today’s political climate. Sure, there was a clear divide in American society during the invasion of Iraq, but that was mostly based on different opinions about national security and foreign affairs, instead of today’s hot topics like class and geographical origination. These themes are touched on when Drayton gets into an argument with some locals. Even though Drayton grew up in the small town, his work got him connected in big cities on both costs, which gets thrown in his face by someone who has clearly not risen to his level of success. In theory individual success is considered to be the backbone of America, but in practice it makes you elitist.
And then of course there is Donald Trump, whose political rise has shown the appeal of a person with an absolute belief that his views are right and anyone who dares to oppose them is dead wrong. While Mrs. Carmody is not a Tump stand-in (the current American president only pretends to be religious when it suits him), her position of power shares a number of similarities with his presidential victory. She too does not get the majority of people on her side, but the ones she wins over become so vocal and aggressive that others will refrain from antagonizing her. Smart move, because she enforces her position of power with drastic measurements. It seems unlikely that Trump will call for human sacrifices any time soon, but he holds similar grudges against the people that oppose or mock him and never passes on an opportunity to humiliate them.
The Mist shows that this type of opposition is a scenario with a dead end. Eventually the certainty of the fundamentalists drive our rational minded main characters to flee the grocery store, while also strengthing their own certainty. When faced with what seems like an impossible outcome they choose suicide, for they are certain that there is no hope. Lyrics from a song by Dutch comedian Lebbis spring to mind: “I am certain that I am right in my belief that doubt must exist. Always certain is evil. And I have no doubts about that.” Certainty can be an embodiment of evil as it leaves no room for doubt, no possibility that perhaps there is another side to things. We might all be the hero of our own stories, but that does not have to mean that everyone else has to be our enemy.