The most harrowing film ever made about childhood opens with a lullaby that is anything but soothing: “The hunter in the night / Fills your childish heart with fright / Fear is only a dream / So dream, little one, dream.” As we stand on the threshold of Charles Laughton’s haunted masterpiece Night of the Hunter, this lullaby sings us into the world of a scared child who, strangely, is being encouraged to dream a dream of fear, which is a fair description of the film that follows. While Night of the Hunter wonderfully defies classification, blending elements of expressionism, gothic, fairy tale, and film noir, I would like to offer a reading of the film as a very particular kind of horror film, one that enables us to see the world from a victim’s point of view. Such films are anything but empowering, in the sense used by the kind of self-help guides and memoirs of personal struggle that litter our nation’s bookshelves. Rather, these films teach us sympathy and compassion through a humbling sense of disempowerment, which, in the case of Night of the Hunter, involves taking us back to the horrors of childhood.
The tale is set in West Virginia during the Depression, and the scarcity of those times drives the cruel deeds that unfold. We first see little Pearl and John Harper playing happily in their yard when suddenly their father appears, on the run from the police for a bank job in which two people were killed. He thrusts the stolen money on young John, which will soon make him the object of murderous greed. Fear is John’s inheritance, yet the film implies that even children who don’t experience his and his sister’s unique form of persecution are born to suffer. Later in the film, as they flee from danger, they are forced to beg for food along with other children. Their grudging benefactor gives them each a potato before shooing them off, as she muses: “Such times: when young’uns run the roads….” Near the end of the film, when their guardian, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), recites the story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, she reflects: “It did seem like it was a plague time for little ones, those olden days, those hard, hard times.” The film subtly parallels “those olden days” with the “hard, hard times” of the Depression Era, and in its prolific use of fairy tale motifs, connects this with the struggling peasant culture that spawned the classic folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.
Although oral folk tales were traditionally recited to old and young alike, they have a special resonance for children because of their prominent place in the narratives, a place that is, as we all remember, often terrifying. Whether being abandoned by one’s parents in the woods because there isn’t enough food to go around, like Hansel and Gretel, or being chopped up and fed to father in a stew, like the child victim in “The Juniper Tree,” the children of fairy tales have much to fear, especially from their parents. Once their father burdens them with the secret location of $10,000 in stolen bank money, John and Pearl Harper’s story enters the dark dream world of the fairy tale as they are pursued by Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a sinister self-anointed preacher who is alluded to several times as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Yet the children are the only ones able to see Harry Powell for the Big, Bad Wolf that he really is, and Night of the Hunter deftly captures that sense of powerlessness all of us felt when, as children, we sensed something wrong but weren’t able to do anything about it.
The film is a virtual catalogue of iconic images of childhood fears: closed basement doorways, crescent moons in night skies, empty barns, shadowy attics, dark forests, and treacherous swamps make up Night of the Hunter’s haunted landscapes. One of the film’s most frightening scenes takes place in the Harpers’ basement, when Powell drags the children down to help him find the stolen money. When the supposed cache turns out to be empty, he turns viciously on John, who manages to extinguish the light and overturn a shelf of canning jars on the villain’s head. Powell’s usually sly, seductive patter turns suddenly into an animalistic wail. In the claustrophobic darkness of the basement, this transformation is especially chilling, recalling many a downstairs journey and the accompanying fears. The children flee up the stairs, shot expressionistically as a thin corridor of angular light hanging in a sea of blackness. As in many scenes, the light and dark contrast here is so strong as to make the image look like an old woodcut illustration. The children barely escape, slamming the basement door, as vicious animal growls emerge from behind it. As he continues relentlessly pursuing them as they flee downriver, at one point John hears him singing his signature hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and wonders, “Don’t he never sleep?” Fairy tale threats never do: they only take on new forms as we grow older.
It’s striking to note that this film was produced amidst the optimism and economic recovery of the nineteen-fifties, and perhaps this is why the film initially flopped. Though dream-like and fanciful, it nevertheless presents an unpleasant reminder of hard times that remained all too real in the memories of older filmgoers. Seen now, this classic takes on new life as a dark fairy tale for an age of austerity. The world we are entering will indeed be, as the children’s guardian, Rachel Cooper, says, “a hard world for little things.” Yet, given the grim outlook for our collective future, it seems surprising that so many people remain so eager to bring more little things into it. It is this, as much as the perversely self-satisfied culture of child-rearing, that inspired my previous piece on the film Who Can Kill a Child?
Climate scientists recently announced that we’ve reached a dreaded milestone for CO2 levels, an announcement that received surprisingly little attention. But last year a similar, and to my mind even more disturbing, milestone was passed, and some actually considered it, perversely, as a cause for celebration. On March 12, 2012 the world population reached seven billion, and while we might hope for a future in which this growing population will be able to reduce its carbon footprint, there is no denying the simple fact that more people means more mouths to feed, and if the wasteful way we produce our food doesn’t change in a drastic way, those little mouths are going to be very hungry. This is one of the things I think of when I hear Rachel Cooper’s words during the Christmas scene that ends Night of the Hunter: “Lord save little children. You'd think the world'd be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them, then go on in the same old way. My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot.”
The triumph of Laughton’s masterpiece is to make us similarly humble by imaginatively putting us in the vulnerable position of children. It is a vulnerability they share with other creatures, a point clearly established in the film’s most memorable scene: John and Pearl’s nighttime flight down the Ohio River. As they pass a series of animals on the Ohio’s banks—frogs, owls, turtles, foxes—they eventually come to a herd of sheep corralled behind a fence. Time hangs suspended as the children and the sheep stare at one another, sharing a mutual recognition that the film has prepared us for by frequently referring to John and Pearl as “little lambs.” This mutual recognition anticipates the later scene of Powell’s capture by police, when John cries out in pain at his former persecutor’s suffering. He later refuses to testify against him at the trial, with compassion which stands in stark contrast to the vengefulness of the townspeople, who form a lynch mob bent on Powell’s blood. It is the virtue of great horror movies to remind us what it was like to be a child, and to sympathetically identify with victims, whatever their age might be.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.