Revisiting ‘The Village’ in the Era of Active Shooter Drills

January 12th, 2022 | By Sezín Devi Koehler

The Village Joaquin Phoenix

(Content warning: the following article on M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village includes references to active shooter drills that some readers may find uncomfortable to engage with.)

The alarm bells begin a violent clanging, warning a monster is on its way. Everyone runs screaming, gathering the children as fast as possible to hide in basements and closets after bolting doors and locking windows. The older folks prepare to shield the littles as they tremble in fear, wondering if the deadly interloper will arrive to kill them next in spite of all their precautions. 

In M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 pastoral period-piece horror The Village, the monster presents as a hybrid creature with enormous claws and huge teeth, wearing a red hooded cloak, terrorizing the remote town of Covington Woods. In non-fiction America, the monster is a man with a gun who goes to a school, movie theater, university campus, mall, or church and opens fire on whomever happens to be there. While The Village wasn’t one of Shyamalan’s biggest critical or box office successes, little did we know in 2008 that the film would predict the active shooter drills that were a regular occurrence before the COVID-19 outbreak, and are the new normal once again.

In The Village, the town youngsters have been warned that The Forbidden Woods beyond their borders are filled with Those We Don’t Speak Of, red-robed beasts who will eat anyone who ventures into their territory. The young men have made a game of fear, testing the boundaries at the edge of their woods until they frighten themselves away. The elders cautiously talk of “the bad color” red, associated with the creatures, and townsfolk bury anything that carry this evil mark so as not to tempt Those We Don’t Speak Of. While the elders claim there’s a truce between Covington Woods and the creatures, from time to time the monsters show up regardless, moving from house to house and leaving the bad color on doors as a threat. 

But there is more that is wrong in Covington Woods. A group of children find an animal that’s been killed and skinned, dumped by their schoolhouse; murdered, since whatever took its life did not deign to eat it. The elders insist it was a coyote’s work, until another visitation from Those We Don’t Speak Of distracts the village from the dead animal. After a joyful wedding, the village returns to find their entire livestock herd has been brutally skinned and bodies strewn about. They cannot blame a coyote this time. 

As The Village’s intertwined family drama and multi-layered love story between sight-impaired Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) play out alongside the horror story, a horrific crime occurs that forces a reckoning among the elders. Lucius is stabbed a dozen times by a jealous Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) because Lucius is newly engaged to Noah’s desired Ivy. Ivy begs to go to The Towns for life-saving medicine. Her father Edward (William Hurt) is forced to tell her the truth: there are no monsters in the woods, it’s the elders taking turns in the monster suit to scare the community from exploring the lands beyond Covington. 

After Ivy completes her impossible task to The Towns, it is still only the audience — and the elders — who know that the world outside Covington Woods is the 21st century and Edward Walker has used his family wealth to create the ultimate gated community in a protected nature reserve, resetting the clock 200 years back. It also turns out that Noah had found his parents’ monster suit and is the one stalking the village in violent rampages. 

In The Village, the elders were a group of violent crime survivors who began the community in the 1970s after they each suffered huge and brutal losses, from rape to murder. They wanted their children to have freedom from the kinds of trauma they had survived. As an extreme violence survivor myself, I understand the desire to escape from a world that caused so much suffering. But tragically, in The Village, this freedom is purely performative and their safety is also a charade since the community lives in constant fear of the creatures beyond their border. It’s a wild irony that the elders in The Village had the ability to safely self-isolate their community, and yet they still reverted to the kinds of fear tactics that made them all want to leave society.

“The drills, are they a farce too?” Ivy asks her father in The Village when she finds out the elders are the ones who had faked the monstrous sounds in the woods and been terrorizing the community all these years. Yes, they were. And so are the ones our youngsters deal with in America. Instead of common sense gun laws, legislators have opted to encourage school teachers to carry firearms, and for schools also to practice (often unplanned) active shooter drills to teach children what to do in the event of the inevitable. Both the drills in the movie and the ones in real life take place to keep an illusion of safety alive; by keeping people living in fear it makes them easier to control. 

Watching The Village in today’s context resonates in ways that makes this movie’s twist far scarier than it was then. 

Order is briefly restored in The Village because a blind girl goes past the border and fetches supplies, unable to tell anyone of what she saw in the world outside, in the same way that these shooter drills are a bandaid on social and cultural wounds that need proper care and attention. In spite of concerns that active shooter drills are negatively affecting children of all ages and pre-traumatizing them is also performative protection, these school shooting drills continue even as access to firearms across America remains the same. It is this same illusion of safety of the most vulnerable that we see in The Village playing out on a terrifyingly regular basis in real life. 

The Village elders cared only about the promise they made, not the reality of their life there. By the end of the movie, they agree to go on with their failing social experiment knowing they kept their cultish vow rather than protect their children and the next generations. This isolationist and individualistic fantasy resonates with the kind of conservative worldview that disproportionately affects young folks’ futures in our real world. 

The elders were acting from a place of trauma and desire to protect their young even though their methods were problematic. But today in our real America, these active shooter drills in school indicate the opposite. They represent a deference to the NRA’s murder industrial complex and capitalist greed that finds new ways to profit from the deaths of children, be this the continued sale of assault rifles or the manufacture of bulletproof backpacks for toddlers. It’s an unimaginable real-life horror film when 20 children aged 6-7 were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary, and no significant gun control legislation followed. 

Further, a close reading of Brody’s performance indicates Noah is faking his disability and is actually a psychopath, something a medical professional would have been able to diagnose before he hurt anyone if Covington Woods had access to 21st century medical care instead of thoughts and prayers. The fact that so many children in real America, like those in The Village, also don’t have adequate access to healthcare is nothing short of an abomination in what is supposed to be the world’s most developed nation. 

In both The Village and real American life we engage with the notion that freedom comes with a cost and requires sacrifices. And in both cases, the ones being sacrificed are the children everyone claims they want to protect. Communities built on the promotion of fear and trauma under the guise of it being for the community’s own good are unsustainable in the long run. 

Because after everything Ivy goes through, The Village ends on an ambiguous note that could lead to either redemption or yet another young life cut short. What happens in Covington Woods when the next inevitable crime, illness, or accident takes place? Will the elders continue to hold rank and stand their ground even with the collateral damage of their offspring? What will be enough for them to truly put the wellbeing of their children first? 

Some traumas we cannot prevent, and weaponizing fear against potential trauma is a monster of its own making. All these years later it’s clear that The Village is not just a movie, it is a warning: performative safety like that of school shooting drills does not provide actual security. Performative freedom isn’t liberty, it’s a trap that becomes a self-made prison.

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Sezín Devi Koehler

Sezin Devi Koehler is the author of upcoming 'Much Ado About Keanu: A Critical Reeves Theory' (Chicago Review Press, 2024), the first ever in-depth sociocultural study of Keanu Reeves' entire creative catalog. She also has bylines with Entertainment Weekly, The Daily Beast, Scalawag Magazine, Black Girl Nerds, and many more. Sezin currently writes from a small Florida beach town where she rehabilitates wounded orchids and raises endangered butterflies in her own yard.

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