RAISED IN FEAR: NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the Horrors of Childhood

RAISED IN FEAR: NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the Horrors of Childhood


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.

nullThe 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.

2 thoughts on “RAISED IN FEAR: NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the Horrors of Childhood”

  1. Fair enough, Scott. And we can hopefully agree that climate change deniers would be one group of such wolves?


  2. The eloquence of your review is completely undermined by the unnecessary insertion of your climate comments. Instead, I'd offer the opinion that 'climate change' is not the real threat to 'little lambs' but those in sheep's clothing who are now among us.


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