Director Bryan Bertino’s recent film The Dark and The Wicked is not only one of the best horror films of 2020, it is one of the best films of 2020. The most interesting dynamic of this story about the horrors of the devil invading the life and home of a particular family is that we aren’t given immediate reason for the invasion. Ordinarily what we find in a horror film, especially those involving a family and a home, is someone invading the space where this (or these) entities already live (a picture of oppression), or someone has done something to welcome the presence into their lives and their home (a metaphor for sin). We get no sense that this family has or is doing anything wrong or is somewhere they are not supposed to be, nor are we offered a clear explanation for why the devil arrives to oppress them. Only that something dark and wicked truly this way comes.
**SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE DARK AND THE WICKED
The film takes place on a secluded farm in an undefined and unnamed American town. The house is occupied by an older man and an older woman (the grandfather and the grandmother), and their family (mother, father and kids) who have arrived to care for their dying grandfather. As this man awaits his death we are made suddenly aware of this increasing presence of something wicked and evil, first through a shocking sequence involving the grandmother who, upon slicing off her fingers while preparing a meal, ends up committing suicide. We then see this same presence moving through the different members of the family, gradually preying on their fear, distorting their vision of what is real and what is not, and gradually consuming their sense of being and seperating themselves from one another, sowing seeds of phsyical division.
The only place we are given a true name for this oppression, this invading entity is within the pages of the grandmother’s journal, where she describes the presence as “the devil”. Outside of this, all we are given is the expression of its intent as it looks to take over and occupy the lives of this family.
What seems to guide the devil’s intent though is something much more clear- death itself. At the center of it all lies this grandfather awaiting death’s gradual arrival. Death here is the great evil that permeates their home and overturns their lives, proving itself unwelcome but also undeniably present. Death is the great enemy for which they wait as they watch their grandfather laying in his bed struggling to breathe and counting the days.
It is this season of waiting that haunts this family, threatening to either bring them together or tear them apart. It is in this season of waiting for death to arrive that they, each of them, lie vulnerable and open to death’s great blow. The promise of this awaited death comes through the signs of the grandfather’s sickness, and with this comes all the uncertainty that death brings. As a parable about death then, maybe even more so this becomes a parable about life. While the darkness consumes in The Dark and the Wicked, the bleak and despairing picture of death’s disruption of their lives and its ability to steal and destroy, often seemingly against our will, beyond our control, we are thus reminded of a crucial part of this waiting- awareness of life. With the story being a stark metaphor for grief, it is this awareness that can help us from being consumed, allowing life and light to break through the darkness in a way that informs rather than destroys.
A NEW SEASON OF WAITING: BONHOEFFER’S CHRISTMAS SERMON
In one of Bonhoeffer’s famous Christmas sermons he speaks about a slightly different season of waiting. He makes the case that in our rush to see the light, to cherish life, we often skim past the darkness of the Christmas story, a season marked by Advent, a time of waiting and anticipating what is to come:
“We take the thought of God coming among us so calmly. It is all the more remarkable when we remember that we so often associate the signs of God in the world with human suffering, the cross on Golgotha. Perhaps we have thought so much of God as love eternal and we feel the warm pleasures of Christmas when he comes gently like a child. We have been shielded from the awful nature of Christmas and no longer feel afraid at the coming near of God Almighty. We have selected from the Christmas story only the pleasant bits, forgetting the awesome nature of an event in which the God of the universe, its Creator and Sustainer, draws near to this little planet, and now speaks to us. The coming of God is not only a message of joy, but also fearful news for anyone who has a conscience.
It is only by facing up to the fearfulness of the event that we can begin to understand the incomparable blessing. God comes into the midst of evil and death, to judge the evil in the world- and in us. And while he judges us, he loves us, he purifies us, he saves us, and he comes to us with gifts of grace and love. He makes us happy as only children know. He is, and always will be now, with us in our sin, in our suffering, and at our death. We are no longer alone. God is with us and we are no longer homeless. A piece of the eternal home is grafted into us. For that reason, we grown-ups can rejoice with all our heart around the Christmas tree- perhaps even more so than the children. We can see already the abundance of God’s gifts.”
In Matthew’s Gospel we see Jesus’ own story anchored in the very Jewish tradition and celebration of the Exodus story, one that begins in a place of enslavement and exile and moves through the waters (of baptism) towards the mountain in which God’s covenant promise is made known through Moses and now fulfilled in the person and ministry, in this movement from death to life, of Jesus. Just as the Temple was built (given birth) and destroyed (in death), Jesus is now raised again as the Temple restored and renewed. God’s presence, which seems so absent in times of darkeness, has finally returned.
And yet even as Christ is raised and the Temple restored, we continue to be called to a time of waiting in the present sense, awaiting the great renewal of all things, the promse of new creation, the new heavens and the new earth that are said to even now be unfolding and pouring out from the establishment of this new Temple of God’s presence in our midst:
“It is not yet Christmas. And neither is it yet the great last Advent, the second coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life, we shall wait and look forward with longing for that day of the Lord, when God says, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:5). Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life is a time of waiting; waiting for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Then all the people will be brothers and sisters, rejoicing in the words of the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests (Luke 2:14).”
The signs of darkness and death call us to remain diligently aware of the promise of light and life. The most difficult part of living in the light is the truth that the darkness remains, and yet in the common and binding narrative of the Exodus story, in its startling and vivid picture of oppression and exile which at times bursts its way through our doors unannounced and uninvited, invading both life and home, while at other times arrives by way of our own invitation, the consequence of our own failures and our own sinfulness, we are reminded that it is through our awareness of this present darkness, the very power of death itself, that we can learn to see the light, to experience life. The darkness is not the whole story, it is simply, to borrow the words of N.T. Wright, a broken sign that points us to something greater- the light and the life. In the coming and long awaited Christ child, the birth of this new creation, this new Temple, there is also living. In this sense, death, darkness, is the very sign of life itself.
And so, as Advent beings we “learn to wait!” We learn to recognize the signs, not only of death but of life, for “He has promised to come.”