I’ve had lots of conversations with people about Trey Edward Shults’ recent film It Comes at Night (2017)—about what it means, how to interpret the ending, and what “It” is. This post is most definitely for those of you who have seen the film and who want to think more about it (so–spoiler alert). Here are five different opinions on what happens and what “It” might be.
What comes at night? Death
It Comes at Night is in many ways a child of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Both films focus on a small group taking shelter from an external threat (whether zombies or a plague), illustrating ultimately that the real threat is other people and not whatever horror looms outside; both include black male protagonists and their deaths. Their connection is clear in their shared emphasis on night as the temporal location of the threat. However, where Romero is clear about what comes at night (the Living Dead), Shults leaves the meaning of his title open, leading some audience members to expect an It comparable to the Living Dead – visible, identifiable, conquerable. However, the film gives viewers no such answers and no such comfort. Instead, the It of the title may be as intangible as Travis’s dreams or as specific as the physical contact between the two families’ sons, the moment that leads to the film’s climax.
But it doesn’t matter what It is. The horror lies not in what comes at night but in the characters’ responses, and, despite the temporary hope found in the fusion of the two families, the promise (or threat) of the film’s opening death and burial is borne out by yet more death, leaving only Paul and Sarah alive in the final moments – grieving, broken parents who could not protect their son from the inevitable. What comes at night? Dreams, danger, but, mostly, death. Death also comes during the day, however, and there is no escaping it. Despite the characters’ struggle to evade death and to survive the night, just as in Night of the Living Dead, death comes in the morning, and there is no hope. There was never any hope.
What comes at night? We don’t know
The end of It Comes at Night is frustrating to a lot of viewers, but I think it’s necessary in light of the medical situation. The infiltration of the house—“The door was already open when you go there? Then who opened it?”—is an invasion of the secure domestic space—a basic home invasion move—but also an invasion of the body. The house and the body mirror each other: once a corrupting force enters the locked or masked space, death follows.
As viewers, we don’t know how the world of the house suddenly becomes threatening (we don’t know who opened the door), just as the two families don’t know how the outside world has suddenly become threatening. They don’t know what caused this illness, how it is spread, or how to treat it. This ignorance prevents them from knowing how to respond to the threat and how to judge the best course of action. In the same way, we are left uncertain how to respond to the end and how to judge the characters. There is no knowledge to be had, and that’s what upsets us the most.
What comes at night? The dangerous desire to reach out to others
Identifying the “It” of It Comes at Night is complicated when the terrifying atmosphere of dread and suspicion often proves strongest during daytime. Yet while Paul’s intense interrogations occur during the rational light of day, Will’s initial break-in happens at night. If day is when boundaries are upheld through suspicion and eventual violence, night is when boundaries are transgressed and connections are initiated. The main figure we see at night is Travis, whose nighttime wandering and eavesdropping indicates a deep loneliness and need for connection, overtly embodied by his desire for Kim. The “It” that comes at night, then, is the dangerous desire to reach out to others, to open the door to trust, and to overlook the rigid boundaries that prove so important in the light of day. While the red door ensures safety from the danger outside, it also holds the seductive draw of potential escape from Paul’s oppressive rules which preclude genuine connection. Ultimately, Shults chooses not to clarify who opened the door and let in the disease, Andrew or Travis. There’s no comforting allocation of blame for the ensuing disaster. As he dies, Travis imagines passing through the red door and beyond suffocating restrictions, but the necessity of those boundaries is foregrounded as Paul and Sarah are left in crushing silence, likely infected. The audience is left in a similar position to the protagonists: Unsure of the truth, deeply unnerved, and suspicious of everything they’ve seen.
What comes at night? The horrors of life
At the credit-roll of It Comes at Night, my friends and I sighed briefly, lapsing into the film’s ending dinner-table-like silence, and then immediately worked with what Shults crammed into a ninety-one-minute (and gorgeously cramped) infection-thriller.
With similar spirit, I want to unpack the title and the ending. In short space: Travis’ dreams are the realm of traditional horror that provide an escape to the reality he lives daily; those uncomfortable fade-to-blacks serving as transitional points in a process that tries to understand and make sense of the unnamed plague and loss of life (human and non-human) in the world around and inside the cabin. Outside of the unconscious, there is distrust, infection paranoia, and jealously. Inside Travis’ dreams, however, is the wrapping up loose-ends (hunting for Stanley, experiencing a teenage romance with Kim, and processing the illness and death of his grandfather, Bud). In dreams, terrifying monsters, bumps-in-the-night, and runs through the foreboding woods help you cope—you create to understand. The real horror is what shapes the dreams: life.
For me, the hinge is on the singular pronoun in the title: It. This does not code for ghouls, serial-killers, or the apocalyptic spreading of a pathogen (traditional horror scapegoats for the viewer and Travis), but rather the process of horror being used to not only shape, make-sense of, but also to validate the terror of waking life. More horrific than Bud, or even infection, is the silence of knowing that humanity is just as brutal and indifferent as what infects them; at the family table, there is no need for monsters.
What comes at night? The thing in humans we can’t control
In my view, It Comes at Night is a conservative horror film that warns against letting others into your group—but not because those “others” end up intentionally harming you. Paul warns Travis at some point that you can only trust family, but it’s not clear you can even trust them. Paul, Sarah, and Travis do the right thing by letting in Will, Kim, and Andrew. They are also, by the logic of the film, severely punished for doing so as Travis catches the plague thanks to Andrew who seems to have opened the door to their plague-stricken dog while sleepwalking. Or was it Travis who opened the door while he was sleepwalking? Either way, the door was opened unintentionally, unconsciously. The plague was let in unintentionally, unconsciously. When Sarah asks, “Who opened the door?” the answer really is no one. Some unconscious, uncontrollable part of someone opened the door. “It” opened the door. The irony here is that so much of the film focused on Paul’s obsessive rituals designed to protect everyone. But no one can be protected from the arbitrary unconscious action—the thing inside us over which we have no control. And the more people there are, the more likely such a random occurrence becomes. Despite Paul’s paranoia, Will and his family didn’t consciously bring them harm. But they may well have unintentionally done so.
What do you think? We’d love to hear . . . so leave a comment!