Signs, Part II: Motifs and horror shows

This article is part of an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s five films from 1999 to 2006: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006). This is the second article about Signs. The first is here, the third here, the fourth here. The articles about the other films can be found in this overview.

Signs abounds with motifs that echo with each other – sometimes to meaningful effect, at other times to orderly or aesthetic effect. This article will look at the important motifs of circles, water, doors, houses, the sky and some lesser motifs. Then “two horror shows” will be analysed in detail: the birthday party video in Brazil that captures an alien, and the pantry door scene where Graham encounters an alien behind a locked door. An addendum will have a look at the mysterious book about extra-terrestrials that gives the characters such good advice throughout the film.


In order to discuss the film properly, I will have to reveal the whole plot, including the plot twist at the end.

For readers unfamiliar with the story of Signs, here is a brief outline of the plot.


Through the crop circles, aliens are connected to the circle motif. Like the aliens lurking everywhere, even invisibly since their skin can mimic any surrounding, Signs is full of circles more or less hidden in its images.

When Graham wakes up the morning after he inspected a crop circle, the alien threat seems to have sneaked into his living room in the form of the circular rug, made to look surreal in this wide angle shot.
They simply cannot get away: even during their “last meal” they are surrounded by the alien threat.

Shyamalan’s strategy of the outside world inexorably encroaching on the Hess family sphere is continued in smaller details. This is from the first news report of a world-wide crop circle phenomenon:

There are circles on the wall paper, window and bench, while circles from the outside appear on their TV…
…now the symbols on the map are of the same size as the inside circles, as if the crop circle contagion in India is engulfing their house, the similiarity in size erasing the borders between the Hess residence and the outside world. The camera slowly tracks in on the TV…
…while the camera in the news show is tracking in on the map, creating a subtly dizzying effect…
…immersing them more and more…
…until there are no barriers between the Hess family and the world…
…the circle is closed, the small figures in India mirroring the family in the last shot of the opening sequence.
Eventually crop circles have infected TVs all over, here in the bookshop.

Later, the aliens start their attack and human communication networks are knocked out. Since the TV has been such an important outside link for the family and also constantly channeled the human reaction to the invasion, the last image we see transmitted on a TV screen in the film is particularly disturbing – the aliens have been invading mankind’s TV broadcasts and now it is complete:

Never has a test pattern seemed more chilling. It might have been chosen for two reasons: its abundance of circles and as a deliberate anachronism pointing back to the old sci-fi movies that Signs is channeling. It is the famous RCA Indian Head Test Pattern (minus the head) commonly used in the 1950s and 60s. (Shyamalan might also have been amused by its pun on his Indian heritage and the footage from India earlier in the film.)

There are many other circles in the interior scenes, many combining a circle with a star, another quite common shape in Signs:

circle6 and 7 montage
Top: candle holders in the circle/star shape. Bottom left: a wall panel with a large number of small circles. The lamp, which we see in another view (middle) has both a circle and a star shape. Right: the interior continues to be revealed throughout Signs. This strange circle-and-star pattern is the backside of a cupboard, seen at the end as Graham escapes the alien with Morgan in his arms. (The painting is “Stone City” by American artist Grant Wood.)

When the brothers run around the house in each direction to chase down intruders, their paths form two half-circles. A round-up of some other (half-)circles:

circle and half-circles with house
The set of half-circles high up on the house loom over certain scenes. Its colour matches the stylised driveway in front of the house in the hanging tapestry (bottom, second from right) as if creating some mystical connection. The sun in the tapestry forms a circle over the house, mimicking the “sun” on the house with its radiating lines. The Reverend collar will triumphantly return at the end of the film. The babycall signals the presence of circle-connected aliens with circles, in a half-circle pattern.

The following circle scene ingeniously intersects with the water motif:

circle bookshop complete

Morgan reads circle bookshop 2the book about extraterrestrials while Bo, as usual, is not satisfied with the water. At the same time, Morgan mentions her “water tic”. If we isolate and enlarge the part of the shot to do with Bo, a very subtle set-up becomes clearer: Two of the letters of the “books” sign form circles. They hover in perfect symmetry directly above her. The two dolls are emphasising the set-up. So we have circles connected to aliens positioned right above water which is key to defeating aliens. In fact, there is also a red circle on her glass that echoes the red circles on the window (below).

Things fall into place in an almost magical way: the book itself, the sign about that object, the circles, the water – all of it connected to aliens. (At the start of the shot the postures of Morgan and Bo, heads bent, also mimic each other.) One may even wonder if this can shed light on how the book can be right about so many things about aliens. Because the name of the object (“book”) contains two circles, and even exactly centred, as if in domination…?

The use of flashlights serves as an extension of the circle motif, but will be discussed in the third article.

circle bookshop enlarged


character Bo monster water
“There’s a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?”

Like with the hero of Unbreakable, water is the aliens’ weakness. Obsessed with water, Bo holds the key to their defeat. The constellation of the two dialogue lines in the above image is a delightful expression of the natural place of monsters in a small child’s mind, but on a screenplay construction level it is not a non-sequitur at all, since it contains the prescription to kill the monster. In fact, this is stated “directly” by the sign above the globes of liquids – also connected to the sign through their colourfulness – in the below montage of moments from the family’s town visit:

water town
The images in the above montage are chronological and seem to indicate a nice progression: the liquids come increasingly closer to being consumed – but in the actual film the effect is “ruined” since Bo has just drunk from the glass. (The pharmacy and the bookshop are real locations.)

In all three locations where aliens are discussed, liquids feature prominently. We have already discussed the bookshop scene. The soda commercial is mentioned as the thirteenth one, as if to give the image of the soda girl a special emphasis. The military officer holds the cup in exactly the same position for the entire conversation. There are four types of liquids in the montage, which are held in four different types of containers. (The Shasta soft drink actually exists. I initially assumed the lyrics were a silly parody from Shyamalan, but they also exist, and was prominently used in the 1980s – evidently, you can’t make this up!) Liquids are not important in the fourth location, the pizza parlour, which centres on Ray Reddy (who on the other hand will eventually guess the aliens’ weakness).

water child
More water. The submerged figure on the TV is from the children’s show Dexter’s Laboratory. (Its hero is a boy-genius inventor, a kindred spirit of the science-obsessed Morgan, who has a sister too. The fact that the TV siblings are constantly fighting is where the parallel ends.)

The water-connected moment below occurs as the family watch the first news report of alien arrival. (Both its dreamy poetry and the fact that the children are asleep connect it to the film’s dream motif, to be discussed in the third article.)

water glass 1
The image starts to dissolve into a close-up of two glasses of water on top of the TV (thus “close” to the aliens)…
water glass 2
…until we see strangely blurred images through them…
water glass 3
…and when the camera slides sideways it is fully revealed that it is the family we saw (one glass for each “parent”).

During the climactic battle with the Nemesis Alien, the glass trick is repeated:

water glass 4
The alien is reeling after a heavy baseball bat blow from Merrill.

This glass is a very specific one: when it soon topples the family discover water’s destructive effect. The following slide show selects key moments of the revelation and the alien’s demise. The climactic moment is a 16-second shot from the alien’s subjective point-of-view, where the whole frame becomes drenched in water – possibly as an homage to the last shot of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, where the gun is fired right into the villain’s face.

water glass 5
water glass 6
water glass 7
water glass 7a
water glass 8
water glass 9
water glass 10
water glass 11
water glass 12
water glass 13

The slide show ends with a number of overturned glassed forming a series of circles. And perhaps the placement of the glasses perched on top of the TV in the earlier scene was not accidental – directly “above” the aliens reported about on the news, like the glass above the alien that spilled its content from the top of the bureau.


Even more than in The Sixth Sense (see here and here), doors are a central motif in Signs. One of its finest moments occurs as the sheriff drives away after having interrogated the family about the nightly visitor. The music is elegiac and mournful, blending in with a voice from a news report about the aliens – one undercurrent of the scene is that it is the last time we see the sheriff in this time plane, and she might well have died during the later invasion.

From a nicely symmetrical composition, camera movement will help turn this moment into a unique and foreboding event…
…the camera starts to retreat into the house, in the opposite direction to the car disappearing into the distance: both the camera and car are “tracking out”, leaving Graham doubly behind, alone…
…the gradual reveal of the ornaments (one for each family member, and circular) is reminiscent of the lights of the station scene in Unbreakable. The shot is also emblematic of Signs‘ extensive staging-in-depth, as the car and the camera co-operate to stretch out the space that convey meaning.
door4 and 5 montage
The camera was also foreshadowing how the family will later retreat into their barricaded house. During the siege, under the same door an alien hand slowly appears – as if in a stylised horror film gesture – and the camera “continues” its inward journey, as if recoiling in fear of the threat.
The floor’s colour scheme and pattern closely resemble the floor of Ray Reddy’s kitchen, where from under the pantry door another alien hand came forth.
door blocked
This is one of the film’s impossible camera placements, where the camera is often placed in the same physical place as a closed door in the film’s diegesis. This is likely to cause some unconscious dissonance in the viewer. Here it will probably also heighten our identification with the family’s experience of being shut in, as the board is virtually smacked right into our faces, blacking out the screen.
door children
Both of Graham’s stories about how the children were born take place with a door in the background.
door changing
There is a rhythmic shifting of attention between the back and front doors, as the aliens bang on them, trying to get in. Both doors are framed by an interior doorway.
door looming
The front door looms over them, heavy with the alien threat. One almost has the feeling there is a mystical bond between the doors. They are even blocked with bars of the colour of the other door – as if indicating that they are fused, inviting us to see them as the concept of a door, the only thing keeping the humans from being destroyed by a threatening world.

This nightmare of recurring doors ends with an interior door also being slammed shut, as if the sound is a defiant answer to the alien’s loud bangs on the outer doors.


The house will become the family’s fortress and it is receiving lavish attention from cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. In his earlier films, Shyamalan was always interested in visually impressive buildings, but especially one shot in Unbreakable is a harbinger of his Signs strategy of houses playing a more active role in the mise-en-scène:

overhead car 1

One of this author’s most vivid memories from the first viewing of Signs is a number of external shots with a peculiar interaction between people and some breathtakingly attractive buildings. Wide-angle lenses and low-angle shots co-operate to make the Hess family residence loom over the characters, in a way that feels both benign and unsettling, as if the beautiful structure could topple and crush them at any time:


An ominous establishing shot for the scene where Graham spots an alien on the roof.
house2 montage
The set of half-circles near the top almost seem to observe the characters. (Curiously, this is most pronounced in both scenes with the aggressive dogs. And the dog food bowl is reminiscent of a flying saucer.)
house small
Some smaller structures: from the left the playhouse, the birdhouse, another view of the playhouse, the doghouse.
house aliens
A nightmarish illustration from the book about extraterrestrials, where a building very similar to the Hess house is set on fire.

The following slide show presents other large buildings on the farm, some establishing shots of the Hess house, and a couple of views of Ray Reddy’s place.


Apart from the helicopter shot revealing the crop circles that ends the opening sequence, there is only one other proper overhead shot (Unbreakable is full of them):

Possibly from a point-of-view of an invisible alien ship, we follow the Hess family driving into town…
…and in a film with such an emphasis on buildings it seems meaningful to include this view, especially the church, in a film about a former Reverend.

The “up in the sky” effect


The aliens are coming out of the heavens and their spaceships hover there, so it is only natural that the characters should be concerned about the sky. The alien menace seems to be underlined by an abundance of low-angle shots, in which the camera points up into the sky. It is always empty, but that does not make it less sinister, since the spaceships can turn invisible and could be anywhere. Below, Graham and the sheriff are examining the crop circles that were discovered in the opening sequence. This is the first occurrence of the “up in the sky” effect in Signs, and the division of this situation into two shots – Shyamalan would normally prefer to shoot such scenes in one continuous take – seems to be gently calling attention to the slight artificiality of the device. The “over-the-shoulder” way of handling dialogue scenes is one of the most usual devices in cinema, but this is here turned on its head, into a curious “under-the-shoulder” method:


The following slide show displays snippets from the most important scenes of this type. Sometimes the Hess house is featured prominently in the background, sometimes the sky is pure and unobstructed. The device turns into some sort of “poetic suspense” during the scene where Graham will stumble upon an alien in the cornfield, where the camera is gazing at the night sky as he is fumbling desperately for his flashlight. The open-sky variation of the device is confined to the first third of Signs, for the good reason that the family retreat into the house at a point. There are many interior shots, however, that are studiously directing the camera towards ceilings. (It is worth remembering that the aliens will break into the house proper through the attic door, from the “sky” again.)


With this in mind, a situation with which we are now familiar, takes on added meaning. The upward gaze serves as a way of foreshadowing that the danger is not over after all – the alien is lurking, waiting to strike. The shot conveys a curious mixture of poetry and menace, and the fact that it is held so long adds to the foreboding:


By having the window join the effort, one could say that the shot combines the exterior and interior variations of the “up in the sky” device. The following scene does the same, but in particularly elegant fashion:

The scene abruptly starts with this strange shot, while also invoking the circle motif.
It turns out that the scientifically-minded Morgan owns a telescope…
…the camera glides down along the telescope, and also starts to tilt upwards…
…while Bo confides to Morgan that she has dreamed that he got killed, it tilts even further up…
…ending in this position.

There are quite a few pleasing symmetries, balances and allusions in play here. The last shot starts with the camera going down and ends with it looking up. The scene both starts and ends by looking up, respectively into the sky and the ceiling, which in Signs can be regarded as the same thing. But the ceiling of the children’s room is in fact a “sky”, since it is adorned with clouds and planes. The crafts are war planes, not unimportant since we learn later that Earth’s military might is mobilised against the invaders, and they also allude to danger and death, connecting to the dream. The clouds and the ethereal look of the ceiling suggest a mood suitable for the nature of the warning, through Bo’s dream. Finally, the telescope can be tilted and panned with, like a camera.

Motif roundup

other motifs

  • the number four There are four family members in the household (both before and after Colleen’s death, since Merrill replaces her), and it seems that this number is to some extent built into the film. Thus, there are four characters in the photo in the film’s dramatic second shot; four sets of structures seen from Graham’s backyard window; of the eight circular ornaments on the front and back doors, often only four are shown (for example here and here); inside those circles there are four knobs; there are four mobiles hanging outside the house; Graham awakens four times in the film; the family visits four locations in town; the are four windows in the house’s upper floor and in the book’s drawing of the “same” house.
  • the monumental and the mundane This contradiction pair provide a lot of small humorous touches in the film – for example the historic moment of the newscast confirming the aliens’ arrival being re-recorded over Merrill’s “swimsuit special” video cassette. Furthermore, the sheriff has a habit of countering Graham’s dramatic reports of aliens with innocent incidents from local life. In denial, Graham insists that the alien incidents are faked by three neighbourhood no-goods (Lionel Prichard and the Wolfington brothers). Later, in denial again, the terrible danger of the alien lurking behind the pantry door is juxtaposed by the low comedy of Graham pretending to be the police. (An alien trapped in a pantry is rather mundane to start with.) The most inspired occurrence is Merrill’s childish story about almost kissing a girl at a party in his youth, as a response to Graham’s solemn sermon about humankind’s choice between faith and succumbing to a world of randomness. (As an ex-priest, Graham has the background for easily whipping up sermons like that.)

Other important motifs like flashlights and windows will be discussed in the third article, as part of an analysis of the cellar sequence and the film’s ending.

A horror show and an alien in the pantry

Two of the film’s most central horror scenes come back-to-back in the narrative, but the build-up is also fertile ground for meaning. (The analysis will focus on the scenes’ unique features, but along the way also flag subjects covered elsewhere in these Signs articles.)

Near its mid-point, it is as if Signs is restarted. After the nocturnal encounter with the alien in the cornfield, the TV coverage of the arrival of the spaceships, and the conversation with Merrill about the two types of human beings, Graham seems to be convinced that the aliens are real. But when he wakes up in the morning and notices how obsessed Merrill has become with the live news coverage – and its fantastic story of invisible spaceships, causing Merrill to point into an empty sky – he seems to relapse into denial. Shyamalan follows this with images that echo the start of the film – especially its obsession with doors, as if to prepare the audience for the pantry door scene.

Like when he heard Bo’s squeal in the prologue, he is now coming out of the same bathroom door…
…then he walks to the window, and now the opening image of Signs (top) is repeated.

The film’s opening was also marked by quiet: Graham listening at the children’s door and not hearing anything; the view of the backyard emphasising stasis and the absence of people; Bo’s squeal finally piercing the quiet.

Now the quiet is broken again, by faint whispers. Graham turns to the door…
…the framing is changed to rest exclusively on it, as if to emphasise the door motif…
…and then the film dwells on him walking through it. The film could easily have cut on the motion of his head and left out what we saw in the last two frame grabs…
…and instead have cut directly to this new door shot, at the entrance of the children’s room.

Graham now acts in a totally flippant manner, ridiculing the book on extraterrestrials while leafing through it together with the children. Then the telephone rings, causing everyone to jump. Someone says “Father?” before the line goes dead. The brief telephone scene is, almost perversely, filmed from another room, through a narrow opening in its door. When the call is broken, Graham glances towards the door, and there seems to be an almost mystical connection between Graham and the camera – because it starts to slowly recede, revealing a life-size dummy, its colour vividly standing out:


In hindsight this bizarre mise-en-scène is one of the film’s most brilliant ideas, a mystery that will gradually let go of its secrets over multiple viewings. “Colleen” was first mentioned only the night before as the name of Graham’s wife’s and now her name marks on one of the boxes, which seems to contain her clothes. The room is situated between the bedrooms of Graham and the children and appears to be her sowing room. The unfinished dress mirrors how she was suddenly killed out of the blue. Its missing arm echoes the fact that the traffic accident maimed her terribly. Shyamalan has arranged for a small draft that makes the remaining sleeve move slightly, as if the dummy is almost alive and waving farewell (recalling how the curtain in The Sixth Sense waved goodbye to the dying hero). Graham recognised Ray Reddy’s voice on the phone, so his glance and the camera movement also seem to reflect how he automatically thinks about Colleen whenever he is in contact with her “killer”. All of these associations are inaccessible on the first viewing, however, when the dress and the staging are just a evocative mystery. (The scene has one more meaning, which we will return to in the third article.)

After a short scene where Graham informs Merrill that he is leaving for the veterinarian, he arrives at his place:

The composition’s strangeness and the “abnormalisation” of the everyday object of the mailbox signal the danger of his upcoming encounter with the alien in the kitchen. (The first article presents some more meanings.)
More door activity…
…before a typical Shyamalan manoeuvre, a geometrical repositioning of the camera, this time 90 degrees…
…so that we now look straight down the porch, with almost hypnotic perspective lines on floor, wall, and ceiling.
In Shyamalan, the camera often lingers on the physical world, here the carvings, which almost seem to interact with the tree in the background…
…before Graham turns up, the telephone signal from Ray Reddy’s interrupted call unnervingly piercing the soundtrack…
…the mess has probably been caused by the alien before Ray Reddy arrived, since he will soon say that he found it inside the pantry…
…now the camera starts to rise…
…repositioning itself to frame the car…
…the camera lingers unnaturally long, almost dreamlike on the shot. The incongruity of the idyll outside, the glacial pace, no sound from the important action outside, but instead the insistent busy signal – all this create a peculiar tension.
The framing function is passed from one window to another.
Unbreakable car windows
Unbreakable showed that Shyamalan has an eye for arresting framings using car windows.
Now follows a dialogue scene with several shots/reverse shots in roughly similar framings…
…which ends with Reddy’s ominous line: “And don’t open my pantry, Father. I found one of them in there and locked him in.” The composition is unusual – in real life we seldom bend down to look through a car this way – and with meaning on three levels of visual depth. The odd camera placement is maintained even as the car drives away, briefly framing Graham in another car window.
As in many other situations, his movement is stylised, going through clearly separated, “geometrical” stances.

Now the “horror show” starts, perhaps the film’s most brilliant passage. Stripped down into the most basic simplicity, the scene distils the nature of horror films, their effect on the audience, and the reason for our fascination with them. Merrill has moved the TV into a closet, another manifestation of the enclosed spaces of the film, and a prefiguration of the basement becoming the family’s last refugee.

One of the many awakenings of the film, gently contributing to the film’s dream aspect (to be discussed in the third article)…
as described in the first article, the man passing by in the background is a foreshadowing of the alien soon to appear…
…with renewed obsession, Merrill moves closer, the light from the screen making his face pallid and his eyes gleaming…

The news anchor announced a birthday party video from Brazil with some “startling footage”. Shyamalan shot it himself, with a household camcorder, and it employs many of the same devices as a Shyamalan film, but its deliberate crudeness is also the antithesis of his methodical, ultra-clean style. It is shot in a long take and features a number of parallels with the rest of the film, and with the pantry door scene coming up next.

A swarm of children have apparently discovered something in the garden…
…they may have fled inside, like the Hess family will do, from eating cake in the garden…
…the surroundings are gradually revealed, Shyamalan-like…
…but, as the camera lingers for a considerable time, there is, maddeningly, nothing to see – exactly like we time and again gaze at the Hess cornfield without seeing as much as a glimpse of an alien…
…now apparently, there is a new development…
…the camera follows the children through a short corridor…
…the children are looking down some sort of passage but are obstructing the view…
“Move, children! Vámanos!” Hilariously, Merrill is so caught up in the situation that he talks to the TV, but very human and audiences easily identify with it…
…the boy, who says something about a garage, is probably addressing his father, who is supposed to shoot the film, but it is as if he is calling out to us…
…emulating a traditional cinematic device, shooting over the shoulder of someone draws us into the situation…
…Shyamalan is fetisishing the crudeness of the equipment, struggling emphatically with the focus…
…while zooming in. As just before, we watch and watch, the children scream and scream, but still nothing is to be seen…
…the suddenly a shape comes forward…
…at a certain point, it takes a small step towards its audience as if both to scare and mock them. It is a perfect embodiment of terror, the archetypal bogeyman. As if the camera itself is in shock, strange things happen to the focus…
…the photographer is lurching and fleeing children block the view…
…afterwards, the scene is as mundane and tranquil as before. Did it really happen?
“Oh!” Merrill exclaims in a mixture of horror and almost orgasmic satisfaction, having experienced a culmination of his obsessive watching.
“I want you to be in the coats at the end,” Shyamalan says he told Phoenix in the Blu-ray bonus material. The film music joins in, by turning its familiar three-tone motif into hysteria, as if a racing heart translated into music, but also with an icily cold, mechanical, “alien” undertone.
From further away, reflecting Merrill’s retreated position, the camera in the confusion now points into the bushes. This allows a dark background so the closet door can be reflected. This connects to the door motif, and, complemented by the door in the background of the video itself, plays into the film’s strategy of fusing the mundane inside with the dramatic outside, often through the circle motif. It is hard to think of anything more mundane than the insides of a closet, and the jackets contribute as well. (They may also connect to Graham’s jacket that will play a part in the next scene.)
With Hitchcockian sadism, the fear is now about to be replayed, because the tape starts to rewind. (This deliberately eschews realism for effect, since a TV station transmission would hardly do it like this.)
Like a recurring nightmare, the boy is calling for us again, leading us as lambs to the slaughter…
…this is again from a bit further away, Merrills new position, as if to hold on to the mundane surroundings…
…an archetypal horror movie audience reaction, even completely horrified, they still must look…
…transfixed in an almost masochistic frame of mind…
…the scene ends in a repetition of the iconic moment when the alien took the half-step forwards (top). But it is now frozen in time, lingering for five seconds, again grounded in the everyday of the closet, the jackets and the reflection of the door. (Which is cheating a bit, for this more distant view does not fit the fact that Merrill just returned to his closer vantage point, right in front of the TV.)

The original appearance of the alien was accompanied by a loud bang on the soundtrack, but when the alien now takes its half-step the bang is softer, more as an afterthought, more part of the film music. Again Shyamalan plays on technical imperfection: the frozen image is shaken in (five) bursts of spasms (accompanied by some very chilling percussion). It is as if the jumping image both reflects the pent-up energy of the alien threat and the quivers of fear of the children, Merrill and the audience, plus the camera itself. The involvement of so many layers of viewers of the alien emphasises the horror-movie self-reflexive nature of the scene. And since this is the first good view of an alien in the entire film, its sudden manifestation serves as a jolting realisation of our greatest fear – that our paranoia is real.

The video was also preparation for the pantry door scene. In the car we saw that Reddy was hurt, but the video proved the aliens aliens are manifestly real. This makes us approach the current scene with much greater apprehension, which is only increased by Graham’s own denialist attitude. As discussed in the first article, the scene is also clearly connected to the “horror show”. Part of this is through contrast: the awful din from the birthday party children in the video leads directly to a scene marked by absolute silence.

In two consecutive shots, both the alien and Graham appear suddenly and stand still (the alien through freezing the video). The wall and the bushes form a passage leading to the alien, which is mirrored in the shape of the kitchen. Doors play a role in both scenes.
But there is more to his entrance. Discreetly performed yet clearly stylised, it creates a counterpoint to the alien’s appearance, both in general strangeness and footwork: he is putting one foot forward in a big step, swivels around on it, into a frontal position. (This mirrors, to some extent, the 90-degree turn of the camera as he was standing on the porch, and his movement when he turned towards the house before the “horror show”. It is also worth checking out his strange movement in the prologue.)
He is passing through a shadowy area for dramatic effect…
…a Hitchcockian moving point-of-view shot as he approaches the pantry door…
…as he nears the door, the camera tilts to gaze upward, as so many times in the film.
A very chilling situation: there is definitely something pacing behind the door. As soon as Graham starts talking, it freezes – mirroring the frozen video – in the position of the rightmost image. It remains like that for a long time, as shots alternate between the door and Graham. In a touch of light comedy, he pretends to be a policeman. In line with his mood the same morning, he is in denial, preferring to believe everything is the work of the local good-for-nothings…
…the audience, however, are convinced that there is an alien behind the door, which makes this camera position highly unnerving, since the alien is just behind “our” back – like the shot with the hanged people in The Sixth Sense. The food scraps on the floor (from the alien rummaging about?) provide a visual connection to the next shot…
…visualising Graham’s thinking, the camera slides, in neatly geometrical fashion, along the bench to reveal the knife (the background probably shows Reddy’s office, which we earlier saw through the window).
Shyamalan is very careful in showing us the steps of Graham’s thinking here: when he holds the knife, sunlight is reflected into his face, momentarily blinding him. This indicates that his next idea did not appear out of thin air, but is the result of an event, grounding the scene in realism.
The idea is to turn what he intended as a weapon into a mirror. Again, through the glance, we are shown his thought process. Besides, his face appearing in the “mirror” strengthens the parallel between him and the Nemesis Alien, since he intends to capture its reflection in it.


The knife mirror takes in different portions of the pantry – moved as if a camera – as Shyamalan again draws out the scene, duplicating the strategy in the “horror show” in many ways: desiring to see but also dreading it, refusing to show the alien, and the utter mundanity of the various food items creating a maddening contrast to the fantastic thing we look for. All the time, we vividly recall the tremendous shock when the alien in Brazil finally appeared. But here nothing happens, which feels almost as bad. (Since the alien can mimic its surroundings, could we be looking right at it?)
Finally he loses patience, lying down to either stick the knife under the door, or maybe to put his ear close to it…
…then he abruptly decides against it, and hurries out of the kitchen.
If we compare his entrance and exit shots, the latter is covered with a wide-angle lens, stretching out the space, and also making his retreat look faster and more cowardly. The door seems unnaturally tall, belittling him. (Ouch! There is also a horrific colour continuity error with the door and the surrounding panels – and smaller ones with the pots and the position of the table.)
There is also a parallel with the cornfield scene, where he was (1) talking to an unseen alien presence as if it were a human being; (2) using an object, a flashlight; (3) fled the scene in abject horror; (4) through a passage; (5) shot with a wide-angle lens to make him run “faster”. But there has been development in Graham’s character, because in the kitchen he stops in the doorway…
…then he turns around in 90-degree phases with defined pauses. Then, in a parallel to the rewinding of the tape in the “horrow show” and the much faster appearance of the alien in the “repeat performance”, he reiterates much of what has happened earlier, but in one fluid motion…
…towards the door with the knife…
…but as soon as he puts his head down near the door, the alien grabs him by the jacket collar. We do not see it but that is how it must be…
…perhaps to make the appearance of the other hand more effectful. Its claws hit the floor with a stylised “thwack”…
…having realised that these are the claws that hurt Ray Reddy, Graham struggles mightily to get loose…
…finally he manages to grab the knife, which he lost in his shock – his hand too is now claw-like…
…he cuts off two alien fingers, causing the creature to emit a piercing shriek…
…Graham responds with a horrified scream, the two parallel beings becoming as one in their agony – in a rawer echo of Merrill and the birthday children’s screaming in the previous scene…
…outside two formations of shrieking birds are fusing, as if in both sound and movement mimicking the merging screams inside, and reminiscent of the prologue’s bird noises “fusing” with Bo’s squeal and Morgan’s shouts…
…the whole world is screaming, inside and outside, in a convulsion of chaos, fear and agony, captured in a repetition of the sky motif.

It is fitting that it is M. Night Shymalan himself who plays the character who captured the alien in the pantry, so it could become the hero’s antagonist and cause all these kinds of parallels, written into the screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan. In the next article we shall explore aspects of dreams and magic, connections to The Birds and two important late scenes of Signs.

AAAA title card


Addendum: the books

bok 11
“This is serious!”

Even though Morgan and Bo take the book on extraterrestrials very seriously, the fake prop book that Graham is looking at is in fact quite silly. This addendum is intended as a curiosity item, to give the reader a closer examination of a book whose pages are hurriedly leafed through.

But before we go into that, there is another book in Signs, which can be seen on a table in two scenes: during the second TV news report and in the shot below, after Graham has returned home from the pantry door scene:

bok 1 montage b

This is a real book: “Bucks County Ghost Stories” written by Charles J. Adams III, a collection of supernatural stories from the county where the action of Signs takes place. The author seems to have specialised in such books from various Pennsylvania locations, something that might have appealed to Shyamalan whose films show great fondness for his home state.

The book on aliens is called “We Are Not Alone: Evidence of the Extraterrestrial”. It appears in only two scenes. Morgan reads in it in the bookshop but there is a later scene that entirely revolves around it. The following montage gives the clearest views of its cover:

bok 16 montage

Morgan claims it is written by “scientists who have been persecuted for their beliefs”, and one of the authors is called Dr. Bimbu, a name that Graham makes fun of. The authors’ names can be glimpsed in the rightmost image but are intelligible. Dr. Bimbu seems not to be one of them though. Such inconsistency is fairly normal for such fake props, however, as are the several in-jokes and general silliness. (This particular book is also orthographically challenged.) One of the authors seem to called Dr. M. <something>, a play on the director’s name? Hollywood is also poked fun at.

bok 21
“For thousands of years, Chinese [sic] have looked to the skies for portents of change on Earth. While China is passing through its first millennium using the West’s Gregorian calendar, the traditional lunar calendar is ushering in the Year of the Dragon, regarded as time [sic] of tumultuous change. “All of that sort of millennial fear and trepidation fits in so nicely with Chinese cosmology – and also the Hollywood propaganda that everybody’s lapping up,” said David Raynor, a Chinese culture watcher at Australia [sic] National University. In Pusalu, a patch of struggling corn and bean farms 30 miles from Beijing, villagers believe cosmic forces were at play on Dec. 11. As they tell it, an object the size of a person shimmering with golden light moved slowly up into the sky from the surrounding arid mountains. [The rest of the text is partly obscured] … beautiful, sort of yellow,” villager Scott Murphy said. “It was … up to heaven.” What “it” was remains a topic of … Buddhists. But local leaders want to … that government censure may…”
David Raynor and Scott Murphy (the latter a villager in China!) are longtime collaborators on Shyamalan’s films. In the real world, Pusalu seems to be a resort which is actually situated close to Beijing, in Changping District, perhaps a place that Mr. Murphy once has visited?

bok 22
“Plate X Frog-eyed reptillian [sic] creature said to be three feet tall. The tiny man inhabits abductee’s [sic] bodies, forcing them to wear pant suits and eat fast food.”
bok 24
“Plate XIV – Persian cat eye and Radiating Aura of light distiguish [sic] this being recorded by Scott Purcell. Bakersfield, California, drawn 1990.” The opposite page simply recycles the text from an earlier page, a laziness not unusual for these kinds of fake prop books. (The psychology text book in The Sixth Sense does the same.)
bok 25
“Plate IIV [sic] “We Come in Peace”. Alien being making peaceful contact with mankind. Artist rendering by Joanna Bush.” Below the drawing the text is enthusiastically saying something about being visited by aliens would be a golden age, and a renaissance.

bok 26
One happy Earthling.
bok 27
The scene ends with this delicious pastiche of old-school lurid pulp science fiction…
bok 28
…the house uncannily resembles the Hess family house…
bok 29
…with three dead figures, an adult and two children, mirroring the three people reading the book right now.
bok 30
“…using high-energy proton rays to destroy food sources and control the masses.” “A giant saucer hovers over the landscape. This is…”
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