The Happening Revisited Through the Lens of a Pandemic

M Night Shyamalan’s eco horror The Happening isn’t as bad as you think - and it also got a few things right about what would happen in a pandemic.

The Happening
Photo: 20 Century Fox

When the pandemic hit it was Steven Soderberg’s Contagion rather than M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening that people wanted to revisit. Perhaps Mark Wahlberg running away from the wind wasn’t the vibe people were looking for. Revisiting this much maligned but secretly wonderful curio in light of where we are in the world now, though, throws up some interesting parallels. The big difference between the way the characters in The Happening dealt with their pandemic and what’s going on in the world now is lockdown. What the characters battling the airborne infection in The Happening should have done is self isolate….

M Night Shyamalan’s eco-horror was released in 2008 after his declining run of hits, which began with The Sixth Sense (absolute masterpiece, nominated for 6 Oscars), Unbreakable (well liked, now part of a trilogy), Signs (pretty well liked), The Village (opinion is divided) and The Lady in the Water (bad). 

Perhaps because of Night’s rise and fall, taking the piss out of The Happening became an extreme sport, with the movie bagging worst film noms rather than oscars and being treated as a movie making pariah. Quite why people were so angry with the film isn’t clear though it might have something to do with the fact that it is kind of a mess, tonally, flitting between outright horror (it’s Night first R-Rated movie) and slapstick comedy (Wahlberg talks to plastic plant, Zooey Deschanel gets hung up about a tiramisu, plant guy Frank Collison makes an ode to the shape of hotdogs…).

There are two movies here. One is a truly harrowing story about an eco-disaster that forces people to suicide and the hopelessness and panic that instills in the public, the other is a comedy 50s throwback B movie. Night tried to have both.

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Comedy aside then, the horror movie version of The Happening has some surprisingly on the nose elements.

The confusion

At first people believe the outbreak, which begins in central park, is related to a terrorist threat. Misinformation is rife, conspiracy theories sweep the country and everyone is scared and confused. Massive groups of people decide to evacuate the city. 

While the parallels aren’t exact, watching the mass exodus is reminiscent of the swathes of people just before lockdown three in the UK rushing to leave London. People wanted to escape to the country, or in some cases escape to another country. Moving around rather than staying put wasn’t a good idea, it turns out, in either the Happening or in the world.

The weird science

In The Happening all sorts of theories are explored before they settle on the eventual ‘um, not sure… an act of god or something?’ Fortunately the real life science is a lot better than that but the fact is, at the start of the pandemic we didn’t know exactly what the cause or indeed the solutions were. It’s realistic that people would be rapidly exploring different theories to try to make sense of something so epic and terrifying. “We don’t entirely know” is a very honest response to something like this.

The Conspiracy Theorists

In The Happening, the main group – Mark Wahlberg’s Elliot, Zoey Deschanel’s Alma, eight year  old Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) and teenagers Josh (Spencer Breslin) and Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.)  come upon a house where a couple of conspiracy theorists are holed up with guns. They seem to believe it’s terrorism, or that they will be able to catch the Happening from the gang (they’re not entirely wrong on the second point). After Wahlberg sings a little song to prove he is normal (!) the teenagers with them make a big fuss and both get shot point blank in front of Jess.

Conspiracy theories happen any time anything happens. COVID19 has been no different, including people who think the pandemic is made up entirely.

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Fear of groups

One of the most striking elements of The Happening is the idea that being in large groups is a bad idea. Our evacuees learn this and split into different groups but they are still too large (remind anyone of the rule of six??). Later even small groups are shown to be at risk. It’s highly possible that the horror trend to come out of 2020 and beyond won’t be infection films but films about the fear of other people.

The isolationist

The one person who appears to have (sort of) the right idea is Mrs Jones (Betty Buckley) who lives alone in isolation. She doesn’t have a radio and doesn’t know about the pandemic and is self sufficient. She takes in Elliot, Alma and Jess and allows them to stay over but in the morning she becomes paranoid that they’re going to kill her in her sleep, ventures outside and is got by the Happening, thus indicating that even individuals are susceptible. 

The thing is, had Elliot, Alma and Jess not shown up, would Mrs Jones have been targeted? Afterall she’d been perfectly fine until then.

Lockdown

What the characters in The Happening do not do is lockdown and self isolate and perhaps they should have. Depending how many pot plants you own and how nice to them you are, going home and staying in might have been an effective way not only to avoid the big group scenarios that initially piss the plants off, but it might even have helped appease them. 

Certainly lockdown during our own pandemic has had significant and noticeable positive effects on the environment – which is perhaps one small positive to have come out of our own global Happening. After all, running away from Coronavirus is about as effective as running away from the wind.