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The 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter may be one of the best dramatizations of spiritual warfare ever to come out of Hollywood. In a way the film feels both ahead of its time—it’s direct and wise about the pragmatic realities of spiritual abuse—and helpfully behind our time—it believes in sin. It seems fitting that the film prominently features a Christmas celebration. Though its themes are dark, it’s a good watch for this time of year. The original Christmas story is many things—an advent, an odyssey, a new birth—but often we downplay the tale’s inherent darkness, obscuring the baby born to die. We rarely linger on Rachel, weeping for her children.

Adapted very closely from Davis Grubb’s Southern Gothic novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is most famous for its iconic villain, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a silvertongued itinerant preacher who makes a living murdering trusting widows. (Director Charles Laughton told Mitchum that the character was “a diabolical crude.” Mitchum said, “Present.”) In the book, Powell is simply called “Preacher,” a simple way to convey his power as a religious authority in the West Virginia towns where he throws tent meetings. The gruesome details of his killings are left to our imagination—we see a crowd of children peering into a cellar at a pair of limp high-heeled feet. 

In an early scene, we see Preacher become cellmates with a death-row bankrobber. Before he dies, the robber tells him he has $10,000 of stolen money hidden in Cresap’s Landing, West Virginia, where his wife and two children live. Preacher sees it as a godsent opportunity. 

Against Preacher stands the story’s protagonist, nine-year-old John Harper (Billy Chapin), son of the bankrobber, who knows where the money is. When Preacher arrives in Cresap’s Landing, his charismatic sermons entrance every single inhabitant but one—precociously courageous John. Just as he charmed a series of widows before, Preacher gains the trust of John’s mother—then his little sister and the local townspeople. What’s truly terrifying about Preacher isn’t the threat of his hidden switchblade, but his total grip on the adults of the town. To a child, Preacher is everywhere and all-powerful. An evil god. When Preacher murders their mother, he threatens John and his sister to reveal the location of the hidden $10,000. The children flee down the Ohio River and hide in a barn. Thinking they’ve found shelter, they turn to see him pursuing in the night. John groans. “Don’t he ever sleep?” On the one hand, this is a classic evil stepparent tale, whimsical and adventurous (Mitchum’s knuckles are tattooed with “love” and “hate”), but its fairytale symbolism allows it to evoke far darker realities as Preacher grooms the town. 

Grubb based Preacher on a local serial killer who targeted widows and orphans, but the character grows into an elemental representation of not just predators but of spiritual abusers and parental cruelty everywhere. Especially in Appalachia, where the story is set. In the idiom of the story, reflecting the real-world culture, Preacher isn’t just a psychopath or an evil stepfather—he’s a devil.

Preacher’s rhythmic, vague orations sound similar to that of the charismatic “shouting preachers” who visited mountain churches I grew up attending in the hills of southwest Virginia. I remember clearly one man, having worked the congregation into a frenzy of amens, bellowing, “God can’t save a lazy man!” The congregation flowed to the altar in droves at the end of the rambling sermon, even though, as my nine-year-old sister observed later, “He didn’t mention Jesus very much.”  

My point isn’t that that revival preacher was a secret killer, but that preaching based primarily in vague cultural lovefests offers an easy opening for false teaching—and worse. “What religion do you profess, Preacher?” asks one character. “One that me and the Almighty worked out betwixt us,” Preacher says.

When Preacher sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” it’s to terrify those he hunts—and he omits a key phrase: “leaning on Jesus.” (I still find “did they mention Jesus?” a remarkably helpful question for evaluating Christian leaders in various cultural contexts.)

Stories about children in peril are often struggles toward or away from theodicy—a challenge to God: What will he do about them? What’s most glorious about The Night of the Hunter is not, in the end, its portrayal of darkness, but its portrayal of light. In act four we meet Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish), a steely old lady who is based on someone Grubb knew in his youth, who, he said, “was more beautiful than my poor powers can portray.” She sees through Harry Powell, and when she does, so do we. This man is no suave serial killer—and no god—he’s a squalling devil, who ends up trapped in a barn like a common beast. 

The film is startlingly modern in its portrayal of an evil minister (now a common trope). What’s less modern is its clear and biblical distinction between false and true gospels. In one of the final scenes, John flees a Scripture reading, so traumatized by Powell’s spiritual corruption that he can only see abuse in Christianity. He gently takes the elderly Rachel Cooper’s hand. She knows how to use Scripture as a sword for wolves and a crook for lambs. She describes herself, echoing Ezekiel 17:23, “I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds.”

This promise—that evil is powerful, but ultimately ridiculous and defeatable—carries us into the final hope of the last scene, set at Christmastime. It says, in the least sentimental way possible, that it’s possible to move beyond abuse.

“Lord save little children! The wind blows and the rain is cold. Yet, they abide.”

Hannah Long writes from New York City.

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Image by Copyright 1955 United Artists Corp licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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