But you take those things away, you throw people in the dark, you scare the shit out of them – no more rules.
There’s no way Stephen King could have seen 9/11 coming when he wrote The Mist back in 1980. But it’s impossible to watch the titular cloud roll across town in Frank Darabont’s 2007 film version and not think back to those shaky cell phone videos of dust clouds billowing down New York City streets as people dashed for cover in the nearest grocery or drug store or restaurant, huddling in a familiar environment suddenly choked with uncertainty and fear. But The Mist also mirrors the spiritual cloud that unfurled over us on that day, one that, for all intents and purposes, has us as trapped and scared and at each other’s throats as the town folk King boxed up in a small Maine grocery store thirty years ago.
The people trapped in that store are nothing less than a microcosm of post-9/11 America. There’s Mrs. Carmody and her followers, a faction that retreats into the illusory comfort of an “us vs. them” interpretation of religion, certain that if the unbelievers are punished, the righteous shall be rewarded. Doesn’t take much to see this as a reflection of the ugly anti-Muslim sentiment that sprung up after 9/11. There’s Brent and his group, who refuse to think about cause or effect and simply deal with the problem in a seemingly practical but ultimately reckless fashion, much in the same way we went barreling into Afghanistan and Iraq without much of a strategy beyond, “Get them!” There’s David Drayton and his friends, the cautious, logical thinkers who try to stay balanced between the other two extremes, not giving in to superstitious fear but also avoiding arrogant self-confidence in handling the problem. And there’s the rest, a hodge-podge of ages and sexes and backgrounds, trying to decide which of these three they belong with, looking for someone to show them a way out of the dark, sometimes choosing one simply because it has the loudest voices behind it.
What’s ironic is that David’s group, who are presented throughout the film as heroic — if somewhat fallible — audience surrogates, ends up just as doomed as everyone else. But while Carmody is done in by the unhinged zeal of her devotion and Brent by his short-sighted pragmatism, David’s downfall is from losing hope. He certainly has ample reason to: he watches Brent blindly lead his group to their deaths, he sees Carmody whip her followers into some good old-fashioned Old Testament wrath of God, he finds his wife has been killed by the monsters, and he has the idea of escape blunted not only by their car running out of gas but by the sight of a giant creature looming so impossibly before them that the very idea of going on in this world as it is seems ludicrous. And so they give up, opting for a death of their own choosing rather than one at the hands of whatever waits for them out there. Only to have hope reappear minutes later.
In a way, all the factions in the store have lost their hope in some fashion. Carmody clearly believes there’s no hope in the face of a vengeful god; the only thing to do is try to put on a display of such faith and righteousness that God goes a little less hard on them. And Brent places his hope in the distant, unseen engines of authority rather than those around him who can help him directly. Anyone who gives in to fear pays a price for it eventually; it’s sort of telling that the one character who seems to come out of the ordeal relatively unscathed is the mother who ventures out into the mist to find her children even when everyone tells her she’s crazy and refuses to help. She’s terrified, but she’s not going to let it keep her from doing what’s right, even if the general sentiment is against her. So while David howls in incoherent horror at having needlessly killed his son, she rides by holding her two children, rewarded for her courage, and her faith.
And that’s where we were after 9/11, being pulled in all directions at once, here by those who wanted to cast it as our right and proper religion against their savage one, there by those who wanted us to simply trust our institutions to do what’s best without considering if they truly had our best interests at heart. And we’re still being pulled. We’re being asked to make the decision whether we’re going to be David and eventually give in to the insanity around us and lose hope, or whether we’ll be that mother, holding on to what’s important as our guiding light in the dark. For all its monsters and scares, The Mist isn’t so much about what goes bump in the night, but what happens, as the quote above says, when we’re thrown into that night, when we’re scared and uncertain if it’ll ever be light again. And what happens is that the light does come back; we’d just better be prepared for how it shines on our actions.