Sometimes I catch myself thinking that fundagelicals are, at heart, perfectly normal people who have simply been socialized in really awful ways, so they really aren’t aware of the threats they constantly use and the fearmongering behavior they exhibit. I start thinking that they are so immersed in fear tactics that they notice it all about as often as we notice the air in a room or how often we blink. And then something like A Thief in the Night rolls past my eyes, and I come face-to-face with my own misplaced optimism. I’m going to show you how this movie franchise targets children–and manipulates their deepest fears to gain their compliance. And I’m going to show you where Christianity’s chain of pain has finally stopped.
“Not for Kindergarten.”
. . . this [movie] is really scare tactics because of course there’s a call to faith following the film, to bring people up to the front to be saved and commit their lives to Christ. As a kid, of course you’re going to run to the front – you’re going to run to the front screaming.”
This Rapture-porn movie series was shown to millions of children. And yet nothing in any of these movies is really appropriate for young children to see.
And Russell Doughten Jr., the guy who wrote and produced (and acted in) this dreck, is A-OK with that. Indeed, more than okay! Shortly before he died in 2013, he gave an interview to a Baptist website about the franchise he’d created. He sounds like he was downright gloating about how scary his movies were for children:
Doughten free [sic] acknowledged the possible consequences of producing Christian films that depicted scary events. “Anybody who seriously reads the prophetic books or Revelation or Thessalonians or even Matthew 24 will be scared,” he told Hendershoot. “There’s some pretty heavy stuff in those prophecies. This is not for kindergarten. It’s for those who are into the meat of the gospel. If you take seriously what is being said there, it’s frightening.”
The problem is, of course, that fundagelical adults were totally happy to put these movies in front of kindergarten-age children. The creators of the movie appear to have written it specifically to terrorize children. And the actors and actresses in it appear to have long ago reconciled themselves with causing this distress.
The guy who played Sideburns, Thom Rachford, is likewise totally happy about the idea of children seeing the movies he worked on back then:
Estimated millions have received Christ after seeing “Thief” or the three sequels. In February 2013, we received an email from a family that said they had just discovered the “Thief” series. They don’t just use them for evangelism, but also for encouraging their two preteen daughters in the faith – the youngest daughter has begun telling her unsaved friends about Jesus and end times.
One cringes to imagine that youngest daughter’s fear and the level of responsibility laid upon her narrow little shoulders to “save” her friends from eternal torture and abandonment. I’m hoping in the years since that interview she’s deconverted and now understands just what was done to her head by the well-meaning adults around her.
Here are the specific ways that ATITN messed with the heads of millions of children just like her.
The first and foremost fear stirred up by ATITN is abandonment.
Abandonment figures in most kids’ minds as the most terrifying thing that can possibly happen to them. It’s listed as #1 in this online guide to “12 Ways to Mess Up Your Kids” as “Threaten to leave your kids behind.” On one therapy site, we’re told that abandonment issues and fears can lead to lifetime issues around trusting others and achieving emotional intimacy. Abandonment fears can even lead to a host of psychological issues like depression and codependence and make it harder to form lasting, healthy relationships.
Claudia Black, a professional therapist whose work I admire, writes that when children are repeatedly made afraid of having their caretakers’ physical care/protection and psychological nurturing ripped away, they get a message loud and clear about their low priority and value in those caretakers’ estimation. Almost as much as the actual support they fear losing, the searing impact of that unspoken message can destroy a child’s emotional health.
In short, it seems that we cannot possibly overstate how incredibly important it is that children not feel like their trusted adults might abandon them.
And then ATITN comes along to tell fearmongering Christians to hold their fries so they can show how stoking terror is really done.
The Abandonment of Jenny’s Sister.
I spent a good deal of the first movie wondering why this snoozefest had been so scary for the children who saw it. And then suddenly I was confronted with a scene that even managed to shock me in a way that even my first sight of Goatse (NSFW) couldn’t. Here’s the setup of the scene:
A little girl (10-12ish?) enters her house and immediately begins chattering at the relative she assumes is in the kitchen. Then she realizes that nobody seems to be in the house and that it looks like tasks were left in mid-completion. She freaks out–and the movie shows us many shots and angles of her screaming hysterically. Her mother and sister come rushing to her aid–they were in the house, just off doing other stuff. They hug and comfort her while she whimpers repeatedly that she thought they’d been Raptured and that she’d been left behind.
Then the mother and sister tell her that yes, that’s definitely a real possibility unless she converts to their religion. She’s been going to their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church her whole life, but she hadn’t been into it enough. She needs to be into it completely and then she will be safe. The girl says their magic spell and declares her new intention to be totally into their religion. This capitulation is presented in the movie as a fine and wonderful thing. Her mother and sister are presented completely sympathetically.
And gang, I absolutely exploded with anger right there. I couldn’t stop my tears. I was simply aghast.
But at least I did abruptly realize just what about this movie had scared so many kids.
This Scene Wasn’t An Accident.
See, we already saw Jenny’s little sister getting this fear instilled in her by the preacher at their church (the one listed in the IMDB page as “the good minister,” largely because he preached the same apocalyptic vision of the future that the moviemakers liked) of being abandoned. And her older sister and her mother, instead of putting her terror of abandonment into perspective, only encouraged her fears and told her she was right to have them.
Looking at the situation from this child’s perspective, she only had really one way to respond to her fears: to go along with whatever her trusted adults told her to do to avoid that fate. It’s not just the Rapture they’re scared of; it’s rejection by their families–because I’ve no doubt that young children have already noticed what “Christian love” looks like for those who reject their parents’ overreach.
If the little sister had been told to gulp down a box of cinnamon to remain a member of her family in good standing and to be safe from abandonment, she’d have done it. That’s how strong this fear is. Children will suppress even the most important truths about themselves to avoid being rejected by their families. They will beat themselves against rocks. They’ll even mouth magic spells at the ceiling–and convince themselves for years that they really believe all that nonsense. The alternative is simply unthinkable; it’s a gaping crystalline horror that stretches far beyond words. Children will very rarely act in a way that they suspect might lead to their own abandonment.
The Rapture works on children precisely because of their terror of being abandoned. That’s why its main writer, Russell Doughten, held his beliefs: he’d been indoctrinated into this fear as a very young child. That’s how he grew up into an adult convinced he needed to make movies about it. That’s why he was totally okay, even ecstatic, about the possibility of scaring other children in the same way he’d been scared.
And that’s why the filmmakers took special care to make sure that their stupid movies got shown to little children.
Incidentally, this child in the movie still suffers from her fear of abandonment even after saying the magic spell. On the day of the Rapture, her older sister Jenny asks her to go get some butter from the next-door neighbor. Before the child leaves, she stops and asks Jenny to please still be there when she returns. It’s a plaintive little request that tears the heart in two to think about, now that we know about how powerful the fear of abandonment is to a child. Jenny just laughs and tells her that now that she’s said the magic spell, she doesn’t need to worry about the Rapture: if Jenny is taken, then her little sister surely will be as well. The child, clearly not totally reassured, leaves on the errand. (She won’t return from it; she is, indeed, Raptured–along with Jenny and their mother.)
This isn’t the only example I could name in the series about abandonment and how it’s presented to children, but it’s surely the most dramatic.
Adult Situations, Sort Of.
Most of the ATITN is inappropriate for children simply on the basis of it not relating to them at all.
Almost the entirety of the series depicts adults doing stuff that is mostly adult-centric. Adults meet, enter grown-up romantic relationships, pair off and marry, and set up homes together. They go to church and listen to long, boring sermons–which, again, Doughten concedes are not for children–and hang out doing generally adult stuff. FFS, there’s even a scene in which one character offers to explain sex to another one. Multiple scenes involve droning, repetitive, hard-to-follow Bible studies and religious discussions. It’s hard to imagine a movie less relevant to a small child.
But when the end of the world happens, those adults and those adult situations suddenly veer into a nightmare world for a child. Authority figures are now to be feared. Trusted adults break down and betray even their best friends. Nothing works the way it used to. Food becomes scarce.It’s all so nonsensical, but because children don’t have a very clear idea about how adults function or how the adult world works, it all speaks straight to a child’s mind as a potential reality.
And I get the whole society breaks down and people have to live off the land/rebuild somehow scenario as one that speaks to children. I look back now and recognize that this was a fear I had myself, one that I tried to exorcise and tame countless times through endless play sessions involving those themes. My attempts were all very childish. I was a child with the same limitations and the same hazy grasp of reality, so all of my play scenarios were, to say the least, markedly lopsided and incomplete, if not verging on pure fantasy.
These movies involve those sorts of scenarios writ large. Patty, Linda, and Sandy leave their homes (scary point) to go to Patty’s grandma’s house (comfort point). They play with her horses (comfort point) but are always scared about how to pay bills and avoid arrest (scary point). We see nothing of exactly how they’re getting their bills paid and feeding themselves, much less paying for the horses’ upkeep; it’s as if the movie doesn’t know either–or care.
Then the horses die in a barn fire (super-duper scary point), a situation that isn’t at all narratively necessary. One can only imagine that the filmmakers were doing their best to make the women’s situation all the scarier and make them seem even more isolated–which would definitely hit a child right between the eyes, emotionally.
Adult characters in these movies are imprisoned and even executed; they are shot; they are tortured both emotionally and physically (it is only heard and inferred, but it’s effective nonetheless); people are shown alone and friendless. Legal authorities install themselves without any fuss or backtalk into existing government offices, even into churches (which are privately owned!). People’s legal, civil, and human rights are abrogated in a thousand ways and nobody says a word about it. There are only two children depicted in the first three movies–and both are shown in situations that a child would find frightening.
It’s really hard to imagine anything scarier for a child than these movies. They are presented with all these ideas that children can’t possibly understand, all at an age before they’re able to pick the holes in it that any adult could.
And then they are shown an out, the only one they’ll be allowed: say our magic words, do the things we tell you, and you’ll be okay. Sorta. Maybe.
It’s Okay If It’s About Jesus… Right?
Kyle, at movie theater: One, please.
Ticket Dude: This is an R-rated movie.
Kyle: Yeah, I know, but I have to–
Ticket Dude: But, because this is such an important film that actually depicts the selfless act of Jesus Christ, I’ll let you in to see it.
South Park, “The Passion of the Jew“
I seriously think that fundagelicalism scorches every ounce of compassion out of fervent believers. All the usual impulses that make humanity great (not unique, mind, just great) seem reversed in them. Instead of protecting children and contextualizing their sometimes out-of-control fears, fundagelicals try their best to hijack those responses to brainwash their kids. And then they see the terror that results as a measure of how loving they are as parents.
It’s hard to imagine a parent nowadays who’d be okay with letting their kindergarteners play Grand Theft Auto V or watch hyper-violent movies like Hostel. But we’d also probably not want them to watch movies like 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, an Oscar-winning movie featuring very mature themes of depression, death, addiction, abandonment, heart-scorching regrets, and aging past one’s dreams. Even when there’s no blood and no bare breasts onscreen, we recognize when something’s way past a child’s emotional capabilities. Many of these same responsible parents are on board with current drives to limit advertising to children on the grounds of it being too manipulative for a child to defend against it.
But if religion is involved, these same parents often put their compassion and common sense on hold. They’re willing to allow their children to consume messaging that is well past their coping abilities, as long as it means possibly scaring those kids into staying Christian. As I discovered myself, often indoctrination focuses on the lovey-dovey parts of Christianity until one fine day when kids are slammed up against the more gruesome or perverse parts of the religion–and the unspoken message is that yes, this is really what’s important to know.
And that’s really what’s going on here. Parents and Christian leaders are scaring kids in the hopes that they’ll grow up to stay in the religion–as their parents and grandparents did before them. When their kids protect themselves in the only way they know how, by bending knee and capitulating completely, parents, ministers, and filmmakers alike pat themselves on the back for saving souls for Jesus.
These capitulations are done out of terror rather than love, but Christians have always taken whatever capitulations they can get.
The Backfire of Affect.
But nowadays, we’re way less likely to be okay with underhanded, sneaky tactics aimed at selling us anything. We’re starting to see what’s going on when Christian groups try to sleaze and slime their way into public schools to indoctrinate schoolchildren. Kids themselves, born into that newest generation now called Gen Z, seem to be way more aware of what emotional manipulation looks like, especially in appeals like advertisements–and they’re rejecting that manipulation in greater numbers than ever before.
These kids are deception-proof, and that bodes very poorly indeed for a religion based entirely in deception.
Even Christians themselves know that a shakeup is coming their way. The world marveled in 2015 at how Millennials (the generation before Gen Z–the 30somethings of today) were “leaving church in droves.”
Then Gen Z showed up to tell everyone to hold their smartphones for a second so they could show us how rejecting religion is really done.
This coming generation is rejecting Christianity in greater numbers than any other age cohort ever has, and they’re doing it in a country where religion is already declining steadily in importance, membership, and power. In the UK, where Christianity began dissolving faster and earlier than in America, the number of young people who say they have “no religion” is even higher than it is here–71% of people between 18-25 gave that response in one survey (and that link’s pretty funny at the end, when a CofE bishop has to try to put some kind of optimistic face on the coming implosion of his entire religion).
It’s ironically fitting that the tactics that won so many conversions years ago are now the tactics that are spelling Christianity’s coming fall into total irrelevance.
The Chain of Pain Stops Here.
Any ideology that sells itself through fear is doing it because there is literally no other way it can gain buy-in. If a threat is asserted without evidence, it can be dismissed on the same grounds. A lot of folks find that once the terror is stripped out of Christianity, there ain’t much left worth embracing. And young people know this truth now better than they ever have.
Just think: we might be the last generations who could be swayed into religion through fear.
Christianity’s chain of pain might just stop here, and go no further.
I’m not even surprised by the backlash of older fundagelicals insulting, smearing, and bullying Gen Z kids. Of course that’s what they’re doing. They don’t speak the language these young people speak anymore. They’re selling baseless fears and demanding compliance, and they simply don’t have the power to force these kids to capitulate on that basis–not anymore.
Worse for them, I don’t see any way for them to regain that power. I can only laugh and cheer when I see how frustrated and angry older Christians get when they behold the sheer level of rejection going on here. The harder they try to clamp down, the harder they are rejected. And yet clamping down is all they know how to do. It’s ironic and it’s glorious and it’s not going to get any better for fundagelical fear-peddlers.
Join us next time as we lay to rest Prodigal Planet, the last of the ATITN movies. Make your popcorn and lay in the booze! Pre-movie post will go up earlier and then we can chat in comments there about the movie itself. I hope you’ll join me–see you then.
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