Fear Changes Everything: The Mist and the Hospital Elevator

When I saw Frank Darabont’s The Mist in the theater, I came home in pieces. I had to hug my kids, hard. I didn’t want to let them out of my sight. I felt as if I’d been mugged, ambushed. Horror movies are supposed to be fun, right? I’d gone out expecting something amusingly schlocky, maybe on par with Dreamcatcher. What I got was the cinematic equivalent of a kick in the stomach, a heavy dose of real horror.

Perhaps I should have known better. Darabont has directed two previous King adaptations, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. There are several criticisms I could level at both of these movies, the worst of which is that both are rather smarmy in places, but I would never claim that either was poorly made.

For those of you who haven’t seen The Mist, the premise is fairly simple. A mysterious mist surrounds a small town grocery store, trapping a number of people inside. Worse yet, there are strange creatures in the mist intent on eating anyone who sets foot outdoors. It quickly becomes clear that the monsters are not the only problem, or even the most serious one. Over a period of forty-eight hours, the prisoners of the mist descend into irrationality and madness, lead by the local religious crazy, played with an awful gusto by Marcia Gay Harden. This is done so skillfully and in such elegant increments that when the prisoners turn to human sacrifice, it feels both unexpected and inevitable. Even when a small number of people who have retained their minds escape from the store, they are not immune to the powerful effects of fear. I don’t want to give anything away here, but the ending Darabont conceived for his film is even more shocking than King’s original.

When I stumbled home from the theater that day, it was not the thought of carnivorous critters that haunted me. Could my neighbors, my coworkers, my friends really be this way? Could I myself, if pushed to the edge of hysteria, really do such things? I knew the truth, though I would have denied it if I could. As stock clerk Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones) says in the movie, “As a species, we are fundamentally insane.”

I can hear, or at least imagine, a few of your muttering out there. “Come on, Dave. Two days from orderly checkout lines to human sacrifice? That would never happen. People aren’t like that.” For those of you who doubt, allow me to present a real life illustration from my childhood.

In a hospital, which I shall not name, there was an elevator. Unlike the other elevators in this frequently renovated building, this one dated to the original construction. And unlike the newer elevators, it was conveniently located to the office of my Peditrician. This elevator was painfully slow but serviceable. My mother and I never had reason to distrust it.

In the course of a visit to the doctor, my mother and I got onto the elevator as usual. Riding the elevator with us was a nurse. Working at this particular hospital, this nurse must have seen, on a daily basis, sick and even dying children, young victims of accidents and abuse, infants born too young to survive. Presumably, she must have dealt with these horrors with some measure of composure. The doors closed, and the elevator began to grind its way slowly upward. Somewhere between floors, the elevator began to shake. The floor, in fact the whole car, vibrated violently up and down to the accompaniment of a loud banging noise. The nurse, this detached caretaker of wounded children, fell to her knees and began to pray.

I’m not talking about a silent prayer for strength, either. Nor was this a swift prayer before leaping into action. The nurse wept. She moaned. She called upon Jesus to save us. Jesus dwelled in the elevator’s ceiling, evidently, if the direction of her gaze was any indication. She prayed loudly and thoroughly for rescue. She did nothing else.

In contrast, my mother immediately told me to sit on the floor with my back against a wall, then helped me to do so without falling over. She scanned the elevator’s controls and pushed the big red emergency stop button. The elevator stopped shaking, stopped moving entirely. The nurse continued to pray. With some difficulty, my mother pried open the inner elevator doors. We were exactly between floors. She pressed the call button.

A cheerful voice somewhere in the hospital assured us that the elevator had been doing this off and on all week, that it was nothing serious, that we could either switch the elevator back on and proceed safely but bumpily to the nearest floor or wait for a rescue party from security, whichever we liked. My mother looked at me, seated more or less calmly on the floor. “We don’t want to miss your appointment,” she said. I nodded. I was young, and my mom knew everything. She switched the emergency stop off and pressed the button for the next floor. The elevator began to bang and bump slowly upwards again. The wailing to Jesus continued.

When the elevator finally arrived, several uncomfortable minutes later, it took quite a while for the doors to open. When they did, we saw that we were at least a foot below the level of the floor. A security guard and an orderly gave us a hand out. The nurse was the first to leave the car. She scrambled out on unsteady legs, wiping at her ruined mascara with the back of one hand. She had fallen silent as the elevator doors slid open, and said nothing more to any of us. My mother and I took the stairs the rest of the way up. We were not late for my appointment. The whole experience had lasted no more than fifteen minutes.

I watched The Mist again recently on DVD. The film was no less wrenching the second time around, though I did notice more details. The film has some thematic similarities to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which I am teaching this semester, and I thought about showing certain scenes to my students. I brought this up in class today. No one seemed enthusiastic. Several students said that the movie was “bad.” None of them would elaborate, though I asked number of questions. The Mist was just “bad.” No further explanation necessary, or perhaps even possible. It didn’t matter. I understood.

David Hurwitz

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2 Responses to “Fear Changes Everything: The Mist and the Hospital Elevator”

  1. Oedipus Rex: The Hollywood Ending

    I think I understand why people think The Mist is “bad”. It has to do with how Hollywood has changed horror.

    Most horror movies these days have the Hollywood ending tacked on. This is where the beast is destroyed, the evil vanquished, and everyone goes back to life as normal (minus, perhaps, some key friends who were eaten or chopped up).

    Although this is not true to life, neither are these gruesome situations. Even such masterpieces like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, have the girl survive, albeit barely.

    Darabont, while filming The Mist, said he reached a point where he could go for the Hollywood ending, or simply end it realistically. His ending pushes past that of the original story by King (it ends with the characters driving into the mist).

    I think people react negatively to any story that does not have that hint of happiness at the ending. The idea of the Tragedy, heralded by the Greeks the supreme form of drama, seems to be lost on modern audiences. Stories like 1984, The Crucible, or Death of a Salesman, although praised for their literary qualities, do not make blockbuster movies.

    In that vein, I think if Oedipus Rex were filmed today, it might have Nicolas Cage as the lead (Sorry Nick, but you know you’d do it). After murdering his father, and causing the death of his mother, he would gouge his eyes out. Yet there would be some miraculous medical procedure, and he would regain his sight. Perhaps, his mother didn’t tie the noose right, and she too would live. Realizing their love should overcome all boundaries, they run off together to live with the Romans (they’re use to that sort of thing).

    Tim Kane

  2. I always thought ‘The Mist’ was an excellent movie, but then again this is a comment coming from a girl whose favorite movie is ‘Evil Dead’.

    Anywho, I guess I can see your point. Hollywood has changed horror to be something more grewsome and disgusting but I think that transition was made years ago. You still see eyes being slit with razors and zombies eating faces even 30 to 40 years before the making of high-budget low-thought productions. Perhaps the big difference is the effects and transition from chocolate syrup “blood” to the now more realistic blood smothered with bits and pieces of brains.

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