How “The Village” Illustrates Isolated, Fear-Based Homeschooling

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Eleanor Skelton’s blog The Girl Who Once Lived in a Box.  It was originally published on December 13, 2015.

I grew up in the Village.

The first time I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film, my head hurt and one of my roommates asked me if I was okay. I didn’t have words. Sometimes I find those books, those films that resonate so strongly with my own experience, that the bittersweet rush of knowing takes my breath away.

The Village became the movie that I showed all of my friends who’d been affected by a cult environment. As they started to question their high control group, I’d find a way to sneak a movie night with them.

It became our movie, something that we refer to when discussing our past.

There’s a few reasons for this:

1.) The whole thing was manufactured like a utopia to protect innocence.

Many of our parents chose homeschooling to create a new generation, protected from negative influences and intellectually superior to the rest of the world. But our parents grew up attending public schools, something we never experienced.

The elders in the Village came from the Towns, but none of their children can remember the outside world. This is the only life they know. Ivy Walker’s father says in a moment of crisis, “What was the purpose of our leaving? Let us not forget it was out of hope, of something good and right.”

When I was young, my dad told me his middle school classmates used to throw small knifes at each other in the playground and my mom remembers hash being passed around in bags around her Houston high school in the 70s. They and others who grew up in the 60s counterculture movement wanted a better life for their children and believed that removing them from the public schools was the answer.

Just like our parents often told us they’d done things they regretted growing up and we had a unique opportunity to be different, the elders in the Village keep a black box of memories, “so the evil of my past can be kept close and not forgotten.”

Mrs. Clark’s sister, Mrs. Hunt’s husband, and Mr. Walker’s father all died through violence and tragedy. Edward Walker tells his daughter Ivy, “It is a darkness I wished you would never know. There is not one person in this town who has not been so shaken that they questioned the value of living at all.” Ivy says, “I am sad for you, Papa, and for the other elders.”

2.) They sought protection from evil in the ways of the past. 

In The Village, a history professor decides to take a group of people and recreate 1840s pioneer America. In the 90s conservative Christian homeschooling movement, our moms taught us to sew our own clothes and we all wore homemade skirts and dresses.

We watched movies like Sheffey about itinerant preachers in the last century produced by Bob Jones University Films and read reprints of Victorian literature like Elsie Dinsmore and A Basket of Flowers from Lamplighter Press and Vision Forum.

I wore one of my pioneer dresses nearly every day when I was 12-14 and pretended that I lived in the colonial era. I checked out and devoured every historical book on the colonial period and Civil War that my mom would allow from the local library.

A friend once said, “I get why they wanted this life for you guys, they meant well. But it turned out to be the Little House on the Prairie fan convention from hell.”

3.) They used euphemisms and emotional repression to ward off what they most feared. 

Growing up homeschooled, we didn’t get sex education. Purity culture often adopted a “see no sexy things, hear no sexy things, speak no sexy things” approach. One of my friends never heard the words penis and vagina until college. I was told that dancing was basically “a vertical expression of a horizontal desire,” something to be avoided.

This kind of approach extended to anything considered “evil” or a “bad influence,” including peers, extended family members, and movies or TV shows with magic or profanities. Often, the avoidance became obsessive over time. The circle of safety was ever narrowing.

The settlers in The Village use phrases like “Those We Don’t Speak Of” to refer to the creatures in Covington Woods, or “The Old Shed That is Not To Be Used” for a shack on the edge of town. Red is the bad color, yellow is the safe color. In the opening scenes, two girls sweeping on a porch run out to the yard to uproot and bury a red flower.

Later, Ivy tells Noah, a young man with a mental disability, “This color attracts Those We Don’t Speak Of. You ought not to pick that color berry anymore.” When the villagers find skinned carcasses of livestock, the schoolchildren assume, “Those We Don’t Speak Of did it.”

The light as well as the darkness in humanity becomes repressed, and this affects romantic attraction. Ivy knows Lucius cares deeply for her but won’t act on it. She tells him, “Sometimes we don’t do things we want to do so that others won’t know we want to do them.”

There’s a parallel scene when Lucius tells his mother that Mr. Walker is in love with her.

“He hides, too. He hides his true feelings for you.”
“What makes you think he has feelings for me?”
“He never touches you.”

When Ivy chooses to travel through the woods in spite of the creatures, the other young men sent to protect her are too afraid to go against the rules. “Why have we not heard of these rocks before, why is it that you wear the cloak of the safe color? I cannot go with you, it is forbidden.”

We homeschoolers also had arbitrary rules and standards, always shifting according to the preferences of our authority figures. We were taught to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22) and that “it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret” (Eph 5:12).

Just like in many homeschool communities, Noah’s mental illness is dealt with by only natural remedies. Noah dies a monster, which seems to enable stigmatization of mental illness.

Noah becomes the example of what not to be for the other villagers. He becomes the creature, one of Those We Don’t Speak Of. He embodies the darkness that they sought to eliminate from their little world.

“Your son has made our stories real. Noah has given us a chance to continue this place if that is something we still wish for.”

But the one line that echoes in my mind when I think of how I grew up is this:

“I tell you this so you will see some of the reasons for our actions. Forgive us for our silly lies, Ivy, they were not meant to harm.”

No, it was not meant to harm. But it did.

17 comments

  • Loura Shares A Story

    I wonder if fundamentalism was the quiet inspiration for this film?

    • I think it’s more a composition on the searching of the American soul, taking the literary tradition of pastoralism as a reference point. It poses the question ‘where do we go to fix what’s wrong?’

      Compare it with Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, in which the characters flee the repressive polis for Forest of Arden, where everything turned out to be ‘as they liked it’ – safe, free, and amorous. But in Shyamalan’s take, he subverts the trope; the flight from corrupt order unveils the aboriginal corruption. Stripped of civilizational accoutrements, we can no longer blame them (as Rousseau did) for our shortcomings. Rather than enabling us, their removal renders the inherent flaws of the human condition with a reductive clarity. ‘The village’ is an illusion generated to avoid facing our individual and collective foibles.

  • I watched that film after reading this post on Eleanor’s blog. It seemed odd to me that the women had as much voice and leadership in the community meetings as the men. Most of the community set-up felt familiar from my exposure to the culture Eleanor describes. In contrast, the egalitarian leadership structure stood out as strange and almost puzzling. I guess it underscored to me, again, how much male leadership was emphasized in my growing up years.

    • Ooooh, this is a fair point. I know some homeschool communities had more of a matriarchy than a patriarchy, while I experienced a patriarchy, but the more egalitarian approach is not something I experienced, either.

      • Seems to kind of depend on strength of personality—the overall spoken philosophy was submit to dad/pastor/man, but my particular communities had very strong women who led and controlled everyone. The dads/men were spineless, wimpy “beta males.”

        I, too, never saw an egalitarian approach.

  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    Thanks! I need to see this film.

  • The first time I watched the Village with my husband (while I was pregnant, so about a year and a half ago) I loved it. He was horrified by it. He asked me why and I just couldn’t put it into words, but this does. It was something I could relate to, almost perfectly. Thank you to the author for articulating so well. ❤

  • I sat there dumbfounded watching it when i was 20 years old and married only a few months. It sounded so familiar and the correlation to everything I had just gone through as a teen was startling.

  • I loved this movie and so did my older kids! By then we had emerged from our most restrictive years and I could clearly see the connection. It’s time for the younger ones to see it now.

    It also reminds me of the children’s novel Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

  • This was a great article. I’d put out three other similarities:

    1. Evil rises not from the outsiders but from ourselves. All the isolationism of the Village didn’t stop the pain and suffering the villagers were suffering from. People like the Duggars thought that they could simply turn from their nature by repressing it only to find that it sprung up in themselves, not the people they stereotyped as wicked.

    2. It’s also a metaphor for the human mind. We build mental borders to protect ourselves and have a hard time accepting truth, even when we know it to be true. We also force ourselves to believe false things to keep our borders protected. In the Village, the borders were literal, and even when Ivy knew it to be a farce, she still had a hard time accepting that.

    3. Without too many spoilers, one of the “townsfolk” is actually extremely friendly and good-hearted. It is true that the world is generally a harsh place (IE the newspaper in the next to last scene), but there are also generous and beneficial people. Ivy said she had not expected to find kindness in the town – likewise, there are generous and good-hearted people outside of homeschooling communities as well.

  • The Village is a great film, one unfairly berated by critics who thought they were watching a thriller when in fact it was a discursive opus.

    Wayward Pines is another Shyamalan production with a similar premise that’s worth watching.

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  • Yes! Thank you! I went and watched this again and it made me so sad … but encouraged me that there is something you can see and go “Yes! That’s it! This is some of what I’m trying to say!”

  • I was stunned when I saw the movie. I started sobbing at the part where Ivy is first starting her journey and she is so deeply terrified, when there’s nothing there. THAT WAS ME.

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  • Pingback: Still the Freak Show | Whispers Into The Wind

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