Why The Happening (2008) never explains its killer virus

2008 disaster movie The Happening is widely and largely disliked. Here’s why that’s not the full story.

What is The Happening about?

When New Yorkers start dying en masse – killing themselves in gruesome ways – the authorities suspect a terrorist attack. Science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and wife Alma (Zoey Deschanel) are caught up in the rush to evacuate. Together with other survivors, they race to stay ahead of an invisible killer.

Is The Happening a film in search of a genre?

Like sci-fi disaster movie Knowing, Shyamalan’s The Happening doesn’t get a lot of love.

Kim Newman writing in Empire in 2009 even called Knowing an M. Night Shyamalan film – as a nod to its failings. Value judgements aside, there’s some truth to the comparison.

Both movies tell a bleak story about extinction. Both lack traditional closure, because there’s no escape from the threats they portray. And it’s hard to truly like either because of the way they jump between genres and subvert the genre rules audiences have come to rely on.

The Happening is a broad mix of science fiction and disaster movie. It contains elements of plague and zombie stories. And – of course – the heart of the movie is about love and family.

These multiple strands make it tricky to know where the film is going and why. It also leaves many questions unresolved at the end, perhaps deliberately but also … perhaps not.

Many movies successfully mash-up multiple genres. That The Happening is a mongrel isn’t its greatest or only fault – yet there are moments where viewers are left hanging.

The Happening isn’t about bees or the mysterious toxin. It’s about a mood ring.

What’s the source of the toxin?

We never find out where the toxin comes from, or why – because it’s not important. The idea of the invisible, airborne toxin is a MacGuffin: a plot device that sets the story in motion.

Hitchcock described the MacGuffin (or McGuffin) as something that the characters care deeply about, but the audience doesn’t – the stolen $40,000 in Pyscho, for example.

S3 Ep17 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine references an award from the M.C. Guffin Foundation, which kickstarts a subplot about making a movie.

The toxin – or more specifically, its effects – is the movie’s inciting incident. It’s why people are on the run and in danger.

However, the film is more interested in how they respond to and change ‘at the precipice’ (The Day the Earth Stood Still). The Happening isn’t a sci-fi, horror or disaster movie so much as a character study.

That’s why the toxin is never fully explained.

Instead, there are speculations: terrorism, plants, pollution, water contamination and a nuclear leak. While ‘Nature fighting back’ feels most convincing, it’s never confirmed. Rather, we see the characters responding to their own theories.

One theory is that plants are fighting back against human pollution and over-population. So when two groups converge at the Clear Hill show homes, they trigger the toxin and die.

Yet later on, Mrs Jackson is alone when she’s attacked. Jess’s dad Julian also dies while in a small group.

This is a pretty good horror movie mechanism. We don’t know who the killer is, why it kills, and who will die next. Instead, the film shows us juxtaposed images – trees and bushes moving in the breeze, the wind whistling through a gap – and we draw our own conclusions.

Because the toxin is never explained, it’s not cured, either. The film runs in a never-ending loop: the final scene is the same as the opening one.

There’s no escape and, as with Knowing, this feels like a con, especially having just seen Elliot and Alma celebrating a baby on the way.

Mental health and grief

As with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, The Happening relies on a kind of Deus Ex Machina. The toxin runs rampant for 24-hours, then just … stops. It’s a convenience that wraps up plots (or plays, where the term originates).

It’s the same tactic you find in kids’ stories that end ‘it was just a dream, and then I woke up’ – though author Cormac McCarthy also uses it at the end of No Country for Old Men.

Despite this, the toxin isn’t a throwaway concept. It introduces substantial themes that Shyamalan returns to repeatedly: grief and mental health.

The suicides in the film are incomprehensible and upsetting. Together with the unexplained toxin, these deaths make no sense – yet that is how we often experience grief and loss. Death feels unfair, inhumane and out of the blue, which is also how it’s experienced in The Happening.

Likewise, humans have historically responded to mental illness really poorly, either punishing, abusing or ignoring those who need help.

Shyamalan touches on this – and on our ‘repulsion’ to mental illness – far more explicitly in The Visit, and to some extent in Split.

Perhaps Shyamalan’s films could be said to be searching for or giving meaning to awful things like death and illness. See also Signs, with Mel Gibson’s grieving widower and the incredible coincidences that all align at the end of the movie.

Shyamalan’s films often feel like they’re playful of and with storytelling devices – a fact that can get lost when the stories themselves are so dark.

What happens to the bees?

Science teacher Elliot tells his class that millions of bees have just vanished without trace. Moments later, we hear the first reports of a terrorist attack. We’re also shown a quote, attributed to Einstein, that:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.”

There’s no proof Einstein ever said this. The bees – and the quote – is another storytelling device. It foreshadows the coming disaster, one which can’t fully be explained.

The bee discussion is a way for Elliot’s class – and us – to think about “an act of Nature, and we’ll never full answer it”. Their discussion mimics the movie to come: a strange event followed by many theories but no definitive answer.

That said, the film pursues a number of related ecological issues.

One character describes how plants evolve rapidly to deal with threats. A TV expert likens the toxin to a red tide that kills humans instead of fish.

Incidentally, this TV segment repeats that it may be “an act of nature – we’ll never fully understand it”, bringing the MacGuffin full circle.

The final message is that the 24-hour toxin is a prelude. It’s a warning that humans threaten the survival of the planet – and the planet will fight back. Likewise, the film ends with the return of the virus.

The film also references over-population, with the suggestion that the toxin [mostly] strikes whenever people gather together. The irony is that human nature makes people dangerous, whether they’re in groups or alone.

The paranoid loner who shoots Josh and Jared, for instance, as well as Mrs Jackson. The ‘unsafe bolt hole’ crops up a lot in disaster movies. Like Tim Robbins’ hideaway in War of the Worlds, Mrs Jackson’s home represents the unreliable refuge – and the threat that lurks inside all humans.

What does the mood ring mean?

The Happening isn’t about bees or the mysterious toxin. It’s about a mood ring.

OK, it’s not – but the mood ring symbolises a key theme in the movie: love, marriage and family.

When they flee their home, Elliot grabs the mood ring first. Later we learn he bought it on his first date with Alma. It represents the way he feels about her, even while their marriage is on rocky ground.

And the movie doesn’t end with the disappearance of the toxin. It ends as a love story, with Elliot and Alma declaring they’d rather die than be apart. Surrendering to death (Elliot speculates) is what saves them.

Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan takes a cameo in each of his films. In The Happening, he plays the voice of Joey, the guy who keeps calling Alma.

Like many mainstream movies, The Happening puts its characters in pursuit of love and family.

The Moores need to fix their marriage. On route they gain a daughter in Jess – a child who resolves Alma’s flightiness. As Julian tells her, “don’t you take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it.” At the end of the film, they get a child of their own as well.

Like any romance, the film has comedy elements, too. There are open jokes, such as Elliot talking to a rubber plant. There are wry jokes, such as Alma panicking about having tiramisu with Joey, and Elliot’s fictional revenge against a pharmacist.

There’s even a take on the backwoods farmer threatening to shoot strangers on his land (‘get offa my porch’) – except here, he follows through, executing two children in the process.

This is at least partly why The Happening isn’t memorable for its comedy. It’s a dark film with a cynical message about humanity – and a sense of humour to match.

The Happening (2008), directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Films like The Happening
  • The Village, Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (Shyamalan)
  • Signs (Shyamalan, grief)
  • Split, The Visit (Shyamalan, mental health)
  • The Shining (horror, mental health)
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (humanity at fault and under peril)
  • Knowing, War of the Worlds (humanity under peril)
  • The Day after Tomorrow (Disaster movie, ecology)
  • Contagion, Songbird (Plague movies, human stories)

Picture credit: Bianca Ackermann