Some of you didn’t grow up thinking your neighbors were secret anti-Christians planning to chop off your head in the town square, and it shows.
I 100% believed that as a child, mostly because of a “technically-fiction-but-it’s-totally going-to-happen” movie series I was made to watch in church. It takes place in Des Moines, Iowa and includes this depiction of a woman being led to a blood-splattered guillotine by her fellow Iowans in the futuristic year of 1975, because she refused to renounce her faith in Christ:
That is from the A Thief in the Night series, one of the most popular film franchises ever made. The first movie, from 1972, has reportedly been seen by 300 million people (so more than the number who saw Avengers: Endgame in theaters worldwide). It also spawned a book series (the Left Behind novels, named after a line from the first movie) that has sold over 65 million copies — enough copies that if you were to stack them vertically, you would have a pile of books 65 million copies tall.
Some version of the above scene occurs over and over in these stories and if you’re thinking that it’s weird that the church was exposing children to this kind of thing, don’t worry — the films themselves actually explain why it’s necessary. It’s in the third movie where the anti-Christian forces tell a captive Iowan they will execute a toddler unless the man gives up the location of the boy’s mother, a Christian who is still at large. The man responds by telling the boy to go out and accept his death.
“Billy, you’re free … ” he says, “they’re going to take you outside and lay you down. Now you close your eyes and tell them you love Jesus no matter what.” Don’t worry, we don’t actually see the child get his head chopped off, we merely see his blood splattered on the guillotine when the man is led out to his own execution a moment later:
These movies begin and end with Bible quotes stating this anti-Christian genocide absolutely will happen, and that it will happen soon and without warning. The takeaway for me and my fellow Sunday School pupils was that all of the people we saw on the street — including some members of our own church — were ready to murder us the very second it was made legal. Welcome to Upsetting Day, motherfucker!
I’m not saying this is the reason I didn’t have a lot of friends in school, but I do think it was part of the reason, in addition to me constantly saying things like, “You’re punishing me for being five minutes late to class, but I thought you counted from the time my dick came through the door, not my balls!” and “Excuse me, I know you guys are busy playing kickball right now but I wanted to let you know that I’m not trying to smuggle a kielbasa and two ostrich eggs in these lycra shorts, that’s my dick and balls!” and “Mike Tyson is accusing me of embezzling money from him because he heard I was Dong King!.”
I also realize this Evangelical Christian End Times stuff is old news to that segment of the HOTDOG readership that remembers keeping a porn stash in the woods. For everyone else, I guess I’m going to have to step back and explain some basic theology. You see, some people’s worldview can be wholly represented by those peeing Calvin stickers you see on the back of pickup trucks: “Everyone outside of my tribe exists only to get coated in gallons of my spite-piss.”
Or, if you want Bill Watterson to actually get royalties from this reference, you can go with this actual Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin becomes so frustrated with the world that he shouts, “I WISH I WAS DEAD!” but then, after a moment of contemplation, revises it to:
This is why I have personally coined this belief system “Calvinism.” There are many different flavors within it and, as you can imagine, the adherents to each bitterly hate each other. But the core belief is that Jesus Christ will return soon and teleport a tiny faction of True Christians from the earth, leaving everyone else behind to die horribly via disease, starvation and worldwide genocide. This event — called the “rapture” — will be a wonderful and good thing and we should do everything we can to facilitate it. As of 2010, 41% of Americans believed the rapture would occur by 2050.
I’m not here to yell at people for their religious beliefs. I think we’ve all got a little Calvin in us and if tomorrow God tore open the sky and announced that he not only exists but has decided humanity has earned a thorough ass-beating, I think all of us would just nod to each other and say, “Yeah, that seems right.” No, I’m here to talk specifically about A Thief in the Night and why it and its sequels wreaked havoc on my young brain, back when I was an impressionable child who made every clothes shopping trip a nightmare for my mother (“It’s weird, Mom, because these pants are also too tight in the crotch! Oh, that someone, anyone, could finally tame this feral hog!”)
The first film opens with a young woman in Des Moines named Patty waking up to a radio news report announcing that millions of people have just spontaneously vanished, leaving vehicles and lawnmowers alike unattended:
The news reader speculates that perhaps the rapture has occurred. Patty then rushes into the bathroom to find that her Christian husband is among those who’ve been raptured and Patty realizes, to her horror, that she has been Left Behind. To have any chance at Heaven, she knows she must reject the rule of the coming Antichrist and die horribly in the process.
“Wait,” you might ask, “wouldn’t all of the children be raptured too, since they can’t really be good or evil?” Nope! If they had been, then the news report would have been something to the tune of, “Folks, every child on earth has just been kidnapped with magic. We’re apparently all just waiting on the wizard’s ransom demand and/or for Batman to learn the location of his lair. It seems like some Evangelicals might also be missing, so maybe somebody can follow up on that once the actual problem is solved.”
Next, we flash back to pre-rapture days for forty minutes of scenes demonstrating why exactly Patty deserved to get Left Behind along with all of the billions of Muslims, Buddhists, atheists etc. We watch as she encounters every form of religious belief one could find in 1972 Des Moines, from passionate hardcore Christians who are destined to be saved, to only somewhat passionate Christians whose souls are doomed. We find out Patty was the latter: she went to church, read her Bible and was an all-around good person, but she had skipped an important ritual along the way, so, guillotine.
We then cut back to present-day Patty listening to the morning news broadcast. The news reader says that in a few hours, the United Nations will be holding a press conference to announce that, as a result of a few million American Christians disappearing, all world governments have been disbanded. The former USA, Soviet Union, China, Japan, the UK, the entire Middle East etc — have all agreed to put aside their differences to form UNITE, the United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency.
If this seems implausible, remember part of Calvinism is the belief that everyone outside of your sect secretly worships Satan and the religions they claim to follow are just elaborate lies to cover this fact. With the True Christians gone, there is therefore nothing stopping them from uniting under the flag of Evil. Sure enough, within days, citizens around the world, and Des Moines, volunteer to join this godless authoritarian world government and don its red armbands. Feel free to spend the rest of the day listing all of the ways the historical parallel they’re trying to draw there doesn’t work. I’m … just really not up to it right now.
They announce that everyone will be required to declare their allegiance to this government with a tattoo that is placed on the forehead or the back of the hand — an act that Patty knows will actually mark the wearer for an eternity in Hell. She is now part of a tiny, hated minority who resists the mark. She goes on the run, getting chased through the streets by UNITE’s version of the SS (two guys in a crudely painted van, due to budget limitations) …
… but she is ratted out by a pair of her wishy-washy Christian friends who, like most moderate/skeptical Christians, immediately accepted the mark. Take special note of this because therein lies the real message of these movies.
In the climax of the first film, Patty jumps off a dam to her death to escape pursuit … only to wake up and realize it was all a dream. Then she hears her clock radio click on with that same news report about the rapture having just occurred and realizes it wasn’t a dream — it was a vision intended to warn her! But the warning came just seconds before the thing she was being warned about actually occurred, rendering the vision and its lessons moot. Sometimes God likes to pull these little pranks on people.
The second film thus begins with Patty in a facility awaiting her execution along with the smattering of other Christians who are still refusing to pledge allegiance to the godless world government. The others ask how she got there and she is forced to explain she first had a dream that all of her neighbors betrayed her to the forces of the antichrist, then she woke up and all of those events in her dream happened for real, only slightly different (her wishy-washy Christian friends who betrayed her in the dream betrayed her again in real life, just in a different way). Then she gets her head chopped off and the credits roll.
There are four movies in the series but that’s pretty much the template. Some substandard Christians who were Left Behind try to stand up to the genocidal anti-Christian power structure, only to be betrayed by their fellow Des Moinesiacs over and over. From former friends who radio in their position to the Death Squads …
… to secretaries at clinics who coldly turn away panicked Christian mothers with sick babies because they don’t bear the mark …
… every ally and friend turns out to be a collaborator in disguise. This is the theme these movies hit over and over again. We’re already living in an Invasions of the Body Snatchers scenario, they say, and all of your neighbors are pod people who pretend to be decent and kind but will happily murder you and your children at some point in the actual future.
That, right there, is the part that broke some part of me, so that I wound up carrying around this misanthropy even while amusing classmates in school with my Chandler impression (“Could my boner BE any more succulent?”). If you live with the belief that everyone else is secretly a shithead, it’s strategically smart to just be a shithead to them as a preemptive strike.
But I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of this. I obviously grew up to be a well-adjusted adult and I certainly can find no evidence that Evangelical tribalism or malignant conspiracy-mongering has any impact on American society today. I give the A Thief in the Night series three stars out of five.
Jason “David Wong” Pargin is the ex-executive editor at Cracked.com and is now a full time novelist, his violent sci-fi adventure Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick is up for pre-order now! Or buy one of his previous books, they’re all pretty good.