Aug 27, 2013

Evangelicalism's Hitchcock: Russell S. Doughten Jr., 1927 - 2013

Russell S. Doughten, Jr., a film producer who influenced evangelicals' relationship to movies, died last week. He was 86.

The pivotal moment of Doughten's life came during the premier of the 1968 film he produced, Fever Heat, a stock car racing movie starring Nick Adams. As the film was showing, as Doughten later recalled, he felt convicted he wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing. He wanted to make movies that were meaningful, and had a purpose, not thrillers with tag lines like "I'm a woman, Ace. And I do everything women do ..."

Doughten watched and thought, "This is a nice film, people are enjoying it and all, but it doesn't lift up Jesus Christ."

He had started in evangelical movie making in the 1950s, working on children's gospel programs for television and low-budget productions for the fundamentalist evangelist Percy Crawford, who founded The King's College and started the nations' first coast-to-coast religious TV broadcast. Then in 1957, Doughten joined the production of the sic-fi classic, The Blob. According to Jeff Sharlet's book, The Family, the idea for the film was thought-up at a National Prayer Breakfast, and was backed by right wing religious businessmen. They saw the gooey monster as a metaphor for Communism, and the film as a way to spread the message about the dangers of that ideology. That may be true, but Doughten saw the film as secular, and saw himself as turning away from religious movies.

"I was thinking," he recalled, "that I needed to make secular films in order to master the technique, the nature of film."

After The Blob, though, and then producing The Hostage in 1967, about a boy who stows away on a moving truck driven by criminals, and Fever Heat in 1968, Doughten was done with secular cinema.

Doughten joined with Iowa evangelical Don Thompson shortly thereafter to make evangelical dramas. Doughten recalled that he was approached by Thompson, who said he was a Christian and said, "I think the Lord wants me to make Christian films for Him." It echoed Doughten's own desire. In 1972, they founded Mark IV Productions and made A Thief in the Night for $68,000, with Thompson directing and Doughten producing. 

Amy Frykholm, who writes on religion and culture and extensively studied the audience for another evangelical apocalyptic phenomenon, Left Behind, writes that A Thief in the Night was groundbreaking:
The script follows a young woman named Patty from her introduction to the idea of the rapture through its occurrence and horrific aftermath. After discovering that her husband and nearly all of her friends have been taken up in to heaven, Patty faces the chilling prospect of surviving under the communist-like regime of the Antichrist, called in the film UNITE. The regime searches for her after she refuses to accept the 'Mark of the Beast' on her forehead. (One of the characters in the film describes the mark as a 'superevil credit card' that is inscribed on the forehead or hand.) The horror of the film is enhanced by Patty's femininity -- she is blond, shown in soft lights, at once utterly vulnerable and inexplicably stubborn -- playing on a trope common to the horror genre. Patty stands in for a childlike fear, a horrifying realization of defenselessness. She spends most of the last half of the film running from men in white vans and in helicopters, until the film ends with her betrayal into the hands of UNITE.
Though many of the end-time images and themes are familiar now, they were startling in 1972. "It was the first film of its kind," Frykholm writes, "a Christian horror flick that applied the tropes of science fiction and horror to an end-times scenario."

Unlike Left Behind, which is conceived of as an action thriller, Doughten and Thompson imagined their characters as facing horrific, inevitable ends. Patty is relentlessly hunted down, and then, in a subsequent film, killed with a guillotine while begging to be given the "Mark of the Beast." She's shown pleading and trying to escape while the latch holding the blade slowly, slowly releases. The pacing, the mounting tension, is strikingly similar to what one sees in The Blob.

Religious historian Randall Balmer, who grew up in the church where Thompson attended, writes that "You needn't sympathize with the message to be moved by the story .... If the plot is a bit obvious in places, it's also quite compelling."

It was, by all accounts, especially compelling to the many, many children who watched it and the three sequels in youth groups and church camps across America. The film wasn't shown in theaters, but distributed through a completely alternative network of evangelical churches and youth organizations. There are no solid numbers on how many people have seen the film, though estimates range as high as 300 million. In the '70s, the Christian Film Distributors' booked as many at 1,500 showings of A Thief in the Night per month, all exclusively at church-related events. There were reportedly even more showings around Halloween. By the mid-'80s, the film had earned more than $4 million.

In Shaking the World for Jesus, a study of evangelical engagements with media, Heather Hendershot writes that "Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience." Fred Clark, of the blog Slacktivist, recalls that he was one of those children who converted after watching the second film in the series -- kind of. Clark writes, "The guillotines I remember ... I knew I was already born-again and saved by my personal savior Jesus Christ, but I still 'went forward' at the altar call afterward to re-re-re-dedicate my life to Christ, just to be sure. And then I still had nightmares."

Whether it provoked a conversion or not, the film was a source of childhood terror for many. On the film's Internet Movie Database page, more than a few reviewers recall being forced to watch the film as a child:
  • I was saved before I saw this movie and the rest of the series and was forced to watch it in a youth group at my church. This movie was highly disturbing. I saw it when I was about 12 years old and literally had nightmares about it for years. I used to lay awake in bed and listen for the sounds of my mom's footsteps upstairs. If I didn't hear her footsteps, I would sneak upstairs to make sure she hadn't been raptured. I used to pray so hard every night for salvation because I was terrified of Jesus forgetting me. 
  • I was so young, innocent and BRAINWASHED when I saw it, this movie was the cause of many sleepless nights for me.
  • I can't recall how old I was -- had to have been less than 8 years old but older than 4. After watching it with my parents, it haunted me for the longest time.
  • I was of the tender age of 6, my brother 4, then again when I was 8 my brother 6. This movie terrified my brother and I .... I am now 40 years old. Went through years of counseling. I once explained to a psychiatrist this movie and the belief system of the church and family. I was pegged with a delusional disorder. I actually began to believe this, it was my brother who reminded me, that this cultic philosophy actually happened.
  • I saw this movie at the age of 12 or 13. Yes, it was scary BUT it served to make real the teaching I had learned in church.
A film historian described the film to Frykholm as being as effective as Hitchcock, "but on a much cheaper budget."

Doughten, for his part, justified the terror of the film as faithful to the Bible. He told Balmer that "If you take seriously what's being said there, it's frightening. And it ought to be. All we've tried to do in the films is to put these things revealed in the Scripture into a dramatic setting."

In another interview, he noted that his particular understanding of the biblical eschatology came from the 1918 book Dispensational Truth, by Clarence Larkin. Larkin, a Baptist pastor with a background in mechanical engineering, popularized the teaching of premillennial dispensationalism with charts. The charts purported to show the overarching order of human history laid out in the Bible. In one, for example, Larkin showed how the seven days of Creation corresponded to the seven 1,000-year periods of human history, i.e., dispensations. Larkin also promoted the idea of a rapture of true believers preceding the rise and reign of the Antichrist. On his timeline, he marked Antichrist's reign as the seven years preceding the year 2000, with the rapture occurring immediately before that.

Doughten wash't committed to the exact details of the schema, but agreed with the scriptural interpretation, and found the whole thing compelling.

"After I'd been a Christian for three or four years," Doughten told Balmer, "I began to get drawn into those things, and I began to look into the prophetic writings and decided that if the Lord is really sincere about these things, then what's coming is absolutely staggering."

In the films, Doughten plays a liberal minister, Rev. Matthew Turner, who's not really a Christian because he doesn't believe the Bible. He rejects the Creation account as a myth, and refuses to believe the Bible's apocalyptic predictions. Notably, the minister also has an elaborate chart of the prophecy timeline, but still doesn't get it. 

If Doughten's work had a theological impact, it was in helping to establish a particular eschatology as the standard belief among evangelicals. While not all evangelicals hold to the specific theology of premillennial dispensationalism, the popularity of depictions of the rapture, the Antichrist and the tribulation have made it something of the default position. Doughten was also significant in drawing out the drama in the doctrines -- the terror, the horror tropes, but also the narrative structure implicit in Larkin's charts.

The impact of the film went far beyond theology, though. Perhaps the most important and lasting effect of Doughten's work was to expose millions of young people to the power of film. He activated imaginations, showed how fiction could serve pedagogical ends, and made the case for how compelling this sort of engagement with culture could be. There had been popular evangelical films before, notably the dramatization of David Wilkerson's best-selling book, The Cross and the Switchblade. Most of these films, however, were based-on-a-true story affairs that stuck to the structure of the testimony, a narrative form with a long tradition in evangelicalism. Doughten opened evangelicals to the possibilities of other forms of story telling.

Fictional narratives, Doughten argued, had the potential to powerfully move people. "God," Doughten said, "works through a film."

Doughten's apocalyptic films affected horror aficionado Marc Patterson, who has written they were his first exposure to the genre, and Marilyn Manson, who saw the film at his Christian school. In his autobiography, Manson said the film began his obsession with the Antichrist. Doughten's work also influenced Steven Isaac, an evangelical film and TV critic for Focus on the Family, and the producers of the Left Behind films, Paul and Peter Lalonde. Who knows how many others were influenced by viewing of A Thief in the Night and its three sequels?

"It is only a slight exaggeration," Balmer writes, "to say that A Thief in the Night affected the evangelical film industry the way that sound and color affected Hollywood."

Doughten was an important part of the transformation of American evangelicals at the end of the 20th century. He powerfully affected evangelicals' relationship to film, and was a strong voice for cultural engagement. 

He died on Monday, August 19, in Carlilse, Iowa, after a long fight with a kidney ailment.