The Walt Disney Productions movie, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), directed by Jack Clayton and written by Ray Bradbury (based on his novel), serves as an excellent specimen for a semiotic analysis because every character and several of the scenes are representative of multiple ideologies.
Most of the characters in the film are representative of the seven deadly sins. Charles Halloway (Jason Robards), the narrator’s father, could be representative of the sloth/despair sin as he is a tired and regretful old man who feels like a failure and a victim of time. Other side characters represent sins such as: lust, greed, pride, wrath, gluttony, and envy. One by one the character Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his bizarre yet appealing carnival begin to pick these characters off and enslave them as they give into their temptations and carry out their sinful ways.
Mr. Dark is a very interesting character who seems to represent Satan himself. During the climax of the movie, we learn that Dark and his carnival come from a group called ‘the autumn people.’
Charles Halloway: I know who you are. You are the autumn people. Where do you come from? The dust. Where do you go to? The grave.
Mr. Dark: Yes. We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well.
Charles Halloway: To stuff yourselves on other people’s nightmares.
Mr. Dark: And butter our plain bread with delicious pain. So, you do understand a little.
Indeed, the parallels are obvious between Dark’s character and the forces of evil, and we watch him go through a variety of tactics to enslave his victims. To the characters who fall into temptation willingly and without any resistance, Mr. Dark masqueraded as a sort of “angel of light.” At one point he used fear to try and persuade the Narrator, Will (Vidal Peterson), to abide with him. He also taunts and teases and uses lies and deceit. These are all tactics used by Satan to lure us into temptation and to capture us in sin. Temptation is his weapon, which is represented by the glittering and surreal carnival.
Death is also Mr. Dark’s weapon, which is represented by the Dust Witch that masquerades as a beautiful temptress (Pam Grier). Mr. Dark has a carousel that doubles as a age-machine in which he may turn back the clock or accelerate it, while the passenger(s) reaps the outcomes by becoming younger or older. Once the characters fall for Mr. Dark’s charms and temptations, he enslaves them in his parade in which they are like entranced zombies.
The main characters are the narrator, who is the young boy Will, and Charles Halloway, his aging father. Will represents the voice of reason even though he is only 12 years old. In doing so, the movie supports this Biblical truth:
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)
Will sees his father’s depression and wants for him to stop putting the weight of guilt and regrets on his shoulders, which is what everyone wants for their loved ones. However, I also think Mr. Halloway’s character is relatable because he feels he is a victim of time, which consumes him with guilt and hatred for himself. He wishes for a second chance and sometimes wishes he could live for eternity. Mr. Halloway is a fearful man, which is the root of his regrets. By allowing fear to consume him, his son Will had almost drowned years before and Mr. Halloway has not shaken the pain from that regret. Ironically, the man who did pull Will from the water was actually a pitiful, drunken excuse for a father, which only magnified Will’s father’s shame even more.
As we realize the characters’s temptations, we must ask ourselves, at what point does temptation become sin, and, once one gives into temptation and indulges themselves in sin, is their a point of redemption? Can one travel down the road of temptation, deeper and deeper into sin, and yet still have an option to turn back?
Mr. Dark’s most eerie attraction is his Mirror Maze, which is absolutely full of semiotics as it represents the pinnacle of full indulgence in sin. Will has been captured by Dark and imprisoned in the mirror along with the other characters that are in bondage to sin. Despite Mr. Halloway’s fearful disposition, and though his last encounter was brushed with death, he musters the courage to face Dark again. He freely elects to enter the maze in hopes of rescuing his son. While in the maze, Dark taunts and mocks him. He sees what has become of the other characters that are lost in the maze of sin.
An interesting concept to explore here is the symbolism of the mirrors: they reflect and represent a deeper and unavoidable look into ourselves where all fears are brought to the forefront and we must confront all of the ugly and terrifying inner demons within us. This is exactly what happens to Will’s father. The Dust Witch temptress seductively leans on Mr. Halloway, pleading with him to accept despair and defeat. Just as he begins to give in to death and fear, Will begins to call for his father. He repetitively shouts the words ‘I love you,’ in hopes that his father will latch onto those words that breed hope and encouragement.
Here in this key moment, Will’s father can accept himself for what he is and let go of the regrets. Secondly, he realizes that any life, at any age, regardless of the past mistakes or old wishes, can be redeemed.
Then, the powerful part happens: the strength that love provides was enough for Will’s father to face his demons and shatter the mirror and thereby shattering his doubts and fears, enabling him to reach his son. Death begins to wither and flee and Dark is outraged. This scene makes the statement that love in sacrifice is strong enough to defeat fear and death, which as Christians we believe to be true as well.
The battle isn’t over as Dark snatches up Will’s best friend, Jim Nightshade, and begins to persuade him to join his forces. Will and his father manage to rip Jim away from Dark’s menacing grip but it seems to leave a severe impact on the boy as he seems to be dead. Will begins to give in to grief believing Jim to be dead until Will’s father, uncharacteristically, orders Will not to despair or to cry because that only gives Dark more power. Instead, he tells him to rejoice and sing praises; therefore Dark has nothing to feed on and cannot grow more powerful. Dark withers away into dust.
This movie is a powerful representation of Christian beliefs. It speaks volumes of the deadliness of sin, temptation, and fear. Those roads only lead to death. However, Christ’s love and power has defeated the grave and robbed Death of its power. I think this movie did an excellent job of visually representing this truth through storytelling.