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I hadn’t heard the song that opens the 1972 Christian apocalyptic film  A Thief in the Night in decades, and my impression of it was: slow, dull, bizarre, not catchy at all. I watched the first five minutes on YouTube, through the church meeting where an early-era praise band sings “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The song, which was one of the first contemporary Christian pop hits, describes the terrible things that will take place during the end times, with a refrain that laments, “there’s no time to change your mind/the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.” As I watched, I could not help but laugh at the film’s campy quality and poor acting. Then I turned it off, and I could not get the song out of my head. The hypnotic rhythms lodged themselves in my brain and there I was, making a piece of toast, with the refrain repeating itself relentlessly.  

A Thief in the Night is a cult classic, where the word “cult” has more than one resonance. If you have seen it, the setting was likely a church basement, a church camp, or some other quasi-authoritative space where the film’s sermonizing might have been accompanied by an earnest youth pastor worried for your soul. The film was released in 1972 and marks its 40th anniversary this year. It has influenced a generation of Christians reared in the 1970s and 80s. To date, the movie has been seen by perhaps more than 50 million people worldwide; others estimate as high as 300 million. (Because viewing and distribution has largely been through alternative mechanisms, an accurate accounting is impossible.) “Today, many teen evangelicals have not seen A Thief in the Night, but virtually every evangelical over thirty I’ve talked to is familiar with it, and most have seen it,” writes Heather Hendershot in her book Shaking the World for Jesus. Political scientist Paula Booke of Hope College, who wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on the influence of premillennial eschatology on American politics, recalls seeing the film at her small church in Jamaica in the late 1980s as a part of the church’s youth outreach. The showings were big cultural events for her, always capped by an emotional altar call.

The film had an enormous impact on evangelical culture and shaped its attempts to influence American popular culture more directly through music, film, and books. Religion scholar John Walliss, who has written extensively on the movie and its aftermath, says, “Just as Alfred North Whitehead said that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, so we might say that all of evangelical Christian film is a footnote to A Thief in the Night.” This film inspired people from across the political and social spectrum. Marilyn Manson, who like so many saw the film at church as a child, wrote in his autobiography The Long Road Out of Hell, “I was thoroughly terrified by the idea of the end of the world and the Antichrist. So I became obsessed with it, watching movies like … A Thief in the Night, which described very graphically people getting their heads cut off because they hadn’t received 666 tattoos on their forehead.” At the other end of the social spectrum, young Christian filmmakers Peter and Paul LaLonde likewise saw the film as children, and later founded Cloud Ten Pictures, which produced the Left Behind: The Movie, which was adapted from Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ massively popular book.

 A Thief in the Night draws its power from anxieties playing just below the surface of American life. It was the first film of its kind: a Christian horror flick that applied the tropes of science fiction and horror to an end-times scenario. The central premise of the movie is the “rapture,” a concept drawn from a particular strain of Christianity, which believes Jesus will return to earth at any moment to secretly rapture or take up the truly faithful to heaven. Everyone else will be left behind to face a catastrophic period under the rule of the Antichrist before the actual end of the world. Scholars label this view of the Bible “dispensational premillennialism.” “Dispensational” refers to the belief that God has divided human history into particular ages, or dispensations; “premillennialism” refers to the understanding that such devastation will occur before Jesus’ ultimate victory, which leads to Christ’s 1000-year reign (or millennium) on earth.

The rapture and the apocalypse have had a powerful effect on the nation’s imagination and identity since the country’s inception, as well as playing an important part of American missionary strategy to other countries. Since the Puritan era, Americans have wondered if they are either phenomenally blessed or on the brink of a God-ordained disaster. “Within the first decade of settlement” on the American continent, Sacvan Bercovitch writes in his classic The American Jeremiad, “the clergy were already thundering denunciations of a backsliding people.” Bercovitch argues that the tensions between American ambitions and fear of disaster drove the culture forward from the outset.

Through the popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible, especially its extensive notes on the Book of Revelation, the concepts of the rapture and apocalypse were folded into early twentieth-century Christian fundamentalism. In The Late, Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, Hal Lindsay correlated the rise of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the state of Israel, and other geopolitical events with apocalyptic biblical passages. Though originally released by the Christian publisher Zondervan, Lindsay’s book was quickly picked up by “secular” booksellers, and through the 1970s and 1980s, tens of millions of copies were sold. In the 1990s, LaHaye and Jenkins turned Lindsay’s biblical hermeneutics of world affairs into a series of fictionalized end times accounts. With 16 books published, TV and movie spinoffs—even a children’s series and video games—the Left Behind series made the apocalypse big business and made LaHaye a major political leader on the Religious Right.

A THIEF IN THE NIGHT WAS THE FIRST and most famous of four films made by a group called “Mark IV Pictures” during the 1970s and 80s that included director Don Thompson and producer Russell Doughten. Doughten, who learned the film industry from working on The Blob and other B-movies in Hollywood, moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to open his own Christian movie studio with the explicit intent to use low-budget film to evangelize. Though it only cost $68,000 to make, the gross for the filmmakers was in the millions.

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.

All of this might just be a low-budget, poorly-acted, B-grade movie long since constrained to the dust bin of film history. But when the film came out in 1972, the evangelical establishment was in the midst of an extraordinary expansion that included inroads into mainstream radio, publishing, and television. According to film historian Terry Lindvall, the makers of A Thief in the Night were helped by the fact that after World War II, the U.S. Army donated film projector equipment to churches and schools. The capacity to show the film through this network was already in place. Lindvall points out that A Thief in the Night was one of the only films available to young people coming from fundamentalist backgrounds who “were not allowed to go to movies to even see The Sound of Music.” When an organization called the Christian Film Distributors Association started in 1974, they stocked copies of the film and saw bookings of 1500 showings a month, mostly at Baptist churches and schools and youth retreats. Halloween, Lindvall notes, was a popular time for viewing. “It was the filmmakers’ goal to ‘literally scare the hell out of kids.’”

Hendershot notes the prevalence of the movie and its successors for evangelicals during childhood and adolescence. “I have found that A Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience,” she writes in her book. Typically after the film was shown, pastors or leaders provided the audience a message of salvation or altar call. Viewers may have been more apt to accept such an instructive after the film, which used a menagerie of ordinary horror flick images—sinister laughing clowns, dolls, razors, helicopters, snakes—to stimulate its audience’s fear responses. The effective use of isolated images demonstrate, says Lindvall, that Doughten and Thompson “knew how film worked and manipulated the shots as effectively as Hitchcock, but on a much cheaper budget.” Patty is truly alone by the end of the film, abandoned or betrayed by everyone she thought she could count on. The viewer experiences her fear as his or her own. That message is particularly effective for teenagers who both fear their independence and long for it. Mixing religion into that developmental moment creates intense memories for people raised in evangelical households and churches.

Marc Patterson, editor of the horror-review site “Brutal as Hell,” has written that his fascination with horror can be traced back to childhood viewings of A Thief in the Night. “As I’ve looked back over my long running fascination with the macabre, I’ve come to realize my first real exposure to the horror genre can be pinpointed directly to these four [Mark IV] films,” he writes. “In their time and context they were more terrifying than The Exorcist, and though they will likely remain largely overlooked (and deservedly so) in the annals of horror history, they certainly have contributed significantly to my obsession with all things post-apocalyptic.”

A Thief in the Night emerged at a moment when American evangelicalism was ripe to receive it. Its effective play on cultural and psychological fears paradoxically helped set the stage for conservative evangelicalism to imagine itself as a more significant part of American culture. Walliss notes that the film diagnosed evangelicals’ concerns about the direction of American culture: the technological, social, and political ills that they believed signified the beginning of the end times. That diagnosis did not create an isolating inward turn, but instead became part of a movement toward greater political engagement. We can see that shift even in the Mark IV films themselves. In the first film, the emphasis is very much on personal and individual salvation, but by the fourth film, political engagement and fighting with the Antichrist is more central. This is true in the Left Behind series as well, as the Tribulation Force draws on ever-more sophisticated means to battle for Christianity even in the End Times. This movement mirrored the political direction of Christian evangelicalism, which entered the 1970s as largely nonpolitical and exited as an energized voting bloc that had begun to claim the label “Moral Majority.” We feel the resonances of this politicization of conservative evangelicals to this day.

Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth who grew up in Don Thompson’s church, sees the film as a “punctuation mark” on decades of anti-worldly and fundamentalist withdrawal that marked premillennial Christianity for most of the twentieth century. The film was “a culmination of decades of political insularity,” he said in an interview. But he now sees much of the urgency surrounding apocalyptic scenarios draining out of American evangelicalism. Decades of political engagement and upward mobility have transformed American evangelicalism from a counterculture to a subculture. Centers of power are in wealthy suburbs and in successful megachurches, as opposed to the tiny, remote churches where the apocalypticism of his own youth flourished.

But in Paula Booke’s view, Christian evangelical political engagement is an actual outgrowth of the earlier apocalypticism. Images like UNITE—a reflection of the era’s concerns about communism—were effective in creating a “common script” that evangelicals could share. The film offered a subtle narrative critique of the political world that the viewers inhabited and then shaped both the faith they claimed and their political views. The apocalyptic narrative has proved itself “malleable to the political contexts of the present moment,” Booke says. “I have a suspicion, and I am trying to think how to demonstrate it, that most Americans are latent premillennialists and that it shapes their political views in subtle ways.” She points to the advertisement from John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign that tried to prime premillennialist fears in its viewers by suggesting that Obama was the Antichrist, as an example of how premillennialism can be used in American politics.

At the end of A Thief in the Night, Patty wakes up from her apocalyptic nightmare, wondering if it was in fact only a dream. Then the radio clicks on and she learns, once again, that the rapture has occurred, and she has, in fact, been left behind. The horror continues. Recently, Doughten has been trying to raise money for a fifth film in the Mark IV repertoire called The Battle of Armageddon. The website for the film was last updated in 2007 and includes this message, “You can be a part of this thrilling and life changing motion picture through your prayers and your tax-deductible donations.” The American fascination with the end times goes on.

Amy Frkyholm is associate editor of The Christian Century and the author of Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America.