Interpreting the Signs: The Evolution of Graham Hess in 'Signs'

01 February 2024
In the quiet corn row contours of a Pennsylvania farm, "Signs" unfolds as a poignant narrative that delves deep into the human condition through the eyes of Graham Hess, a character etched with complexity and portrayed with compelling depth by Mel Gibson (Mad Max, Payback).

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the film presents itself as a suspenseful thriller about an alien invasion on Earth, but at its core, it is a profound exploration of faith, loss, and redemption.

Graham, once an Episcopal priest, finds himself engulfed in a crisis of faith, a tempest that has brewed within him since the tragic death of his wife, Colleen. Her dying words, cryptic yet laden with significance:

"Tell Graham... see. Tell him to see. And tell Merrill to swing away."

Collen's last breath echoes as a thematic cornerstone, intertwining fate with the personal evolution of each character.

"Signs" artfully uses the motif of extraterrestrial phenomena not merely as a backdrop for horror but as a canvas to explore the signs we encounter in life, how we interpret them, and the ways in which they guide us.

Through the lens of the Hess family's harrowing ordeal, the film navigates the intricate dance between skepticism and belief, the tangible and the transcendent. It is within this delicate balance that Graham's journey unfolds, from the depths of despair and doubt to a cautious rekindling of faith. His path is punctuated by signs—both literal and metaphorical—that challenge him to confront his deepest fears and ultimately reconsider the nature of belief itself.

As we unravel the tapestry of Graham's journey back to faith, we are invited to reflect on the signs in our own lives, the unseen forces that guide us, and the power of belief to illuminate the darkness.

Interpreting the Signs: The Evolution of Graham Hess in 'Signs'

Graham Hess: A Crisis of Faith

Graham Hess's character arc in "Signs" is a compelling study of a man besieged by grief and ensnared in a crisis of faith, a narrative thread that weaves through the film's suspenseful exploration of extraterrestrial phenomena to reveal a deeply human story of loss, doubt, and redemption.

The loss of Colleen catapults Graham into an abyss of skepticism and disillusionment. The man who once preached about the omnipresence of God and the significance of faith finds himself questioning the very existence of a divine being who could allow such senseless tragedy to befall his family.

Graham's skepticism towards signs and the divine is a recurring motif throughout "Signs." Initially, he views the crop circles that mysteriously appear on his farm as mere pranks or anomalies devoid of deeper meaning.

Graham's journey through the film is a painful reckoning with his own doubts and fears, a path that leads him through darkness not just in the literal sense, as he and his family face the alien invaders, but in the metaphysical sense, as he grapples with the shadows of his lost faith.

The emotional and spiritual turmoil he experiences is a testament to the complex nature of belief, the struggle to find meaning in suffering, and the quest for signs that may guide us back to faith. Through Graham Hess, "Signs" explores the depths of human despair and the resilience of the human spirit to seek light in the darkest of times, posing profound questions about the nature of faith, the existence of God, and the possibility of redemption.

This skepticism extends to his interpretation of everyday events and the possibility of miracles, seeing them not as manifestations of divine intervention but as random, meaningless occurrences. His disbelief is a fortress he has built around himself, a protective barrier against the pain of loss and the vulnerability of faith. Yet, it is this very skepticism that the film challenges, threading Graham's emotional and spiritual journey with moments that defy his rational explanations and force him to confront the possibility that there is more to the world than what can be seen and touched.

This spiritual turmoil is mirrored in his new life as a farmer, a stark departure from his pastoral duties—a symbolic representation of his attempt to root himself in the tangible, in the earthly, as he turns his back on the ethereal and the spiritual. As a father, Graham's crisis of faith also casts a long shadow over his relationship with his two children, Morgan and Bo, as he struggles to provide them with the guidance and assurance he no longer feels within himself.

signs character arc of graham hess

Colleen's Dying Words: A Pivotal Moment

Colleen's dying words form a critical fulcrum around which "Signs" pivots, embedding a profound layer of mystery and anticipation within the narrative. As she lies pinned in the aftermath of a tragic accident, Colleen imparts to Officer Paski a message meant for her husband, Graham, and his brother, Merrill: "Tell Graham... see. Tell him to see. And tell Merrill to swing away." 

These words, seemingly cryptic and disjointed in the moment, are imbued with a weight that extends far beyond their immediate context, resonating through the fabric of the story as a beacon of latent meaning.

This pivotal moment encapsulates the essence of the film's exploration of signs and their interpretation. 

For Graham, these words from his dying wife become a source of profound perplexity and introspection. Initially, they represent a painful reminder of his loss, a puzzle piece detached from any discernible picture, emblematic of his fractured relationship with the notion of divine providence. Graham's struggle to comprehend the significance of Colleen's message is reflective of his broader crisis of faith; it is a riddle that he turns over in his mind, a sign whose meaning is obscured by his skepticism and grief.

The narrative ingeniously allows these words to lay dormant within Graham, simmering beneath the surface of his conscious understanding, yet inexorably drawing him toward a moment of epiphany. It is only in the climactic confrontation with the alien entity, as the family's survival hangs in the balance, that the true import of Colleen's message unfurls. The directive for Merrill to "swing away" transforms from an enigmatic whisper of the past into a clarion call to action, catalyzing a sequence of events that not only ensures the safety of Graham's children but also acts as a linchpin in the reawakening of his faith.

Colleen's dying words thus serve as a narrative device of profound significance, encapsulating the film's thematic preoccupations with faith, fate, and the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate elements. Through this cryptic message, "Signs" artfully explores the idea that the universe communicates with us in ways that transcend our immediate understanding, suggesting that the signs we encounter are imbued with meaning, awaiting our readiness to see and interpret them.

The Manifestation of 'Signs'

"Signs" masterfully employs an array of symbols and motifs to weave a complex tapestry that explores themes of faith, fate, and the search for meaning amidst the inexplicable. The film presents various 'signs' that serve as both literal and metaphorical markers guiding the narrative and the characters' journeys, especially that of Graham Hess. 

Among the most visually striking of these signs are the crop circles that mysteriously appear in the Hess family's cornfield. These geometric patterns, etched into the landscape, become an early indicator of the film's exploration of otherworldly phenomena, serving as a harbinger of the unfolding alien narrative.

Beyond the crop circles, the film meticulously incorporates subtler signs, such as the peculiar behavior of animals—dogs barking incessantly, birds flying erratically—which suggest an underlying discord with the natural order, hinting at the presence of an unseen force. These anomalies in animal behavior, along with other recurring motifs like the repeated image of water and the significance of the numbers broadcasted over the radio, are woven into the fabric of the story, each carrying layers of meaning that gradually unfold.

Initially, Graham's response to these signs is steeped in skepticism. He seeks rational explanations, grounded in science and logic, to dismiss the crop circles as elaborate hoaxes and the strange animal behavior as mere coincidence. This stance is emblematic of his broader crisis of faith; having turned away from his religious convictions, Graham is inclined to view the world through a lens of skepticism, discounting the possibility that these signs could carry a deeper, possibly divine, significance.

However, as the narrative progresses, the accumulation of inexplicable events challenges Graham's dismissive attitude. The film subtly shifts its focus, suggesting that these signs are not mere anomalies to be explained away but are instead interconnected pieces of a larger puzzle. This shift is crucial for Graham's character development, as it mirrors his gradual movement from doubt towards a renewed openness to the possibility of faith. The signs that he initially dismisses become the very markers that guide him on a path back to belief, suggesting that the divine may indeed manifest in the most unexpected ways and places.

Through its nuanced portrayal of signs, both grand and subtle, "Signs" invites viewers to reflect on the nature of belief, the search for meaning, and the possibility that there is more to our world than meets the eye. The film posits that signs are around us, waiting to be seen and interpreted, if only we are willing to look beyond the surface and consider the profound interconnectedness of all things.

The Climactic Revelation

The climactic revelation in "Signs" serves as the narrative and thematic zenith of the film, where the intertwined destinies of the Hess family converge in a moment of high tension and profound realization. This scene, set against the backdrop of their besieged farmhouse, is the crucible in which Graham Hess's faith is both tested and ultimately renewed. It encapsulates the culmination of his journey from doubt to belief, underscored by the dramatic enactment of Colleen's cryptic dying message.

As the alien threat manifests within the confines of their home, the Hess family finds themselves in a desperate standoff. It is in this moment of peril that Graham's memory is jogged back to Colleen's parting words, "Tell Merrill to swing away." This recollection occurs in the midst of chaos, serving as a sudden and stark illumination that breaks through Graham's skepticism. The directive, once enigmatic and seemingly irrelevant, suddenly assumes a pivotal role in their survival. Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix, grasps a baseball bat adorned with his past achievements—a symbolic representation of his own struggles and failures—and swings with full force, shattering glasses of water strategically placed around the room by Graham's asthmatic son, Morgan. The water, previously hinted at as being harmful to the aliens, becomes the weapon that incapacitates the intruder, effectively saving the family.

This scene is rich in symbolism and significance, not only for its immediate outcome but for its deeper resonance with the film's exploration of faith and the interpretation of signs. Merrill's role in this revelation is instrumental; his actions embody the physical manifestation of faith in action, a leap into the unknown guided by trust in a seemingly nonsensical message. It underscores the film's assertion that faith often requires us to act without full understanding, to trust in the signs and messages that life presents to us, even when they defy logical explanation.

The climactic scene also represents a moment of profound personal transformation for Graham. Witnessing the efficacy of Colleen's message and Merrill's unwitting compliance to a higher plan, Graham's arc comes full circle. His skepticism is replaced by a renewed sense of wonder and belief in the possibility of a greater design at work in the universe. The significance of Colleen's message extends beyond the immediate context of their survival; it serves as a metaphorical bridge that reconnects Graham with his lost faith, illustrating the profound impact that signs, when heeded, can have on our lives.

swing away merill signs

The Return to Faith

The narrative arc of "Signs" culminates in a poignant exploration of Graham Hess's return to faith, a journey that is both personal and profound, marking a full circle from despair to belief. This return is catalyzed by the undeniable signs that have been presented to him throughout the film, culminating in the climactic revelation of Colleen's message's deeper meaning. As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, Graham is confronted with the inescapable truth that the signs he has witnessed—the crop circles, the strange behavior of animals, and even the words of his dying wife—are not mere coincidences but are imbued with a deeper significance.

The resolution of the film is a powerful testament to Graham's transformation. The scene where he dons his priest's collar again is laden with symbolism, representing not just a return to his former vocation but a profound reaffirmation of his faith in the divine. This act signifies a newfound conviction, one that is born out of an experiential understanding of the world's mysterious ways and the realization that there exists a greater plan beyond our immediate comprehension.

Graham's journey back to faith is not a simple reversal but an evolution. It is a belief fortified by the trials he has endured, the signs he has been forced to confront, and the undeniable intervention that saved his family. His faith is now characterized by a deeper understanding of its complexities, acknowledging that belief and doubt can coexist, that faith is not the absence of questions but the courage to seek answers in the face of the unknown.

Beyond the Literal: The Multifaceted 'Signs'

"Signs," directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is a film that masterfully intertwines the suspense of an alien invasion narrative with a profound exploration of faith, destiny, and the search for meaning in the midst of chaos. The title itself is a multifaceted concept, inviting viewers to delve into the layers of symbolism that extend far beyond the crop circles that initially capture the Hess family's—and the audience's—attention. Through a tapestry of interconnected 'signs,' the film articulates a compelling argument that everything in our lives, no matter how small or inexplicable, happens for a reason.

One of the most overt signs are the crop circles themselves, which serve as the film's initial mystery and a global phenomenon indicating the arrival of extraterrestrial beings. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that these formations are merely the tip of the iceberg in a sea of deeper, more personal signs experienced by the Hess family. These crop circles symbolize the unknown, the unexplainable aspects of the universe that challenge Graham's skepticism and force him to confront his loss of faith.

Another significant sign is the recurring theme of water. 

Throughout the film, water acts as a motif of purification and salvation. It is revealed towards the climax that the aliens have a weakness against water, making it a literal instrument of salvation for the Hess family. This discovery aligns with the biblical symbolism of water as a purifying force, suggesting that divine intervention can manifest in the most basic elements of our world. The presence of water, coupled with the revelation of its effect on the aliens, serves as a metaphor for faith itself—transparent, ubiquitous, and often taken for granted, yet possessing the power to cleanse, heal, and protect.

The behavior of the family dog, Houdini, and other animals in the film is also indicative of the broader theme of signs. Animals are often portrayed as more attuned to nature and impending dangers than humans. Houdini's distress signals the presence of something amiss long before the human characters are aware of the alien threat, symbolizing the instinctual awareness that humans have learned to ignore or rationalize away. This ties back to the film's critique of modern skepticism and the dismissal of the unexplainable as mere coincidence.


In "Signs," M. Night Shyamalan crafts a narrative that transcends the boundaries of a mere alien invasion thriller, embedding within its layers a rich tapestry of symbols, motifs, and signs that speak to the very core of human experience—faith, destiny, and the search for meaning in the cosmos. The film's title itself serves as a multifaceted metaphor, inviting viewers to delve deeper into the myriad 'signs' that populate both its landscape and the lives of its characters.

 From the enigmatic crop circles that first signal the arrival of the otherworldly visitors to the peculiar behaviors of animals presaging danger, each element is meticulously chosen to contribute to a larger, interconnected narrative web.

Graham Hess's journey from skepticism back to faith is punctuated by an array of signs that, initially dismissed as coincidences or explainable phenomena, gradually coalesce into a compelling argument for the existence of a greater plan. The recurring motifs—water as a weapon against the aliens, the importance of faith even when it seems irrational, and the realization that events believed to be random are, in fact, intricately connected—serve to reinforce the film's central thesis: that there are no accidents, and every detail of our lives is imbued with purpose.

The climactic revelation, wherein Merrill's act of swinging the bat becomes the key to the family's survival, crystallizes the film's exploration of fate and divine intervention. This moment is not just a victory over a physical adversary but a symbolic triumph over doubt, fear, and despair. It is the culmination of a series of 'signs' that, once pieced together, illuminate the path back to faith for Graham.


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