As anyone who’s familiar with the infamously confusing final episode of The Sopranos is aware, viewers often cry foul when a movie or TV series leaves any loose ends hanging with the plot. In The Sopranos, the screen went to black just as Tony and his family were sitting down to dinner, leaving viewers to decide on their own exactly what happened.
Trey Edward Shults’s post-apocalyptic 2017 psychological horror film It Comes at Night faced similar complaints about its ending. Although the film received high praise for conveying unease and dread, many viewers balked at a completely murky and unresolved ending.
The film ostensibly takes place in the Appalachian hills after some sort of unnamed pandemic has wrought living hell upon the planet. It begins with the members of a family—Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and their pet dog Stanley—being forced to kill Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton) because he has become infected with the lethal virus.
After the family retreats from a disease-ravaged civilization into a small cabin in the woods, a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house. Paul apprehends Will and chains him to a tree outside for 24 hours to make sure he is free of the deadly plague. Will, who has a wife named Kim (Riley Keough) and a son named Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) convinces Paul to let him and his family move in with them, arguing that with more people in the house, they’d be better able to defend themselves against predators.
Young Travis has nightmares throughout the film, but one where he finds his missing dog Stanley severely wounded and Andrew sleeping in his grandfather’s old room leads to a spiral of mistrust. Each family blames the other for introducing the virus into the house. A fight ensues in which Sarah shoots and kills Will, while Paul kills Andrew and Kim. Then Sarah is shown comforting Travis, who has obviously succumbed to the disease. The final shot shows Sarah and Paul covered in blood and sitting at a table, staring at one another grimly.
So what exactly happened? Did Travis’s nightmare actually happen? Who infected whom? In an interview with Thrillist, director Trey Edward Shults says that his very intent was leave crucial questions unanswered:
“A lot of questions are left unanswered….That is intentional. I will say I left things the way they are for a reason and I hope it sticks with you. I hope it doesn’t frustrate….What I care about is, and why I like the movie to have an openness is [that] it can kind of mean different things to you. I have movies I’ll revisit after years of seeing and I see it in a new way. I’ll see something new about it. When a movie can have that openness, that’s what I really love.”
In another interview, Shults was every bit as obtuse, even while claiming that he didn’t want to frustrate anyone:
“To me, there’s just a kind of storytelling that I like, and I like being dropped into the situation with the characters and just getting what we can as they get it and just living with the characters. And things aren’t answered for a reason….Because certain things happen that aren’t totally explained, and they could be, like what happens to Stanley [the family dog]. Does a monster eat him? It’s possible. Does a guy just shoot them in the woods? It’s possible. There’s any number of possibilities. But the movie is about the fear of the unknown….The storytelling in the film is very deliberate, and what’s in there is intentional, and what’s not in there is intentional. I didn’t make a movie to frustrate you!”
Here are nine different fan theories that attempt to answer what the filmmakers chose to obscure.
Reddit Fan Theories
1. Some kind of skin-walker got in the house.
“My personal theory is that an infection was born of unknown origin, killing those who didn’t flee to less populated areas for safety just like how we saw the grandfather die in the beginning. It was also mentioned in the beginning that Will, ‘just got in his car and drove’ until they broke down, trying to avoid the sickness and the dangers….Here’s what I think happens next, most die from contamination, but some ‘turn.’ By this I mean they become hunters of the night, sensitive to light, cunning in an animalistic hunter sense, but dull in the human capacity to operate anything from guns to locks and vehicles. Maybe that’s why they burn every body instead of letting it rot or burying it. I mean they burned the bodies of the two guys that attacked them no more than 10 miles from the cabin. From the nature of what was suggested in the movie and the context clues I believe that whatever they turn into can be classified in almost the same way as a skin-walker….When Will first arrives, just before he is confronted by Paul, we hear Sarah tell her son, ‘Something is in the house.’ To me this says she has a slight idea about what it could be, and from Paul’s body language & actions you can tell he is horrified by what’s out there. After all, who would really be able to describe a skin-walker anyway?”
2. The dog went back to grandpa’s grave and got sick, and Travis caught the disease from the dog.
“I think that the dog went back to grandpa’s grave and got sick. When they found the dog it looked like it had been dragged inside by the looks of it. People mention the dad’s keys but that might just be to unlock from the outside…I think Travis has been sleepwalking possibly out of a deep-seated guilt about his grandpa. He wanted to go out and find the dog, who was his rock. I do believe he found the dog writhing in pain (the noises we heard) and dragged him back in. In an insomniac way he didn’t even realize it happened and thought it was just a nightmare….There for ‘it’ that comes at night is darkness… the darkness of our hearts and minds… the phenomenon that is sleepwalking due to insomnia… the fear of the unknown….I bet you that little boy didn’t have the disease. I bet that Travis got it from the dog who dug up grandpa….It also looked like the mom caught the disease at the end and they were just looking at each other like…’This is it… it’s over… we tried.’”
3. The virus causes sleepwalking and delirium.
“I feel that sleepwalking is most definitely a part of the clinical signs and symptoms of the virus we see in the film. However, deeper than sleepwalking, the virus must have some sort of effect on your brain, i.e., the sleepwalking turns into delirium, then post death, the virus may re-animate people or they may become rabid. I think that Travis contracted the virus from his grandfather, we see in one of his nightmare/sleepwalking episodes that his grandfather is sitting at the end of his bed obviously infected with the virus. Who is to say this didn’t really happen and he is having a nightmare about it? Travis definitely went into the woods in a sleepwalking state to find Stanley, and obviously he found something a little more than just Stanley. Everyone seems to know there is some sort of event that happens at night, perhaps the bodies remain inanimate and dormant during the day, but become active at night, maybe thats why the ‘sleepwalking’ is so critical to the story, because the sleepwalking becomes something more violent and insidious in later stages of the virus.”
4. Andrew got the disease from Travis, who got it from touching Andrew’s hand.
“There is a really bad disease, both families see it on TV and run. At some point they witness Bud become inoculated. His signs most likely include fever dreams and poor sleep before he starts vomiting blood and becomes covered in sores and boils. IF they are correct about the method of inoculation and the timing till symptoms arise (one day) then both families are healthy when they meet. The infection did not come from Bud. What caused the dog to run away is an utter and complete mystery. It is worth noting that dogs run way all the time and return, and that the dog ran VERY far, and could have been chasing something fast like an animal. If the dog came across something like a body (human or animal) it might investigate and stop barking. The dog returns and brings the disease with it. I honestly believe that the dog could have crawled back, but that doesn’t explain the doors being unlocked. If the dream sequences are really dreams, then Travis did not open the door or touch the dog, because we see him refrain from doing so. So Andrew must have been carrying the disease that he must have contracted from the only outside vector, that being the dog. Travis contracts the disease from touching Andrew’s hand. If we are to believe what we see onscreen, the families fight and then Travis dies of infection.”
5. Travis got Andrew sick.
“The dog coming back is what I have most issue with. I definitely think it is more plausible that Travis got Andrew sick, not the other way around, which is what I think the movie suggests on the surface. I think Travis went outside in his sleep state due to his bad dreams. Good point about the gun just being out there…but there has to be a reason because Travis doesn’t really need a gun when he’s out there. I mean, it wouldn’t have been integral to the plot if he didn’t have one. It could have been a flashlight instead. Unless of course he shot Stanley? I have to think the gun either got left behind during the shuffle of Stanley running off earlier that day (less likely because all guns are accounted for in a survival situation like this) OR the skin-walker that may have attacked Stanley attacked a person who carried a gun. Or the gun was more of a dream aspect and the dream was just to suggest the plot….The sickness itself must transform victims that aren’t immediately killed into these skin-walker creatures. Hence the killing and burning.”
6. There were no monsters. Just a sickness that causes hysteria.
“So here’s my theory. A highly fatal disease that ONLY causes hallucination (and mostly night terrors, hence the name ‘It (the disease and the night terrors) comes at night’) sweeps the population and cripples it. Two families become isolated in the mountains because of this with little to no idea of what happens to those who are sick. Bud becomes sick and passes it onto Travis (a big assumption, but a simple one). The two families meet up under the circumstances we’ve seen while Travis hallucinates (he hears something in the woods and has nightmares, adding fuel to the fire of paranoia). The lack of knowledge of the sickness, amidst Travis’s flawed perception like the door being open somehow, cause the families to spiral into paranoia and insanity ending how we saw. Then Travis dies of the sickness….There were no monsters. Just a sickness that causes hysteria, and two families with no idea what they are up against.”
7. Andrew got sick from seeing the dog and brought the infection into the house.
“1: The Dog…I think that the dog came back to the house on its own, since apparently it did know the woods. But it came back gravely injured. Maybe the dog barked or whimpered or scratched at the front door, but somehow I think the dog got the attention of Andrew. I mean he was really young, and probably thought there was a cute doggie and followed the noises. I think that he figured out how to open the door (notice that will said he was ALMOST too young to reach the lock, not ruling it out entirely). Now I forgot about the keys, but perhaps in his anger Paul forgot to lock the knob and only got the deadbolts. So Andrew figured out how to open the deadbolts and wanted to pet the doggy. The doggy then came in and was obviously pretty messed up, bleeding everywhere. Andrew got scared and was disturbed and he ran to a random room. This is when Travis found him and thought he was having a nightmare but Andrew was just in shock from seeing the dog. I think that Andrew got sick from being near the dog and brought the infection into the house. 2: The infection Here is where I kind of made some guesses. I assume that the disease acts as quickly on everybody regardless of age. If that is the case, then if we look at the order they all got sick in, Andrew had to have been the sick one when Travis grabbed his hand. I believe Andrew showed the first signs and that is why Will kept yelling at him to shut his eyes. He knew Paul would kill Andrew without a second thought if he saw his eyes, although we never actually see Andrew’s eyes. One of my friends thinks that Will’s family was actually not sick at all and that Will didn’t want Andrew to see him with a gun threatening Paul and was only desperate to leave out of fear of what Paul would do after the isolation.”
8. Travis and the dog were actually infected the whole time.
“Travis and the dog, which belonged to his grandfather, were actually infected the whole time. Grandpa infected the dog. The dog infected Travis. It’s why they both heard things in the woods that weren’t there. TRAVIS is the one who infected the little boy….The dreams we see are a mix of Travis’s sleepwalking and dream state….So, with the ending, Travis actually sleepwalked into the woods to find his dog and bring him back. The bang he heard was likely the door slamming behind him. He might not have even found Andrew in grandpa’s room. He may have dreamt that entire scenario while finding the dog and bringing it back….Will and Kim realize Travis infected their son and they need to leave to all die in peace. Paul and Sarah are so paranoid that Will and Kim will either lead others back to their home or come back and steal their resources when they run out of their own that they feel the need to kill them….The IT that comes at night is the disease.”
9. The family is simply realizing that their lives are over.
“Personally, I believe they are grappling with this realization that their evil deeds, their scraping, their scrabbling to stay alive has done nothing to save them ultimately. Personally I believe they realize they are now going to have to walk in and kill Travis, and then each other. They are realizing that their lives are over and on top of it all, to cause insult to injury, they are horrible, evil people that have done nothing to further their lives or to out maneuver their own deaths.”