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Iowa's "A Thief in the Night": Not Just a Horror Flick

If you grew up in a conservative Christian household any time in the last few decades, you may have seen a movie called “A Thief in the Night.” Otherwise, think B-movie horror flick – for Christian kids.  The movie was made in Iowa and turns 40 this year.

It begins at the end of the world – at least, the world as we know it. In the opening sequence, we meet Patty – a young woman with feathered, blonde, 1970s hair – waking up to find that her husband has vanished from their bed.  As the grainy footage zooms in on a clock radio, we learn that thousands of so-called “Bible-believing Christians” around the world have been taken to heaven by God in what’s known as the Rapture. Those left behind face a seven-year period of terrible suffering called the Great Tribulation.

Patty is played by Patty Dunning, who also goes by her married name, Risinger. She was just turning 21 just as the movie was filming 40 years ago.

“At the time, It was purely just a job,” she says. “I was excited; I was not real sure about all the ‘religious’ stuff that was associated with it.”

Dunning, who still lives in the Des Moines area today, eventually embraced the conservative Christian theology of the filmmakers, including their beliefs about the end of the world.  You see, “A Thief in the Night” is more than an apocalyptic thriller – the film presents itself as truth.

Producer Don Thompson made the film for about $60,000 in 1972. He’s now in his mid-70s and also living in Des Moines.

“I thought, people need to know about this,” Thompson says. “It told people that you don’t want to not be a Christian, because if he comes and you don’t know the Lord, and he takes his own back, then you’re gonna go through seven years of hell.”

The movie was filmed mostly in Des Moines and Carlisle by Thompson and another Iowan, director Russell Doughten. Doughten was the associate producer of the 1950s sci-fi classic “The Blob.” But “A Thief in the Night” and its three sequels were evangelistic tools, meant to be shown at church movie nights with the goal of winning souls.

“To an 8-year-old, it’s pretty intense,” says Marc Patterson, who grew up going to church two or three times a week and saw the film as a child. Now in his 30s and living in New Hampshire, he blogs about the horror genre.  “Now, I look at it going, well this is really scare tactics because of course there’s a call to faith following the film, to bring people up to the front to be saved and commit their lives to Christ.

“As a kid, of course you’re going to run to the front – you’re going to run to the front screaming.”

But for others – not least of all, lead actress Patty Dunning – the film marked a spiritual turning point. Dunning says she still gets Facebook friend requests from strangers who want to know if she’s Patty from “A Thief in the Night.”

“I hear stories about how that film has impacted their life,” she says.

“A Thief in the Night” has been translated into nine other languages, and distributed around the world. It influenced a genre of Christian filmmaking, especially the “Left Behind” series, also set in a post-rapture world.

As for the criticism that the film is all about fear?

“I think it did traumatize some people,” Dunning says. “And some people hated it because of the thought that it was trying to scare people into heaven.

“Well, I think he was trying to convey the truth.”

Because the truth, as the filmmakers see it, is terrifying