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In a small seaside town, Reverend David Collins and his wife Lisa hear a sound in the bedroom of their young son Michael and concerned, go to investigate. Young hoodlum Frankie Simmons, who has crept in Michael's window to rob the house, attacks Lisa with a rope, scraping her eyes, then turns on David, who kills the boy in self-defense. David, well known throughout the town for his religious television show and work with wayward youth, is immediately labeled a hero, but is wracked with guilt for what he sees as the murder of a troubled boy. At the police station, David tries to apologize to Frankie's father, the grief-torn tailor Carl Simmons, but Simmons turns away. Although David will not allow TV anchor Wilbur Fletcher, father of Michael's best friend, Ronnie "Skunky" Fletcher, to interview the family, Wilbur nonetheless headlines his nightly report with a comparison of two boys, one from a "good" family and one from a "bad" family. While David snaps the TV off in disgust, Simmons watches the show with great resentment. Later, David tends to a still-frightened Lisa, whose eyes, though not permanently scarred, are bandaged, and confides to her that his guilt over Frankie's death makes it difficult for him to preach. A few days later, he visits Simmons' shop, but finds only the landlady, a bitter alcoholic who informs him that Simmons has apparently left town. Meanwhile, Michael plays at the docks with his friends, pretending to be his hero father rescuing the family. When he wanders onto an abandoned ship alone, however, Simmons appears and follows him. Simmons has almost cornered the boy when a guard sees Michael and shouts for him to go home. At dinner, Michael calmly informs his parents and his mother's nurse, Willis, what happened that day, and although Lisa is terrified, Michael's exaggerations convince David that he is only imagining the scene. David teaches a Bible class that night, describing how fear creates a vacuum into which only sickness can flow, but is interrupted by Michael, who tells him that he saw a shadow on the street and is afraid to walk to Skunky's alone. David walks Michael outside the church, explaining that the dark is nothing to fear, but then spots a tin of cigarette ends on the street similar to the one carried by Simmons. He reports the incident to police detective Lt. Marlin the next day, but when they return to the church, the tin is gone, and Marlin reproaches him for having an overactive imagination. David goes to Simmons' again, but this time the drunken landlady recognizes him and calls him a murdering preacher, causing him to flee. At the Collins' house, Skunky informs David that he plans to run away from his neglectful father, but David gently convinces the boy to return home. Later, Lisa overhears a phone conversation in which David reveals that he left class early, and then grows more frightened after she hears him call Lt. Marlin again. That Sunday at church, Michael leaves the chapel to join the bazaar outside. When David spots Simmons at the back door and then sees that Michael is gone, he panics and races into the fairground. He finally locates Michael by the ponies and orders the boy to go home. At the same time, a still-blindfolded Lisa hears a sound in the living room, and listens as footsteps move closer to the bedroom. After the bedroom door creaks open, she tears off her bandages in terror and, seeing Simmons looming over her, stumbles into the closet. Just then, Michael returns home, inadvertently scaring away Simmons. The next day, David decides to send Lisa and Michael out of town, but she refuses to go without him. When Marlin visits, he is skeptical of their charges about Simmons' intrusion because he has a report stating that Simmons has left town. One day, a children's boxing match is held, and while Michael wins his bout, Simmons sneaks in and sets a fire under the bleachers. The smoke panics the crowd, and in the melee, Simmons grabs Michael. David hears his son's screams and races to his rescue, almost choking Simmons before letting him go. When Marlin searches the garbage basket in which the fire was started, he finds a scrap of material with David's initials on it and suspects David of starting the fire himself. Fearing that Simmons plans to murder Michael, David decides that the family must leave town. Just then, Mrs. Fletcher calls to say that Skunky, who was injured in the fire, is asking for David. David rushes to the hospital, where Simmons spots him and, pretending to be a doctor, calls Lisa and lies that Skunky has now asked for Michael. She brings Michael to the hospital, where David is explaining to Wilbur that Skunky really only wants his own father to love him. When Michael runs ahead of her, Simmons pulls him into a closet. Michael breaks free, running toward the beach with Simmons close on his heels. David learns that Michael is missing and rushes outside, shouting for his son. Simmons chases the boy under the pier, where they balance precariously on the wooden scaffolding, Michael screaming for help. David hears his son's screams and follows, while Michael nearly loses his footing several times. When Simmons sees David, he falls into the water, nearly drowning until David jumps in after him and pulls him to shore. There, Lisa and Michael watch Simmons collapse into tears while David asks for his forgiveness. Finally, without a word, a chastened Simmons struggles to his feet and walks away.