The Horrifying Truth This Movie Reveals About Depression

Posted by Karthika S Nair in #LetsTalk, Art, Mental Health
April 6, 2017
This story is in response to Youth Ki Awaaz’s topic for this week – #LetsTalk to start a conversation on the stigma around depression. If you have an opinion or personal story of dealing with or helping someone else deal with depression or suicidal thoughts, write to us here.

In 2015, Deepika Padukone boldly spoke about her battle with depression. In the course of an interview, she mentioned that the stigma surrounding depression is so great in India that people often refuse to take treatment. A friend of mine agrees to this. She too used to suffer from severe depression, but didn’t opt for treatment due to the fear of social stigma.

Recently, I watched a movie called “Lights Out”, starring Teresa Palmer. As a horror flick, it has been quite successful and well-acclaimed.

The film has both been criticised and highly appreciated, particularly because it has attempted to blend social issues within the framework of a horror movie. However, I also think that there’s an underlying metaphor behind all the ‘horror cliches’ (in the film), which is largely unnoticed but also worth investigating.

The movie features a malevolent spirit named Diana, who appears in the dark. The only way to save oneself from Diana is to turn the lights on. This is an outright reference to how people prefer to stay in light after being scared of the ‘terrors in the dark’ (for example, watching a horror movie in complete darkness). 

Diana is a spirit that communicates with Sophie (played by Maria Bello). Sophie suffers from severe clinical depression and had been admitted to a mental hospital as a child. In her adult life, she relapses and Diana affects her more severely than ever before.

Sophie’s daughter, Rebecca (played by Teresa Palmer), has been living away from her mother due to her mother’s eccentricities. However, she comes back after her brother tells her about his near encounters with the spirit, due to which he cannot sleep. On the other hand, Sophie is convinced that Diana is her best friend and cannot think of ‘breaking up with her’. In fact, she intentionally lives in the dark to be close to Diana.

However, the malevolent Diana prevents Sophie from taking anti-depressants and constantly abuses her. Diana even chases Sophie’s children away and warns them of dire consequences, if they try to separate her from Sophie. In fact, Diana attacks all the characters in the movie, but Sophie (except when she tries to take anti-depressants, that is). However, her son, Martin (played by Gabriel Bateman), tells Rebecca that helping Sophie with her illness is the only to way to destroy Diana. Sophie thus needs the company and support of her two children, more than anything else.

“Lights Out” poster

It is quite obvious that Diana is a symbolic representation of depression in the movie. The movie therefore uses horror tropes to effectively show the lives of persons whose lives centre around depression.

While it may be exasperating, it is interesting to note that the taboos regarding depression lend potency to the ‘ghost-depression metaphor’ in the film. After all, Rebecca left her family because Diana took a toll on both Sophie and Martin.

In one of the scenes, Sophie tries to eccentrically convince Martin that Diana is her friend and therefore, she is going to live with them. Incidentally, Rebecca returns when Martin cannot bear Diana’s activities anymore. Thereafter, Sophie also breaks down into tears whenever Martin or Rebecca leaves her, and becomes visibly more depressed in Diana’s presence. The scary implication here is that Diana lives within Sophie.

In my opinion, even though the climax is controversial, it is also the most effective and significant bit of the film. It is understandable that people have issues with Sophie’s suicide at the end of the film. The major issue here is that some people think that the ending glorifies suicide as a means to end depression.

In fact, ‘think about your family’ is a common-enough statement used to stop suicidal people from killing themselves. However, a friend of mine who had once contemplated suicide said that thinking about one’s family is the last thing people contemplating suicide want to hear, because it increases their guilt and makes them want to die even more. Seen in this light, the climax of this film does not glorify suicide, at all. In fact, it becomes a scary indicator of how people suffering from depression ‘are forced’ to commit suicide.

Perhaps, Sophie was trying to save her children from being afflicted by Diana. However, she realises that apart from taking medication (which Diana wasn’t allowing her to), the only way to exorcise Diana was by sacrificing herself. In the process, she may have saved her children, but she also becomes a victim to her inner demons.

Rebecca too suffers from the spirit’s malevolence. However, unlike Sophie, Rebecca recognises her ability to fight Diana. Moreover, she doesn’t think twice about going back to save her mother and brother (having abandoned them previously).

At one point of the movie, when they were subdued by Diana, Martin asks Rebecca if they will be killed. Rebecca responds by saying that they shouldn’t give up because they are fighters. Rebecca inspires her brother to be brave in the face of crisis. On the other hand, Martin reminds Rebecca of their necessity to stay with Sophie, through thick and thin. In a nutshell, both show how depression should be dealt with – through support and by fighting back.

Similarly, Rebecca’s boyfriend Brett fights back Diana on two occasions by flashing light from a mobile phone and the headlights of a car.

Throughout the movie, ‘lights out’ symbolically represent the state of ‘depression’. On the other hand, ‘lights’ symbolise ‘happiness and positivity’ – something which Diana cannot endure.

Many have objected to the film’s use of a monster/malevolent spirit to represent a major mental illness. However, when closely analysed, it is quite apt. The key intention here is to scare. In fact, it is quite ‘scary’ to reflect on how Sophie suffers throughout the movie and then succumbs to her inner demons. On the other hand, Rebecca is an uplifting presence throughout. Her resolve to stand her ground, fight and stay back deserve special mention She will be there to fight, and she will be there to save whoever needs saving.

It is here that Rebecca’s decision to stay back with her brother to fight the malevolent Diana becomes significant and even inspirational. After all, this is what families should do – no matter how ‘scary’ and ‘depressing’ life turns out to be!