The monsters in horror films are rarely just monsters. Psychoanalysts thrive on the opportunity to analyse a horror film. Monsters are the Other that we expose in order to kill and reinstate normality. Monsters are the part we don’t like about ourselves. Monsters are communism, technology, gays, lesbians, depression, patriarchy, sexual abuse, our past – you name it. Sometimes the filmmakers are well aware of this and they shape their films with they want to convey, others don’t realise it until they read a criticism online. Nevertheless, if it can be explained on the screen, then the filmmakers have to accept it. How the films are analysed and interpreted are beyond their powers, and once it has been shown on the big screens, then it us up for discussion.
Jennifer Kent wasn’t aware she was directing a film that presented a metaphor for depression, but in the end it is what she ended up doing. The Babadook (2014) became known for being a film to shine a light on women filmmakers, on subtle horror at a time when horror films were relying mainly on jump scares, and for exploring the undertones of depression in the narrative. Kent just wanted to tell a simple story about a boy that finds a book and ends up inviting a monster into his house.
Once the depression metaphor was put forward as an interpretation of the film, it is almost impossible to watch it without finding clues and, honestly, it is hard to believe Kent didn’t think about it whilst making the film. The Babadook is a monster that lives inside the mother and turns her into a monstrous figure, making her violent towards her son. Even if it wasn’t Kent’s intention it was done well. The film was praised for its good representation of the mental illness, especially its ending, where the character of Amelia accepts the monster as part of her life and lives with it, instead of being in constant fight with it. She tames the monster and acknowledges its power, but she also nurtures it and moves on without letting it dictate her life.
On the other hand, a film that deliberately wanted to create a metaphor for depression and backfired was David F. Sandberg’s 2016 Lights Out. Sandberg stated he wanted to portray the disease as he suffered from it and had seen it taking the best of people who were close to him. He turned the monster in his film into a vessel for depression, but the way he did it was painful to watch.
Although it was a good film once we turn a blind eye for the problems, some are hard to ignore. The character of Sophie, played by Maria Bello, has to take care of her son, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), after the death of her husband. So far, the story is the same as The Babadook, but then we learn that Sophie had also abandoned her older daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), when she was a small child. The use of Sophie as reckless and terrible mother due to her depression is harsh. Moreover, the use of the word “crazy” is thrown around to justify Sophie’s behaviour and Sophie herself won’t take antidepressants because, as she says it, she is not crazy. To represent antidepressants that way when it already deals with preconceptions and it is a taboo in our society is negligent and ill-advised. In addition, blaming the mother and her depression for everything bad that happens in the family is beyond victim blaming. The only good thing about this narrative is Martin’s love towards his mother, who despite being put in danger still loves and wants to help her – The Babadook all over again.
All of which could have been accepted if in the end we had been presented with an intelligent storyline as Kent did with The Babadook, but no, I was shocked to see that the old trope of “killing the monster to reinstate normality” was used. Sophie commits suicide to kill the monster (as it exists in her head) to protect her family, therefore conveying the idea that suicide is a good way out when it comes to depression to save others from the distress of living with someone who suffers from mental illness. That comes from a director who stated he wanted to talk about depression as his friend took his own life because of it. A noble attitude, but done in a bad way. Sandberg defends the ending by saying that it is not actually a happy ending as he has ideas for a sequel in which he plans to explore the effects of Sophie’s suicide through the eyes of her children, stating that they were not “saved” from her mother’s death, but deeply ruined.
The film’s use of depression as a toxic burden on the family proves that the film should’ve stayed in the two and a half minutes format instead of creating a feature film and tainting the memory of a good scare.
The Babadook and Lights Out have different monsters but similar undertones - Lights Out was intentional whilst The Babadook wasn’t. Both features were short films beforehand, the difference is that Monster, Kent’s 2005 short film, had more space to work and develop the not only the characters, but also the narrative, welcoming the interpretation of depression; whereas the fame of the short version of Lights Out should have been enough for the filmmakers since creating a longer adaptation only showed the limitations of the story, and it became the perfect example of a short film that should have remained a short, and the monster should have remained a monster.