Horror as a genre has a lot of problems. At the top of the list, most critical fans of the genre probably place the way horror movies treat women and people with mental illness as being the most pressing (followed closely, I would assume, by racism and homophobia, both of which are also prominent issues plaguing the genre). Where does “Lights Out” fit into this? (Major spoiler warning, so look out.)
As a horror movie, I think “Lights Out” does its job; from the get-go audiences are immediately made aware that they can’t trust the dark, and watching it counts as at the top of the most stressful 81 minutes I’ve spent at a movie theater. Much like a haunted house, there isn’t a lot of breathing room in the movie, which almost makes up for the fact that it really isn’t that long–and reminds me that I have a problem with a movie running at 81 minutes costing as much as a movie with a run time just under half of that. I did go to get scared, and, within about five minutes into the film, I was. Not bad.
What I do have a problem with is the central metaphor of the movie. The filmmakers themselves have said that the villain, “Diana,” is a metaphor for depression, and I get it. As far as representing depression as a monster, I’m not going to say they did a bad job. Diana tears the family apart and is genuinely frightening. While not all people who experience mental illness lose their family because of it, there is little doubt in my mind that for most people, not being in control of what their brain is doing–whether because it’s causing mania or because you’re anxious for no apparent reason or you’re experiencing hallucinations–is not only unpleasant, but a scary experience. Furthermore, I think it is important that her kids are capable of seeing Diana, and that Martin, the youngest, wants nothing more than to save his mother. Seeing a parent struggle with mental illness, especially at a young age, can result in feelings of helplessness: on the one hand, your parents are supposed to take care of you, but at the same time, you only want to help them get better and frequently kids feel like there’s nothing they can do to help.
The fact that Diana is real and the mother does have a history of depression–and that the two things exist at the same time–also strikes me as an important difference from the way horror usually portrays mental illness. In horror, you come across women who are either accused of being crazy because they’re seeing the ghosts/monsters/et cetera and then forgiven or apologized to once it becomes clear that the horror is real–or the crazy person is the villain all along. There rarely exists a middle ground, and that Sophie is as much a victim of abuse (at the hands of Diana) and one of the people who does have a genuine mental illness does, again, seem pretty important. It happens so rarely in horror that it’s striking that it has happened here.
It’s the ending that bothers me. Sophie finally starts to combat Diana because her kids are being threatened, and then attempts to take her medication (which I thought was weird because even mood stabilizers take at least a week to have a full effect, but whatever) only to have it knocked out of her hands. Because of this, she realizes that the only way to save her children from Diana–which we’ve already established is Literally Depression–is to…kill herself?
The AV Club has already talked about it, but humor me for a moment. Based on the ending that’s provided, this movie is (whether intentionally or not) telling audiences that, if you are for whatever reason unable to take medication for your mental illness, the best thing you can do for your family is to kill yourself before you let your mental illness kill them.
I doubt that that was the actual intention behind the film or the decision that led to the ending, but let’s be real: audiences aren’t mind readers, and we can’t determine author intent (or filmmaker intent, I guess). For one thing, it’s not a particularly satisfying ending in the first place, since the entire movie was so tense that the actual climax only lasted what felt like 30 seconds and there was no major struggle there between Sophie and Diana. A gunshot does not character growth make. A decision–like, an actual decision that people with mental illness have to make–not to let Diana rule her life and her children’s lives might have been more powerful and allowed for more autonomy on Sophie’s part.
We’re told honestly in a scene between her and her son that sometimes she just needs a person who will make her feel safe, and we’re told by her son that sometimes the bravest thing a person can do is face the thing that they’re most afraid of. So why can’t we have had the ending be her telling Diana straight up, “You might always try to get in my head, but I’ve made the decision that you have to go?” Why can’t we have something that offers actual conflict resolution–that is, Sophie making the decision for herself and her family to get the treatment she needs (and, judging by the house she lives in, can probably afford)–with the promise that this family might be able to heal with minimal casualties instead of the solution being “Sophie kills herself?”
With the ending that we have, there’s a dead woman who was suffering from lifelong depression and the expectation that sometimes people who are sick are better off dead. Not really the kind of message I wanted from an 81 minute movie that cost me 13 dollars to see.