Nothing cheers me up quite like a good horror film. Therefore when I woke up last Saturday hungover and feeling decidedly sorry for myself, I could think of no better way to perk up than to heave myself out of bed and go see Lights Out. However, I didn’t expect to leave so confused, unable to figure out what I was supposed to take away from what I had just seen.
Adapted from the short film of the same name, Lights Out sees a family terrorised by a monster only visible in the dark. After Max’s father is violently murdered, he starts to see the shadow of his mother Sophie’s friend Diana moving in the darkness in his house. When he is unable to sleep from fear, his half sister Rebecca intervenes, having also been tormented by Diana when her father left many years ago. As Diana becomes violent and it becomes clear that she is not the friendly presence Sophie believes her to be, the family are forced to move past their dysfunctions in order to stay alive.
The film is instantly chilling, from the first time we see Diana’s silhouette in the basement factory disappear when the lights are switched on. Although there are a lot of jump scares, there is a truly creepy edge to Lights Out, not least of all because it becomes clear almost immediately that Diana is a manifestation of Sophie’s breakdown after losing her husband and stopping her medication.
Rebecca discovers that Sophie, battling intense depression, was institutionalised as a young girl and there met Diana, who suffered from an extreme light allergy and committed for violent behaviour. The doctors attempted light therapy on Diana, but it went tragically wrong and she was killed. Subsequently, whenever Sophie was going through a tough time and stopped taking her medication, Diana would return to her life, having convinced her that everyone had lied about her death, confined to the shadows and unable to exist in the light.
Although quite heavy handed, I found the metaphor of depression as a violent person who lives in the shadows and you believe to be your friend fairly persuasive. The film stays true to this as Rebecca and Max understand the importance of convincing their mother of Diana’s malevolence (and getting Sophie to take her medication) alongside trying to defeat Diana themselves. It is because of how clear the metaphor is throughout, however, that the end of the film is troubling.
Sophie finally begins to see that Diana, against her expressed wishes, is trying to hurt her children and attempts to take her medication and fight Diana herself, stating, ‘there’s no you without me’ (in case you hadn’t grasped how the relationship worked yet), but Diana knocks her out. As Diana corners Rebecca and Max and all seems lost, Sophie appears and shoots herself in the head, killing Diana with her.
The film seems to be saying that if you are suffering from depression and feel it’s taking a toll on those around you, taking medication or seeking help won’t fix it, but suicide will. In the film this is presented more as a twist that this is how to defeat Diana, but when the metaphor was hammered home so hard throughout, it is in fact stating that this is how to defeat depression. Whether or not this was the intended take away from the film, which hopefully it wasn’t, it makes it difficult to come away feeling positive about it.
The manifestation of maternal mental illness in a creepy figure with long fingernails that haunts a family during the night is heavily borrowed from The Babadook, but what Lights Out needed to be successful was to also emulate its subtlety, ambiguity and relative sensitivity in order to avoid such an ultimately offensive and close-minded message.