Friday, August 12, 2016

On Lights Out, mental illness, and the power of assumptions.

Last night I went to a drive-in movie for the first time in my life to see Suicide Squad (which was way better than has been advertised, I might add). The theater was offering it as a double feature paired with Lights Out, a movie I hadn't really heard much about but saw has good numbers on Rotten Tomatoes. It clocks in at eighty minutes long, and I enjoyed it like crazy for seventy-five of those minutes. But then, in the last five minutes, something happened that changed my opinion of the movie fairly drastically.


Proceed at your own risk.


Before I start analyzing the movie's choices and how those reflect some serious issues writers of all media and genre face, let me make sure you know a little about the movie. First, here's the synopsis from iMDb:

When her little brother, Martin, experiences the same events that once tested her sanity, Rebecca works to unlock the truth behind the terror, which brings her face to face with an entity that has an attachment to their mother, Sophie.
Okay, so just from that synopsis you get the idea that this movie will have psychological elements to it, thanks to some key-words: "Sanity," "Terror," "Attachment." And the ever Freudian go-to topic, "Mother." I kid a little here, after all, those words could be found in a myriad of other horror movie synopsis, but for this particular movie, they actually do foretell a story that will involve a great deal of issues regarding mental illness. And the way mental illness is handled in this movie reveals a lot about our society and the troubling way we, to this day, view people who struggle with their own emotional and mental health.

Sophie, the mother in this story, struggles with depression. This is stated from the beginning of the movie. There are also a couple of mentions that she has manic episodes. If these are to be taken as intentional character developing points, then Sophie most likely has bipolar disorder. And at the start of the movie, it's established that she has stopped taking her prescribed medication. It's because of this that a shadowy creature named Diana has begun to visit their home and terrorize Martin.

I'll pause here to say that the message of the story as presented at the beginning is clear, maybe even too clear (but not M. Night Shyamalan status, so at least it isn't preachy): Mental illness affects the whole family, and when we don't take care of ourselves, we are really hurting those around us. And there isn't anything wrong with that message, or even with having a message at all. The problem arises, however, as it does so often when we write primarily to communicate a theme or message over conveying a story. And this problem is so incredibly important that I'm going to give it its own, single line paragraph.

When you leave character development to assumption, you harm your story, your characters, and your readers.

Let me explain what I mean. In Lights Out, we are told that Sophie suffers from depression (and, as I said, possibly bipolar disorder). That is the extend of her character development. Every decision she makes throughout the story is based not on the well-crafted layers of character development, but rather on the assumptions that the writers and the viewers have (or are expected to have) about people with mental illness. She isn't a character that has depression, she is depression, and that's all.

The reason this is such an issue is because assumptions are the weakest of elements on which to base a character. Assumptions are unproven, unchallenged, unquestioned. They are silent and dormant, and they crumble when brought into the light. Hence, when a character is based on an assumption (ie. "she has mental illness, and this is how people with mental illness act," or "he's gay, and this is how gay people act," or "he's a preacher, and this is how preachers act," etc.) they are going to be unmemorable at best and the very reason a story falls apart at worst.

And that is what happens in Lights Out. As the movie progresses, we learn that Diana always comes when Sophie's mental condition becomes unstable. Diana and Sophie first became "friends" in a mental institution. Diana is the reason Sophie lost both of her husbands. And now Diana is trying to kill Sophie's children.

It is Sophie's responsibility, then, to get rid of Diana. And how does she do this? Exactly as many people assume a person who is off their meds, particularly if they are bipolar, would. She puts a bullet in her brain.

And the worst of it all is, it actually works.

Sophie's family has been tormented because of her depression for years and now, as an act of sacrifice to free them from the burden, she commits suicide. In the final scene of the movie, her children sit in an ambulance, relieved and ready to finally move on with their lives and be happy. Now that they just witnessed their mother commit suicide.

David Sandberg, the director of Lights Out, has addressed this issue and stated that he had a different ending in mind but the test audiences didn't appreciate it. They were much happier to see a mother sacrifice herself to save her children. An outcome they probably wouldn't have had if Sophie was a more complex character based on more than just an assumption. But since, to the audience, Sophie was the personification of depression or bipolar disorder, of course they wanted the fix to be simple and the ending to be easy. We all want there to be a simple, easy end to mental illness. We want people to find a way to "snap out of it." And if people refuse to take their meds, then they aren't doing their part to help themselves and they should be blamed for the pain they inflict on their families. Therefore, whether we want to admit it or not, the progression of those assumptions is that suicide is a justifiable, honorable way to deal with mental illness. Provided it works.

None of these issues would have been issues if only they would have made Sophie into a human being, fully developed and multi layered. But they didn't.

Hopefully, in your writing, you will.


(BTW, don't forget to preorder my book, AbrakaPOW, in which I challenge as many assumptions from the WW2 era as possible!)

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