Mental Health Horror

The arrival of everyone’s favorite spooky season may be the harbinger of something more frightening than the ghouls, goblins and ghosts afoot this month: seasonal depression.

For many, the crisp autumn air may be a refreshing change of pace from a scorching summer. The crunch of leaves and carved pumpkins on front steps often bring back fond memories from my childhood, when I was eager to celebrate Halloween all October long. Yet as the annual cycle winds down and cools off, many can turn to memories that aren’t as sweet. The season of the macabre certainly doesn’t promote warm fuzzies in the way its succeeding holiday season does. Some of our favorite modes of celebrating the fall occasion, horror movies, explore what might otherwise be taboo in the every day: death, violence, terror.

As the horror genre matures and sophisticates, I, an avid fan, have noticed some of the best scary films delve deeper than that which goes bump in the night. The films that have truly left me breathless, heart and thoughts racing, tackle the horror of the human experience.

Back in college, my senior thesis project investigated the question: can fear be pleasurable? The short answer, backed by professional research, is yes. The genre wouldn’t be such a ticket-generator if that weren’t the case. Blockbuster horror films allow us to tap into primal instincts of fight or flight in the comfort of a theater or living room. The sight of Reagan MacNeil’s head spinning in The Exorcist or little Georgie Denbrough getting slurped into a storm drain in It is both shocking and exciting to the mind. Allowing ourselves some time to experience these thrills and chills via the screen offers up the chance to check in with a healthy range of emotions. Killer clowns and pea-soup spewing demons are objectively frightening and it is well we react as if they are.

I believe filmmakers up the ante when the horror on screen is more reflective of its audience. Generally speaking, I do not encounter creatures, monsters, or unhinged masked murderers in my day-to-day. But as the warm days of the year seep into a quieter, more wistful string of time, themes of isolation, depression and dread are likely to terrify me by incorporating their familiarity.

The most recent, successful example of a horror project best exploring this is the masterful The Haunting of Hill House (2018). More than a haunted mansion tale, the Netflix series is a family tragedy with a ghostly backdrop. When I first watched the series in one sitting two years ago, I found myself amazed at the sheer brilliance of the script, binding together grief and trauma with haunting visuals. Without offering spoilers (although I’m not sure what has taken you this long to watch this instant classic), Hill House left me asking myself: what if what I feared in the night when I was little was just what haunts me today as an adult?

Photo: Netflix

The wide-range of mental health challenges a person can face are at their least, inhibiting, and at most, fatal. A more recent media spotlight on mental illness has pinpointed and began to normalize what was once believed to be “crazy.” Depression, anxiety, addiction, mania; it’s all not so atypical. The roots of illness, the trauma from loss, abuse, violence, and the broken in-betweens, are the real horror story.

I believe more effective horror is made when we look these issues head-on through the lens of fiction. The popular cult horror films Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) from the mind of Ari Aster both feature inciting incidents of family tragedy. The two works, known for their shocking, often grotesque horror imagery, bank on the characters’ nightmarish dealings with grief. With the added bells and whistles of the genre, such manifestations of the dark side of the mind in horror no longer seem so out of reach.

Taking with me these considerations about high-brow horror, this weekend I eagerly watched the long-awaited The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). A worthy follow-up to its predecessor Hill House, Bly is very much a gothic love story. Its nine episodes carried the same cadence as a campfire tale, casting a spell of warmth about the anguished grounds of Bly Manor. Like Hill House, Bly is deeply sad. But where the Crain family members lose themselves after their stay at Hill House, the new characters end up at Bly Manor because they have already lost too much. Once again the series’ scripted genius revealed to me the human experience, even romantic love, can bear its own haunting.