Mental Illness Representation in Horror: The Babadook vs Lights Out

Recently, we watched Lights Out for the first time. The trailer didn’t generate much interest for either of us and reviews were mediocre at best so we didn’t have high expectations going in. But hey, we were able to rent it from the library for free, so we figured why not give this film a whirl and see if it was better than anticipated!

Sadly, Lights Out was even more of a disappointment than we were expecting. Despite its promising roots as a short film, the entire movie was a mess. What did surprise us were the similarities between Lights Out and The Babadook, a 2014 Canadian-Australian horror film that had similar themes of a mother suffering from the effects of mental illness and isolation. Both were also based on short films that you can watch below:

Both short films are incredibly strong with some serious tension. Lights Out’s simple jump-scare is well crafted and achieves its goal of being absolutely terrifying. Monster, the short film that later became The Babadook, is also a strong short film though the broad ideas it attempts to address translate much better once it has room to breathe as a feature. So despite their similar themes, stories, characters, and beginnings as successful short films, why was The Babadook a better film than Lights Out?

1. Representation of Mental Illness 

The Babadook is superior to Lights Out due to its accuracy when representing mental illness. Both films choose to use monsters as physical manifestations of mental illness in middle-aged mothers who have recently lost spouses. In Lights Out, our villain is a woman named Diana, a silhouetted creature who lives in darkness. She haunts Sophie, a depressed mother whose relationships with others have become strained due to her mental illness. When Sophie’s depression is at its worst, Diana appears to whisk Sophie away into a state of darkness. Diana does everything she can to remain a part of Sophie’s life, terrified that Sophie will “forget” her (implying that Diana may be a memory? It’s never very clear whether she’s a ghost, memory, demon, or some other creature nor is it clear what Sophie can do to be rid of her). Diana goes so far as to kill Sophie’s spouse when he begins to investigate what may be causing her traumatic episodes. Sophie’s children, Rebecca and Martin, abandon her during these periods, unable and unwilling to understand what she is going through. They make no attempt to try and help her, insisting that she brings the situation upon herself and that she is intentionally hurting them. When Sophie tries to tell her daughter that she is suffering, the only solution Rebecca offers is that her mother takes medication. She won’t even consider having a mature discussion about how her mother feels. Needless to say, this is a very inappropriate reaction. Sophie is in pain and trying to reach out for help only to be met with no compassion. The message is clear: as long as Sophie is depressed, she is a liability that hinders her loved ones’ happiness. 

Diana is what nightmares are made of.

Diana is what nightmares are made of.

A similar but far more successful setup is used in The Babadook. Amelia, the protagonist, tries to live her life normally after her husband’s tragic death but never takes the time to process her emotions, causing her to vent her grief in unhealthy ways that include physically assaulting her son, Sam. Her grief starts to take form as a terrifying monster called the Babadook, a creature only visible to her and Sam. Sam is terrified of the Babadook to the point he is unable to sleep at night for fear that he will be attacked. Despite fearing what his mother’s grief is capable of, Sam recognizes that she is not in a state of mind where she can think logically and that in order to help her overcome her problems, he has to work with her, not against her. With Sam’s help, we see Amelia’s struggle with mania, paranoia, and depression become a journey of growth for her across the film. Together, they work as one to bring peace to Amelia’s life and stability to their relationship, an option that is never presented for Sophie.

Where The Babadook really outshines Lights Out is in the ending. Throughout The Babadook, Amelia experiences strange events such as doors slamming and shards of glass in her food, all of which she attributes to Sam. He blames the Babadook but his mother refuses to believe that such a creature exists. She becomes paranoid and abusive as the Babadook starts to take hold of her. Eventually, Sam and Amelia are able to conquer the Babadook, banishing him to the basement where he lives in purgatory. Amelia can never fully kill the monster, just like she can never forget her husband’s death or heal the emotional scars her son now suffers from, but she is able to face her demon head on and remove the power he holds over her. This is a stark contrast to Sophie’s fate. Sophie seems to consider Diana a friend that is ruining her relationship with her children rather than a negative force. She makes almost no effort to manage Diana’s hold on her life. It’s not until Diana threatens to kill Sophie’s children that she finally takes serious action…. by shooting herself in the head under the pretense that this will cause Diana to disappear for good. Ignoring the fact it is never mentioned Diana would vanish in the event of Sophie’s death, it is disappointing that Lights Out chooses to handle Sophie’s depression in such a way. Sophie never mentions suicide or self-harm at any point in the film so her decision to end her life does not feel like a conscious, thought-out choice she is making to end her struggles. In fact, the effects she feels from Diana and her depression seem to play no part in her suicide at all. Instead, she kills herself because she doesn’t like how her mental illness plagues her children. We’re so focused on how Sophie’s depression effects and inconveniences everyone else but it’s never questioned why Sophie feels the way she does or how people are helping her deal with her problems. She doesn’t kill herself because Diana hurts her or because she feels isolated and lost. No, instead she sees herself as a problem for her children so she ends her life so they won’t have to deal with her anymore. Amelia’s journey involves her conquering and co-existing with her mental illness and the hurt it has caused whereas Sophie’s story feels incomplete and unsatisfying due to the lack of consideration for her state of mind when she makes the decision to end her own life. You can’t make a movie about a depressed character who commits suicide and say that depression played no part in their decision to end their life (unless you’re 13 Reasons Why but that’s a whole separate story). 

2. The Metaphor

In many horror movies, supernatural demons represent inner conflicts the protagonist faces (we explored this last week in our essay on Pan’s Labyrinth). In order for these metaphors to be successful, the film still has to make sense when the supernatural elements are removed. Otherwise, the metaphor is lost and the monster becomes a literal creature rather than a placeholder for deeper subtext.

If we were to remove the titular character from The Babadook, everything that happens still logically makes sense. The Babadook never does anything Amelia herself could not do. Amelia finds glass in her food because she puts it there and her son is acting out because he lives with an abusive parent. Whenever we see the Babadook do anything in the film, we know that these are actually Amelia’s actions motivated by her grief and altered state of mind. Removing the Babadook does not change the story in any way because he is only a subtextual element, not a literal being. It also helps that the only characters to ever see the Babadook are Amelia and her son as they are the only two people who would feel the full effects of Amelia’s depression. Other characters notice changes in Sam and Amelia’s behaviour but they never actually see the Babadook because they do not feel the direct repercussions of Amelia’s actions. Keeping the metaphor contained within Amelia’s family creates a realistic and comprehensive metaphor that is easy for the audience to understand yet subtle enough to allow for subtext.

In addition to being a great metaphor, the Babadook is also incredibly terrifying!

In addition to being a great metaphor, the Babadook is also incredibly terrifying!

Diana is not nearly as successful a villain. If we attribute all of Diana’s actions to Sophie (as we would, since it is Sophie’s depression that is represented in the demon), is that supposed to mean Sophie killed her ex-husband when he investigated into her depression? Diana tormenting Rebecca and Martin makes sense since they are close to Sophie and undoubtedly would feel the effects of her depression but when Brad, Rebecca’s boyfriend, first stays over at Sophie’s house, he too is chased and attacked by Diana. Is Brad supposed to be feeling the effects of Sophie’s state of mind when he hardly knows her? When Diana later kills two police officers, this cannot possibly be attributed to Sophie because she is knocked out on a different floor of the house. Is her depression supposed to be so severe and compelling that it affects people who have never met her? If you remove Diana from the film, the story just does not hold up.

3. The Rules

All stories have rules that they must follow in order for the story to make sense. Books and films can create situations that are unlikely to happen but as long as the characters are believable and the universe is consistent with what it has previously established to be possible the audience is able to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. It’s why we can watch Harry Potter and accept that wizards go to a secret school and fight each other -- because the Potter universe sets up what is possible to accomplish with magic and then follows those rules consistently throughout all eight films. It’s also why in these same movies, it feels weird if Harry steps out of a lake and then has dry hair five seconds later. Sure, dry hair is hardly unrealistic in comparison to the practicality of a secret magical society but because of the story’s setup, you are willing to accept what is and is not possible based on the rules you were given. You were told that magic exists, so you believe it for the sake of the story. You were never told Harry had super-powered, quick-drying hair so it stands out as an unbelievable error that just doesn’t make sense.

Hermione believes in magic AND the wonder of storytelling!

Hermione believes in magic AND the wonder of storytelling!

The Babadook has one straightforward rule: ignoring him will make him more powerful. Throughout the film, Amelia constantly ignores her son’s complaints about the Babadook. She insists that the Babadook is not real and that her son is making everything up and as she does so, the Babadook’s attacks become more frequent. Once she works with her son to acknowledge the creature, he becomes weaker and she is able to defeat him. While we know that a creature like the Babadook could never exist in real life, we believe that it could exist in this film because it is set up logically and never breaks the rules that establish its existence.

There is also one rule for Diana: she cannot exist in light. This rule is pretty consistent in the first act of the film but falls apart at the climax once Rebecca and Martin hunt her down. It’s discovered that blacklight doesn’t affect Diana so when you shine it on her, you can still see her. This is a bit of a stretch since she technically is in a light source but okay, we'll buy it. However, upon discovering this, Rebecca pins Diana down and shines a flashlight directly on her, causing her to burn instead of disappearing. This makes no sense because the one rule used to create Diana is broken for the sake of the climax of the film. The intensity of the story is prioritized over the logistics of the demon, making her unbelievable and ruining her setup. It especially is confusing because there were previous situations in the film where the characters tried to trap Diana in light but couldn’t. Were they supposed to grab hold of her and turn the lights on? Would that have even worked? We simply don’t know because the rules are not clear.

If you liked Lights Out, we hope that you won’t take too much offense. Under a stronger script with a consistent and logical metaphor, the story has a chance -- maybe the planned sequel will be able to deliver. But why bother with another Lights Out when a perfectly good counterpart already exists for you to watch? The Babadook is everything that Lights Out wasn’t and if you didn’t already want to see it, we hope we’ve changed your mind.