A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau reported a staggering 31% upswing in anxiety and depression during the pandemic’s second year, while another found a threefold increase in depression symptoms during that period, which means it’s not just you: languishing spiked in an enormous way these past few years and likely hasn’t decreased much.
And I sense that none of us really need to ask why this is. Depression is such an overdetermined phenomenon in our time that it’s impossible to assign blame to any one contributing factor, but the isolation, disruption, and pervasive climate of fear over the past three years are undeniable contributors. Exhausted, dismayed, and afraid of conspiracy theorists, shootings, communicable diseases, and wars both actual and possible: to be alive in the United States has been to live and work in a miasma of moral terror without much of a breathing apparatus to filter out the carcinogens and contaminants.
For many of us, when we return to the relative safety of home after a long day at work we need to decompress from the unremitting weight which encompasses throughout the day, every day. Sometimes, perhaps, we look for diversions, but it’s become easier than ever for horror fans like myself to seek relief with media that reflects the present back to us. This can be positively therapeutic, no doubt, but it can also exacerbate our dread and our hopelessness when we marinate in much of the same bleakness that we have no choice but to dive into every day.
This is not in any way a claim that horror is responsible for the contemporary pervasiveness of depression. I am no Frederic Wertham and this is no philippic against the moral noxiousness of horror. But when I deny that I am not claiming there is never any connection between depression and horror, either.
To locate blame in horror would be to indulge in a fantasy of innocent subjects coming to this type of artifact, the use of which activates the insidious potential coiled within it. But this is a pedestrian moralism, not Christian faith seeking to understand. For no human being comes to horror in this manner. We are not tabulae rasae without inclinations or predilections or triggers prior to our encounter with horror. We are already constellations of guilt, fear, and dimly understood motivations primed for manipulation. We already bear within us connections to and complicity with patterns and structures of sin which implicate our very senses of self. There is thus no pure subject who comes to horror and finds themselves corrupted by this force wholly outside of themselves — the darkness is always already within us, intimate and yet alien to us (Romans 7:15-23).
Furthermore, it simply isn’t the case that most of us were well-adjusted, compulsively cheerful people until we discovered horror. I, for instance, am of a melancholic disposition, and I find it very easy to be at ease and feel my stress dissipate when I sink into a comfortable chair and turn on a horror movie, especially if there’s a thunderstorm occurring at the same time. It’s almost too perfect. I also love walking through cemeteries and dark woods; I feel spectacularly alive when I get to do so. Not only then, certainly — other, “brighter” things can do the trick, too — but the outcome is assured whenever I take these shadow-cloaked routes.
I say all this to make clear that I don’t resort to spooky stories and extinguished lights out of a resignation to darkness and despair; the pleasure I derive from these things is real and is magnificent. As far as I can tell, the mood and the enjoyment of an aesthetic, of the sublime, came before I ever had an anxiety disorder or nervous breakdown.
This love of horror has provoked consternation in many Christians I’ve known over the years. I’ve always found this odd. I think there is a contradiction they repress from consciousness as many of them, when asked what genres they like, have answered, “mysteries,” or, “thrillers.” And I still don’t understand why a forensic investigation of a serial murderer’s rampage checks out, but horror — my gosh, never. Or when they’ve said, “fantasy,” and gush about The Lord of the Rings, they completely bypass how Sauron is the demonic servant of Middle-Earth’s Satan, Melkor, or how the Ringwraiths are the phantom slaves of that demonic overlord. Frightening, eerie things get a pass in some settings, but in others those elements are sanitized with what I find to be an arbitrary categorization. “Oh, I hate horror, but I love a good psychological thriller!” makes about as much sense to me as, “I can’t stomach violence, but I love Westerns!”
The assumption many Christians seem to have is that stories that put the darkly paranormal front and center somehow conjure its real world analogues into your living room. Or that deriving pleasure from the confrontation with such things is more sinister or perverse than is the pleasure derived from watching a protagonist escape a T. rex or the enjoyable chill that drips down your spine knowing the outlaw leader is coming back and our heroes aren’t ready. Horror, to me, feels like the same type of story but on a scale that could actually take place for me. I think that many American Christians have not been formed to appreciate the sublime and so they enjoy some morsels of it in other genres but decline and even decry the meal at the table, like patrons complaining the main course is too succulent.
Certainly horror can exacerbate depression and give the temptation we already have to look over the precipice into the abyss and fling ourselves down with the tiniest extra nudge. But that temptation is always already with us. Horror doesn’t create it; horror doesn’t exercise an irresistible un-grace that converts the viewer into a worshiper of darkness. But if we are not wise we can succumb to the death-drive our fallenness already undergoes as part of our inheritance in Adam. Just the same as any other good thing.
What we who love horror need to recognize is that if we treat horror as our go-to we will periodically be disappointed. First, we will disparage the motifs and the conventions and the devices with which we fell in love in the first place. (Notice how I didn’t use the word “trope” there? It seems to me our use of that word is an index of cynicism’s saturation.)
I’m not saying that there aren’t stupid things which mar many horror films: infuriatingly stupid decisions, lazy characterization, rote jump scares, assembly line plot beats. There are so many things of which this genre is often guilty, and we should be the first ones to admit it. The Scream franchise began for a reason, as so many films were inferior clones of earlier ones with different character names to conceal the obvious recycling taking place.
But something else is at work, I think, when we begin lamenting and becoming disgusted with the identifying features which make a film a horror film. Again, these things, if and when they are handled without care, can operate as nothing more than badges — ghosts and ghouls almost unmistakably signal a horror film is underway but hardly guarantee they are being utilized well — but their existence in a film is not ipso facto evidence of the film’s unworthiness.
Secondly, we expect too much from horror when we turn to it to absorb the horror of our days. Again, I’m not denying that it can; I am insisting it cannot always do so. That it can bind our wounds and make sense of the chaos of our world does not mean this is its guaranteed medicinal value whenever we type “horror” into the search box.
Increasingly, I wonder if Christian appreciators of horror sacrifice some of our revolutionary edge when we acclimate to a numbness of feeling and concern by absentmindedly turning to the genre to bring our day to its close. If it becomes so routine as to become a path of least resistance, doesn’t it amount to a nerve-deadening addiction? When we are regularly tuning into something in spite of our dissatisfaction, when the dread stops being delicious and instead seems to characterize life itself, have we not simply plugged ourselves into the IV of non-feeling?
I shudder as I remember cumulative months lost, not seeing friends, not writing, not recording, holed up in a skin-tight parallel universe of solitude, sodden with monotony and scrupulous faux-obligation, indulging the impulse I felt to rent and watch sub-par horror movies and eat junk food and miss out on life with real people doing real things. What’s most frightening for me in retrospect is how strong the gravitational pull towards this collapsed-life was, how its crushing dreariness is only apparent to me looking back on it now. In the moment, I exemplified the, “This is fine” meme, simply existing within the comfortable squalor of mediocrity.
This self-excluding cage of emotional starvation maintains a state of being minimally alive, protracting the numbness beyond a single moment of release from the obligation to feel. Depression, after all, isn’t simply a stronger-than-usual case of sadness: it’s the bottom giving out on the equilibrium we need not only to survive but to thrive. It’s a loss of atmosphere which we can nourish by yielding to the temptation to forgo feeling almost completely. “Almost,” because even though we may complain of our boredom or the insubstantiality of what we must do each day, it is easier by far to remain locked within the opiate haze which banishes care almost entirely. It’s exhausting to care, and maintaining vigilance in care throughout weeks of casual cruelty and indifference and meaningless vocational duties is such a monumental burden to bear.
The appreciation of horror seems, at least in part, to consist in the recognition of a truth other types of stories want to ignore or paper over. Horror is a witness to the monstrous we wish we could explain away but cannot. I wonder if those of us with trauma in our backgrounds have a predisposition towards stories and aesthetics of this type because we derive a sense of satisfaction from seeing our experience validated in art. The pleasure may not be as straightforward as a scintillatingly hued sunset or an orchard in full bloom, but that is also due to the fact that no one has any stake in those things’ denial. But in hearing some aspect of what we know to be true acknowledged, there is a pleasure in the vindication.
But it can also be a shell encasing our fragility, promising relief from the care we are called upon to show in our relationships with the world beyond ourselves. Both potentialities are real and are dialectically paired: the possibility of validation and enjoyment is inescapably bound up with the possibility of self-estrangement. The truth of life’s darkness doesn’t legitimize withdrawal from the responsibilities that accompany that darkness. For there is no pure instantiation of anything in the fallen economy of goods, nothing that can never be misused or without its own characteristic damage, and it is naive to assume otherwise.
You and I are not sufficient in ourselves to guarantee the ongoing utility or beauty of any created thing. What is one day experienced as a life-saving gift can sink its fangs into us on another, when the respite we need becomes not succor but a routine expectation. This looks like an acceptance that the world is fundamentally broken and fragmented, but not moving beyond that dissolution to test the leading edges of another world underneath or behind that brokenness.
Hélène Cixous writes that the loss of a “world” leads to the discovery that the world we assume isn’t the totality of the real, that the world evades our assumptions and easy codifications. “Without that, we know nothing about the mortality and immortality we carry. We don’t know we’re alive as long as we haven’t encountered death: these are banalities that have been erased. And it is an act of grace.”
Banality must be put to death, but it also must take up newness of life. We resent banality in art and in life because we sense that what is being offered ought to mean more and ought to impact us more deeply. We sense good things are being misused or not given justice, but it also shows us the fickleness of our own appreciation.
Banality, after all, is the shadow side of the simple good, indicating to us the elusiveness of what we most desire by proving quite painfully that even the object for which we strive can let us down. That which we are conscious of desiring, if provided when we are unprepared for its reception, can be as disappointing as ongoing lack. Whether the fault is in us or in the objects of our desiring, it’s all a witness that fulfillment is not forthcoming in this vale of tears.
It seems to me that this depressive aspect of the engagement with horror is found in our expectation of more even when a given film competently delivers something that is worthwhile. I remember watching Blood Vessel, for instance, and being deeply gratified. It attempted nothing subversive, nor was it particularly innovative. It just offered two great tastes that taste great together: heinous vampiric creatures and World War II. It solidly depicted a dark fantastic adventure from beginning to end and almost never felt like it was taking advantage of my willingness to plug in.
There was nothing that could be mistaken for avant-garde in Blood Vessel. But I don’t feel like I was cheated because it was fun — a lot of fun. And that ought to be enough at least some of the time! Yes, it’s fantastic when horror makes inroads to critical appreciation, but this always carries the potential for that temptation to settle for nothing less than the obscurantism of the most cinematically enlightened. (Looking at you, A24.) If we place too-stringent demands upon the goods we are offered we will not recognize the good that is on offer within them, and we will become acclimated to nothingness.
We have to be on guard. Depression is not nihilism, but it is acquainted with it. There is a colonization by nothingness that makes the experience of depression what it is. But there is still the ambition for something other in the depressed state. Or at least, there often is, so long as we do not succumb to its soul-flattening predation. So while it makes sense to seek release from horrible things outside of our control through horror, do be sure to nourish yourself with other things as well, to preserve your humanity, or else you will diminish into a shadow of a person, framed by dread and fearful of the light.
A sense of liberty is so frequently the Trojan Horse by which we accept gifts from ghouls, and tighten our grip on the very thing that is hurting us. You can be sure that when something you can do begins to feel like something you must do, its latent characteristic damage has twisted this good thing into a parody of itself. The abreactive, healing potential of horror is not an assured outcome, only a possibility given certain conditions.
If there is one thing of which The Babadook is illustrative, it is the fact that darkness can never be exiled entirely. If we pretend it doesn’t exist, it only grows in strength, but if we orient everything around it we likewise surrender ourselves to its depredation. But what we can do is acknowledge it, for in doing so we shrink the extent of its power over us.
There is no version of our lives in which darkness is not there. We have only the choice of how to engage it and how even to be compassionate towards it. But we must not be naive: we must be wise as serpents, acquainted with the darkness, but never trying to fool ourselves we have domesticated it. For in such presumption lies the living death of solipsistic numbness.
The hope of wholeness, after all, is anchored in the darkness of Golgotha in which the Son of God accepts destitution and forsakenness. The beauty of atonement is accomplished in the grotesque abjection of an innocent man being tortured to death. But beauty and repulsion, light and darkness, are always intertwined within one another; it is ideology that tries to cleanly separate and absolutize them.
But not all darkness is salted with that light, and when we recognize that the medicinal value of darkness isn’t transportive, cathartic, or even just fun, then we are habituating ourselves to alienation, of which we do not need any more. The crucified Nazarene meets us in the darkness not once but again and again in a world that is only ever shades of dark. He wants to equip us for negotiating life in this present darkness, not to sanitize it. He will brave the darkness with us, but will also tell us when we are feeding ourselves with nothingness.