Mental Health in Cinema
Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.Stephen King
Anybody that knows me well will be aware that I am a great lover of horror fiction. In fact, so much so, my degree dissertation was on Gothic literature specifically. It is hard to say where this love came from exactly. Definitely not my childhood, I was an absolute wimp. But if I had to guess, it would be the obvious links between what we fear, and our unconscious.
You see, horror fiction is incredible in that it completely bypasses reason. It is fiction, we know it is, but it is still able to conjure powerful feelings within us. It interacts with us on a deeper level.
Beneath the vampires, werewolves, poltergeists and witches there is something else. Something far more personal. It is not the surface level imagery in horror that scares us. No. It is our anxieties reflected beneath.
This is reflected in Freud’s term, the uncanny. If one looks up the more basic definition, it seems pretty simple:
“strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.”
Freud’s original usage of the term however, was something far more layered. Whilst he tells us,
” It undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread”Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny
he goes on to carefully differentiate it from something we may merely consider “fearful”. Like so much in psychoanalysis, it is far more nuanced. He concludes that,
“the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny
This is the crux of what makes something uncanny. It is at once, both familiar and uncomfortable.
And this is what makes horror great. Not the monsters, gore and spectacle, although they do play a role, but that all to familiar unease it places upon us. Take one of my favourite horror films of the modern era: Jennifer Kent’s, The Babadook.
This film left me feeling so uncomfortable. It is a film that affected me so much much at the time of watching it, it may get a blog post of its own one day.
But to quickly highlight my point. Babadook does not use gore or incredibly realistic monsters to bestow fear upon the viewer. No. Instead, it uses the normality of its setting and the pervasive feelings of grief felt by its protagonists to create a lingering sense of dread, and near palpable unease.
The fear is not of the monster, the Babadook, but of feelings long repressed.
The feeling of the uncanny is further heightened by the design of the monster. It looks like any shadows one might find in their bedroom late at night. Something perfectly normal, if it weren’t for the games played by our own mind. It doesn’t need to elicit fear. It lets our unconscious do the work.
The monster is not supernatural, but a re-figuring of the lead character’s complex feelings surrounding the death of her partner, and the unresolved issues buried beneath the surface. Something beautifully portrayed by the role of the basement throughout.
So now, enough setting the scene, it’s time for It: Chapter 2.
I recently watched this in cinema, and have to say, I really enjoyed it. Did I find it particularly scary? Well…
No. But did it get me thinking?
Before I go on – For those unacquainted with Stephen King’s It that may still wish to watch the film – here is your warning: this will contain spoilers.
In watching this film, I was taken back by just how much it had to say about mental health and the act of growing up.
This is in large part due to the structure of It’s narrative. The plot is divided into two halves: one based around the protagonists’ experiences with the monster clown Pennywise as children, and a second based around their return home to face their tormentor as adults.
This narrative, with its concept of returning to beginnings just screams out for psychoanalysis.
It’s not particularly subtle or clever in its depiction of mental health, especially in comparison to The Babadook, but that makes it no less interesting to discuss. Especially when this is a huge mainstream horror watched by millions.
So to begin, I am going to start by explaining the significance of It: Chapter 1 in its overall exploration of these themes.
Sewing the seeds in Derry: Chapter 1
The first film, upon an initial watching, never seemed too harrowing. In fact, it shared many tonal similarities to Netflix’ hit series Stranger Things. It had some cool frights, but was mainly an enjoyable, nostalgia fuelled romp!
It had jokes, lovable characters and there never seemed any true danger to the lives of the protagonists.
This however, for me at least, is intentional, and makes the horrors that much more harrowing. The nostalgia of it all, the perceived childlike innocence, adds that necessary relatability for a discomforting uncanniness when things do go dark.
Besides Pennywise, the children each deal with their own personal issues outside of the supernatural. Whilst some aren’t as clear cut, we get the more obvious ordeals such as Beverly and her abusive father, or B.. B.. stuttering Bill Denborough and the loss of his brother Georgie.
Interestingly, these traumas take a back seat for the children to the unknowable horrors of the clown Pennywise. In fact, the film ends with no real catharsis in regards to the more human issues.
They have conquered the supernatural threat but are left with the feeling things aren’t over. They end up cutting into their hands as a physical reminder of their promise to return and face Pennywise should he ever come back. This physical scarring, only highlighting the psychological scars that are still to be faced up to.
This initial defeat of the monster, has no catharsis, as it isn’t an end of the horrors, but a repression as each of the children move away from Derry after the film’s close.
This leads well into It: Chapter 2 and its exploration of mental health.
The trauma that grows: Chapter 2
The second film instantly opens with an incredibly shocking scene. Something unlike anything from the first. I have seen many even stating that there should be warnings shared in case viewers are triggered by the movie’s opening sequence.
We are shown a brutal example of homophobia and physical abuse. The first horror of the film isn’t supernatural. No. It’s gritty, real and far too close to home for many. This then invites are first view of the supernatural clown Pennywise.
He returns as a result of a very real trauma.
I believe this is an important statement. It is telling us, the viewer, this film isn’t about a clown. The horrors of Pennywise are a sublimation of something far more “real”. This is a film about real world trauma.
We are then introduced to the children from the first film, now adults. They are each shown with their own struggles: Eddie is shown in a marriage reminiscent of his problematic relationship with his mother (oh so Freudian), Beverly is repeating the abuses of her past with a new man etc.
They are each, in someway, damaged. The main conceit of the film isn’t revealed however until the protagonists return to Derry to face the newly resurrected Pennywise. They meet for dinner and something terrible is revealed to them.
One of them, Stanley, hasn’t returned. In fact, he took his own life. Here, we are shown the terrifying endpoint of undealt with trauma. What can happen if one ignores reaching out for help, or dealing with their mental health. This is highlighted by Beverley who, having rather conveniently gained the ability of foresight, has foreseen that left alone they each would have reached the same fate.
Their traumas left to grow, undealt with, would lead to them all taking their own lives. Repression is shown as the most dangerous course of action.
It is at this stage, when they are ready to face up to things, Pennywise explodes before them in full force.
Normal reality is shattered by the unknowable horrors of neurosis.
And to make sense of them, to defeat the “monster”, they must each face their pasts.
The film then goes through each of the protagonists going through scenarios where they face up to the traumas of their past, collecting symbols of them, whilst dealing with the eldritch horrors of the inter-dimensional Pennywise.
So there you have it. The film explores how, in adulthood, we are able to deal with past traumas.
But I know what you’re thinking…
What about answers?
How do we win over the horrors from our past?
Interestingly, the method proposed by Mike to defeat Pennywise is shown as nothing more than a placebo. They have to burn the symbols of their past and repeat a few lines.
Unsurprisingly, when fighting an otherworldly, unknowable evil (or depression)… This doesn’t quite cut it.
The film finds that facing up to our past isn’t so easy, there isn’t a quick, or easy fix. Instead they are left submerged in the horrors of Pennywise with one of the protagonists even losing their life.
As… many fighting poor mental health unfortunately do.
But, together, through changing their mindsets and relationships to the horrors around them, they are able to overcome Pennywise.
Pennywise… One of the most powerful monsters in fiction… Is overcome by affirmations.
Obviously, what this is saying about mental health and how we cope is very much up to individual interpretation. Some may find its portrayal troubling, others enlightening.
I, for example, am on the fence. I am troubled by the metaphor of the protagonists’ scars disappearing at the end of the film. I don’t like the idea that past scars can ever be fully removed and think it undermines part of the narrative’s function. There is also the half-hearted portrayal of Richie’s closeted sexuality which never gets the same deep dive as the other losers’ issues.
That said, there are parts I loved and found truly heartbreaking. One such being Stanley’s speech at the end of the film and letter he left for the others. We are left with the heart-wrenching truth that he took his life as he doubted his ability to fight the horrors of Pennywise, and felt guilty that he would cause his friends to fail.
This for me was poignant. Feelings of guilt, of failing those around us often play a role in an individual’s decision to take their own lives. We see the way he made sense of his decision, and after seeing how it is only together the rest of the losers were able to pull through, it is made all the worse.
This is the message the film portrayed to me.
We all struggle, and at some point must face up to our pasts alone. But when push comes to shove… Even in the darkest times. We’re not alone. In sharing in our struggles we’re stronger.
We’re in it together.
We’re all losers.
And losers stick together.
Thanks for reading. If anybody was at all affected by the contents of this blog and needs somebody to talk to, those in the UK can call Samaritans on 116 123.
If you are struggling, there is no need to suffer in silence. Whether a friend, family member, or medical professional, you can always reach out to somebody. We seriously are, all in it together.
All the best,