Depression as a creative cinematic device

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Katie Driscoll looks below the surface of two television series – ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ and one cult cinema classic, ‘Melancholia ‘– in an examination of the ‘depression genre’.

Kirsten Dunst in MELANCHOLIA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo © Christian Geisnaes.

The artist figure doomed to a life of depression and suffering as the root of their art – has been a trope for as long as we have had poetry and literature. However cinema, especially, seems to relish in perpetuating or subverting the tropes of the black shadow of depression. Sensationalist and sentimental stereotypes from the crazy and ‘othered’, the mad woman in the attic, to the tragic and doomed, the ones who did not live up to their potential, freely roam within these kinds of films – the genre of ‘depression cinema’.

A depression genre unifies around the use of allegory and metaphor when discussing what is still seen as taboo. In particular, three works – two Netflix tv shows based on old ghost stories, and one Danish art-house film – show the depiction of depression in tantalisingly and brutally realistic ways. They all use the cinematic medium and its metaphorical garnishes in the shape of ghosts, doom or apocalypse. All works are shaped by metaphor, which feels like a powerful way of accessing our known truths that lie under the surface.

Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series’ The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) all correspond to this lack of hope, albeit in different and interesting ways. If there is hope, it’s through annihilation, or tucked away in the safety of happier memories. The two series and the film oscillate between wildly imaginative depictions of how depression, grief and loss can co-mingle into a repetitive feeling of destruction, doom and life passing you by. However their depictions can also make those who watch feel seen and heard, using metaphor to evoke the extremes and numbing of emotions felt when besieged by depression.

The three are interesting to contrast, because the viewpoints are all different points of one star: the same problem, from different angles, different lives, different experiences and circumstances. And they all show the complexity and isolation that grief brings in its wake. When put in contrast, ‘depression cinema’ is emblematic of the very ironic crux of the illness: a common illness that doesn’t alleviate the crushing feeling of isolation and alienation, even when you know you’re not alone in it.

Bly Manor acts as a take on the infamous Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story that is timeless in its portrayal of the horrors of the mind and sexual repression. Yet it is this 2020 update that underscores more clearly than other adaptations just how debilitating the murmurs of depression, grief and loss can be. In episode five and episode seven in particular, when given a deep dive into the backstory of two ghosts of the manor, we see that what causes them to haunt and what turns them into monstrous or pitiable figures, is the same things that can also damage our defences in life – in particular, the fact that memory is the only eternal thing, how nothing good can stay, how mental illness can affect relationships, filling them with guilt and shame on both sides.

In episode five, head housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller) is trapped in the never ending torture of loneliness, of realising that the existence she keeps revisiting, is all just a memory, a fantasy. All memories, even the good ones, take on the air of the bittersweet when laden with regret, all the things you wish you had done but didn’t. At that point the memory becomes oppressive by virtue of the power it has over you. Hannah is trapped in a loop of repeating the same job interview, over and over, when recruiting a chef to the manor, Owen (Rahul Kohli), the man she has fallen in love with.

In the same way that grief haunts those loved ones left behind on the earth, grief in Bly Manor warps itself into a repetition of favourite moments, described as being ‘tucked away inside a memory’. In this way, depression presents itself as repetitive grief: memories that play over and over again with no way out, no way of rectifying mistakes, and no future. Bly Manor shows depression and grief as an internal present, with no escape out of the horrors of the mind.

Going further back, the Grudge/ Ringu-esque lady of the lake (Kate Siegel) turns out to be the original lady of the manor, Viola Willoughby-Lloyd. In a backstory, we see that her refusal to succumb to her death from smallpox, and therefore, her destiny, turns her into the monster, dragging those around with her into a watery black grave. The metaphor of this can’t be ignored: when you’re trapped in a prison of your own misery, sometimes you figuratively, and here, literally, drag others down with you.

Bly Manor echoes the central theme of 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House; here the ghosts of the house act as a metaphor for the way that blood lines carry forth mental illness, living on and haunting through generations. Hill House takes the ghost story scares and amplifies them by means of making them real: Luke Crain’s struggle with addiction, Theo’s with being touched, and Nell’s traumatic story. Nell’s struggle with depression and how loneliness swamps her makes for the biggest scares of all. In the episode devoted to her (episode 5), Nell, alone in a motel en route to the house that traumatised her, wakes up to find that she is enveloped in darkness, having slept all day. She reaches for her pills and in one swift motion a desperate cry emanates from her.

Watching the first time, I felt the familiar tug of dread, desperation and panic that can happen when you’re too depressed to get out of bed and have slept the entire day away. Then again, on the second, third, fourth, viewings, the feelings it evoked didn’t lessen, only intensified. The feeling of missing out on life but not knowing how to grasp it by the hand, your very self a whisper of something that once was, because I, too, had felt this. My first term away at university was my own version of the grey motel room where time stood still. I would wake up and found I had slept through all of my lectures, and too ashamed to bump into housemates, remained frozen in my bedroom until the cover of night meant I could venture out to forage for food. Like Nell, it was a vicious cycle hard to break free from, kicking up feelings of shame, hopelessness and defeat.

The nothingness of depression is shown through Nell’s time in the hotel room – she is gripped by a paralysis, unable to move, without a voice. Here the crux of depression is shown: daylight comes, and then, like clockwork, night, but nothing changes, she cannot motivate herself to move. The editing empathises the hopelessness of her situation, the mottled greyness of the motel a backdrop to Nell’s face permanently frozen in a weeping grimace. Like the chess pieces all in their place, the stage set, the ending of Nell’s episode comes full circle, from her weeping in her motel, to meeting with her brother Luke to go and pick up drugs, with the Bent Neck Lady hovering over her at all times. This allegorical metaphor – the future self hanging over you, as if suicide is your predestiny like its your blood – hits like a punch to the gut.

The episode is structured as if all the episodes before were leading up to this moment, as if suicide was Nell’s expected outcome, only underscoring the assumption that depression – whether in life or the movies – is a hopeless situation that has a written script that ends in doom, disaster and death, with no other way of rewriting fate. Yet Hill House never veers into exploitative territory, at least because it doesn’t moralise or judge Nell’s illness, or her suicide, instead showing a sympathetic portrayal that claws at our hearts as an audience and bleeds around the edges.

Both of Flanagan’s series invoke horror as metaphor: depression, or grief or loss are immortalised and literally envisioned as a physical monster, or ghost.

Lars Von Trier’s film could be accused of glamorising the illness. He infamously wrote the screenplay for 2011’s Melancholia when suffering a bout of depression himself. The opening scene shows the world slowing down to an inevitable end; doom made sluggish and lethargic. Everyone is apart, alone in their misery. This collective fate, no matter how bleak – those depressed, and those not – are all in it together. Yet Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) mental health somehow results in her transcending the pain of it all ending. She welcomes it.

Even the film’s eponymous title refers to the state of being dark of mood and mind, the Victorian term for what we now think of as depression. Von Trier succeeds in eliciting an atmospheric portrayal of mental illness – his protagonist Justine is Millais’s Ophelia, languishing in her watery grave. Melancholia depicts an impending apocalypse with a faint shrug, worlds colliding whilst you can barely move. However, the film can also be seen as romanticising depression: in Justine’s clarity and acceptance over the end of being and existence, she transcends the mundanity of not being able to drag yourself out of bed and shower. Instead, she embraces destruction, obtaining special powers, with the ability to control all of the nature around her at her fingertips.

Over the course of her wedding evening, Justine oscillates between a bitter apathy that no one even seems to really notice; she is going through the motions of what a bride should be doing, and a manic elation, trying to force herself to feel, going through the charade of being a loved-up bride, trying to close the gap between her feelings and how she should be feeling. Von Trier shows the torment of the romantically melancholic, with close-up shots of a woman contemplating the constellation of Scorpio, looking to the stars for answers.

As Von Trier has stated: “Justine is longing for something of true value. And true values entail suffering. That’s the way we think. All in all, we tend to view melancholia as more true. We prefer music and art to contain a touch of melancholia. So melancholia in itself is a value. Unhappy and unrequited love is more romantic than happy love. For we don’t think that’s completely real, do we?”

However, there should be a place for both in cinema: for the realism of a portrayal of grey skies and rotting in bed, to something more otherworldly and metaphorical. The things that hold so much power over us can be invisible, like the black smog of depression, something to others, which can seem like ‘just sadness’, but it isn’t always just sadness, just a house, just a memory, or just a person lost: it can be all the ways that our instinct to survive fails us, how despite having people around you and words of kindness, you can feel so totally untouched by it, so alone and isolated inside the prison of your own flesh and mind.


Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is available to buy or rent from YouTube

Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series’ The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020),are available on Netflix