Director: David F. Sandberg
Producers: James Wan, Lawrence Grey, Eric Heisserer
Writers: Eric Heisserer, David F. Sandberg
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman
In the past two or three years, there has been a rash of Mommy Issues in horror. Satan overtakes Carolyn Perron in THE CONJURING (2013), Amelia morphs into Mommie Dearest in THE BABADOOK (2014), and Lukas and Elias face identity crises when their mother is rendered unrecognizable in GOODNIGHT MOMMY (ICH SEH ICH SEH) (2014). Of course, this is nothing new: no matter how far horror progresses from its origins, Mrs. Bates of PSYCHO (1960) is never far behind in our collective imagination. The newest addition to the bunch is LIGHTS OUT (2016), a story which is about far more than it seems at surface level. From the trailer, viewers can glean themes of the uncanny—light and darkness—a haunting and, of course, a disruption to the American family. But LIGHTS OUT—much like THE BABADOOK, in fact—is an allegory of mental illness, one with a decidedly less easily discerned ending.
For our protagonists, something lurks in the shadows. When the pre-credits scene opens, Paul (Billy Burke) is Facetiming his son, Martin (Gabriel Bateman) from the textile factory, where he is working late. Martin is clearly distressed, hedging and glancing off-screen. His father reassures him that he will be home soon. His son hesitates, then says: “It’s just … she’s talking to herself.”
This is our introduction to Sophie (Maria Bello), the family matriarch and Paul’s wife. Perhaps she is schizophrenic—or just quirky—but Paul’s weary response indicates that such behavior is nothing new. Later in the scene, we overhear him talking seriously on the phone, mentioning an “intervention.” He is interrupted. “Paul,” whispers Esther, the only other employee still at work. “I saw something in the stockroom.”
Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) is, indeed, “something,” though we aren’t sure what—she skirts many boundaries, life and death, external reality and the inner workings of the mind. She is attached to Sophie by some psychic link formed (tellingly) when both were housed at a psychiatric ward years before. Diana, intent on preserving that link, will stop at nothing to isolate and dominate Sophie—including driving Sophie’s eldest daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), from the family home years previously and, following her exodus, terrorizing Martin.
Rebecca is forced to get involved in the domestic drama when Martin, in a fit of desperation, calls her to his elementary school after falling asleep in class and asks to stay at her apartment. He hasn’t been sleeping, due to a fear of the dark—as this is where the unwelcome third member of his small family lurks. As we know from the film’s opening scene, however, Diana is not contained to the family home, and soon, Rebecca once more finds herself in the thick of a terrifying haunting which threatens to topple the life she has tenuously built for herself.
As an allegory for depression—the mental illness for which Sophie was hospitalized—the specter of Diana is apt, not only for her effect on Sophie, but for Sophie’s response to her. She isolates, entraps, and frequently hurts Sophie, but Sophie often seems fearful to let go of her, preferring to eschew medication—it is implied that this would sever her connection to Diana, the chemical treatment somehow obscuring the psychological link—and attempt to coexist with Diana, less repressing her presence than embracing it. In one memorable scene, Sophie invites Diana to join her and Martin for a movie night, ominously clicking out the lights to allow Diana to seep into the room, a shadow.
Diana is a literal shadow, the metaphor emphasized by Diana’s condition during life: a rare skin ailment where she would sustain horrific burns if exposed to light. Diana’s death in the hospital was a result of an experimental treatment involving light exposure, and photos that Rebecca finds, taken of the room where the experiments occurred, exhibit a charred and blackened woman’s outline on the chair where she was strapped. She has become a shadow, both of her demise (and, thus, the risks of medical treatment for mental illness) and of Sophie’s stay in the hospital (her choice to forego medical treatment), which no doubt haunts her equally as ferociously. She is Sophie’s depression personified, a depiction of the unrecognizable shape one’s mental illness can twist one into—and, of course, this meeting of familiar and unfamiliar is a clear example of Freud’s account of the uncanny. Consider the title of LIGHTS OUT and the conceit of Diana’s haunting as you read the following excerpt from Brigid Cherry’s Routledge Film Guidebook to Horror:
… the whole notion of the uncanny is something that is brought back into the light. If “the uncanny is what comes out of the darkness,” it is no coincidence that horror cinema returns again and again to images or tropes of the dark, the night, blindness, being buried alive, and losing one’s way.
Rebecca and Martin’s journey from Diana’s past life to Sophie’s current condition and their reclamation of a family corrupted by dark forces parallels what the children of the mentally ill must necessarily do: find their own lives in the muck and confusion of their mother’s despair and a way to save themselves. The complexities of the final showdown between Sophie and Diana cannot be understated, but must be interpreted by the viewer herself, rather than parsed apart here … in the end, the viewer is forced to wonder whether a restored nuclear family really can conquer all, or if mental illness, like Diana, lives on despite our best efforts to vanquish it.