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Horror

Welcome to Unveiling The Mind. This bi-monthly column explores psychological horror and representations of mental illness within the genre.

To this day, I envy others who get scared during horror movies; my pulse may ramp up in anticipation of a scene, but I have rarely ever felt scared during a movie. In some way, I feel I’m missing out on the horror experience. That said, what horror does provide me – along with thrills – is a means of introspection and meditation. I’m not talking the kind of meditation where you cross your legs and clear your mind, but rather, a means to ruminate on difficulties I’ve experienced, such as my battle with mental illness.

The first time I made this connection between horror and mental health was through Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. I’ve spoken about Antichrist before for this column, discussing how the film explores depression through characters and atmosphere. Antichrist was my gateway to finding horror that clicked on a personal level; the pain of the characters – their grief and self-destruction – that got me. Antichrist was one of the first times I felt a work of art capture my own hurt – even if the depiction of depression is intensely theatrical. Because of that film, I started seeking more horror that connected with me on that personal level, one of those films being the tragic Melancholia.

Released in 2011, and as the second entry in Von Trier’s Depression Trilogy, the film follows two sisters – Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Broken into two parts, roughly an hour each, the film revolves around Justine’s wedding and the eventual end of the world. This isn’t really so much a spoiler since the film gives it away in the first 15ish minutes, but here’s your spoiler warning. Before the film truly kicks off, the audience learns that Earth is going to be destroyed by a rogue planet (called Melancholia). The events that take place in Melancholia lead up to that event. 

For those who have never seen the film, that premise alone may prompt the idea that Melancholia’s narrative must be brimming with chaos and tragedy (which is partially true). But this is a slow burn; in the film’s first half, the major focus is on the wedding, with no mentioning at all of the oncoming rogue planet. And when that second half does come around, don’t expect action driven sequences of burning buildings and explosions. Primarily, Melancholia spends the majority of its runtime observing Justine and Claire’s interactions with others (as well as how they are by themselves).

Many folks may argue that calling Melancholia horror is ridiculous. Minus the Earth’s impending demise, there is little that aesthetically touches upon horror movie aesthetics. But to me, Melancholia is horror. In my life, the likes of depression, OCD, and anxiety have brought me great suffering. And from time to time, there has been the added emotional weight of ignorance and bigotry from those who don’t understand or who disregard mental health. Melancholia offers a somber view of a person overtaken by their mental illness; Dunst’s performance brings to life a heartbreaking individual losing themself and so desperately wanting to be happy. Even for its greater existential plot point, the horror of Melancholia is how it expresses the invisible hell of depression and the profound loneliness it carries.

After a brief period of slow transitioning scenes, chapter one opens on Justine in a limo with a man. The audience can quickly piece together that she and this man have just gotten married. She laughs and jokes with him as the limo strives to make its way around an awkward bend in the road. This introduction to Justine is an important statement for the audience to see right away, given where the tone of the evening ends up. By the time Justine and her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arrive at the estate where their reception is being held, Claire approaches her and expresses frustration; Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is equally as irritated. Justine and the group eventually make their way into a dining hall, the night progresses a tad, and speeches are given. It is after Justine’s mom makes a speech about how she doesn’t believe in marriage that a shift takes place within Justine – and her night begins to spiral little by little. Claire notices this shift and immediately takes her aside; speaking to Justine, she reminds her that she wouldn’t make any scenes. 

A dilemma comes to mind when one wants to create a story – specifically that which involves visuals – on how to convey the brutality of mental illness. The issue comes in the form in how one creates an experience that not just shows the pain that can come from, say, depression, but how to get your audience to feel that experience (to the best of their ability). Throughout the history of the horror genre, mental illness has so often been heightened to ridiculous levels of fantastical insanity; with time though, more nuanced approaches have come forth to help bridge understanding between those who battle mental illness and those who don’t, creating deeper sympathy universally.

What takes place over the hour-long chapter is not so much a moment-to-moment ride of compelling instances, but a burning, deeply sad character study. Justine’s depression manifests itself in dissociative manners; with bouts of melancholy coming over her, she wanders off during the reception, she struggles to keep up with conversation, she goes off to take a bath, and finds it difficult to be among others. In a scene where Claire finds her sleeping, Justine shares that, “I’m trudging through this gray woolly yarn.” She says it’s really heavy to drag along. It’s a statement that may not land strongly for some, but for those who have clinical depression, it’s a line that may draw out an all too familiar feeling. 

In those scenes where she is trying her hardest, genuine joy can be felt in how Justine dances with others. This happiness doesn’t last long however, as the pain within her only continues to grow. Dunst’s performance rarely leans into the melodramatic trope of, “boy howdy this person sure is nuts.” While Justine is not well, one gets the sense that she is aware of her actions and self. Von Trier’s writing – though not perfect – offers a grounded, careful portrait of what it may be like for someone consumed by a horrific mental monster. Visually speaking, it is relatively easy to convey someone being sad, but it takes a lot more to capture the essence of what depression can be like. In how distant Justine becomes from loved ones over the course of the night, Von Trier provides one layer for what makes his emotional horror so effective. The other important layer comes in the form of ignorance.

When it comes to Claire and John, the audience get a taste early on for their personalities. As a couple they are very well off; John is paying for the wedding (which is quite extravagant). It doesn’t take too much to pick up on how ridged and materialistic they are, respectively. As the viewer watches Justine’s night become more difficult, there may be a sense of hoping things will get better for her. Yet, her sister is an active opponent to her peace of mind. In one scene where the two are alone again and talking, Claire gives her crap for not being happy. Justine argues that she is happy; she tells Claire, “I smile and I smile and I smile.” Claire calls her a liar. Later, when John finds Justine alone, after she has gone off several times during the reception, he tells her she better be happy and reminds her how much the wedding cost him.

Along in how he presents Justine striving to function through her illness, Von Trier also provides external antagonistic forces that further impact her mental state. These people, her “loved ones,” don’t offer the slightest comfort in such a troubling time for her. If anything, they act repulsed by her depression, bitching her out for not being more upbeat or grateful (though she makes it clear she is thankful). They cannot fully grasp what Justine is going through, for they are more concerned with the physical state of things, choosing to not engage on a more sympathetic and emotional level.

One’s experience with mental illness is unique to them. Whereas my OCD may be intense in some ways, another person’s may be intense for different reasons. Though Justine’s display of depression and mania doesn’t speak for everyone’s individual experience, she offers a decent point-of-view of what such agonies are capable of. The film functions on two levels to help audiences connect with Justine – being that of the internal and external. For this to work effectively, Melancholia relies on an open mind from the audience. For those who have never had a day dealing with depression or manic moments, Justine may come across a bit shocking in what she says and does. That said, the audience is given a means to understand that this is a person with something weighing upon them. One knows that there is no maliciousness in what she does, but that there is something within her blurring her judgement. Once the viewer starts to feel for Justine, then comes Claire and John, knocking her down mentally with their comments. This dynamic of the internal and external serves to elevate the significance of how horrific her disorder is.

Narratively, as the reception goes on, things only get worse for Justine. Finding herself deeper in the throes of darkness, she makes rash decisions that bring upsetting consequences her way. A little before the conclusion of chapter one, Justine and Michael decide to call off the marriage, knowing that it just isn’t going to work between them. Coming into chapter two, Justine is in a much worse depressive state; in a quasi-catatonic manner, she finds it difficult to walk or get in a tub, and is more withdrawn and heartbroken. For some, moments like these may veer on the edge of melodrama, but Dunst is able to reel it in – offering a realistic look of a person barely holding on. For those unaware of how bad mental illness can get, Justine’s suffering may feel like a curve ball – especially after seeing that first scene of the happy girl in her wedding dress, smiling and laughing. Because depression may not always be a 24/7 deal for people – it can leave one’s life, only to return in a few weeks, a month, a couple days, and take over everything.

Whereas part two has some interesting elements to it when ruminating on grief and existence in the face of death, I find the first chapter to be the most compelling. In recent years, I’ve seen some great films that include brilliant performances, each displaying the horror that mental illness can bring. But Melancholia will always remain a personal horror to me – because what Justine goes through is not too far off from what I’ve gone through.

Mental illness is cruel – it’s a monster that always lives within a person, raking at their inner walls, picking on them, beating them down. It is enough to break a person, and yet, not everyone can see or understand that suffering. You can have an absolute horrid day – every fiber of your being ready to collapse – only for someone to say, “Oh we all get a little sad sometimes.” 

Melancholia is a stunning exploration of depression. It’s an intimate look into despair and one person striving to be happy. Its horror is about feeling trapped in an internal hell; about darkness consuming a person, warping their view of life. It isn’t an easy film to watch, but what it has to share is nothing short of fascinating. Melancholia is without a doubt a brutally sad movie, but in a weird way, I love it for that. I love how intimate its depiction of mental illness is – how Dunst gives a breathtaking performance of nuance and care. It’s a movie that, in some ways, makes me feel seen; a gentle reminder that, the hurt within me is not something I go through alone.

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