Dark Night of the Screen: How My Depression and My Job Meet

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Depression is weird. I wrote a whole book about it, and I still find it pretty mysterious. I’ve been talking a lot about it lately, including on Focus on the Family’s Daily Broadcast (which you can listen to here). And even as I try to explain what depression’s like to other people, it’s a difficult thing to describe.

When you break your arm or sprain your ankle, people can see right away that there’s something wrong with you. And even if you’ve never broken your arm yourself, you can see how a broken arm would interfere with someone’s pitching career.

But when part of your brain is sprained, it’s not so easy to see. And, for many, it’s not so easy to understand why we just can’t think our way through our mental difficulties—why it impacts us the way it does.

So I found, in my book, that I’d turn to a familiar source to help me describe it: the movies.

“You reference horror movies a lot,” my editor extraordinaire, Julie Holmquist, wrote in the digital margins as we were putting the book together. And it’s true, I did. We actually had to cut some of those references out because, let’s face it, depression is scary enough.

And yet, as I anthropomorphized the condition, images from horror movies are what often came to mind. At times, depression can feel like a monster, stalking you through some dark basement. At other times, it can feel as though you yourself are possessed by some terrible alien force, eating you away from the inside, a little at a time. I think, sometimes, of more insidious evils—ones that whisper lies in your ears so often that you begin to believe them. You’re worthless, they say. You’re hopeless. Even God doesn’t love you.

Last year, my Plugged In cohorts and I did a podcast on horror movies—a genre that many Christians feel is as dark as unredeemable as genres get. (Look for episode 48 here, scrolling down a bit.) And I totally get that. But as we discussed on the podcast, a few horror flicks are more than just a bunch of cheap jump scares and gore. They can probe some of the darker, sadder and very real parts of the world around us, even exploring our own sins and struggles and sicknesses. Some, like Relic and The Babadook, give us monsters that hide the real terrors that can lurk in our own minds.

Sure, I’m a movie reviewer. So it’s only natural that I’d turn to something so familiar to help give shape to these somewhat formless and abstract thoughts and feelings. Maybe a depressed farmer would think of depression like a weed, fouling up an otherwise good crop. Maybe an accountant would call depression a calculator where every number comes up negative.

But at the same time, I think the stories that we engage with offer a certain lens of experience for us all—a near-universal language that serves as pop-culture shorthand for what we’re thinking and feeling. We quote movies. We send GIFs. When we’re at a loss for words, entertainment helps us find the pictures—the communication tools we’re looking for.

And sometimes, I believe, entertainment can even help us along the way.

In a recent interview, someone asked me if there were bits of entertainment that might’ve helped me deal with my depression. I didn’t need to think long before I name-checked Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films.

Part of that was pretty superficial. My depression was diagnosed in the early 2000s, around the time Jackson’s movies were rolling out. But well before I knew I had depression, I was struggling with it. I loved The Fellowship of the Ring, and I knew that—even as my condition whispered some darker ideas in my head—I had to be around and operational to see how those films turned out. (Granted, I knew the ending, more or less, already, having read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. The suspense was what Peter Jackson with do with it.)

But the story itself—the struggle for hope when so much can seem hopeless—resonated with me, too. Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom, with Frodo’s burden—Sauron’s ring—slowly consuming him step by step … it felt like a powerful, unintended metaphor in how depression itself can feel sometimes. Moreover, it held a partial key in how to deal with it: You keep moving forward. You keep taking that next step. And sometimes, when you feel like you can’t go on, you can let someone carry you for a bit.

I still turn to some of those scenes today. This is one of my favorites:

“Those are the stories that stuck with you, that meant something,” Samwise Gamgee says.

Stories are powerful things—some of the most powerful things in the world. Jesus knew it, and so He taught through stories. God knew it, and so He gave us His—and our—own, in the Bible. We at Plugged In know how powerful they are, too, which is why we always encourage people to approach them with caution. And yet, stories can encourage us, can inspire us, can remind us of the good in this world.

And that’s ultimately why, in the book, I decided to share this story of mine—this most personal, most uncomfortable story. I’m not sayin’ it’s Lord of the Rings, but who knows? Maybe it’ll still help someone down the road.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

3 Responses

  1. -I’m one of the few people on the planet who prefers the last two Hobbit movies to any of the LOTR films. I saw them all in the theater back in the day and loved them all save for two towers which in my opinion was always pure junk through and through. Anyway I’ve tried rewatching them multiple times since on TV through the years and can’t really get into them anymore. Not sure why but they all seem boring and uninteresting to me now. The hobbit films on the other hand I saw at home and Netflix first, and with the exception of the first one which just doesn’t seem to go anywhere I absolutely loved them at first sight and continue to love them each new time I watch them. I loved smaug and the battle of the five armies so much in fact that I got them on DVD which I never thought about doing for the LOTR films.

  2. -We just re-watched LotR the extended trilogy for the umpteenth time in January. What a rich and transformative experience. I learn something new each time I encounter it. But it is helpful to saturate oneself in all the deep messages of the story — that whatever hardship we are in, there’s always something good to find at the end of it.

  3. -I just find LOTR to be mostly dull boring and thoroughly uninteresting. Gandalf and gollum are arguably the most interesting characters and for long stretches they’re not even seen. The hobbit on the other hand is thoroughly engaging, has wonderfully interesting characters and not just gandalf this time, and frankly in Smaug the dragon has the coolest villain in any of the middle Earth movies.

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