Lots of kids are scared of the dark. Martin has reason to be.
Shadows are dangerous in Martin’s world: The blackness under the bed. The webbed gloom of the closet. Something lurks in the lightless corners, watching, awaiting her chance.
Just fanciful imaginings? Terrors in a little boy’s head? Martin knows differently. But what if the terrors are coming from his mother’s head? Well, that’s another story.
The shadows aren’t so dangerous when his mom, Sophie, takes her meds. She’s struggled with depression since she was a teen. As long as she controls her symptoms, the family’s darkness is held in check. But lately, Sophie’s stopped taking them, and she’s welcomed the darkness like a long-lost friend. Indeed, Sophie even has a name for it, Diana, and she seems to enjoy its company. Sophie spends her days with the curtains drawn, her nights pacing her inky-black living room, talking to someone … or something.
Martin’s father, Paul, tried to help … and was killed for his trouble. Martin’s older sister, Rebecca, wants to protect him, too. When Martin begs her to let him stay with her, she agrees and takes him home. But social services won’t let Becca—a rudderless free spirit—keep custody of her younger brother. Seems the government thinks Sophie’s a dandy mother … and it doesn’t cotton to the idea of bogeymen.
So Martin goes home, where shadows paint the walls. And Sophie’s genuinely thrilled to have her little boy back. She knows that things have been tough and stressful since his dad died. Maybe tonight, she volunteers, they can have a fun movie night together: just the three of them.
“Mom?” Martin asks. “How ’bout just you and I tonight. OK?”
“We’ll see,” Sophie says.
Lights Out is more than a film about things that go bump in the night. The core fear here is not really darkness, but abandonment. The threat of being left alone—and the temptation to run away—is a powerful manifestation here, perhaps as powerful as Diana herself. As such, the movie’s heroes are those who stick around.
Martin is particularly inspirational. When Becca wants to flee, Martin demands that they stay and rescue their mom—even though he knows, better than anyone, the dangers of trying to do so. “You’ve been gone a long time,” he tells Becca, “But she’s our mom! She needs us more than ever!”
And even though Becca and Sophie had a falling out years ago, Becca does stick it out. She loves her mother and will try to save her if she can. Becca’s boyfriend, Bret—a guy whom Becca has long kept at an emotional (if not physical) distance—shows he’s willing to stay with Becca no matter what. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says.
And even though Sophie shows a disturbing affinity for Diana, her kids are still her highest priority, and she’ll still do anything to save them.
Though Sophie firmly tells Becca that “ghosts aren’t real,” that’s what Diana seems to be. She’s the presence of one of Sophie’s childhood “friends,” a girl she apparently met while the two were in a psychiatric facility together. Unlike most ghosts, though, Diana takes on a powerful physical presence in the absence of light. She also has telepathic abilities, which she naturally uses in the worst ways possible.
The first time we see Bret and Becca, they’re in bed together, apparently enjoying a post-coital moment. She is in lingerie, and he’s partly covered by a sheet. Bret asks Becca if she wants to “go again,” but she refuses and leaves to take a shower instead. (We see her unclothed from the waist up through a partly translucent window.)
Bret seems more interested in a real commitment than Becca does, though marriage is never mentioned as a possibility. But he’d settle for the ability to leave a change of clothes and a toothbrush over at Becca’s apartment. For Becca, though, even that level of commitment is frightening; she even refuses to acknowledge him as a “boyfriend.” When Bret jokingly tries to hide a single sock of his in her dresser, she finds it and throws it out the window at him.
Diana doesn’t content herself to lurking in the shadows: She’s a killer. In the opening scene, the entity gashes Paul’s leg open as he runs through a partly shadowed hall (we see the bloody wound), then pulls him into the darkness to finish him. His bloody body then gets lobbed back into the light so the audience can get a good look at what sort of mangling deeds Diana is capable of.
Throughout the film, Diana grabs and claws and does her upmost to injure the living folks around her, sometimes succeeding. Two other people die by her hands, and the corpse of one is propped up like a mannequin. She suggests that murder is not new to her. She smashes people into walls and dressers, throws them off balconies, pulls them under beds and holds them up like rag dolls, as if preparing to break them across her knee.
[Spoiler Warning] But Diana is not immune from injury. When she was a flesh-and-blood little girl, she apparently suffered from a rare skin disorder, one that left her particularly sensitive to light. Doctors apparently tried to cure her by exposing her to light, but it killed her instead. If Diana touches light even now in her undead state, her spectral flesh will crackle and burn.
Someone commits suicide. Becca finds a picture of another suicide victim, one whose head has been completely blown off its body.
Five s-words and one use of “b–ch.” God’s name is misused twice, and Jesus’ name is abused once.
Becca’s apartment has a bong in it. As noted, Sophie’s supposed to be taking antidepressants, which Martin calls her “vitamins.” But even when she tries to take them, Diana makes sure she can’t.
When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy. Lights Out puts a terrible new twist on that saying.
Sure, on one level, darkness is the enemy here. To keep Diana at bay, the film’s other characters must keep the lights turned on. But there’s something else deeper at work: the awful gloom of depression. Diana can only manifest herself and hurt others if Sophie’s mind is sufficiently imbalanced.
But Lights Out doesn’t play like an allegory: Diana is not just Sophie’s depressive alter-ego or something that can be counseled away. Still, the movie’s psychological underpinnings are obvious: How depression can impact a family. How frightening it can be. How damaging. How isolating. How sometimes when we’re confronted by mental illness, we want to ignore it. And when we can’t do that, how tempting it can be to run away.
Which, to me, made the movie oddly inspiring—rarely a word I’d use in conjunction with a horror flick. How should we respond to the people we love when they’re hurting and sick? When they’re suffering through something we don’t understand? We stick with them. We try to help them. Above all, we don’t leave.
But in order to pull that piece of inspiration out of this seriously scary shriekfest, we must also acknowledge— and spoil, I’m afraid—its seriously problematic ending.
You see, in the end Sophie kills herself. From one perspective, that of a mother making a terrible choice to defeat a dark-loving bogeyman, we might be tempted to justify Sophie’s choice as an act of selfless sacrifice. After all, without Sophie, we’re told, there is no Diana. Sophie tells Becca that by killing herself, she is saving their lives.
But as soon as we consider Sophie’s emotional darkness—her depression at the root of Diana’s manifestation—that “sacrifice” turns tragic. In a movie that stresses how important it is not to abandon the ones you love, Sophie does just that. Instead of dealing with her personal demon, she kills it by killing herself. She leaves behind a son who desperately wanted to save her, a daughter weeping bitterly beside her body.
In the last act, Lights Out whispers its own (perhaps unintentional) dark message, a message that many people who grapple with depression don’t need to hear: My loved ones are better off without me. And so the final moments of the movie contradict whatever inspiration we might’ve found before, and that’s a terrible shame. After the credits roll and the lights come on, some bleak, terrible darkness may linger—especially for viewers who grapple with the darkness of depression.
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.