Lights Out Makes Its Monster Into A Metaphor

Hello, everyone! I watched the much anticipated Lights Out movie a few days ago and honestly loved it. As a dedicated fan of horror, it satisfied my need for a good, scary story and subverted some tired stereotypes. There are some cheesy factors that whiff of other movies, which I will get into later, but I’m a firm believer that a little bit of silly pseudoscience  can propel the plot of a horror movie in ways that serious, scientific reality can’t.

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Synopsis: Rebellious punk Rebecca  had drifted apart from her mother Sophie when she remarried and had a son, Martin. After Sophie’s new husband dies in a mysterious accident, Sophie falls into a deep depression. She keeps the house in total darkness and spends her nights talking to an unseen figure named Diana. Frightened of Diana, a violent apparition who can appear only in the dark, Martin tries to live with Rebecca and her would-be boyfriend Bret, but is stopped by Child Protective Services. In order to take care of Martin, Rebecca must confront the malevolent force that is controlling her mother and destroy it, or risk losing her mother and Martin forever.

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My take: Lights Out focuses on the scares from the first scene of the movie, which introduces us to Diana through the lens of Sophie’s doomed husband. Without a backstory, or at this point even a name, the creature is is simple, yet terrifying. A creature who can appear only in the dark and create its own darkness plays on humanity’s most primal fear. As Diana appears again and again, frightening a precocious Martin, or appearing in Rebecca’s red-lit loft, the scares keep coming. Sure, they’re mostly jump scares, which aim to frighten horror newbies (like the gaggle of teenage girls behind me who would emit 15 second long screeches at even a glimpse of Diana), but they’re not cheap jump scares, since Diana, in essence, is terrifying. I didn’t need her backstory to feel uneasy when Sophie utters a frightened, desperate plea to a dark closet, or when Diana intrudes on a tense family movie night to fling Martin to the ground and drag Sophie away. If horror movies these days have any problem, it’s the fact that they feel compelled to add a backstory, even when it’s as unnecessary as Diana’s in Lights Out.

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Here’s where the cheese factor comes in because writer / director David Sandberg attempts to explain every element of Diana, even where it makes no sense. Through a series of convenient psychiatric records and tapes, we discover that Diana was a mental patient who had been kept in a basement for thirteen years and developed a toxic allergy to light. She grew possessive of Sophie, who was being treated for depression, and would infect her mind with negativity to keep her in the hospital. When Sophie eventually left, Diana was killed in an experiment designed to treat her of her light- aversion, but ended up frying her instead. Now she lingers in Sophie’s home, killing anyone who tries to get rid of her.

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The backstory is wholly unnecessary, but in its defense, it reads with the same lovable zaniness as a five minute Supernatural episode. Sandberg could have taken his impossible premise and run with it, but he fell into what I consider the second problem that modern horror movie directors face: the need to make every monster into a metaphor. It Follows did it, The Babadook did it, and even in some ways The Witch did it, and now so did Lights Out.  Sandberg forces Diana into a metaphor that the movie doesn’t need. As Diana’s hold on Sophie grows stronger, Rebecca moves back into her mother’s house in an attempt to help her. There she learns that Diana only appears when Sophie doesn’t take her anti-depressants, such as when her first husband left, or when her second husband was killed (by Diana). Diana as a metaphor for depression doesn’t make the movie any scarier. Why can’t she just be a violent, possessive ghost? Simple evil is what we need now, especially since horror directors are fixated on these oh-so-serious monster metaphors that horror fans don’t want or need. If I wanted to watch a movie about depression, I’d watch any movie by Alexander Payne. I watch movies like Lights Out to worry about silly things like apparitions who are allergic to lamps, not real-life problems.

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The good thing is that Sandberg’s metaphor rings false enough for me to choose to ignore it. For instance, if Diana is only a metaphor for depression, then how did she kill Sophie’s husband? Are we supposed to believe that it was Sophie’s depression that drew him into the darkness and mangled him into a lifeless rag-doll? Are we also supposed to believe that Sophie’s depression killed two police officers and attacked her children? I think that in this movie at least, it can be two things. Sophie’s depression can bring on Diana, but she’s also an independent force that wreaks mayhem. A Diana unencumbered by metaphor makes for a much better movie.

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Besides the scares, the relationships Sandberg created in Lights Out were the movie’s best selling point.  The dialogue between Rebecca and her little brother Martin was at times banal, but their fierce love for each other shone through. They make the best sister-brother duo that I’ve seen in a long time. Rebecca’s beau Bret is a breath of fresh air, not because he’s the one wanting a stable relationship, but because for once the doofy boyfriend doesn’t die! There are a few things that are certain in horror movies, two being that nice doofy boys die, and so does anyone who plans for the future. Bret was both of those characters and he still managed to fight Diana and keep his life in the process. Let us all give a hip, hip hooray to Sandberg for putting to rest those tired tropes. Sophie didn’t get much character development besides her depression, but her scenes with Martin and Rebecca showed an uncommon side of parenting: the neglect caused by depression.  Her sacrifice in the end has been controversial among critics, though I’m not exactly sure why. Characters often sacrifice themselves for the “greater good”  in horror movies, but the it’s fact that she killed herself to get rid of Diana / Depression that is riling everyone up. Yet another reason not to make monsters into metaphors: you’ll inevitably offend someone.

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Final Consensus: Lights Out fell into the monster as metaphor trap, but don’t let that keep you from seeing it. Go for Diana’s eerie movements and stay for the compelling relationships between Rebecca, Martin, Sophie, and Bret. If you’re a horror veteran, the jump scares won’t stir you. It’s only when you leave the theater and go home that the little things, like turning out the light, will start to seem terrifying.  4 / 5 Dirty Dianas

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I’m sorry! I couldn’t resist!

P.S

Story Corner: I wasn’t that scared when I was watching the movie, but that changed when we left the theater. My friend was dog sitting, so I went to the house with her that night to help put the dogs to bed. We entered by way of the garage. My friend had placed a bike too near the door so that when we tried to close it, the door wouldn’t budge and the lights started flickering on and off. We both had the same thought: Diana was here. We would have bolted out of there if we hadn’t realized that it was the bike, not Diana, that was causing the lights to go out. You don’t realize how much a horror movie has affected you until it’s 11pm and the lights start to flicker. One of the silliest and scariest moments of my life. I’m just glad we didn’t see this:

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