Exploring Depression in Games, Film, and Literature

As someone who battles mental illness, I’m always on the lookout for pieces of art, film, books, or games that describe the experience of deep depression. Depression – especially deep, harrowing, soul crushing depression – defies explanation or description. Part of its horror is that it leaves you speechless. So when I come across art that captures mental illness well, I cherish it, and share it with others so they can have a window into the experience.

Here are a few pieces of art that convey depression in extraordinary ways. A necessary (and obvious) caveat: everything that follows includes violence, gore, horror, and disturbing imagery.

1. Melancholia

Lars Von Trier – the director of Melancholia and other dark, art house films – is a deeply ill man who has harnessed his illness to create art. In Melancholia, he set out to capture the experience of depression. The film is simultaneously beautiful, serene, slow, and deeply disturbing.

A planet named Melancholia is on a collision path with Earth, and humanity is facing its demise. Justine, who lives with severe depression, finds the impending doom of all humanity comforting.

 

2. The Babadook

The Babadook is an Australian horror film that, on first glance, does not look like a compelling, disturbing, honest, and profound examination of grief and depression. In fact, I have seen few films that capture the experience so completely. I watched the Babadook as I was climbing out of my own depression, and I found it to be a mirror of my own life.

A single mother and her ADHD son discover a children’s book in their house titled, “Mister Babadook.” The monster slowly takes over their lives, and is a representation of unexamined, unchallenged grief and depression.

 

3. The Cat Lady

Not too many games stare unflinchingly at depression and suicide, and few do so with as much mastery as The Cat Lady. The game is a low budget, jangled mess: the audio cracks, the animation is flickery and glitchy, and the visuals are a sometimes beautiful, sometimes shabby art collage. But the story and atmosphere are genius. The Cat Lady is one of the best games I have ever played in my life.

After committing suicide at the beginning of the game, Susan Ashworth finds herself in an dark afterlife, where an old woman tells her that she must return to life to defeat 7 “parasites.” The game is dark, dialogue driven, and deeply disturbing.

But it also offers hope. I won’t give the ending away, but you journey with Susan Ashworth as she struggles to overcome her depression.

 

4. Neverending Nightmares

Neverending Nightmares is an indie horror game developed by Matt Gilgenbach, who tried to capture his struggle with depression and OCD. The result is a gorgeous game. I felt less like I was playing a game and more like I was playing a Depression and OCD simulator. Waking up again and again from nightmare into even more horrific nightmares, you lead the protagonist through a maze of horrible imagery, monsters, and a heatbreaking story.

It’s a simple game that allows the player to get lost in the experience of depression. For anyone who struggles to know what it’s like to be depressed, I recommend this game as a good place to start.

 

5. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon is the grand scribe of depression, and his book The Noonday Demon is one of the best examinations of the condition. It contains some of the most beautiful – and harrowing – prose I’ve ever read. It’s a hefty tome, but an indispensable read for anyone interested in the subject.

Solomon writes:

Perhaps depression can best be described as emotional pain that forces itself on us against our will, and then breaks free of its externals. Depression is not just a lot of pain; but too much pain can compost itself into depression. Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance. It is tumbleweed distress that thrives on thin air, growing despite its detachment from the nourishing earth. It can be described only in metaphor and allegory. Saint Anthony in the desert, asked how he could differentiate between angels who came to him humble and devils who came in rich disguise, said you could tell by how you felt after they had departed. When an angel left you, you felt strengthened by his presence; when a devil left, you felt horror. Grief is a humble angel who leaves you with strong, clear thoughts and a sense of your own depth. Depression is a demon who leaves you appalled.

Andrew Solomon also has an excellent TED talk on the subject of depression:

 

Do you agree with this list? Is there anything I missed? Do you have your own experience of depression? Let me know in the comments or on social media.

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