Should Depressed People Avoid Horror Novels?
Okay, before I press submit on this article, I guess I should elaborate. I have a long and rich history of depression, including such highlights as The Time I Flew Home Early from Abroad and Went to the Psych Hospital, The Times I Woke Up to the Sound of My Own Screaming (Sorry, Mom), and The Year I Slept Through. Because depression has affected my life so powerfully and for so long, and also because I am fine with speaking openly about it, I’ve gotten a lot of advice over the years. Anyone who speaks openly about their disabilities might guess that most of this advice has been unsolicited and that much of it has been unhelpful.
That’s not to say that the people who gave this advice were unhelpful in their hearts; many of them were kind and loving and scared for me. With that said, practicing psychology without a license isn’t a great idea.
I’m a fan of horror novels. I love Shirley Jackson and Emily Carroll and arguing about whether the film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby is better than the book. I will read literally anything about witches. I spend every October plowing through the best of the genre, at the edge of my reading seat. I love it. And I’m always chastised for it.
I have terrible nightmares and thoughts of harming myself, it’s true. Horror would make that worse, right? That’s the logic of the people who warn me away from the horror genre. At first, I believed them. I felt guilty about it every time I read it. Then I stopped reading horror altogether. Over time, though, as I watched my symptoms carefully, I found that the supposedly causal connection between horror fiction consumption and depression symptoms was nonexistent. It turns out that the truth is this: certain media can make my depression worse, but horrific elements have little to do with it.
So what is it about certain media that does make my depression worse? Let’s start by listing some media that makes me more symptomatic: Let Me Be a Woman by Elisabeth Elliot, A Bend in the Road by Nicholas Sparks, Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. To contrast, here are some novels with horrific elements that had either a neutral or a positive effect on my depression: The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Dinner by Herman Koch.
When I first read Let Me Be a Woman by Elisabeth Elliot, I was in a terrible spot in my life. I blamed myself wholly for my despair, and I desperately clung to anyone’s promise that they could make me better. Elliot, a popular Christian author, made such promises in her writing. In this book, she promises that if women gladly accept their submissive role, they will see the beauty in living the life they were made for and they will please God. I hope I don’t have to explain why these promises didn’t pan out, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Following the advice of this book and others like it robbed me of my autonomy, my self-worth, and my ability to advocate for myself. My depression spiraled.
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin is perhaps the opposite of Let Me Be a Woman; it’s a horror novel that affirms women, rather than a Christian living book that devalues them. Photographer and young mother Joanna, the protagonist, moves with her family to a closed suburb where most of the other women are eerily, robotically submissive. She eventually fears she may not be able to leave with her life. Even though the events of the novel are frightening, it is clear throughout that Joanna is a heroine. Her thoughts are to be believed, and her core self is to be valued.
It is strange to me that someone could warn me away from The Stepford Wives and remain neutral about Let Me Be a Woman. Yes, one portrays murder and the other portrays the hope of God’s love, but reading them had the opposite effects on my psyche.
Although there are some moments in a depressive episode when avoiding all heavy subject matter helps me keep my mood stable, there are many moments where engaging in discussions of violence and pain and evil is incredibly important to my mental health. Reading is one method of such engagement. For me, the events of a novel by themselves do not trigger symptoms. Instead, it is the novel’s message about those events that can affect me when I am vulnerable.
I encourage any depressed person to reflect honestly on how the media they consume affects them, and to adjust accordingly. The way things work for my brain might differ from how they work for others. I encourage anyone speaking to a depressed person to withhold judgment. Listen to the person you are talking to, and if they ask for your advice, consider telling them to do what works for them, instead of summarily condemning an entire genre.