A Sophisticated Meditation on Suicide, Grief & Widowhood





Staying too close to the ground because you’re afraid to fall to such an extent that you never even spread your wings is what’ll make you forget that you even had them to begin with. There’s great freedom in being aware of this; because, ultimately, we are our own worst enemy.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but it is also bred from denying the truth for far too long.


Elevated horror films such as the one I’m discussing here are what breathes new life into an otherwise oversaturated and suffocated genre. They’re sophisticated meditations on the horror people deal with in their daily lives.


“The Night House” is packed with a lot of complex thematic layers surrounding suicide, grief, and depression. It’s what I love most about it. It’s not about some attractive or scantily-dressed woman running down the hallway in an attempt to outrun our favorite knife-wielding psycho.


Rebecca Hall plays Beth, a schoolteacher, who just lost her husband of 14 years to suicide. Stricken with grief, mourning soon becomes her.


We first catch a glimpse of her unsuppressed grief when she snaps at the helicopter mother of one of her students at an impromptu parent-teacher meeting.


My husband shot himself in the head last Thursday. But, yes, if you want to know: he took the boat out on the lake, took a handgun that I didn’t even know we owned, and pow, right in the mouth. So, your volleys of passive aggression pale in comparison to his; and, which Hunter got what grade on what high school elective speech class assignment really doesn’t matter to me right now. You want a B? You got a B.


This was a powerful scene, and it shed so much light on the struggles of widowhood. She’s not only struggling with the loss of her beloved but is also actively tortured by the mystery of why he chose to end his life. Without closure, it’s hard to let the past go.


Out at a bar with her friends one night, it is revealed through conversation that Beth had been carrying around her husband’s suicide note, which she ended up reading to them. It read:


You were right. There is nothing. Nothing is after you. You’re safe now.


What does the note mean?


This movie, from my analytical perspective, is about the art of sublimation. Beth turns grief into a puzzle that she could solve rather than dealing with the aftermath of her trauma in a more cathartic manner.


When you understand that this nothingness (or supernatural demon) was only a manifestation of her depression and trauma, of the sadness and grief she carried with her, it suddenly becomes even more terrifying. 


The personal darkness we all carry with us, all of the unresolved conflict… it will be darker than any demon you can think up, and more brutal than any of our beloved slasher villains like Ghostface, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, and Freddy Kruger.


Depression, externalized as a villain, has killed more people than any of our beloved masked killers, combined.


What, then, did ‘you’re safe now’ mean?


In one word, guilt.


If you’ve ever struggled with depression, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. 


It is easy to feel as though there’s a dark cloud that follows you everywhere you go, and from the perspective of someone who has lived with his demons for a long time, Owen didn’t want to ‘infect her’ with his suffering. He felt guilty. 


Interestingly, Beth had a similar thought.


“Maybe I infected him with my bullshit. I’m the one who struggled with that stuff. Depression. Dark thoughts.”

She shared with her friends.


It is what makes Beth’s final fight all the more symbolic. Externalizing her own suicidal depression onto the figure of her husband, he asked Beth to kill herself so that she could stay with him. This, for me, ties a lot into what our friendly neighborhood killer in Scream 4 asks Sidney Prescott right before their attempt to kill her.


What good is it to be a survivor if everyone close to you is dead?


While not everyone close to Beth was dead, it certainly might have seemed pointless to be a survivor when she was suffering so much without him by her side.


The empty, softly-rocking boat was a symbol of that emptiness we all face in our lives. We cannot avoid getting hurt, we cannot avoid the darkness that enters our life; because even when everything seems normal, the bad doesn’t go away, but we can take away its strength by choosing faith over fear.



In the end, Beth made a different choice. While she very nearly came close to pulling the trigger, she chose to listen to the voice of love, the voice of her best friend asking her to step back from the ledge.


Beth taught us that just because we’re choosing to move on with our lives, it doesn’t mean we forget what came before. We’re allowing ourselves to move forward in our journey with the essence of our loved ones in our hearts. We’re no longer crippled by our loss, we become inspired to live more meaningfully in spite of it.


Why did Owen look different in certain scenes, and why did he kill women that resembled Beth?


Firstly, Owen was a believer in the dark arts who built the Night House to contain the bodies he’d buried.


Why?


Years ago, Beth had told him the story of her temporary death and how after she came back, all she felt was nothingness. This is where symbolism comes into play.


This nothingness takes the shape of a demon who wants Beth back because it had seen her when she died temporarily years ago. Owen was trying to trick this demon by giving it women that resemble Beth. It worked… until it didn’t.


In reality, Owen struggled with mental illness. Beth explains that she felt nothingness after her brush with death. 


Quite a normal reaction from someone who experienced such trauma, right? 


Well, he took her words literally, associated with demons, and started killing people so as to protect her.  His reasoning didn’t make much logical sense, but we become prisoners of our definitions and if we change the angle of our vision, the reality of what we see will change as well.


The same can be said about suicide, though. It may be one answer, but it doesn’t make it the right answer. 


People who contemplate (or act on) suicide are stuck in the prison of despair and often lose the very part of themselves that enjoyed being alive. 


This is why Owen wrote, “there is nothing” in his suicide note. He was confirming that depression is real. There was nothing to live for anymore, just as she said she felt nothing when she came back from her temporary death. 


Owen felt himself to be a monster, so he killed himself to free her from the shackles of the darkness of mental health issues that had a hold on him. 


After all, at one point, Beth felt the same. She wasn’t exactly fighting after her trauma, she wasn’t exactly eager to live, she just felt the presence of a lingering depression, merely surviving.


Neither one of them dealt with their struggles with depression and mental health issues properly, and this movie was an expression of that.


Did Owen actually kill people?


In my perspective, Owen did not truly kill people. Beth’s mind churned through all sorts of scenarios, and maybe she thought it best to make him out to be a villain. Who’d miss a monster, right? Sometimes, we need to change the narrative to suit what we are ready to deal with, and losing a monster is a bit easier than losing our beloved.


So, in essence, nothing actually happened in the movie. Owen simply died by suicide, and Beth treated it like a puzzle, churning through all the stages of grief, and then some. 


Remember the lesson that change attempts to teach us. We either find a way back to who we were, or we find new things to love, live for, and laugh about. You are in control of your own destiny and you alone control everything you let go of and everything you hold onto.


I hope this movie will save some lives and makes people think. Suicide is (or should be) preventable.


* * * * *


With some regularity, I read about some brilliant young mind that decides to end their life in the Startup scene. Oftentimes, I believe it's because the concept of being a creator is a magnet for people suffering from depression, and those projects end up becoming an extension of their founders; and when the Startup tanks or goes sideways, they take that failure personally.


I'm reminded of a quote by David Foster Wallace.


The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.


Written by a man who ended up taking his own life, I think he knew a lot about pain.


Nevertheless, I'm not sure that I agree with the quote. I understand why someone might make that jump, but I believe it only makes sense if you're going to allow fear and emotion to dictate your action.


I've been in a similar space more than once and was lucky enough to conquer my demons and fight through the night so I could see the beautiful sunrise.


The lesson, “what you do will always matter more than how you feel” kept me at bay, no matter how un-alive or disconnected I felt, in such a seemingly always-connected world.


This is the true reality about mental health; the answer doesn't lie in treating people like they're unbelievably fragile, but rather that we are creatures created specifically for discomfort, struggle, and for pain. That we can come out of our battles stronger, more capable, and happier.


Suffering is inevitable, but choosing how to suffer is optional. You either suffer the pain of regret or the pain of discipline. This is a lesson I wish I'd learned earlier in life.


I've since found happiness, like success, to be a purely intangible feeling. Really, it just comes down to two factors. 


1) Waking up excited.


2) Going to bed feeling calm. 


If these two factors are present, I don't question them. All I need to know is that my life is great. Storms in our lives, like clouds, will come, but they will go; I've just got to keep living.


If they don't? I'm probably holding onto something that needs to be let go of so I either drop it or find someone who knows how to best help me do that.


We end up putting too much stock into augury that we sacrifice so much of our present, and I believe it's one of many things that make depression so much worse.


“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” – George Orwell