Content Warning: This article discusses depression and suicide and its depiction in season 1 of Sweet Home
Mental health portrayals in media sometimes feel like opening Pandora’s Box. It is difficult to say what representation is right and what is wrong because mental health and the way people experience it is not uniform. However, the consequences of more sensationalized portrayals can be severe. Sweet Home, a South Korean horror series, premiered on Netflix on December 18th. I had walked into it not knowing much of what it was about, which was probably for the best. I normally scare easily, and cannot handle gore. However, I ended up becoming invested in these characters and the symbolic meanings behind the monsters they fought. Within all the blood, tears, and gore I found one of the best portrayals of a person with suicidal depression I’d ever seen.
I became personally invested in mental health representation when I was an undergrad, particularly how suicidal depression is often depicted in mass media. In college, I had become frustrated because it felt as though all the stories I saw featuring a character struggling with depression either ended with or involved their suicide. It isn’t that suicide isn’t a real, tragic element of our world and shouldn’t ever be depicted; but when the character I related to the most in stories always took their life, it was hard not to wonder if that was all there was for me as well.
Sweet Home features an ensemble cast of the residents of Green Home, a run-down apartment complex. As the show progresses, it is revealed that many of them are dealing with their own forms of trauma. The newest resident, and arguably the main focus of the series, is young Cha Hyun-su (Song Kang). Hyun-su is a loner. He has intentionally isolated himself and scheduled the day he plans to die. Hyun-su’s depression is layered, not having one sole cause. Shown in flashbacks as an optimistic teen, severe bullying and isolation from classmates led to self-harm. His family being unaware of his struggles created further isolation and resentment. Now at Green Home, his depression has compounded by being the sole survivor of a car accident that killed his family. Hyun-su holds survivor’s guilt, but also envy that he was not the one to die. The slow revelations and nuances to his depression are thought out, as often depression doesn’t have one sole cause.
What Sweet Home does differently is show Hyun-su surviving. Literally.
This is a survival horror series, and Hyun-su realizes while helping two children that if he cannot live for himself, perhaps he can be useful to others. This was something that hit close to home. Hyun-su is turning into a monster in the show, a creature that is a distorted version of a person’s negative thoughts and desires. While some of the monsters become manifestations of the trauma characters have faced, not all are, and that is key. Sweet Home doesn’t immediately make mental health monstrous. It also makes Hyun-su’s inner monster that much more impactful, as he is confronting himself and in that, his depression.
For Hyun-su, keeping his monster at bay means talking directly with a darker and cruel version of himself. “I don’t know what I am. You can just start over here. You can live however you want,” the black-eyed inner monster tells Hyun-su. In a way, giving up his humanity and those he chooses to protect would be another form of suicide. “And if I reveal my desire, I become a monster?” Hyun-su asks as his face overlays his black-eyed self. The monster’s grin and his frown blend together as Hyun-su stabs the reflection. Sweet Home portrays Hyun-su reclaiming his desire to live and find meaning in his life after years of suicidal depression.
The imagery of a person talking to a malicious, cruel version of themself has been done before, but that is because it works. It is relatable to many who struggle with depression. While it is a part of me, in my darkest times it did feel as though I was staring at another version of myself that thrived on my pain and resentment of the world.
The other standout element of Hyun-su’s journey is how the show portrays self-harm. It doesn’t hide the fact that he struggled with cutting, showing it with small, quick shots to the scars on his wrists and arms. The show doesn’t revel in Hyun-su’s cutting the way some media does and becomes trauma porn. His scars are a part of him, but the physical violence he inflicted on himself back then is not shown. The extent is Hyun-su holding a box cutter in a school bathroom, which tells the audience all they need to know.
Aside from the low bar of not being trauma porn, Sweet Home shows how self-harm can evolve. Hyun-su doesn’t cut during the series, but being in-between human and monster allows him to heal incredibly quickly. This results in him constantly venturing into dangerous territory to do basic tasks for the good of the group. While this is somewhat imposed by the other survivors, it is also how he gives his existence meaning in this uncertain time. Hyun-su constantly putting his body in harm’s way and getting brutally injured becomes another form of self-harm. It is a supernaturally exaggerated example of something I did myself in my darkest times. I would push myself well beyond my personal limits in an attempt to feel useful for others. The representation of how depressive self-harm can take on many forms is something that should be praised.
The beauty of Sweet Home is how Hyun-su’s character grows from all this. He isn’t on screen to simply be pitied and viewed as tragic by audiences who may not have gone through what he has. He grows with his depression and learns how to live on with himself. He doesn’t magically do it alone. A beautiful moment has Eun-Yu (Go Min-si) placing a Band-Aid over his scar, but again doesn’t dwell on pity. Instead, Eun-yu holds Hyun-su accountable. She isn’t victim blaming, although it comes off a bit harsher than necessary due to her character. Hyun-su needs to stand up for himself. The first step in mental health treatment is having the courage to seek help, and Hyun-su has avoided that by isolating.
“Make it obvious!” Eun-yu yells. “I got hurt because of you! It fucking hurts!’” She and Hyun-su both know that he resents being put at risk by the others in the group, but he doesn’t value himself enough to say so.
No one saves Hyun-su in Sweet Home from his depression. There isn’t some romanticized version where the character with depression is pulled out “into the light” by others. Hyun-su has agency in living with depression. I could not have gotten help without my friends, but at the end of the day the decision and initiative was mine to make. My friends even made that clear, how they loved me but there was only so much they could do. The kindness (not niceness) of their intervention helped me seek professional help. Sweet Home‘s portrayal of Hyun-su is more realistic (even in the monster apocalypse) because Hyun-su’s depression is never magically cured. He makes an active choice to carry on. Eun-Yu is the one who provides that tough love to push him.
By the end of the series, Hyun-su has chosen to live both for himself and those he cares about. When he gives in to the monster side of him to fight for that, shards grow out of his self-harm scars and form a giant wing. In a way, Hyun-su accepts his depression and pain as a part of him. He is finally stopped from harming others by Du-Sik (Kim Sang-Ho) telling him “it’s okay,” and that the many deaths in the show are not his fault. The painful realization that he wants to live creates something melancholy and beautiful from Hyun-su’s trauma, without exploiting it.
Sweet Home will not be to everyone’s taste, but for me, it was a show that wasn’t afraid of the horrors of the world and yet still was able to represent them with empathy and care. Sweet Home proves that dark fiction can portray sensitive topics without glorifying them, or further harming those who’ve experienced them. My pain wasn’t on display for shock value or dark atmosphere. I got to watch someone I relate to struggling but ultimately live with their depression. That brought back memories both painful and joyful. Sweet Home was not just a blast to binge, and a well-done television show, but also is a fantastic example of nuanced representation of depression through Hyun-su. There is hope in the pain, without feeling unfairly idealistic.