The last thing I remember clearly before I tried to take my own life was a feeling. It was something I’d never quite been able to put into words, but it was a haunting, enveloping thought, and it gave me great pause. I had already finished calling my friend to tell him I needed help, but after that, it was like I was trapped underwater, suspended just below the surface and rocking back and forth like the buoy– my lifeline– just a few feet above me. As the young woman (Jessie Buckley) wonders in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), “What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape. What if the maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt?”
Full of misgivings, a young woman travels with her new boyfriend to his parents’ secluded farm.
That thought, much as it did the protagonists in both the novel and filmic adaptation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, scared me. It scared me more than the prospect of ending my own life, of removing myself from the lives of my family and friends. The idea, however nebulous and unknowing as it was, that dying might not be an end was too much to bear, and it paralyzed me. It paralyzed me for long enough to drop the bottle of pills, collapse backward onto the bathroom tile, and phone emergency services for help.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things has commanded a great deal of attention not only because it’s an adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel committed to screen by a critically acclaimed filmmaker, but also because of its labyrinthine genre status. Is it a horror movie? Is it a comedy? Nay, near the end, might it be a musical? All of those things can be true simultaneously, but the very bones from which it was built, the chilly air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs of its story, are very much, quite unequivocally horror.
Trying to die by suicide, or even just entertaining a little embryo of the idea, is perhaps the scariest thing any individual can do. It feels both profoundly personal, belonging to the self, while also feeling so universal, like every person you’d ever met has some stake– some small, microbial role– in the decision. Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) interior trek through his own mind, filled as it is with his parents and the specter of a woman lost long ago, is one of the most elegiac and earnest explorations of what wanting to die feels like, and that’s terrifying. Terrifying, though, in an overwhelmingly curative way.
When I was recovering from my attempt, I wanted to know why more than anything. I had a marginal idea, like a grocery list of things I needed, all of which were important individually, but nonetheless inconsequential to the grocery haul writ large. There was no one, distinct answer. There were morbid and intrusive thoughts, little ghosts in the night that nuzzled in next to me to whisper, “One day, your family will die.” There were thoughts of death and decay, like the frozen sheep Jake sees in the corner of his family’s barn. The things I loved and even the things I saw that did not matter all that much were temporary. One day, they would be dead and gone, and that would be a terrible, terrible thing. So terrible, in fact, that what scared me more than anything was being around when that happened.
I hated the way I looked and the way I sounded. I felt like a feral ghoul in front of the mirror, and I was so exhaustingly hyper-aware of every word I spoke and every movement I made. It was like I was living the lives of two of me with the compromised energy of just one. It was like I was in the car with the ghost of myself and everything I’d ever wanted. I felt like Jake. My chest continued to crumble inward and sallow bags formed under my eyes. I tried my damnedest to tell myself that things were okay and that, fundamentally deep down, I really was happy. As Jake says, though, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”
It felt monstrous to even think such things, like I was betraying every person I’d ever loved and every person who had ever loved me. The monstrous ghoul I saw in the mirror was real, and I thought it best, after much deliberation, to do what heroes do best– kill the monster. I wanted to be the hero. As the young woman says, it would just be another sad ending to “another sad story.” I am writing this today, though, so unlike Jake, my story didn’t end so sadly, and strange as it might sound, it’s because of stories like his. It’s because of scary, horrific, terrifying, armrest-clenching tales of ghosts and goblins and of the mind that my story didn’t end.
It’s because, like Jake, I took a mental road trip, too. I saw all the death and destruction, the absurdity of my own life and the lives of other. I saw the isolation and sequestration from all that is good and worthwhile. I saw the loneliness and the ennui. I saw the maggots swarming my corpse. I saw the specter of my own fear chasing me down the halls of my high school while I crouched in the corner, not knowing what was real and what wasn’t. I felt both happy and sad in my recovery, in turn around the carousel, and though I tried as hard as I’d ever tried at anything before, I couldn’t quite control it. My thoughts gave way, contradicting each other, emanating out of memories I didn’t know I had and leading me down paths I never thought I’d ever go. Like the young woman’s monologue on Gena Rowlands or the spat between lovers over Baby, It’s Cold Outside, my mind was a wild, unpredictable winter wasteland. I veered off in so many directions. Like the road to Jake’s high school, none of it made much sense. None of it reconciled with what I knew to be true and what I knew to be absolute truth.
I did recover, though, and wanting to die soon morphed into simply not wanting to live, and soon thereafter wanting, in however small a measurement, to be alive. Then, finally, not just alive, but alive and well. Alive and living a life rich with experience and people I love. I’m Thinking of Ending Things understands that, and it uses the uniquely curative power of horror to convey it. It uses horror to confront you with the ugly and terrifying truths of death as bedfellow. It’s a movie that celebrates life while acknowledging that, in some cases, that celebration is invite only. It’s a movie that upends the tropes of the genre to scare audiences into healing and strength. It is a magnificent, wild beast. Rare, mysterious, and irrevocable. I once thought I was thinking of ending things, but I’m not anymore. No, not anymore.