The Depressing, Suicidal Days of Winter—Really?

The days grow dim and nights stretch long. Ads inundate the airwaves with buy, buy, buy, home-for-the-holidays, and expectations of family gatherings. No one escapes the bombardment of images and the 483,231 versions of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

No one.

With the constant barrage of images and expectations of gluttony and greed, the various news media chime in with story upon story detailing the dire effects of the season, how depression and suicide rates increase around the holidays. The assumption makes sense, after all. War (someone’s always fighting, especially in the Middle East), the pressure to spend more than a person can afford, pending family gatherings wrought with tension and conflict, dimwitted pundits condemning this or that group’s seasonal celebrations or word choice for good wishes—yes, winter is definitely ripe for depression, and depression for some readily leads to suicide.

As the season of insanity (Need proof? Go shopping on Black Friday.), of hopelessness and desperation, winter becomes the perfect setting for dark fantasy and horror stories. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick certainly made good use of the season in the novel and movie versions of The Shining. Scores of other authors have also made winter the optimal setting for spotlighting the soul’s darkest corners. But do our assumptions about the season’s dark side pan out under scrutiny?

The holiday season in my youth was an opportune time for my parents to act out. They weren’t fond of each other, and holiday visits to each set of relatives provided them with excellent opportunities to explode into battles in their ongoing war.

Hallelujah, Christmas!

Then came the year my mother took me grocery shopping late Christmas Eve afternoon. When we arrived home, my father was waiting on the front steps with the story of how, while taking a bath, he’d heard someone sneak into the house. Through the crack in the doorway to the living room, he said he’d seen Santa quickly unload a few toys from his bag and flee. Later that night, I overheard my parents talking low in the living room about the true delivery of those toys and more serious matters. Their voices were strangely calm as they agreed on terms. On Christmas day, they separated. It lasted for a couple of weeks before they decided to give things another try. A few Christmases later, they separated for good.

Melancholy tinged winter holidays followed for a few years, and I bought into the myth that the season fostered depression and suicide. Perhaps you have, too. But statistics bust the myth to pieces. In fact, the U.S. suicide rate decreases during the holiday season, only to rise in spring as weather brightens and days lengthen. Psychologists speculate the winter decrease may result from increased interaction with family and friends who provide support that’s lacking the rest of the year. When moods bump up in spring and everyone returns to the daily greed and grump, folks subject to depression may feel worse because they don’t experience the same “normal” boost others enjoy.

That’s all fine and good, but where do the facts leave dark fantasy and horror writers? Would Jack Nicholson’s body in The Shining’s maze be as effective if the story were set in spring or summer?

Take away those winter myths in which we indulge ourselves, and what’s left?

Cold, dark days.

And that’s just depressing.

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