Sian, I just read a headline about something called “post-Avatar depression”. It sounds like exactly what happens to me whenever I watch a deeply derided big budget and fairly nonsensical film – but I get the feeling this is … something else.
It all began after the first Avatar was released in 2009: people started posting on a fan site, Avatar Forums, that they were feeling down and unsatisfied with their lives after seeing James Cameron’s film, about humanity’s attempt to colonise a pristine planet called Pandora, home to the Na’vi, a blue humanoid race. Humanity seemed out of step with the natural world, they felt, especially when compared to the spiritual, environment-loving Na’vi.
“Ever since I went to see Avatar I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them,” one wrote. “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in Avatar.” Another asked: “Are there other people out there who think humanity is going south?”
The thread received more than 1,000 posts from people around the world experiencing similar feelings; it became so popular that a second thread was created for more room, and the discussion spread to other fan sites. It was picked up by the media in 2010, and eventually labelled post-Avatar depression syndrome (PADS).
Wait, what do you mean “labelled”? This isn’t a DSM-level diagnosis is it?
The most important thing is that the feelings people experience are very real, and often very troubling to them. But no, PADS is not a medically recognised condition – nor does it seem to be a PR campaign. It is an observable phenomenon.
It seems that Avatar does uniquely provoke similar feelings among disparate people, but the feelings it provokes – sorrow from feeling disconnected from nature, worries about the future of our own planet and feeling dissatisfied with modern life – are all very normal feelings to have given how we have built our world and societies. And it’s of note that many of the original posters on those forums were young men, who would also write about feeling lonely at school, or unsupported at home.
“It has taken the best of our technology to create this virtual world, and real life will never be as utopian as it seems onscreen. It makes real life seem more imperfect,” Dr Stephan Quentzel, a New York psychiatrist, told CNN in 2010 as way of explanation.
Interestingly, PADS was not confined to when the film came out; individuals have spoken about watching Avatar for the first time in the years since it was released and still reported having similar feelings. One fan recently estimated that 10-20% of people using Avatar fan forums report experiencing it.
Is there a cure?
Ancient Forest Alliance, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to the protection of old-growth forests, developed a three-step cure for PADS: “Get out and experience nature, take action to defend nature and get others to do the same.”
Fans also began sharing tips on ways to reduce consumerism and waste, and how to engage more with the natural world. One Swedish fan, Ivar Hill, wrote on the forum when he was 17: “When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.” But after speaking to fans, he began reading philosophy and spending more time out in nature by hiking. “Avatar made me feel like I could sit out in a forest and just be,” Hill told the New York Times last month; he’s now in his 30s and married to a woman he met on an Avatar fan forum he started.
And, as is often the case in fandoms, there is a touching comradery to be found. In a 2021 episode of the documentary series How To with John Wilson, he sits down with a group for Avatar fans who began meeting up in 2020. Some of their meeting is just nerds nerding, but a lot of it is them talking about their struggles with depression and how they’ve found solace in each other.
“For me the post-Avatar depression hit hard because I have this serial track record of trying to escape my reality,” one says, tearfully recalling how a fellow Avatar fan saved his life after he posted on a forum about feeling suicidal. “Ultimately it comes from a desire to want something better,” he muses, of PADs. “But just because we have that desire, I think it drives us to make the world that we live in a better place.”
Finding your people is a cure for all ills.
The sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, is finally out. How’s everybody doing?
Some are obviously, very excited. But superfan Hill told the New York Times these days, it is just another movie for him: “It’s going to be really interesting to see, but it’s not like I’m counting down the days.”
It seems that even for the big fans, it’s a bit weird having a sequel out for a 13-year-old film described as “the most popular film that no one remembers”. But who knows – maybe Avatar: The Way of Water might provoke a burst of ocean-saving activism.
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