When ‘Avatar’ first hit theaters in 2009, audiences had never seen anything like it. James Cameron’s sci-fi spectacle became a phenomenon, transporting returning viewers to the colorful alien world of Pandora: a digitally realized environment of vast forests, floating mountains and majestic creatures.
But in the weeks following the release of “Avatar,” CNN reported that some viewers experienced “depression and suicidal thoughts.” Along with the euphoric praise, a gloom had taken root: the surfaces of the earth seemed gray compared to the beautiful vistas of the film – and the mundane ways of humanity felt dull and limiting compared to the symbiotic tranquility of the Na’vi, the race of blue humanoids. native to Pandora.
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The phenomenon, dubbed “post-“Avatar” depression” by the fan community, cast a shadow beyond the film’s original release. Max Perrin, a 24-year-old digital artist living in Texas, had an intense emotional experience much later than the first batch of viewers; he didn’t see the movie until 2017.
“A lot of people in the community have been through this,” Perrin says Variety. “It really got me thinking about a number of things. I had no idea I could be so deeply affected by something like this. I had no idea how deeply it would change me.”
Jacob Williamson, a 25-year-old physicist living in Atlanta, Georgia, was also a latecomer to the post-Avatar Depression. While Williamson was one of the masses to see “Avatar” in its first theatrical performance, it wasn’t until years later that he realized he’d developed a disturbing fixation on Pandora.
“The first time I experienced it was probably a few years later when I watched it again on Blu-ray,” says Williamson. “I experienced it again in 2018 after visiting Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney World. In the end, it ended up taking me out of school for a semester.
Perrin and Williamson are both members of Kelutral, an online “Avatar” fan community founded on the messaging app Discord. Since its formal launch in 2020, Kelutral has strived to provide a conversation space for all ‘Avatar’ fans, but it started as a group of people interested in learning and conversing in the Na’vi language.
Kelutral got somewhat of a spotlight last fall, starring in the HBO series “How to With John Wilson.” The episode, titled “How to Remember Your Dreams,” documented a modest conference of Kelutral members in New York. Williamson and Perrin appear in the segment, as does Kelutral user experience designer Nick Paavo, a 33-year-old video game developer and musician living in Massachusetts.
While Paavo says he hasn’t personally experienced any form of post-avatar depression, he finds himself embedded in a community where he estimates that “about 10 to 20%” of his peers were affected by the film in that way.
“Empathize with and understand that it’s part of who I am,” says Paavo. “Now it’s definitely decreasing… If you were going through a post-‘Avatar’ depression, the chances of you being with us were pretty high because of the gap between movies. People who came in now were fine with living their lives without ‘Avatar’.”
Perrin was one of the people Paavo talked to about post-avatar depression. The Kelutral community has been instrumental in several profound changes in Perrin’s life.
“I remember being blown away by the visual spectacle of it and the compositions and emotional beats of the story. I went in blind and I was caught off guard,” Perrin shares. “I was in tears a bit. I was also like, ‘I need to talk to someone about this’… Then I found a Discord server, where I met what is now known as the Kelutral community. I was just ecstatic.”
Perrin, who has had a lifelong fascination with linguistics, found a support network in Kelutral’s Na’vi-speaking channels. As post-‘Avatar’ depression took its toll, the group helped Perrin find the language to recognize his own mental health issues.
“I felt like that was a great dream, but now I had to wake up. I had to return to the doldrums of reality and try to figure out what I was going to do with my adult life,” says Perrin, recalling his experience after seeing “Avatar.” “I struggled with depression and I didn’t know what it was. I had no name for it. I was not allowed to seek psychiatric medical treatment, psychotherapy or anything like that. My family had religious views that were at odds with much science and medicine.”
After tensions with Perrin’s father came to a head, one of Kelutral’s community leaders offered him a ride from Arizona to Texas and a roof to sleep under, giving Perrin a safe place as he began laying the groundwork for a new life.
“They’ve been a family I didn’t know I could ever have,” Perrin tells me. “I never thought my life would change so positively when I saw a movie about aliens in blue space.”
Williamson has also worked on his relationship with “Avatar,” reconciling the desire to get into the real estate business with the potential to trigger his depression. The solution that he felt worked best for him was to simply let himself get carried away — a creed he has shared with others.
“I talked to my psychiatrist about it and she had some advice I didn’t expect: let yourself do it. Stop trying to hold yourself back,” says Williamson, recalling the weeks after leaving college for a semester. “I watched ‘Avatar’ repeatedly, immersed myself in the language community and started learning Na’vi… After about a week it stopped. Since then I have never had an incident.”
Now the “Avatar” community is entering uncharted waters: the release of a new series entry – and an epic length, even more technically dazzling. Aside from a Disney World attraction, a few mocked video games, and a handful of recent graphic novels, “Avatar” fans have been largely driven by self-serving enthusiasm and have been fixating on a single movie for over a decade. “The Way of Water” will create waves in the community like never before. While helping to run Kelutral, Paavo saw a number of members contemplating the potential mental health implications of returning to Pandora.
“There have definitely been a few people — fewer than you can count on one hand — who have said, ‘Man, I’m afraid this is going to happen to me differently,'” Paavo shares. “Most of us are blinded by excitement; we don’t even think about the possible consequences of what the world will look like after this film.”
For Williamson, there aren’t many hard narrative expectations for “The Way of Water”; the promise of finally expanding Pandora’s scope is more than enough to whet his appetite. But as he braces for an intense emotional viewing experience, Williamson seems confident in his ability to make it through.
“There’s always a little bit of concern that it might trigger me again… I could see it being a little less emotional in the sense that it’s a return to Pandora. But as we’re exploring new areas that we haven’t seen before, it still has that jolt of the new,” says Williamson. “I don’t think I know until I see it.”
As for Perrin, he’s particularly excited about the linguistic implications of the new film, which could open up a new Na’vi dialect by introducing into the story the Metkayina clan, a group that lives along the reefs of Pandora.
“I didn’t want a life without problems. It just so happened that the problems of the ‘Avatar’ world seemed more surmountable than my own,” Perrin shared, reflecting on his post-“Avatar” depression and his time before moving to Texas. “It’s going to be a very introspective time for me. I don’t think it will be as negative as many people’s first post-‘Avatar’ depression. It becomes more solemn, sentimental and retrospective.”
The peculiarity of Perrin’s circumstances is not lost on him; most life trajectories aren’t shaped by a single sci-fi blockbuster. But after finding a support system through Kelutral, “The Way of Water” isn’t just a long overdue return to an alien world he loves. It is a hard-fought moment of triumph.
“This is a movie about blue space cats,” Perrin chuckles. “There’s a good portion of people who say, ‘Avatar 2? Did we really need this movie?’ Yes, yes, we did.”
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