‘You Carry Hell With You’: Zoë Rose Smith – Editor-in-Chief of Ghouls Magazine – explores masculinity and mental health in Can Evrenol’s Turkish shocker…
The first time my therapist asked me to be open and honest with my unresolved trauma, we likened it to breaking the chains on a metaphorical latch, and simply unlocking with a key that which was in my possession all along. On paper this sounds like an effortless task, yet in reality it took months of sessions before being able to reach that point.
Emotional trauma causes varying responses in the human psyche, from irrational fear to unprovoked rage to withdrawn isolation and complete depersonalisation. When a trauma is not addressed and confronted, it can even lead to physical responses such as confusion, nightmares and panic attacks, all of which can exacerbate the already existing psychological effects from the original trauma. Therefore a destructive cycle of potentially dangerous mental health issues begins, and it all stems from the traumatic experience being left unresolved.
Can Evrenol’s 2015 Turkish horror film Baskin might seem like a bizarre pairing to explore such a complex and personal issue, however the entire film can be read as a representation of male mental health and how toxic masculinity has led to the repression of typically categorised ‘feminine’ emotional states. Since 2009, the number of men who have experienced suicidal thoughts in the UK has doubled and is above that of women (Mind: Get It Off Your Chest poll 2019), showing the sad reality that men are suffering from poor mental health but not talking about it. But why is there so much stigma surrounding men and their feelings? Across the globe, cultures, traditions and religion have been male-dominated with authoritative figures portrayed as domineering, influential men made of stone, without an ounce of fragility.
Toxic masculinity is the concept that traditional gender roles and expectations on men are damaging – not only to women and wider society – but to the men themselves, and can often lead to severe oppression. One particular aspect of this is the notion that in order to be regarded as a true ‘man’ one must refrain from displaying emotions, arguing that this can be read as somewhat feminine.
Baskin centres around five male police officers who are called to an incident in a remote and desolate town, one steeped in horrific rumours of cults and considered the entrance to Hell itself. Presented in a surrealist style, the film is brazen in its approach to horror, verging on both psychological terror combined with depraved lashings of extreme cinema.
From the very beginning, it’s clear that these societal-led toxic traits determine the behaviours of the five officers, Yavuz (Muharrem Mayrak), Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu), Apo (Fatih Dokgöz), Seyfi (Sabahattin Yakut) and protagonist Arda (Görken Kasal). A pivotal character within the storytelling is Yavuz, who relays to his colleagues a sexual encounter with a woman who – during their exchange – he discovered was trans. In traditional Turkish culture it’s typically seen as a sin to identify with the LGBTQIA+ community, and even though Yavuz says he continued with the act even after discovering the woman was trans, he becomes volatile towards their waiter as he laughs at the story. The derogatory term ‘faggot’ is thrown without thought as the police officer exclaims he is not gay.
It is within this toxic masculinity that we begin to see the unfolding mental health within the group, and particularly its influence on the youngest officer, Arda, who without a father figure in his life looks to these men for inspiration. Even though some characters are more prominent than others, each plays their part and can be interpreted as the degrees of emotions that are experienced by Arda’s declining state of mental health. Director Evrenol intricately builds a traumatising dreamscape which submerges the audience in a constant state of confusion and anticipation, somewhat mimicking the disorientating suspension that Arda finds himself drowning in. It is within the café that we learn of the grief that consumes him: at a young age he lost his friend merely minutes after seeing him, and a year later he lost both his parents. Both of these catastrophic events bear an uncanny resemblance as the deaths all occurred in uncontrollable car accidents. Sudden loss, particularly at an early age, can result in abandonment schema where manifesting thoughts of abandonment become overwhelming, leading to serious mental health problems.
Arda is so burdened by the toxic masculinity that surrounds him, that he only opens up to Remzi when they are completely alone and isolated. But during this scene there is a dark presence that looms in the background, one that Remzi believes only he can see, another connection to the isolation that men feel when going through a bad psychological period.
As the five journey to their final destination, the recurring appearance of frogs becomes apparent, a creature that has been thought to symbolise transformation and rebirth. Baskin truly embraces its nightmarish qualities, following a non-linear structure in which Arda’s childhood flashbacks and conversations in the café are interlaced between the despairing scenes which are to follow. When a person reaches the darkest depths of their mental health, they will often experience dissociative episodes which – throughout the film – occur repeatedly for Arda as he struggles to open his mind and process the grief, trauma and loss from his childhood.
The house that they have been called to stands disconnected from the outside world, decrepit, crumbling and covered in a tortuous history. Simply the fact that this building is so abandoned and removed from reality indicates it could be read as a materialisation of Arda’s abandonment issues. As they enter the house, the film explores each character as a personification of Arda’s trauma in more detail, utilising horror to draw out their particular emotional representation. Even before going inside Seyfi has been afflicted with manic hysteria, screaming uncontrollably into the bathroom mirror after perusing his own reflection – in Turkish folklore it is believed that gazing at yourself in a mirror reveals your true self, which could insinuate that Seyfi discovers he is just a figment of Arda’s grief, rather than his own person. Apo is a quiet character, during every scene seemingly coming across as distant, cold and unavailable. Even in death, his persona comes across as numb and devoid of emotion, concreting our understanding that this part is Arda’s reservations about showing his genuine inner feelings towards himself and the circumstances he is going through.
As the disturbing scenes heighten into excess, it’s clear that the emotions Arda is feeling give him a sense of claustrophobia, potentially making him feel like he is chained and tortured by his own grief. The faceless bodies within the building are reminiscent of this, with black plastic suffocating their faces, their limbs confined to chains and their suffering heard through guttural screams of pain. As Arda, Remzi and Yavuz venture further into void-like corridors the theme of toxic masculinity is resurrected once more as we witness females sodomising men, and brutally dismembering them until they represent nothing more than pieces of meat. One aspect of Arda’s childhood trauma stems from his mother’s absence after his friend’s death, with her too preoccupied in intercourse as he desperately called for her comfort. Evrenol has previously mentioned that he grew up in a male-dominated setting, therefore explaining how the absence of a strong female presence can lead to an exacerbated dominance of toxic masculinity and the need to be seen as a strong man. Arda might be unconscious to the trauma of his mother’s absence, but it is clear that without female stabilisation, toxic masculinity is given free reign to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of a lonely and naive young man.
As the climax of Baskin begins to peak, Arda is introduced to Baba (Mehmet Cerrahoglu), who is the Devil himself. The three men have reached the pinnacle of this living Hell, and it is here that only the authentic self will be allowed to overcome all obstacles and be rebirthed with the knowledge of true horror. We can decipher Baba’s lair as the worst element of Arda’s mental health; a frightening chamber in which only darkness resides. In order for Arda to overcome his own personal Hell, he must leave behind the parts of his trauma which are becoming weak links to his transformative process. Yavuz is aggression and fear, two emotions that often are seen more commonly in men when they have lingering trauma that has yet to be addressed. When going through therapy, a therapist will often encourage that the participant disregard their fear to confront the agony that ravages their mind, which is why during these scenes Yavuz is blinded by Baba, allowing Arda to continue without looking through fearful eyes. However, it is the character of Remzi that truly is the weakest link of all the personified emotions. Regardless of his calm, rational approach to each situation, he is the comfort that Arda must push past in order to battle against his negative emotions and unlock his inner self.
The entire film focuses on the symbolism of keys and locks, serving as a metaphor for how Arda’s repression of past trauma and his current emotional state have left his authentic self locked in the abyss of his own mind. Although he might feel as though he is trapped within Hell, it is Baba who gives him the knowledge to overcome by stating ‘You carry hell with you at all times.’ This poignant message is the truth behind mental health; whilst we might feel like we cannot escape the oblivion of darkness, once we recognise that the mind can entrap us in Hell we can become enlightened to free ourselves from the chains that trauma wraps us in. From Remzi’s slit throat, Arda pulls out a key in which he violently thrusts into the lock situated in the middle of Baba’s forehead, and eradicates this beastly presence from existence.
Baskin ends on a shockingly melancholy note, but in death there is rebirth, and therefore it suggests that Arda might have finally escaped from the Hell of his own mental health. The toxic masculinity that has exasperated his physiological trauma all his life has been slaughtered and fed to the feral monstrosities that dwell in the shadows. The journey has been disturbing, tormenting and excruciating: however the emotions have been exposed, allowing for the next chapter of transformation and for him to grow to a place that is not solely manipulated by childhood trauma, toxic masculinity and his damaged mental state.
Zoë Rose Smith