The beauty of ‘Avatar’ has depressed some fans: after forming a supportive online community, they are now preparing for ‘The Way of Water’

When “Avatar” first hit theaters in 2009, audiences had never seen anything like it before. James Cameron’s sci-fi show has become a phenomenon, transporting regular viewers to the colorful alien world of Pandora: a digitally-realized environment of sprawling forests, billowing mountains and majestic creatures.

But in the weeks following the release of “Avatar,” CNN reported that some viewers were experiencing “depression and suicidal thoughts.” A sombre sentiment had taken root in tandem with the euphoric praise: the surfaces of the Earth seemed gray compared to the film’s splendid landscapes – and the everyday ways of humanity seemed boring and restrictive compared to the symbiotic tranquility of the Na’vi, the race of humanoids blue originally from Pandora.

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The phenomenon, referred to as “post-‘Avatar’ depression” in the fan community, has 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 crop of viewers; he didn’t see the film until 2017.

“A lot of people have experienced this in the community,” Perrin says Variety. “He really made me rethink some things. I had no idea I could be so profoundly affected by something like this. I had no idea how profoundly it would change me.

Jacob Williamson, a 25-year-old physicist living in Atlanta, Georgia, was also a latecomer to post-“Avatar” depression. Though Williamson was among the masses who watched “Avatar” during its initial theatrical outing, it wasn’t until years later that he acknowledged he’d acquired a troubling fixation with Pandora.

“The first time I experienced this was probably several years later just by rewatching it on Blu-ray,” Williamson says. “I relived it in 2018 after visiting Pandora – World of Avatar at Disney World. It actually ended up taking me out of school for a semester.

Perrin and Williamson are both members of Kelutral, an online community of “Avatar” fans founded on the messaging app Discord. Since its formal launch in 2020, Kelutral has aimed to provide a conversational space for all ‘Avatar’ fans, but it started as a group of people interested in learning and speaking the Na’vi language.

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The Kelutral logo

Kelutral got some attention last fall, appearing on the HBO series “How to With John Wilson.” The episode, titled “How to Remember Your Dreams,” documented a humble conference by Kelutral members in New York City. Williamson and Perrin appear in the segment, as does Kelutral user experience designer Nick Paavo, a 33-year-old video game developer and musician who lives in Massachusetts.

While Paavo says he hasn’t personally experienced a form of post-“Avatar” depression, he finds himself inserted into a community where he estimates that “about 10-20 percent” of his peers have been influenced by the film in that way.

“Empathizing and understanding that is part of who I am,” says Paavo. “Now, it’s definitely decreasing… If you were experiencing post-‘Avatar’ depression, the odds that you were with us in between movies were pretty high. The people who arrived were now perfectly fine living their life without ‘Avatar’”.

meeting kelutral new york

Tovi Johnson, Seth Wright, Nick Paavo, Jacob Williamson, Andy Smith and Max Perrin pose for a photograph at the Kelutral meeting in New York

Perrin was one of the people Paavo spoke to about post-“Avatar” depression. The Kelutral community has played a part in several dramatic changes in Perrin’s life.

“I remember being blown away by the visual spectacle and the compositions and emotional beats of the story. I went blind and was blown away,” Perrin shares. “I was almost in tears. I was also like, ‘I need to talk to someone about this’… That’s when I found a Discord server, where I met what is now known as the Kelutral community. I was simply ecstatic.

Perrin, who has always had a fascination with linguistics, found a network of support in Kelutral’s Na’vi-speaking channels. As post “Avatar” depression took its toll on him, the group helped Perrin find the language to acknowledge his own mental health issues.

“I felt that this was a fantastic dream, but now I had to wake up. I had to go back to the stasis of reality, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my adult life,” Perrin says, recalling her experience after watching “Avatar.” “I had struggled with depression and didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have a name for that. I wasn’t allowed to seek mental health care, psychotherapy or anything like that. My family had religious views that were diametrically opposed to a lot of 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, providing a safe space for Perrin as he began to lay the groundwork for a new life.

“They’ve been a family I never knew I could ever have,” shares Perrin. “I never thought my life would change so much for the good when I saw a movie about blue space aliens.”

AVATAR, 2009, TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox.  All rights reserved / Courtesy of Everett Collection

Pandora by night, “Avatar” (2009)

Williamson also worked on her relationship with “Avatar,” reconciling a desire to interact with the property with its potential to trigger her depression. The solution she found worked best for him was to simply get fully involved, a belief she shared with others.

“I talked to my psychiatrist about it and she gave me some advice I didn’t expect: let yourself go. Stop trying to stop,” Williamson says, recalling the weeks after dropping out of college for a semester. “I watched ‘Avatar’ over and over, delved into the speaking community, and started learning Na’vi… week, he stopped. I haven’t had an accident since.”

Now, the “Avatar” community is entering uncharted waters: the release of yet another entry in the series – and an epic, even more technically dazzling length. Setting aside a Disney World attraction, a few derided video games, and a handful of recent graphic novels, “Avatar” fans have largely been driven by a self-sustained enthusiasm, fixating on a single film for over a decade. “The Way of Water” will make a splash in the community like never before. While helping manage Kelutral, Paavo observed a number of members reflecting on the potential mental health impact of a return to Pandora.

“There were definitely a couple of people — fewer than you can count on one hand — who said, ‘Dude, I’m worried this is going to hit me differently,'” Paavo shares. “Most of us are blinded by excitement; we’re not even thinking about the possible consequences of what the world will be like after this movie.

For Williamson, there aren’t many narrative expectations for “The Way of Water”; the promise of finally expanding Pandora’s reach is more than enough to whet her appetite. But while he’s bracing himself for an intense emotional viewing experience, Williamson seems confident in his ability to hang on.

“There’s always a little bit of concern that it might trigger me again… I could see that it’s a little less exciting in the sense that it’s a return to Pandora. But, because we’re exploring new areas that we’ve never seen before, there’s still the shock of the new,” Williamson says. “I don’t think I’ll know until I see it.”

As for Perrin, he’s particularly excited about the linguistic implications of the new film, which could usher in a new Na’vi dialect through the story introduction of the Metkayina clan, a group that lives along the coral reefs of Pandora.

“I didn’t want a problem-free life. It was just that the problems in the world of ‘Avatar’ seemed more surmountable than my own problems,” Perrin shared, reflecting on his post-“Avatar” depression and his time before moving to Texas. “It will be a very introspective moment for me. I don’t think it will be as negative as many people’s first post-‘Avatar’ depression. It will be more solemn, sentimental and retrospective.”

The particularity of Perrin’s circumstances does not escape him; most life trajectories are not shaped by a single sci-fi blockbuster. But after finding a support system through Kelutral, “The Way of Water” isn’t just a long-awaited return to an alien world he loves. It’s a moment of hard-fought triumph.

“This is a blue space cat movie,” 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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