The Babadook is one of those excellent little horror films that reminds how much scaring can be done with good acting and a competent director. It’s delightfully spooky and eerie, with interesting sound choices and great cinematography and scene setting.
Plus, it’s a film about a woman, written and directed by a woman—Jennifer Kent. In the first half, The Babadook offers up a moving portrait of a profoundly ordinary woman parenting a troubled child. In the second half, well, things take a turn for the terrifying. Essie Davis’s performance as the mother, Amelia, blows the roof off, proving once again that the bias against genre films by those who give out awards and accolades is entirely misplaced.
In this Australian horror-thriller, Amelia is a single mother who struggles to manage her emotionally-disturbed, monster-obsessed son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), only to find that one of his monstrosities might be real. The Babadook, a sinister figure with a black trenchcoat and talon-like fingers, first shows up in a strange pop-up book that appears in Amelia and Samuel’s gloomy house. As Amelia’s isolation grows so does the power of the Babadook to terrorize her and Samuel.
The Babadook is essentially a haunted house story, albeit one where the “ghost” seems to be deliberately tormenting these people (rather than being attached to the house itself). Haunted house narratives are often about the dark side of family life (think The Conjuring or the first season of American Horror Story). These stories may be interested in infidelity or children’s maturation or even the common challenges of marriage and parenting. The message is that something sinister (mental illness, homosexuality, pick your symbolic menace) is always lying just under the floorboards, wanting to tear the nuclear family apart.
The Babadook toys with this genre. It’s a haunted family story, but in The Babadook the nuclear family has already been destroyed. Amelia is a single mother because her husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Samuel. It’s been seven years and even if Amelia no longer talks about her husband, her grief lingers. Amelia and Samuel live in his house, a house that should be idyllic and instead feels oppressive. Amelia has relegated his belongs to the basement, ostensibly an attempt to put her grief away that is belied by how she blocks these items and her husband’s memory from Samuel.
Now I need to tell you a little truth about myself. I’m kind of obsessed with grief. Not with grieving, mind you, which obviously sucks. No, I’m obsessed with how we (humans) represent grief in our stories—books, films, television shows, and so forth.
To be even more specific, I’m interested in the traumatizing experience of grief. In my grad school work, I argued that if a grief-inducing event does not fit into an established narrative or practice for resolving grief, then it becomes traumatizing. Then I was talking about the overwhelming First World War, but I believe that any grief unresolved or unresolvable can be potentially traumatizing.
Given this confession, you may be unsurprised to learn I found The Babadook a particularly fascinating movie. No matter how much Amelia attempts to stuff her grief into the basement, it remains unresolved. This reality prevents her from accepting her son and their life together. She loves Samuel. Of course she loves him. But he’s a difficult child. And she wasn’t supposed to have to do this alone. Then the Babadook comes along to make things even worse.
*Getting to be spoilery*
One of the things I particularly loved about this movie is that it can easily be read two ways. In the first reading, Amelia and Samuel are tormented by a supernatural being known as the Babadook. This spectre recognizes their emotional vulnerability and tries to torture Amelia into killing Samuel and herself. Or in the second, Amelia has become so isolated and overwrought that she is going mad, her mind overtaken by Samuel’s obsession. In either case, the Babadook is a symbol for her unresolved, traumatizing grief.
In the end, Amelia overcomes the Babadook, helped in part by some timely intervention from Samuel. He himself has grown from an odd, awkward boy to a valiant defender of his mother and their shared love for each other. Samuel’s ardent faith seems to pull her into the fierce mother love that can overthrow the Babadook.
But—and this is my favorite part—we discover at the very end that the Babadook is not gone, far from it. No, he has been relegated to the basement, that shrine to Amelia’s dead husband, Samuel’s dead father. When Amelia goes down to feed it the worms that she and Samuel have collected, she is nearly overwhelmed by the Babadook once again, but she manages to repel him with a kind of defiant sympathy. On the symbolic level, Amelia has not “gotten over” her grief but, rather, learned how to acknowledge it—quite literally how to live with it—without letting it take over her life.
Because of this twist, Amelia and Samuel are able to rebuild their life. Would they perhaps be better off if Amelia had banished the Babadook altogether, metaphorically “getting over” her grief? Perhaps, but that’s not how grief works and I applaud the film for understanding and showing this profound truth.