” ‘If you’re really a clever one / And you know what it is to see / Then you can make friends with a special one, / A friend of you and me’ ” – The Babadook (2014)
A lot of anticipation preluded my first time watching The Babadook (2014) by Jennifer Kent. The hype online and what I had read about it eventually got me on board. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I took a lot of precautions before watching it alone. Regardless, it still affected me more intensely than most horror films ever have. When I rewatched it in preparation for this post, I found myself cowering on my couch and cringing away from the television a lot more than I expected after having seen it so much since the first time. For a horror film to still have that effect on me with my experience and high tolerance for scare factors, I knew I had made the right choice for another film post.
The beginning of the movie catches the viewer up with the main characters, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s husband had driven her to the hospital when she went into labor with Samuel, and there ended up being an accident that killed her husband. Almost seven years later, Samuel’s impending birthday increases Amelia’s anxiety and her association with her son’s life to her husband’s death. Samuel exhibits behavioral issues that affect his school, social, and home experiences. Amelia is exhausted and still deeply grieving for the life she pictured before the accident.
One night, Amelia lets Samuel choose a picture book from his bookshelf to read before bed. He returns with a book neither of them have seen before: it is a red-bound book with a single, solid black drawing of a figure wearing a top hat. The title of the book is Mister Babadook. Amelia begins to read: the book contains rough black-and-white illustrations, pop-up pages, and movable parts. The further she reads, the more Samuel becomes frightened of Mister Babadook. The text becomes increasingly more sinister, with the Babadook character hovering over the child in the story and implying that he will soon haunt them. The book causes even more anxiety in Samuel over several days, and Amelia decides to tear up the book and throw it away.
Strange things begin happening around Amelia. She finds broken glass in a bowl of soup, cockroaches pour out of the walls, doors open on their own, and lights she turns on at night flicker off. Samuel witnesses these happenings and his mother’s dismissal of them. He tells her it is the Babadook, and she must believe in him so he will leave them alone. Amelia ignores her son’s claims, and the presence becomes even more aggressive. The book she had thrown away returns on her doorstep. Pages that had been blank before now contain pop-up images of her killing their dog, Samuel, and then herself.
Still unwilling to accept the existence of the threatening presence, Amelia spirals deeper into her mental health issues. She does not sleep, and she begins to see the figure of the Babadook everywhere. The black-and-white movies she watches after Samuel goes to bed now contain the Babadook, and she sees his likeness everywhere she goes. The tension between her and Samuel becomes even more pronounced. He sees what his mother is becoming, and there is very little he can do to save himself from the situation. Samuel played the Babadook’s game and tried to save his mother as well. Now, he is trapped in the only home he has ever known with his unhinged mother and the monster that controls her.
Even more so than the Babadook himself, the most haunting part of this story is Amelia’s resentment for her son. She acts as Samuel’s advocate when it comes to his experiences at school and his medical care, but it is still painfully clear that she would rather be in a different situation. Samuel seeks connection and comfort from his mother, but we see her putting more energy into dissociating from her present life than accepting her reality and being truly engaged in Samuel’s happiness.
Both characters cling to grief and death in various ways. Samuel is obsessed with knowing more about his father and why he is not around, and Amelia dodges the subject as much as possible while keeping Samuel away from his father’s possessions. Everything of his is in the basement, which is locked. When Amelia stands up to the Babadook at the end and we flash forward a couple of weeks, we see that the basement has another role. It is where the Babadook now resides, and they feed him bugs and keep him content. From beginning to end, the basement is a site of grief and trauma. By the end, however, they have learned to acknowledge their pain and find ways to cope.
In addition to the strain of their relationship, the increasing invasiveness of the Babadook’s presence in their lives is the scariest part of this story to me. One of the most impactful (not to mention terrifying) parts of the film is when Amelia is possessed by the Babadook. Her voice becomes distorted, she moves in unnatural ways, and she says the terrible things to Samuel that she had kept inside his entire life (she also pulls a tooth out of her jaw with her bare hand, which I had forgotten about). The Babadook demands to be “let in” from her very first encounter with him. When she denies him, he makes himself known until she becomes consumed by his influence.
I have so many connections and memories with this film. I decided to save it until now so it could be a part of Mental Health Awareness Month. I think the film does an amazing job demonstrating the daily effects of grief, trauma, and depression in both literal and figurative ways. The Babadook represents a darkness all of us try to avoid as much as we can. Once that darkness is confronted, however, we see something can be done, some path can be taken to a better day. The Babadook has become a rite of passage for horror fans since its release already, and rightfully so. I find this movie beautiful and profound in so many ways. It is also very, very creepy. It is without a doubt one of the best horror films of our generation. I cannot wait to see how it further impacts popular culture and the world of horror stories.
Until next time,