31 Days of Horror, Day 29: The Babadook

“The Babadook” is the type of horror flick I love; one where the threat — in this case, the monster — works as both an internal and external threat. The unique creature design is simultaneously whimsical and menacing. Think, the hybrid that one would get if they were to describe Nosferatu to a child and have that child illustrate the description.

The setup is quite simple, yet elegant: a frustrated single mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) is trapped at home with her deeply disturbed son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a highly imaginative and curious child. The death of her husband/his father still permeates the air and atmosphere of the drab, off-white gray-ish house. During nightly story time, she tells Samuel to decide on a book. He selects a mysteriously ominous children’s book that has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. What follows is a fiercely feminist, human tale of psychological horror that deals with fears every human can identify with: depression, frustration, grief, inadequacy (in this case, as a mother), and possibly gradually losing one’s mind. 

“a fiercely feminist, human tale of psychological horror that deals with fears every human can identify with: depression, frustration, grief, inadequacy (in this case, as a mother), and possibly gradually losing one’s mind.”

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The more the titular Babadook materializes, the more we realize it’s a manifestation of Amelia and Samuel’s shared grief; born out of the strain in their relationship. It slowly becomes an embodiment of Amelia’s loneliness as well her fears of being an incompetent parent without the guidance of her husband (we learn at the start of the film that he died in a car crash rushing to get Amelia — then pregnant with Samuel — to the hospital). We also see hints that she subconsciously resents her son and blames him for her husband’s death.

Samuel is a deeply troubled child. He entertains a fantasy about being a magician, he struggles to make friends, and at such a young age, he has to deal with a mother who sometimes terrifies him. One instance in the film depicts Amelia saying some absolutely vile things to her son. This is the result of her being exhausted from life and insomnia, feeling miserable and very disconnected from the rest of the world. In spite of this, writer/director Jennifer Kent depicts Amelia as a flawed, real human person. She is someone who anyone, when plagued with deep sadness and isolation, could possibly become.

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Kent unflinchingly shows us the descent of one woman into insanity. At one point, Amelia yells at Samuel, “If you’re that hungry, why don’t you go and eat shit!” Horror films nowadays are replete with indicators of scary things: serial killers, possessed dolls, aliens, zombies…but what is particularly horrifying here are the real things that ordinary people do and how life can makes monsters out of us. 

This film also conveys the notion that hell is not only a place, but also a state of mind; our own personal demons have more control of us than we’d like to believe or accept. The Babadook himself is perceived differently by both characters: to Amelia, it is a metaphor for her personal inner strife; whereas with Samuel, it is a manifestation of the fears of a traumatized child. The Babadook is an entity born from both of their personal fears; conversely, it is one which only they can conquer together, as mother and son. 

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Another thing worth mentioning is that this film is a low-budget indie that exists due to  support from Kickstarter. It is also Kent’s feature debut as a writer/director. A female filmmaker tells the story of a woman which may hit close to home for viewers and is probably very personal to Kent, yet one which many of us can empathize with. “The Babadook” and other films like it are why cinema is so powerful. And if you think Kent wraps it all up in a pretty gift box with a neat bow, think again — the Babadook, like life’s greatest trials, never truly goes away.

 

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