Horror

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Warning: The following contains major spoilers for The Babadook.

The first time I watched The Babadook, I nearly had a nervous breakdown. It was March of 2015. My husband, a CPA, was deep in the throes of tax season, leaving me alone for long stretches of time with our one-year-old son and three-year-old daughter who was going through a screaming phase. Needless to say, the story of a mother pushed to the edge of sanity resonated with me deeply. One scene in particular, monstrous clothing reigning down as the frightened heroine crawls across the floor, was so affecting that I paused the movie and cried for a good ten minutes. Despite the extremity of my reaction, I would wager that I’m not alone. In the ten years since The Babadook premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Jennifer Kent’s debut feature has become known for its ability to blend horror with mental health and bring to life the complex emotions of motherhood that often go unspoken. 

This stylish Australian indie follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother struggling to raise her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) while suffering from severe mental illness. The film opens with an ill-fated drive to the hospital as Amelia’s husband Oskar (Ben Winspear) dies in a car crash on the same day she gives birth to their son. Six years later, she’s struggling to cope with this unplanned reality and the painful memories that resurface every time Samuel’s birthday rolls around. Complicating matters, her energetic boy demonstrates serious behavior problems that keep Amelia from accessing reliable childcare. The untenable situation spirals out of control when a mysterious children’s book called Mister Babadook unleashes a dangerous presence in the house. As the horrifying illustrations come to life, Amelia learns that the story’s warning is true: “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” 

Part of the film’s success can undoubtedly be laid at the feet of Kent’s fantastic creature design. Essentially colorless, this sinister gentleman appears dressed in a long, black cape and crumpled top-hat with spindly, black spikes emerging from his sleeves in the place of fingers. Spiky black hair frames a pale face with wide, bulging eyes and a perpetually screaming mouth lined with dirty teeth. Inspired by Lon Chaney’s unnerving Man in the Beaver Hat from Tod Browning’s 1927 silent film London After Midnight, Kent collaborated with artist Alex Juhasz to design this nightmarish book. Describing his creation, Jahusz explained, “Mister Babadook is a monster playing at being human. Along with his costume, he wears a mask with a fixed expression, a misguided approximation of what it thinks a man is.” Viewer response was so great that Juhasz collaborated with paper engineer Simon Arizpe on a limited release of Mister Babadook, an expanded version of the fascinating prop. 

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Though unsettling on the page, Mister Babadook is arguably more frightening in human form. This inky, black phantom invades Amelia’s home with the jerky and cartoonish movements of a pop-up book. His guttural growls sound more like an ancient jaw unhinging itself as a malevolent entity tries to approximate human speech. Kent studied the work of French actor, director, and magician Georges Méliès to design the in-camera effects that bring this eerie world to life. The Babadook and its old-fashioned monster have a distinctly low-fi feel that proves to be a feature rather than a bug. Seeming to emerge from the shadows themselves, this startling creature lurks in the background whenever Amelia tries to ask for help further isolating her from the world and driving her ever deeper into the clutches of the beast.

In addition to this unique bogeyman, Kent masterfully uses color and shadow to illustrate the pervasive nature of Amelia’s depression. The walls of the home she shares with Samuel are all colored a dark blue or institutional gray. With closed windows and a narrow front yard, the house seems more like a confining bubble of darkness and despair than the vibrant home of a growing child. Shadows flit across unmoving frames showing the incessant passage of time in a hopeless environment where nothing ever changes. As a caregiver at an assisted living facility, Amelia frequently wears the light pink smock of a nurse’s uniform. Kent styles her in similar passive colors throughout the film, highlighting the fact that Amelia’s life revolves around taking care of everyone but herself. 

As the Babadook’s hold over Amelia grows stronger, she begins to turn her pain outward. The dreadful book reappears this time with images of a familiar-looking mother strangling her dog and her son then slicing her own throat with a large kitchen knife. Amelia begins to detach from reality and fantasizes about seeing Oskar in the basement. At first a welcome sight, this vision takes an unsettling turn when he promises that they can be together again if Amelia will just bring him “the boy.” Kent uses imagery from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath to hint at Amelia’s crumbling psyche. The ghoulish face of a woman rising from her deathbed rushes towards her as the TV she’s watching abruptly changes to news coverage of a mother who murdered her son on his birthday. Watching in horror, Amelia spies a hideous version of herself grinning from the window of the crime scene, her face transformed into that of Bava’s undead medium. As the frightening footage washes over us we realize that Amelia has become the monster haunting her own home. 

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Though The Babadook functions as a straightforward horror story, many have interpreted it as a metaphor for grief and depression. In this reading, Mister Babadook becomes a manifestation of Amelia’s repressed trauma and inability to face the death of her husband. To make others more comfortable, she’s tried to “move on” by putting this tragic event out of her mind. She doesn’t talk about him and has locked all of Oskar’s possessions away in the basement. But as the anniversary of his death approaches, her mental distress starts to break through. Not only does Samual trigger agonizing memories but he has an understandable curiosity about the father he will never know. Unable to cope, Amelia goes to increasingly dangerous lengths to vanquish her sorrow no matter the cost. 

Unfortunately this only makes the Babadook grow stronger. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice several scenes in which Amelia’s hands bear the tell-tale smudges of ink and charcoal. As a former author of children’s books, it’s a clear indication that a part of her subconscious has created this book in a desperate attempt to release the trauma she’s kept buried deep inside. She also spies the ghoul lurking in the home of her neighbor Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), a kindly old woman who remembers Oskar fondly and the only person to offer non-judgmental support. Disguised as an inescapable monster, Amelia’s mental illness tries to isolate her from the world and convince her that fighting back is futile. This repression only feeds the creature’s power, proving the book’s warnings to be true: the more Amelia tries to ignore the Babadook living in her own mind, the more dangerous it – and she – becomes. 

The story climaxes with Amelia begging to know what the entity wants. As if in answer, Oskar emerges from the darkness in a recreation of the crash that killed him. It’s only by confronting the worst moment of her life – by looking directly at the pain she’s been trying to bury – that Amelia is finally able to unlock her sorrow. Kent sacrifices logic to evoke cathartic emotion and we watch as the Babadook screams at mother and child then races down the stairs to the basement. Fast-forwarding a couple of days, we see that Amelia has been visiting this captive creature every day to feed it bowls of worms. The monster emerges from the darkness and roars at Amelia, nearly knocking her down. But she claws her way back to reality and walks into the sunlight. It’s a poignant reminder that her grief will never truly go away. The only way to survive mental illness is to face the pain a little bit at a time and – with support from those we love – slowly work to take away its power.

Mental health metaphors have always been a part of horror, stemming back to foundations of the genre. Frankenstein may have been inspired by Mary Shelley’s traumatic history of pregnancy loss and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been interpreted as a metaphor for postpartum depression. More modern fare like Psycho (1960), Don’t Look Now (1973), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and The Descent (2005) all tackle themes of emotional disorder and distress, but The Babadook seems to have kicked off a wave of introspective horror. In the past ten years, we’ve seen a wealth of filmmakers use tangible monsters to tackle the terrors lurking within our own minds. Films like Hereditary (2018), Saint Maud (2019), Swallow (2019), Daniel Isn’t Real (2019), The Night House (2020), and Mike Flanagan’s extensive work for Netflix all use genre tropes to show the horrific experience of living with various neuroses and psychological maladies that appear invisible to the outside world. The recent success of films like Smile (2022) and M3GAN (2022) – stories that wear their mental health metaphors on their sleeves – prove that this trend may still be gaining steam. 

Many have tried to match the power of Kent’s moving film, but few have been able to capture the careful balance of visceral horror and poignant metaphor. The Babadook works on multiple levels, scaring us with the harrowing tale of a haunted house and tugging at our heartstrings with a relatable story of mother and child trying to find each other in emotional darkness. Some view the ending as too symbolic; it’s illogical metaphor too on the nose. Others appreciate the compassionate depiction of a flawed woman struggling to parent through the cloud of mental illness. I happen to fall into the second category. I feel seen by Davis’s compassionate depiction of Amelia and tear up every time I watch Samuel vow that no matter what happens, no matter how strong the Babadook’s pull, he will never leave her. Ten years later, I still cry when I watch The Babadook. But the tears feel good. They feel like healing.

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