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There is a moment in The Babadook, the 2014 Australian-Canadian psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent, where Amelia (Essie Davis), the mother, is sitting in a drawn bath, fully clothed, staring empty-eyed into some unfixed point in her own horizon, when her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) gingerly walks in and says that he can call his aunt Claire to come over. Amelia says Claire doesn’t want to talk to them anymore, then gently scoops up the child and sets him in the bath with her. She is distant, forlorn, and empty. Little Samuel says, “I don’t want you to go away.”
The moment is crucial because it signifies that Samuel knows what is happening. In fact, we suspect that Samuel has known for some time. That he understands this and in some way recognizes what it is, are just part of the reason why The Babadook is one of the finest, most alarmingly effective horror films to be released in decades. Actually, I hesitate to even write the word ‘horror’ though this is clearly that, but it, like Stanley Kubrick’s still influential The Shining, is far more, and like the latter, will undoubtedly provide even more rewards with each viewing, if I can bring myself to do it. It’s not that the film is terribly scary in the traditional horror style. There are some jump scares and a suitably frightful creature that seems cloaked in inky black and hollow eyes, but the fear is secondary to the emotionally draining experience.
The Babadook is not your standard horror fare, and therefore fans of the recent popular trend of supernatural monster in the dark films like The Conjuring and the Insidious series may be left a little dissatisfied. It’s tempting to say this film is in fact an entirely different genre and that The Babadook resides outside the core of horror films that it currently is grouped within, as the inevitable comparisons are surely unjust. But that is not for me to decide. What The Babadook does so well, and what many in this genre rarely do, is challenge the viewer. Going back to Kubrick, one could easily watch The Shining as a standard horror slice-and-dice movie and be done with it. Probably many do. But that would be missing the point. It isn’t that. Nor is The Babadook about just a scary monster. It’s not that at all.
Amelia suffers from near crippling depression. She is haunted by nightmares of a reality that left her widowed and raising her son alone. Six years earlier, her husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Now Samuel, played by Wiseman in a startlingly, unnerving performance that is both heartbreaking and thoroughly convincing, is acting odd. All day and night he constructs elaborate devices and weapons that will protect him and his mother from monsters in his imagination. These contraptions are intricate and powerful. One such machine is strapped to his back like a proton pack on a Ghostbuster that, when the lever is pulled fires a baseball over his shoulder from a spring-loaded catapult. He breaks a window in demonstration. He is a constant worry, a needy, clingy child that causes terrible mischief at school (he eventually injures a classmate and is expelled) and won’t let his mother sleep, or have any privacy for that matter, even when she attempts to physically satisfy herself (in a scene that is achingly hard to watch for its deep sense of loneliness). He has his mother on a line she can barely keep balance on. When they sleep in the same bed, she is as far from him as she can be without tumbling off the mattress.
One day, Samuel finds a book on a shelf that he wants his mother to read as a bedtime story. The title is, of course, Mister Babadook, and it is immediately clear that this is not a children’s book. The story goes that once someone becomes aware that Mister Babadook exists, it will forever haunt you. Amelia refuse to read further. Sam weeps in fear. She shreds the books and tosses it out. But it returns, this time with new words and pictures that hint at a coming reality. She sets it on fire. The more she denies the Babadook, the more it will make itself known. From here, things begin to deteriorate. Doors open and close, strange sounds emanate from untraceable locations and Amelia grows increasingly dark.
So, what is The Babadook? When it makes itself visible to Amelia, after many appearances in front of Sam, who once was so disturbed by the sighting fell into a seizure, it is everything and more that is the illustrations in the book reveal. Midnight black with spindly fingers, it is a living shadow with a hollow, raspy growl that repeats its own name, Ba-Ba-Doooook. It also wears a familiar top hat, seen earlier worn by Samuel pretending to be a magician (suggesting it is an amalgam of both her husband and son). As a horror monster it lacks the physicality of a killer in the dark, but is arguably more effective as it psychologically consumes Amelia, effectively turning her into the monster for the second half.
Let me shift gears for a moment, but for good reason. Recently, Pixar released its latest animated film, Inside Out (2015) where we get to see the inner workings of a child’s mind with anthropomorphic sprites representing five core emotions. In the story, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) have a tussle and dislodge the core memories of their host, Riley. This causes the 11-year old girl, though not specifically stated, to fall into a bout of depression. I praised the film for its sensitive portrayal of this decidedly delicate situation in a children’s film (read the review here and listen to our podcast here). In The Babadook, we also deal with depression but in a much darker way. Amelia, ravaged by the guilt of her husband’s death holds deep acrimony for Sam, whom she also loves. She becomes violent as The Babadook roils within her. At one point, it offers her a vision of her husband and claims he will come back if she gives it her son. This spurns an attack, the outcome of which is one of the more chilling moments in film I’ve ever seen.
Depression never leaves. This is the message. We must learn to live with it, learn to house it and feed it, take care of it and nurse it so that is controlled by us and not the other way around. The Babadook is depression. The dark foreboding shadow of guilt, fear, rage and betrayal all embroiled in a mass of ghastly terrors is the monster within that feeds on these emotions and sways the mind to do the most terrible things. For Amelia it is the role of a single mother who harbors animosity for her son. Cognitive behavioral theorist maintain that negative thoughts, generated by dysfunctional beliefs are the root of depressive symptoms. There is a meaningful relationship between the severity of a person’s negative thoughts and degree of their depressive traits¹. The more negative thoughts you harbor inside, the more depressed you will become. This is the very essence of The Babadook. Director Kent cleverly deflects this by hiding her monster in the familiar corners and shadows of horror film tropes, keeping us on the natural limbic edge our instinctive fears of the dark, and yet there is no mistaking the symbolism in both the form and function of the creature.
So we come back to the bathtub. Amelia is soaking in warm water, fully clothed and unmoving, staring off to nowhere. She has, just before, seen the Babadook for the first time in the mirror of her car. She is sullen, sunken, and pale, frayed to a numb shell of her former self. We have two conditions here. Amelia is both Samuel’s abuser and protector, a dichotomy that is literally breaking her mind apart. What does the tub and water represent? She says it feels nice and warm. That may be what she is missing. She has no warmth in her life and the water surrounds her like a second skin. When she pulls her son in with her, there are natural pangs of anxiety we immediately feel for she may cause him harm or worse (if we recall homicidal mothers Susan Smith or Andrea Yates). But there is instead a calmness in the moment. Samuel tells her he doesn’t want her to go and she assures him she’s not going anywhere. Her ashen face leaves the remark with some ambiguity but what we know now, and what Samuel recognizes, is that The Babadook has her. For how long and to what end, is still unclear.
The use of a supernatural being to represent a psychological condition is not new in film. We need only go back to The Shining to see an example, but there are others, such as Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind or perhaps Harvey. Like these, The Babadook is a manifestation that can’t be shed and it is the monster inside that Amelia must face. A gripping, magnificently constructed, acted, and directed film, this is a unique experience that may earn its place among the greatest ever.