Let’s talk about a little movie called The Babadook.
An Australian-made horror tale, directed by first-timer Jennifer Kent, the tale revolves around a mother and son battling a spirit brought into their home by a mysterious book. Once the book has been opened, the spirit, the Babadook, begins haunting the two of them, perhaps even possessing them both, driving each other mad over the course of the story.
As a movie, The Babadook succeeds incredibly well on a visual level. Tones are muted, shadows grow long and gruesome, harkening back to German surrealist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the shot choice is familiar to fans of the genre, yet unique. Longer takes on the mother, Amelia (Essie Davis, in a truly phenomenal performance) help audience realize each impact, and every corner in their house — the primary location of the film — could be hiding dread at the turn.
As a story, the Babadook remains subtle and open, never answering the question of where the book, or the beast, comes from. But, as in most horror pieces, this ambiguity doesn’t hurt the self-contained tale. In fact, I much prefer ambiguity in the best of stories that cause us to question ourselves and our interpretations — to cause us to find meaning in an otherwise direct and obvious storytelling format.
I’m going to dive into spoilers here, but wanted to get my thoughts out there for further discussion should anyone want to engage.
Throughout much of the story, Amelia pretty much resents her son, Samuel. We learn quickly that her husband died seven years ago, as he was bringing Amelia to the hospital. The boy’s seventh birthday approaches, and with it, for Amelia, the harsh memories of the night of his father’s death. It’s clear that Amelia relives this moment year after year, and she pushes her son away each day.
Perhaps it’s his mother’s actions that cause Samuel to fold into his imagination, perhaps it’s seven years without a father, but whatever the case, Samuel practically lives in his imaginary world, battling monsters in the house, at school. He’s seen as an odd kid by pretty much everyone in Amelia’s life. He battles imaginary monsters, beasts, creating weapons and traps in the basement — a forbidden room in the house he nevertheless hides in.
One night, before bed, she asks him to pick a book to read, and the one he picks is unfamiliar to her: The Babadook. It starts as a child’s story of a nightmare come to life, illustrated in a playful way. But the message of the book turns to death, that now that the Babadook is in her mind, he’ll only grow stronger by the day. Samuel sees the monster, claims the Babadook is haunting them, but Amelia won’t put up with his hallucinations. She shuts him down, takes him to a doctor for medication to make the boy sleep.
But what about her own visions?
There’s a little more to the story than that, needless to say in the third act Amelia is chasing Samuel with a knife and the boy sees that his mother is in pain. He calls to her, as if her mind is clouded and possessed by the Babadook, and even as she chokes the dog and stabs at Samuel, he wants to save her. He traps her in the basement (using a clever trap that was planted at the start) and ties her to the ground while she lays unconscious. We learn in these last few scenes why the basement had previously been off-limits to the boy — boxes of his father’s belongings lie dormant down here, untouched by Amelia, forbidden to Samuel.
In this room Amelia drives the Babadook out of herself, vomiting a sleek black liquid across the floor. She saves Samuel, and the Babadook tries one last effort to retake them, again trying to grow into a more physical presence based on her denial in the monster. It’s written in the book, “The more you deny, the stronger I get”, and throughout the movie Amelia has refused to believe Samuel when he sees the monster.
But she’s denied other things, too. She denies the pain she still feels about her husband’s death. When her sister accuses her of not moving on, Amelia says it’s fine, she’s fine. When Samuel is kicked out of school, Amelia lies to her co-worker in order to stay home for the boy. She’s in a constant state of refusing to face the truth and accept much responsibility beyond basic survival.
In the end, Amelia acknowledges the beast, screams that she will not let it take over her, Samuel, or her house. She has come to believe in the monster fully, and thus we get to see the monster in as much detail as cinematic language will allow. Previous scenes would show glimpses, images in the corner of Amelia’s vision, hallucinations, even. But in the final scenes we see the beast in all its’ glory. We, like Amelia, are no longer in denial.
The monster screeches through the house and locks itself in the basement, and in the film’s interesting coda we learn that Amelia and Samuel collect worms to feed the Babadook (out of the ground under which their dead dog is buried). Amelia sets the bowl of worms in the basement and the Babadook eats once a week, remaining a presence in their home while Amelia and Samuel go about their daily lives. Amelia is now smiling, and Samuel seems a very normal boy.
Relating the monster to the basement is a not-so-subtle indication that the Babadook stands for Amelia’s deceased husband — indeed, towards the end it takes on his form to try and convince Amelia to let it stay. But as Amelia pushes the idea of the monster away, while still acknowledging its’ presence, she overcomes her grief, and accepts that her husband is no longer with them.
The Babadook is an anagram of “The Bad Book” but could mean many things — “baba” is something a baby might say to mean “mama” or “dada”. The idea that the monster is the lingering ghost of her husband is not one to be dismissed. The story is about moving on, about accepting the monster of death, of grief, that haunts everyone. Death and loss are universal events that everyone experiences. This movie just tackles those events with a lot of horror, yet it’s all still relatable.
I like to think that The Babadook is a wave of emotion passing — grief, denial, anger, pain — and this is a story of acceptance, for Amelia and for Samuel. A way to move on. Amelia has been grieving for seven long years, feeding the beast the entire time. By the end of the movie, she only grieves on the weekends, the rest of the time she’s living the life she has left.
For Samuel, perhaps he had a hand in conjuring the beast from the get-go, and perhaps his original “battles” with monsters were actually true. He’s fighting his own demons, and his mother’s pain might be one of them. He shows off a few magic tricks over the course of the film, perhaps he has a touch of magic in him after all. Whatever the case, The Babadook is more than a horror film, and more than just a story of a mother’s love of her son and vice-versa.
I just wonder what will happen when Amelia tries to start dating.