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If it’s in a word
Or its in a look
You can’t get rid of
The Babadook is not a film I want to review; I want to analyse it. This film will be wasted on so many. Those who can’t be bothered to think, who want easy answers, cheap scares and who value effects above meaning. This isn’t an easy film – emotionally or intellectually. But it is very rewarding if you invest time and thought. If you aren’t capable of that – bugger off and leave this film for those who believe horror can have a soul.
Amelia is an exhausted woman, widowed 6 years previously she struggles to raise her son Samuel, whose obsession with monsters causes him to become aggressive, isolated and afraid.
A mysterious children’s book appears on Samuel’s bookshelf. The images display a disturbing creature, the Babadook, terrorising and ultimately murdering a family. After reading the story mother and son begin to experience disturbing supernatural events.
This is a psychological horror film filled with symbolism. Much is left open to interpretation. For me, this is clearly a story about grief and while the supernatural element is central, how you interpret it is largely immaterial to the central theme.
At the film’s core are the mother and son and their relationship. Amelia is a faded, brittle character when we meet her. Outwardly gentle and caring, you sense immediately the fragility and uneasiness beneath the strained exterior. She is exhausted, drifting through the world – filmed at times in dreamlike sequences of bright light, she is disconnected and lost. She is dressed in faded colours, old fashioned nursing uniforms and linen nightdresses. She has been relegated to the role of carer – as a mother, in her job and even in her few personal relationships (think of Gracie, her neighbour).
Samuel is a complex character – terrified of the monsters he obsesses over, he is also determined to protect his mother. Wilful, angry, prone to tantrums, screaming fits and aggression, his behaviour leads to greater isolation for Amelia as her sister and female peers reject her.
Amelia’s sister Claire is initially one of her few sources of support. But Claire is frustrated by her sister’s continuing grief and refuses to go to her home as she finds it ‘depressing’. She clearly dislikes Samuel, dismisses him as a problem child who needs therapy and eventually confesses that she loathes being around him. Samuel scares her prissy daughter Ruby with stories of the Babadook and eventually pushes the girl from a tree as she taunts him for having no father. Much of what she says has clearly come directly from her odious mother.
Amelia’s relationship with her sister is key to understanding the film and Amelia’s isolation. Amelia is expected to have stopped grieving, to have raised a normal child and to be continuously productive and caring. She suppresses her grief. Locks it away in the cellar of her house with her husband’s posessions and refuses to let her son in. As she tells her sister in anguish – she never speaks of her husband – and so we see that she is acutely aware of the demand that her depression must stop.
In reality, it seems Amelia has never even begun the grieving process. Widowed on the same day she became a mother, her emotions are clearly a submerged maelstrom. Only Gracie, her neighbour, encourages her to discuss her grief and Amelia coldly rejects her prompting.
Gracie is a beautiful character, an elderly woman with Parkinsons, she clearly loves Amelia and Samuel deeply and her sensitive, fragile portrayal moved me to tears in the scenes where she tremulously but bravely reaches out to Amelia.
So what is the Babadook? In the story book he’s a ghoul who enters a home and terrifies a family, before possessing the mother who murders her child. But he’s also something even worse, he’s something that never leaves. He wants to terrify and torment. He’s a primal terror from childhood, like the monster under the bed.
Is the Babadook ‘real’? There are clear implications that the Babadook is a manifestation of Amelia’s psychosis. We discover that she used to write children’s books and there are visual hints she may have written the Babadook (charcoal blackened fingers). In the story book we see the implication that the Bababook gets under the skin of others. We could interpret this literally as posession or as Amelia personifying her abusive and destructive split identity.
If we believe it is psychosis then we’re witnessing a folie à deux with Samuel interpreting and processing his mother’s abusive episodes as posession by a monster. When in her ‘psychosis’ Amelia is not his mother but a hostile, supernatural force intent on their destruction. He begs her when in her lucid state not to “go away” and not to “let it in.”
If the Babadook is a supernatural force, then it is essentially Amelia’s grief given form. When she pulls back the clothes to look at the real face of the Babadook – Amelia is horrified. We never see its face – but as it fleas to the cellar, the Babadook’s scream is distinctly female. It is Amelia’s voice.
This is what the film is about. The corruption at the heart of Amelia. Just like the cockroaches that infest her home, so the Babadook scuttles across the ceiling and creeps about in the shadows, chattering like an insect. But the Babadook is really inside Amelia – whether a psychosis or supernatural, it doesn’t really matter. The Babadook is the embodiment of everything she has suffered: of the feelings she has to deny. Her grief is overwhelming, it repeats over and over – reliving the last moment’s of Oscar’s life. Isolated and criticised by everyone around her (except Gracie and Samuel) she has to suppress everything.
She is failed by everyone – most markedly by her sister who chooses to condemn rather than help her and loathes her nephew instead of viewing him as a child who needs help. Amelia is abusive to her son, she has perhaps been so many times in the past. His obsession with monsters and tendency towards aggression (he strangles and fights his mother in his sleep) suggests this is not the first incidence of abuse. And much like Claire, rather than helping Amelia and Samuel, the school and social services push her closer to the edge.
The film’s ending is an uneasy one – but I think, ultimately, positive. When she feeds the subdued creature worms in the dark, Amelia is acknowledging the power of her grief but attempts to soothe and tame it. The message is clear – demanding that a person let go of their grief is not only unrealistic and cruel – it is destructive. Amelia and Samuel needed support, instead they received either pity or condemnation.
Gracie alone makes any lasting positive impact on their lives – and she herself is frail and vulnerable. But unlike Claire, she loves Samuel and sees him as a person, not a problem. She recognises that like his father he “sees things as they are.” And what he sees is that the Babadook is not his mother – it is something else. Even devoid of a supernatural element, the Babadook is not Amelia – because when the Babadook takes over, Amelia is not there.
Yes – her feelings of anger towards her son are real; her wish that he had died instead of his father is real; her rage is very real – but we can’t condemn her for it. These are th emotions no one could admit to. And she cannot deal with the ferocity and power of these emotions – especially in an environment where she is suppressed and condemned. And so out comes the Babadook.
At the end of the film – we know the Babadook can never leave – and we see the remains of the dog buried in the garden to remind us how violent and cruel the Babadook can be. We cannot forget what is lurking in the darkness of the cellar. But at the same time – we know Samuel, Amelia and Gracie will support each other – they are strong and they are people who love deeply. Amelia can never defeat the Babadook (her grief) but she can acknowledge it, fight it and soothe it.