Warning: Contains Spoilers For The Film
The Babadook is a genre -breaking horror that uses classic monster tropes as a means to explore the human psyche. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, it marks her directorial debut and sets a new standard for modern horror.
Breaking away from the stereotypes associated with celluloid motherhood, the movie opens with a harrowing reliving of a child’s birth. While little is shown, the audience is given enough information to associate the child protagonist of the film with horror and fear.
The child himself, Samuel, does little to alter the audience’s first impression. Precocious, withdrawn and with an unnerving skill for forging homemade weapons, he could almost embody the cliches of a possessed child. The director then spends the rest of the movie undermining our first impression until we come to realize that Samuel is not a monster, just a scared little boy.
The true power of The Babadook doesn’t lie with the formula of a possession film – in many ways, The Babadook sticks to this formula quite tightly.
An evil entity is introduced via a book. The audience is familiarized with the requirements for its manifestation. These requirements are, of course, fulfilled in one unnerving scene after another and in due time, the Babadook itself appears.
But what sets this film apart is the metaphor dressed up as a monster. Just as Frankenstein’s monster was a symbol of man’s arrogance and the dangers of science, so the Babadook becomes a symbol of a dysfunctional mother-child bond.
It’s refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t sentimentalize women, children or the bond they share. The mother, Amelia, is a relatable figure – a single mother worn down by a dull job and the demands of an eccentric child. Furthermore, she battles to view her son as lovable. Instead, he is a reminder of loss and an obstacle preventing her from moving past it.
The Babadook itself is a disturbing being – a mixture of bogeyman, Casanova (there is a chilling scene in which it takes the form of Amelia’s dead husband) and demon. Like all demons, it offers Amelia what she wants most – freedom from the burdens of being a mother, a chance to recapture the past or failing that, a chance to escape the present.
It embodies her terrible rage – both at her circumstances and her child. However, releasing that rage would come at a price. As shown through the medium of a children’s book, it would ultimately consume her as well.
This movie is both a form of social commentary and a character sketch. We witness a character’s descent into near madness as she is failed by one support system after another. Her family abandons her, the school offers no solutions, even social workers provide nothing but more stress.
In an age where mother-killers fascinate and appall the public, The Babadook gives us insight into how a woman can reach that extreme.
In a more mundane world, Amelia could have easily have tried to drown her child instead of calling up a monster. The pressure of single motherhood and widowhood combined could have pushed her to this point.
This is an intelligent drama masquerading as a horror movie. The classic tropes of the possession genre take on new meaning when viewed in this light. Possession becomes another word for break-down and unlike other possession movies, there is no priest, no symbol of the patriarchy, to rescue Amelia and her child.
The elderly neighbor is the nearest stand-in to a priest – she could be seen as the wise woman who offers words of love instead of whispers of salvation and damnation. But even her role is limited – she can pass on messages of love but doesn’t physically intervene.
Ultimately, Amelia and Samuel are forced to face the demon on their own.
The Babadook is clearly male. It’s interesting that Amelia and Samuel must face him as mother-and-child. Paired as such, they almost take on a Biblical symbolism. In fact, that symbolism has been present in the film from the opening scene.
Samuel’s father is dead. It could be said that he was fathered by a ghost. Amelia, a disempowered figure throughout the movie, only fully gives voice to her rage when she embraces her motherhood as a sacred duty.
When she does so, she transcends herself, becoming a vessel for a force larger than herself or the Babadook. She resembles a celestial mother – both Mary and the older mother-goddesses that preceded her.
Despite this, Kent chooses to end the film ambiguously as if not convinced that motherhood – still seen as a sacred state even today – is truly capable of redeeming lives or relationships. She doesn’t seem to want us to buy into this belief.
The symbol of the white dove – conjured up by Samuel’s magic trick – is a potent one. There is temporary peace between the mother, the child and the bodiless male entity that still inhabits their home.
But whether or not that peace can last is left up to the viewer.