- YEAR: 2014
- DIRECTOR: Jennifer Kent
- KEY ACTORS: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
- CERTIFICATE: 15
- IMDB SCORE: 7.8
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 98%
SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ This movie does pass the Bechdel test!
❌ But it is absolutely not rewatchable. Brilliant but just too traumatic to ever watch again!
❌ And it doesn’t really fit well with my sex score as I don’t want to fuck the cast…
❌ …and didn’t have any fantasies because of this film so it’s score is lower than it deserves!
✔️ But I will give it a mark for being sex positive. Showing female masturbation is always a good way to get a mark here, and the fact that it’s shown as such an important – and interrupted – aspect of Amelia’s well-being is great.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: depression, mental illness, grief, bereavement, motherhood, disliking your child]
As a rule, I don’t like horror films. I don’t like jump scares, I don’t like psychological creeping dread, I don’t like gore. I just don’t like horror films. And yet, I do watch them. It’s a curious fascination – I hate them, but I am drawn to them. I sit there with my fingers in my ears, hoping that if I don’t hear it might be less scary. Sometimes I even close my eyes, choosing complete sensory deprivation rather than watch what’s happening on the screen. But I don’t stop; I want to see how bad it can get.
And it can get pretty bad! Watching The Babadook, I ended up cowering on my husband’s lap. This film is terrifying. And more, it is viscerally horrifying.
The Badabook is a supernatural horror about a creepy children’s book that comes alive and haunts Amelia and her son, Samuel, in their home. Devastatingly, Amelia’s husband had been killed in a car crash when driving her to hospital to give birth to Samuel. She is still drowning in grief and, meanwhile, Samuel (now 6) has developed a fear of monsters under the bed, creating homemade weapons and being excluded from school for taking them with him. Samuel’s behaviour has deteriorated and Amelia has become isolated from her friends and family as they just don’t like Samuel. Reading a strange book one evening, they accidentally let in Mister Babadook, a terrifying tall dark man in a black hat and long coat, who possesses Amelia, encouraging her to kill her son. Amelia battles to free herself from this being and eventually traps him in their cellar.
But as with most great horror movies, it wasn’t the supernatural creature that most terrified me. Mr Babadook is simply the manifestation of a much more real taboo, described in the Guardian as ‘the biggest taboo of all,’ and that is much, much scarier. Because The Babadook asks us what kind of monster hates their child.
That’s why this movie horrified me so much. I could feel it in my bones. I recognised Amelia’s exhaustion and despair, and I sympathised with her desperation. My girl isn’t yet 2 and she is wonderful, but she’s obviously not perfect. Some days she can be kind of annoying. Or more accurately, some days I don’t have the energy to give her the attention she demands. Or needs? When exhausted, it can be difficult to judge if she’s being unreasonable or if I’m just exasperated. Can you even call a toddler unreasonable?! And then I feel guilty and like a terrible mother and awful person for even thinking that, which drains my energy and makes my fuse shorter for next time…
For me, luckily, these are just flashes. It’s not how I feel for more than a moment at a time, and even then not nearly every day, but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I’ve never wished she were different or that our lives could go back to how they were before. I know how draining sleep deprivation can be and how helpless we can feel when we just don’t have the energy to be the mother and parent we want to be – or feel we ought to be. And I can say that having had an essentially perfect child with a supportive partner and financial security. So I do empathise with how Amelia is struggling to connect with Samuel, struggling to cope with him; struggling to love him.
Watching her in the movie, it’s clear that Amelia has not had a chance to work through the grief of her lost husband and is reminded of her loss every time she looks at her son, which is understandably creating massive barriers in their relationship. How could she not want their lives to be different? To wonder how much easier it would have been if she had not been alone? How could she not connect Samuel’s birth and his life with this great loss? How can she not blame his existence for her husband’s death? And so by the time the film reaches its peak and the fully possessed Amelia is screaming at Samuel that she wishes he had died instead, I was sobbing.
Because how could Samuel not feel this, not already know that she felt this way, not feel the barriers his mother has put up around her and want to break through? Just as Amelia is clearly depressed and overwhelmed by grief, Samuel is clearly craving his mother’s attention. Whether literally screaming ‘look at me’ or acting out so she can’t ignore him, he is searching for ways to get her attention. It broke my heart to see her pushing him away when he ran at her for a hug or seeing his face when she answered ‘me too’ when he said he loved her.
The Babadook has a female director, Jennifer Kent, and I don’t know if she has children herself but, through these and other touches, she certainly understands the pressures placed on mothers. I honestly couldn’t imagine a better symbol of Amelia’s plight than when Samuel interrupts her masturbating just before she comes. Amelia doesn’t even have the time or privacy to wank and, in this one scene, we can understand why she is at the end of her tether!
Noah Wiseman who played Samuel, is also an absolutely incredible actor and helps us as viewers to feel Amelia’s difficulties. Because, for the first half of the film, he really is a nightmare – disruptive, violent, needy, angry, and frankly kind of creepy. As viewers, we do sympathise with Amelia and her struggles to manage her horrible child. Because who would love a child like that?!
Except, of course, that society’s answer is that a mother should always love their child. It is monstrous not to.
Mothers as monsters are a common theme in horror movies and horror stories. Sady Doyle has a whole section on it in her book, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers! Like the Madonna/Whore complex, mothers are only allowed to be angels or demons in horror movies. Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby is an angel, being beaten down by satanic forces; Wendy in The Shining is an innocent victim of her aggressive husband. And alongside these ‘good’ mothers, there are also ‘bad’ mothers – Psycho, Friday 13th and Carrie, among others, show mothers who are evil and cruel and who don’t love their children in the way society expects, if they even love them at all. Kellie Mattson, writing in Medium, describes these bad mothers as a ‘force of terrifying violence born from an inability to conform to the socio-political qualities associated with motherhood.’
And much of the pressure placed on mothers comes from the Patriarchy. Mothers are supposed to be ‘nurturing, caring, patient, protective [and] perennially smiling,’ whatever the hardship. We have to be perfect and there is an entire school of parenting teaching mothers that it is OK to just be good enough. And, don’t forget, this maternal bond supposed to come naturally to us when our child is born. When this doesn’t happen, when we don’t bond with our children or when we so visibly struggle, it is difficult to avoid feeling broken, shameful, and bad: ‘anything on a spectrum from frustrated resentment to vitriolic impulses is rarely, if ever, acknowledged.’ This feeling of shame becomes unspoken and taboo, which, aside from the sense of isolation it can foster in the sufferer, becomes the focus for evil spirits and supernatural beings in the horror world.
It’s why I am interested in the comparisons between The Babadook and The Shining. The Babadook is often described as a ‘female The Shining’ both because it depicts the descent of a parent into infanticidal madness and because it ‘deliberately [blurs] the lines between the contents of the troubled characters’ psyches and the possibly supernatural evils out to do them harm.’ Are Amelia and Jack Torrance possessed by evil spirits or are they simply unwell? In both cases, I think the answer is yes – yes, they are possessed by evil spirits but, yes, the darkness that is released was inside them anyway. Torrance was a violent alcoholic before coming to the Overlook Hotel and Amelia disliked her child before the Babadook made her say it out loud.
But, unlike Torrance who is ultimately killed by his anger, Amelia defeats hers. The possession by the Babadook gave her ‘an avenue to acknowledge and express the depths of her feelings’ and realise how bad it had got. And this is important because, despite the focus of much discussion both in this review and others on motherhood, The Babadook is much more a movie about mental illness and depression.
Amelia had been working so hard to keep herself and her family together because of her desire to meet the expectations of motherhood that she had lost sight of how lost she had become and how unwell she really is. Rather than fulfilling an ‘evil cliche’ because she’s violating ‘predetermined patriarchal constructs,’ Amelia’s demons stem from mental illness – unresolved grief, depression, and perhaps specifically postnatal depression. She is a monstrous mother but not because she is intrinsically bad. Just as her pain is clear, so is her desire to love Samuel. She wants to love him but her depression is stopping her from feeling those emotions: ‘The Babadook is a representation of her illness made manifest.’
The Babadook has been described as ‘one of the best explorations of grief, loneliness, single-parent challenges and parental guilt’ but I think, instead, it should be celebrated for being it’s one of the best representations of mental illness that I’ve ever seen. By definition, mental illness rarely has a physical manifestation and so it can be difficult to make others appreciate the full extent of this disease but I think Kent has managed it with The Babadook, both in the evil spirit itself and the creeping insidious way it affects Amelia and her relationship with Samuel. Mister Babadook, through his book, tells Amelia that ‘the more you deny me, the stronger I’ll get’ and this provides another strong message about depression and mental illness, and how dangerous it can become when unacknowledged.
It is Amelia’s depression that has turned her into a bad mother and ‘warps [her] into an imminent threat that [Samuel] has to protect himself against.’ And yet, he is the only one who doesn’t blame her for her perceived failures. Wiseman really is amazing in this role and, as the film progresses, he manages to become less annoying and more vulnerable; less nightmare and more scared child. He saves his mother by tying her up in the cellar and essentially forgiving her for not protecting him, screaming at her ‘I know you don’t love me! I know the Babadook won’t let you!’ and I’m sobbing again. It’s only after this that Amelia is able to vomit up the black tar that is The Babadook and free her body, and then have the strength and courage to tell him to fuck off: ‘You are nothing. You’re nothing! This is my house! You are trespassing in my house! If you touch my son again, I’ll fucking kill you!’
Finally, I was so impressed with how The Babadook deals with Amelia’s recovery, which is very different from other horror films. The film’s tagline, often repeated in the movie, is that ‘if it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook’ and the fact that Amelia is simply managing the Babadook in her cellar, controlling but not removing it, feels like a surprisingly realistic ending for the film – and a surprisingly realistic depiction of mental illness and grief. Amelia hasn’t suddenly got over the death of her husband, she is managing her bereavement better. Her pain hasn’t gone. She hasn’t vanquished her depression, she’s simply managing it. And, rather than managing a more traditional illness with therapy and medication, she manages hers by feeding it worms in the cellar and regularly exposing herself to the horror to see if she is still strong enough.
The cellar had become a symbol of everything that Amelia didn’t want to face, keeping all her memories of her husband hidden down there so she doesn’t have to deal with him, but The Babadook was so traumatic that it can’t be kept secret. She is now talking to Samuel about his father, acknowledging her loss, and talking to him about what is in the cellar. Samuel was now helping her manage this horror, collect worms with her and asking her how it was going, which feels really important. Just as she hasn’t vanquished her literal demons, he’s unlikely to forget that his mother told him she wished he was dead. The fact that he’s helping Amelia keep the Babadook quiet and at bay, but still questioning how she was getting on felt healthier and, again, more realistic.
And so I didn’t expect The Babadook to end with a final jump scare because he was still hiding somewhere in the house, as too often happens in horror movies, and I’m glad that there are no plans for a sequel, because that would undermine both of their recovery. Of course, Amelia may have a relapse of her depression and may have more dark times ahead, but it really felt like neither of them would let it get bad enough that Mister Babadook would be needed again.
Honestly, this movie has had such a profound effect on me. It’s brilliant. It’s really brilliant. But I don’t think I can ever watch it again…
NEXT TIME: The American President