Life is not always as it seems. It can be a wondrous thing, but it can also be treacherous.
— Samuel, The Babadook (2014)
Jennifer Kent’s anxiety-provoking and spine-tingling psychological horror flick The Babadook opens with a close-up of a woman on the verge of hysteria. She seems to be floating and drowning at the same time. Whatever she is doing and wherever she is, she is obviously trapped. A boy’s muffled voice shouts “Mom, Mom, Mom” repeatedly until the woman crashes to her bed and is jarred awake. The startled and nerve-wracked eyes of the film’s female protagonist Amelia stare out of the screen. From that moment on, we follow Amelia through a descent of maternal madness as her unconscious and conscious world collide in insanity and mayhem. Amelia is played by a believably frazzled Essie Davis, but she is mostly known as “Mom.” Mom is also the most frequently uttered word in the film, which makes senses because besides all the other things this movie is, it is a Mommy Anxiety Narrative.
As the film progresses, we learn that Amelia is trapped inside herself – with her inner demons, in her life as a single mother, with her unfulfilled sexual desires, and with her suffocating and repressed grief. She has been pushed to the brink of insanity by the horrific claustrophobia of the shit life has dished out to her and the pain that is buried inside her, and her unconscious stages a rebellion that makes for the one of the scariest and most interesting films of the year.
Shit is an appropriate word to use in relation to this film as it plays on a long history of hysterical narratives about the dirty mess of the female body and psyche and about the horror of women being trapped inside their sexuality and gender. Let’s not forget that hysterectomy and hysteria are derived from the same word and imply that maternity and madness are somehow one and the same. It is no new news in scary movies that the female reproductive system and the female body are haunted and are sites of hidden horrors that can be unleashed by all sorts of means – opening a door, fiddling with a Ouija board, drawing pictures or turning pages in a book, or most commonly shedding the first menstrual blood. In these narratives, the female body is the portal – the door or the book that unleashes hidden demons. Babadook certainly follows in this tradition, as Amelia is the horror and creates the horror. She becomes haunted by the demons that possessed her when she became “mom” and on the same day her husband died when he was killed in a car wreck on the way to the hospital to give birth to her son Samuel. Amelia is full of all kinds of shit (grief, remorse, anger, resentment, exhaustion, sexual repression, class anxiety), and that shit comes out in the pages of a book, in the dark recesses of her house and mind, and in a big mess in the basement.
The Babadook is a fresh entry in the psycho-female horror movie genre, given that it is both written and directed by a woman. It pays to tribute to long line of female body horror including such wide ranging narratives as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ground-breaking feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1973), Stephen King and Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), Gore Verbinski’s version of The Ring (2002), and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Repulsion (1965). In all of these movies, maternity, menstruation, and female sexuality are tangled in a prison that fucks up the mind and leads to monsters, murder, and madness.
I end the list with Repulsion because it is the ultimate cinematic tale of female claustrophobia in which Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is holed up in an apartment when her unconscious begins to wreak havoc. Her sexual body is the site of repressed violence which eventually materializes in nightmarish hallucinations and violent murder. I have not seen the movie in decades, but if I remember correctly, it (or another female body horror film whose title I cannot recall) includes an image of Carol shitting out of her mouth. She performs a kind of excrement exorcism where she visualizes the shit that has turned her insane being repulsed from her mouth. In fact, all female body horror films involve some kind of leakage and exorcism – demons, shit, and menstrual blood are made of the same stuff, and they need to be repulsed one way or another.
In The Babadook, Amelia is drowning in her shit so deeply that she can’t decide if she hates or loves her son. She doesn’t know if the monster that haunts the film lives inside the closet, the basement, her son, herself or all of the above. She can’t determine what is real and what is a nightmare. In one very memorable scene when she has really become unraveled, her son Samuel asks her for food, and she yells: “If you’re that hungry, why don’t you just go eat shit!?” Of course, a mother barking such atrocities at her son is mortifying, but it is also a sign of the mother being pushed to the brink by her circumstances and externalizing her inner maternal crap onto her son. Perhaps Amelia is unconsciously begging her son to relieve her of her burden of shit (which he eventually does); maybe she wants him to eat her shit, so she doesn’t have to keep tasting it.
In the film’s opening sequences, Amelia is literally choking as a mother. Her son is obsessed with the monsters that are out to get them (the ones hiding in the closet, under the bed, or lurking in dark corners of their house). He doesn’t sleep unless he is literally choking his mother with his fingers clenched tightly around her neck with his teeth grinding as if he himself is a monster. He screams and throws tantrums. He builds makeshift weapons and hurtles bombs through the house. He is a little torrent of noise and destruction. When he is not screaming “Mom” every five minutes, he is assaulting the audio world with the pop of firecrackers, a saw slicing through wood at the crack of dawn, the jangle of keys on a metal hook, tennis balls launched through glass windows, feet kicking on the back of a car seat, or just outright unrelenting screams. The sound editing throughout the film is fantastically assaultive and creepy, and as Samuel’s behavior amps up to a feverish out-of-control pitch, our anxieties increase with Amelia’s, and we can’t help but cringe as she looks more and more desperate.
At a raw nerve level, these opening sequences and the whole film in general may be one of the most accurate portrayals of parenting ever made. It depicts Parental Anxiety to the Nth. Sure there are dysfunctional family movies, family tearjerkers, and family comedies, but rarely do we see the real raw anxiety of being a parent – the horror of the unknown and our own personal demons that can seep into family life and turn it into a madhouse. Then there is sleep deprivation from sick children or kids who just don’t sleep (e.g. Samuel) and economic anxiety of trying to hold it all together. (Class is definitely an issue in this film as Amelia is pitted against her upper class sister and her cadre of trophy wife friends and their horrifying princess daughters.)
Being a parent at times seems like enough to drive anyone mad. As adults, we enter the world of parenting with all our own demons, and we have to figure out how to manage them. Do we shove them down inside ourselves and hide them in the basement, or do we puke them out in torrents of ink, shit and howls? To top off all this parental baggage, Amelia has lost the father of her child, so she has a mess of grief and resentment piled on top of sleep deprivation and maternal anxieties. In The Babadook, all of this is bundled into a damn scary 93 minute horrific nightmare of paranoid delusion.
Amelia works in a nursing home. When one of her fellow workers questions her well-being, she states: “Just a bit stressed at the moment.” This is the understatement of the century! She then mentions that she’s heading to the Dementia Ward. Clearly she means literally to work in the Dementia Ward at the nursing home, but really she is heading to the Dementia Ward inside her own sleep deprived, grieving, anxious, resentful, repressed and worried head. The movie tosses us about in the nebulous space between what is real and what is imaginary. Is the Dementia Ward a real place, or the insane corners of Amelia’s psyche? Who is the monster really, and where does it come from? Are there monsters in the closet and under the bed, or are the real monsters inside our heads? Or are monsters everywhere, inside and out?
One night early in the film, Amelia asks Samuel to pick a bedtime book to read. He pulls a giant red book called Mr. Babadook off the shelf. The unwieldy hand-crafted pop-up book seems to be a work in progress. Half the pages are empty, and the others are filled with what look like hand-drawn pictures of an ominous creature called Mr. Babadook who is going to haunt you until you let him in. He says that if you ignore him, he will make your life a living hell and make you wish you were dead. The book is terrifying, but it is also incomplete. The emptiness of what has yet to be filled in the pages is even more horrifying than the black images of the sharp-toothed and top hat wearing Mr. Babadook drawn on the pages that are filled. The big red book refers to psychiatrist Carl Jung’s The Red Book a vast project in which he decided to document his internal psyche in images and writing (“deliberately evoking a fantasy in a waking state, and then entering into it as into a drama . . . these fantasies may be understood as a type of dramatized thinking in pictorial form”).
The story of Mr. Babadook terrifies Samuel, and he is dead set that Mr. Babadook is out to get him and his Mom. In fact, he is pretty sure his Mom is the one who is going to let Mr. Babadook in. “Don’t let him in, Mom!” he screams over and over. What becomes even more terrifying is the building horror of Samuel’s domestic life. He is basically kept a drugged prisoner by his ever unraveling mother. In fact, Samuel’s intuition is spot on. Mr. Babadook is Amelia’s creation. It is her Red Book. She is writing their horror story, and the book is the place where her unconscious finds a voice and a face. Mr. Babadook is her unconscious demanding to be let it in instead of being kept locked in the basement (where she keeps her dead husband’s things). In a birthday party scene mid-film, Amelia actually briefly mentions that she used to write children’s stories. Well, she is writing a hell of a children’s book with Mr. Babadook.
With the entry of Mr. Babadook, the tables begin to turn, and the mother and son reverse roles with the mother becoming the terror while the child cringes in fear. Every fraction of Samuel’s life becomes haunted by the demon his mother has excavated and put on paper. Amelia tears up the book and throws it in the trash bin, but it reappears, taped together haphazardly, and with increasingly alarming pictures and narratives. (Amelia killing the dog. Amelia stabbing her son.)
We start the film thinking that Samuel is the terror (see The Omen for examples of demon boys), but once the Red Book appears, it becomes more and more clear that the monster that haunts Samuel is his own mother’s unconscious. As the film progresses, Amelia becomes as torn-up and undone as the book. Her hair becomes more unraveled. She can’t sleep and spends her nights watching old horror films on the TV. The images on the TV screen and the demented visions inside her head merge. The camera closes in on Amelia’s distraught face in askew and distorted angles.
Mom and they boy live as shut-ins. In an ode to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Amelia hallucinates a crack in the wallpaper behind the refrigerator. She starts peeling the paper away and discovers an imaginary hole from which hundreds of beetles crawl out and scuttle across the kitchen floor. In fact, beetles start coming out of her as if she is earth itself, the place where her dead husband’s body is buried. We eventually learn that what haunts Amelia is indeed the ghost of her dead husband and the resentment and horror that reside within her. She is like a living grave leaking bugs. It is only when her neighbor makes Amelia confront her grief head-on that the madhouse can begin to settle down a bit.
Samuel performs an exorcism on his own mother (in an inverse scene from The Exorcist where the mother has her daughter exorcised). Amelia heaves and hurls ink (the material that made Mr. Babadook in the first place), and life can go on . . . sort of. She does have to tend to her demons by feeding them worms in the basement. Oh, if only tending to our own demons had such a simple and concrete solution . . .
There are many reasons why this movie has been referred to as the scariest movie of the year, and none of them rely on fancy CGI special effects, but rather on primal fears. The movie plays on childhood terrors as well as adult anxieties. The house is a dark shadowy place that closes in on the mother and son. It echoes with the traces of ghosts and monsters lurking in the dark shadows of corners or the deep recesses of wardrobes. There are creaking doors, thumping sounds, blinking lightbulbs, and things that go bump in the night. Broken glass appears in soup, and an empty suit lies like a dead body on the basement floor. Shadows slip by curtains blowing at night. Invisible hands pound on the front door. The interior shots show hallways and stairways buzzing with an eerie emptiness. Doors open and close with bangs or on creaky hinges. Monsters slip down chimneys and get in through the fireplace. These are the things that scared us as children and scare us just as much as they are brought to life in this film.
A bowl of ice cream with pink marshmallows looks like toxic poison, like something the wicked witch might feed Hansel and Gretel. When the monster does appear, he looks like something from the old horror films Amelia watches during her sleepless nights. He’s like a cross between Nosfaratu and Dr. Cagliari (which makes sense since that movie is about the twisted and distorted world of a man who cannot sleep).
By the end of the film, all sorts of boundaries have been blurred. Children can seem like demons, and mothers can be treacherous. There is no clear line defining who the caregiver is. Amelia seems to both love and hate her son. Her son at first seems to torment her, but then only wants to save her. The monster is in the basement, in the boy, and in Amelia. The real and the imaginary are constantly at odds. Maybe what makes this movie the scariest movie of the year is the fact that it makes real unreal and the unreal all too real. It is psychological horror at its best, inciting us to get in touch with our own inner demons. Maybe we should start making a book, and maybe we should start checking in our closet and under the bed at night. Or maybe we should just look in the mirror.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.