I have wanted to write this up for sometime but found myself still thinking about the Australian horror film, The Babadook (2014) and the multitude of levels the film works on. I was not scared or terrified by what Jennifer Kent wrote and directed here, and that’s down to the years of watching all manner of horror and finally being de-sensitized by most things I visually see in film. But I was however fascinated about how the film put across a visually terrifying representation of the manifestation of mental illness.
The film tells the tale of a single mother, Amelia (played by Essie Davis), struggling to raise her increasingly violent and disturbed son, Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman). Samuel’s father, Oskar, was killed in a violent car accident as he was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son. The anniversary of her husband’s death coinciding with her son’s birthday has caused Amelia to avoid celebrating Samuel’s birthday on the day for years. This, among other behaviors, is a manifestation of the subconscious resentment she feels towards her son. Cue some Freudian psychology here maybe?
Amelia over the years sees the task of bring up Samuel as a burden that she must now carry alone. This burden and Amelia’s resentment towards Samuel turn into an outright fear of her son. Amelia lives in denial and has repressed her grief for years. Cue some of Freud’s work and ideas on Defence Mechanisms as well.
Amelia’s and Samuel’s mental states go into a state of decline after the appearance of an innocent children’s book titled “Mister Babadook” about a monster entering homes and terrorizing families. The actual Babadook begins to appear before Amelia and her son several times, as the contents of the story become a reality. The Babadook is tall figure dressed in black, wearing a coat, slacks, and a hat.
There are many interpretations of the film. However one theory is that the movie is about the grief and the mental illness grief can cause. The film smartly uses a technique called “Defamiliarization” where you take a familiar concept like “dealing with grief” and make it unfamiliar. The true Babadook is most likely and revealed to be the husband. This is hinted at when we see a brief flash of her husband’s clothing hanging on the wall in her basement, closely resembling the outfit that the Babadook wears each time it appears. To put it more accurately, the monster is the representation of mental illness.
We are initially led to believe that Samuel is somehow evil. The ‘demonic child’ is an archetype that the viewer in horror has experienced before through films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Children of the Corn, Village of the Damned and so on, and its key role is to play on a parent’s fear. The initial set up of the film is to show the viewer something familiar with this archetype, but as the intelligent horror develops it is not the child that we need to necessarily fear.
The Babadook is Amelia’s depression and Samuel’s violent hyperactivity, for which the root cause is the loss of a husband and father and the possible resentment Amelia has towards her son. Samuel grew up without a father, he lives with a mother who keeps a locked basement with all the father’s possessions. She clearly has at least some resentment built up towards her son as she finds him partly guilty for causing the father’s death. Samuel feels that resentment and sees it constantly from his mother. Happening in cycles every year, Samuel never has had a real birthday party. The boy feels like he caused everything and his mother reinforces this idea. This causes him to act out at school and also causes him great anxiety. This is the foundation of the film. It highlight the dynamics at play between a single mother and her son and the fact that there were still unresolved issues and that the family had never really come to terms with the loss of a husband and father.
I agree with many viewers that overall The Babadook is not real; it is a manifestation of grief and mental illness. There are many indications throughout the movie to back up this theory, and I am sure that there are many others to be found on viewing the film again but some clear indications for example are:
1) Amelia mentions she wrote children’s books to her friend at the birthday party.
3) Her husband’s clothes are pinned up in the basement wall that look like what The Babadook wears.
Overall, my impression of the Babadook was that of a very human story that treats the horror genre in a very intelligent way. The ‘monster’ is that of exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety, repression, denial, depression that together accompany the raising of a young child, especially without the help of another parent or person. We can all have a Babadook lurking, awaiting to appear, with the potential of consuming our lives. The psychological message to take away from this film from a mental health perspective is that if help and support mechanisms are put into place early allowing one to come to terms with traumatic events and to resolve such issues, and if we, others and society have a deeper awareness and understanding of mental health, then The Babadook has no need to ever show up! With the right help, and contrary to the film’s poster tagline; WE can all get rid of The Babadook!