THE BABADOOK (2014, Directed by Jennifer Kent)

M. Keith Booker

University of Arkansas

The first film from Australian director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook drew enough critical praise after it release to identify Kent as a rising star in the world of horror film. Reviewer Glenn Kenny, for example, called The Babadook “the finest and most genuinely provocative horror movie to emerge in this still very-new century.”Made on a very low budget, The Babadook nevertheless very effectively tells its story of Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis), a harried single mother driven to the edge of insanity by a series of domestic problems that might or might not include the invasion of the home occupied by Amelia and her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) by the supernatural creature of the film’s title. Indeed, one of the reasons why The Babadook is so successful is its ability to maintain a tension between the mundane difficulties encountered by Amelia and Samuel and the supernatural threat possibly posed by the Babadook. All the while, though, the film leaves open the possibility that the accumulated trauma caused by the ordinary struggles of daily life have driven the mother and son into psychological states that have caused them to imagine the Babadook. Finally, the Babadook seems to emerge from (or at least be announced by) a children’s pop-up book called Mister Babadook that unaccountably appears in the Vanek home and then mysteriously reappears on their doorstep after Amelia attempts to destroy and discard it. In this way, The Babadook potentially comments on the role of children’s culture in the contemporary world.

The Babadook as Domestic Drama and Unsolvable Puzzle

Though set in Australia, very little about The Babadook is specific to that setting, and most of its content might function equally well in virtually any modern Western setting. In particular, it very effectively presents the tribulations that might typically face any single mother and her young child. In this case, the mother and child constitute a family that was literally born into trauma, given that the mother’s husband (and the child’s father) had been killed in an automobile accident while driving Amelia to the hospital, where she was to give birth to Samuel. This founding event hovers over the entire film and conditions everything else that occurs in it. It becomes clear early on, for example, that the frail-looking Samuel is a troubled child whose every living moment is filled with fear and who feels “different” among other children. Among other things, he is obsessed with the possibility that monsters might invade his home, making it virtually impossible for him to sleep through the night without running to Amelia for protection. As a result, both the boy and his mother are suffering from sleep deprivation, which consequently makes it more difficult for them to cope with all of the other problems they encounter.

Samuel’s obsession with monsters gets him in considerable trouble early on. After constructing some makeshift weapons for use in battling monsters, he is caught with one of the weapons (a crossbow that fires darts) at school. Amelia is called in for a meeting with school officials, and an angry confrontation with school officials leads her to pull Samuel out of school altogether, which of course makes it all the more difficult for her to get by. It was, though, difficult already. She works as an aide in a nursing home, including sometimes working in the dementia ward, which is not exactly the easiest gig, especially given that Amelia’s cranky supervisor clearly doesn’t like her. Meanwhile, this sort of job does not pay well, and it is quite clear that the family has significant money troubles. Thus, Amelia is struggling to be able to maintain even the modest standard of living that they already have.

Much of the film consists simply of a gradually accumulating series of difficulties that could befall anyone in day-to-day life, difficulties that in this case are made more serious, both by the fact that there are so many of them piling up at once and by the fact that Amelia has limited financial resources and a very weak support system. Pulling Samuel out of school gets a pair of community social workers on Amelia’s case. Samuel’s mounting behavioral difficulties cause Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), who is the main support that Amelia has in the world, to withdraw that support when she admits that she can’t stand Samuel, especially when he injures Claire’s daughter Ruby (Chloe Hurn) at Ruby’s own birthday party after the girl taunts him about not having a father. To continue the deluge of domestic problems, Amelia’s home is invaded by cockroaches (though there is some sign that the cockroaches might be figments of Amelia’s imagination), and Amelia gets involved in a hit-and-run traffic accident after she crashes into another car while distracted by visions of the Babadook.

During all of this, Samuel’s seventh birthday is rapidly approaching—which means that the anniversary of the death of his father Oskar (Ben Winspear) is fast approaching as well. This time of year, the film suggests, is always difficult for Amelia, and one gets the impression that it is probably getting more, rather than less, difficult year by year. Perhaps due to the shocking nature of his death, it is clear that Amelia has never quite come to terms with the loss of Oskar. Nearly seven years later, she remains lonely and sexually frustrated, unable even to masturbate properly without being interrupted by her son.

At one point in the film, Amelia observes two lovers kissing in a car. At another point, she sees two lovers kissing on television. In both cases, it is clear that she envies the connections these lovers have with each other, given that there is no such connection in her life. For a short time early in the film, there seems to be the possibility of a romantic connection with Robbie (Daniel Henshall), a sympathetic co-worker, who clearly seems interested in Amelia. Then, Amelia takes a day off work because she has no one to care for Samuel, claiming that he is ill. In a thoughtful attempt to provide some comfort, Robbie shows up at Amelia’s home with flowers for her and a model kit for Samuel. Samuel’s behavior on Robbie’s arrival then sends the potential suitor packing, never to return, thus increasing Amelia’s growing sense that Samuel is ruining her life—a sense, of course, that began with the death of Oskar.

However much she might envy the loving couples she sees together, Amelia is so unhappy with her life that she even envies her elderly neighbor Gracie Roach (Barbara West), who lives entirely alone and seems to have no one at all in her life. To add to her burdens, Gracie also suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, but when Amelia looks through her window and sees Gracie next door calmly watching television alone, it is clear that Amelia envies the peace and quiet that comes with such a solitary life, with no troubled son to have to care for and deal with.

Given all of her mounting troubles, it should come as no surprise that Amelia eventually snaps, killing the family’s cute little dog by wringing its neck and nearly killing Samuel in the same way after a violent encounter in which he attempts to fend her off with the weapons he constructed to fight monsters. He also stabs her with a kitchen knife that she herself had been brandishing threateningly, as the situation completely unravels. What the film does not make clear, however, is whether this unraveling occurs because Amelia is essentially possessed (or at least influenced) by the Babadook, or whether it is simply because she has experienced a breakdown as a result of all the accumulated everyday pressures placed on her, with the added pressure (real or imagined) of being besieged by an evil supernatural entity.

One of the clearest examples of the interpretive uncertainty introduced by this film concerns the appearance to Amelia, late in the film, of a vision of Oskar. At first, Amelia appears to be thrilled and amazed, but when “Oskar” asks her to “bring the boy” to him, she realizes that the vision has sinister intentions. The nature of these intentions is never specified, but the fact that he clearly seems to mean harm to Samuel suggests that this is no straightforward appearance by the spirit of Oskar. What we absolutely cannot tell, however, is whether this evil version of “Oskar” has been conjured up by the Babadook (or is perhaps even the Babadook in disguise), or whether it is simply the product of Amelia’s own fevered imagination as she spirals toward insanity. Granted, the fact that this “Oskar” refers to Samuel as “the boy” would seem to support the latter interpretation, given that Amelia had earlier become incensed when a school official referred to Samuel as “the boy,” so that this aspect of the vision of “Oskar” might have been influenced by her memory of that earlier encounter. But we really don’t know what the powers of the Babadook are supposed to be, so that it is not entirely impossible to imagine that the Babadook might have retrieved this memory of the school official and used it in some sort of twisted attempt to torment Amelia.

Typically, the most effective horror films provide us with a strong point-of-view character with whom we can identify, essentially seeing the events of the film through their eyes and making them a sort of narrator for the events of the film. When the point-of-view character might well be insane, then we have the possibility that they will be an unreliable narrator, seriously complicating our interpretation of the film, but potentially enriching  the experience of the film for viewers who do not demand complete interpretive certainty. The Babadook employs this technique very effectively, centering Amelia very early on as the point-of-view character for the film. Granted, as a vulnerable child, Samuel quickly wins our sympathy (as threatened children in horror films tend to do), but he is also quickly established as childish and thus as not like us in the adult audience. It is, however, Amelia with whom adult audiences can not only sympathize but identify, even as we quickly come to understand that her perceptions of reality might not be reliable.

One key aspect of The Babadook is that our interpretive activities as viewers in many ways resemble Amelia’s own attempts to understand what is going on, as we all try to figure out what the Babadook is or even if it is. Early in the film, for example, Amelia does not believe that the Babadook is real, assuming instead that it is merely the product of Samuel’s troubled imagination, stimulated by that mysterious pop-up book. Experienced horror film viewers know perfectly well that creatures like the Babadook can, in fact, be quite real in such films, but (on the basis of what we see early in this particular film), we have no reason to disagree with Amelia’s original assessment. After all, the film has already firmly established, within the first few minutes, that Samuel has a tendency to imagine bogeymen that aren’t actually there. As the film proceeds, however, evidence that the Babadook does, in fact, exist begins to accumulate, and both we and Amelia begin to question our initial assumptions. By the time we get to the point in the film when Amelia becomes quite convinced of the reality of the Babadook, we have already firmly committed to her point of view, and the evidence of most reviews suggests that most viewers, by the end of the film, have concluded that we are supposed to believe that the Babadook really does exist and really is living in Amelia’s basement as a sort of captive/pet.

To an extent, then, viewers of The Babadook follow Amelia, first in doubting the existence of the Babadook, then in believing in that existence. At the same time, the film is constructed so that a certain amount of uncertainty remains to the very end. Because the film is presented so consistently from Amelia’s perspective, anything we see on the screen might well be a hallucination on her part, something that is perhaps hinted at by the fact that some sequences of the film are subsequently revealed to be Amelia’s dreams. Indeed, there is at least one point in the film where it is openly suggested that Amelia has an uncertain grip on reality. After those cockroaches invade her kitchen, Amelia is shown discovering a hole in the wall behind her refrigerator through which the cockroaches are pouring into the room. Then, when the social workers arrive soon afterward, Amelia starts to show the hole to them, only to discover that there is no hole in the wall after all.

On the other hand, the film appears to present a carefully constructed set of clues that suggest that Amelia has, late in the film, been possessed by the Babadook. Earlier, the reconstructed version of Mister Babadook had contained a threat that the Babadook would eventually get inside Amelia. Then, about twenty minutes from the end of the film, an invisible force seems to swoop down onto Amelia from the ceiling, hitting her in the back as she crawls along the floor attempting to get away. Then, a closeup shows her pupils rapidly dilating, perhaps indicating the moment of her possession. Immediately, after this moment, Amelia’s behavior becomes much more violent and aggressive. She kills the dog with the bare hands, then plucks out a tooth that has been bothering her, suggesting that she might have superhuman strength. Then she almost kills Samuel, after verbally abusing him. However, the boy seems to recognize her possession when he insists that “You’re not my mother!,” then later tells her, “You have to get it out!” Finally, Samuel reaches out and gently strokes Amelia’s cheek as she is choking him, which seems to bring her back to herself. She then stops choking Samuel and vomits up a thick black fluid, perhaps suggesting that she has now eliminated the Babadook from her system. After that, she seems to be her old self again, defending Samuel from what appears to be an attack by the Babadook, then driving the creature into the basement, where she will subsequently keep it locked away, feeding it on worms that she and Samuel collect in their garden. In the end, life seems to be better than ever for Amelia and Samuel, though Samuel ends the film by performing a particularly impressive magic trick, which might make a suspicious viewer suspect that something supernatural might still be afoot in the family.

All of the information presented in this final segment of the film doesn’t really “prove” anything, though, given that it could all (including Samuel’s reactions) have been hallucinated by an unhinged Amelia, until Samuel’s stroking of her cheek brought her back at least partly back to reality—or at least enough reality to prevent her from murdering her son. In the same way, though, the cockroach hole behind the refrigerator might have been produced by the Babadook, then removed by the Babadook, just to make Amelia look crazy to the social workers—or perhaps as a form of gaslighting in which the creature wanted her to doubt her own sanity. Finally, the capture of the Babadook in the basement might suggest that it is real, but it could also be explained psychologically if Amelia has merely imagined its captivity as a means of coping with it. One could even go for a more literal (probably too literal) psychoanalytic explanation by reading this captivity allegorically, with the basement becoming the Freudian unconscious and the driving of the Babadook down into the basement becoming an enactment of the Freudian process of repression.

Elizabeth E. Riggs reads The Babadook in essentially this way, without the overtly Freudian intonation. She concludes that Amelia is able to drive the Babadook into the basement because she has finally faced up to her mental illness and recognized its initial source in the death of her husband. In particular, Riggs uses Barbara Creed’s well-known theorization of the monstrous feminine (via Julia Kristeva’s discussion of the abject) to argue that Amelia’s victory over the Babadook is a casting away of the abject in keeping with Creed’s view that the role of a horror film is to “bring about a confrontation with the abject … in order, finally, to eject the abject and redraw the boundaries human and non-human” (Creed 46). For Riggs, the banishment of the Babadook to the basement symbolizes the fact that Amelia has cast away the abject and “tamed her mental illness” (36)[1].

Ultimately, it is impossible to decide with absolute certainty whether the main events of the film are driven by Amelia’s uncertain purchase on reality under the pressure of her daily life or whether they are genuinely driven by an evil supernatural creature. In fact, that uncertainty is one of the biggest reasons why this film is such a success. Moreover, these two explanations for the film’s events are not mutually exclusive. While it might be perfectly understandable if the circumstances of Amelia’s life have driven her insane, it is also possible that the arrival of the Babadook has exacerbated the situation: Amelia might be insane and be haunted by a sinister supernatural force, which would mean that some of the events involving the Babadook might be imagined, while others might be real.

The Babadook and Mister Babadook

Real or not, the vaguely defined Babadook is an inspired creation, especially given the film’s very limited budget for special effects. We only get brief, fleeting glimpses of the creature, which is often shrouded in darkness and is in any case created with rough, minimalist stop-motion animation in a style that might be at home in a children’s book—or in the imagination of a woman going insane. The visual representation of the Babadook is also quite reminiscent of the style of German Expressionism, a style that has exercised a strong influence on horror film (and film noir) since it first emerged in such legendary pioneering horror films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922)[2]. Visually, the design of the Babadook had a number of inspirations, including the Man in the Beaver Hat, a character played by Lon Chaney, Sr., in the now-lost 1927 film London After Midnight, directed by Tod Browning (best known to horror fans as the director of the 1931 Dracula).

Lon Chaney, Sr., in London After Midnight (1927).

Meanwhile, just what kind of supernatural creature the Babadook might be is never specified in the film, which tends to make it all the more mysterious. Veteran viewers generally come to horror films with an idea of the mythology surrounding the standard categories of monsters, such as vampires, zombies, ghosts, and demons. The Babadook seems somewhat demon-like and somewhat ghost-like, but it doesn’t clearly fit into any of the standard categories that we have come to associate with movie monsters and is essentially a one-of-a-kind creation of its own.

One category the Babadook does comfortably fit in is the category of monstrous creatures from children’s books, of which there are a surprising number. Going back to the sometimes gruesome content of European fairy tales, stories that are often thought of as being for children frequently contain some very troubling and potentially frightening content. Indeed, if one sees Mister Babadook as the source of all the terrors suffered by Amelia and Samuel at the hands of its titular creature, then one can read The Babadook as a critique of overly violent and graphic content in children’s books (or children’s culture in general). In addition, Amelia’s mental state in the film appears to be affected, not just by Mister Babadook, but also by the strange images she absorbs while watching television, some of which are quite old (dating back to the early films of Georges Méliès at the very beginning of film), reminding us that macabre images have been a part of our visual culture for a long time. At the same time, the film leaves unanswered the question of whether these images contribute to the unraveling of Amelia’s psyche or whether she is attracted to such imagery because her psyche is unraveling.

The exact nature and source of the Mister Babadook pop-up book is one of the many mysteries left unsolved at the end of The Babadook. For example, it is unclear how Mister Babadook got in with Samuel’s books in the first place. If we are to see the Babadook as an actual supernatural creature, then we could perhaps conclude that the Babadook itself created the book (then recreated it after Amelia initially ripped it up and threw it in the trash), perhaps as a tactic to terrorize Amelia and Samuel before attacking them more directly. But that would leave unanswered the question of where the Babadook initially came from. At the same time, if we see the book itself as magical, then we could conclude that the Babadook was produced by the book, rather than the other way around, but that would then leave open the question of who created the book in the first place.

Probably the most complete explanation of the source of the book is that Amelia herself created the book during some sort of psychotic episode but does not recall doing so, which would suggest that she was already suffering from some sort of mental instability even before the appearance of the book on Samuel’s shelves. One reason this explanation seems credible is that the book does have a certain homemade, unfinished character, from the crude artwork to the fact that it contains a number of blank pages. That Amelia might be capable of making such a book, meanwhile, is indicated when we learn in the course of the film that Amelia had once been a writer of magazine articles and “kids’ stuff,” which might have equipped her for the task. By this reading, one would assume that it was also Amelia, perhaps during another psychotic episode, who recovered the book from the trash, taped the torn pages back together, then added additional, even more threatening, material before placing it on the doorstep.

As far as the meaning of the book is concerned, Jessica Balanzategui has noted an interesting additional possibility, arguing that the book “functions as a Gothic subversion of children’s literature, and monstrously empowers the realm of children’s culture so that it holds sway over the life and imagination of the adult as well as the child, with horrifying results.” For her, “through its monstrous pop-up book, The Babadook expresses potent anxieties about the growing power of children’s culture over adult realities in the early 21st century” (107). In making this argument, Balanzategui places The Babadook within the context of a number of other contemporary films that have similarly involved monsters that emerge from children’s culture, or at least children’s imaginations, subsequently threatening both children and adults. She names such films as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), Mama (2013), Intruders (2011), Sinister (2012), The Conjuring 2 (2016), and Before I Wake (2016) as belonging in this category, and one might add the megahit It (2017) and its 2019 sequel to the list. The recent popularity of such films, for her, indicates widespread anxieties about the growing power of children’s culture in Western societies, concluding that The Babadook “ultimately suggests that a new form of receptiveness to the mental and cultural realm of childhood is required of adults if children and adults are to work together effectively to resolve personal and cultural traumas” (117).

Continuing this focus on Mister Babadook and children’s culture, I might note that we live in a century that has been marked by a series of traumatic events worldwide, from the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center, to the 2008 financial crisis that nearly collapsed the global economy, and now to one of deadliest pandemics in world history. Meanwhile, amid all these threats and crises, we live in a global capitalist system that has become so large and complex that virtually no one can understand its workings or its ultimate ramifications. Living under such conditions, many adults sense that something is badly wrong, but are unable to pinpoint, via adult logic, exactly what the problem is. In such a situation it is only natural that many adults would become open to extra-logical explanations for their sense of peril, leading to today’s proliferation of crazed conspiracy theories that offer their proponents the comfort of an explanation, even if the explanation makes no sense and defies all logic and evidence.

For someone like Amelia, with so many day-to-day pressures and problems, these larger global problems are all the more difficult to bear. From this point of view, it makes sense to see the appearance of the Babadook in Amelia’s life as a dramatization of the way in which, overwhelmed by the texture of life in the twenty-first century, adults are becoming more and more susceptible to the sometimes frightening illogic of children’s culture.

Conclusion

The Babadook is an extremely well-constructed horror film that details some of the difficulties of adult life in the twenty-first century, illustrating them with the example of a single, working-class mother who struggles with a series of everyday problems ranging from being traumatized by the especially painful method in which her former husband died, to now being alone and lonely seven years later, to being underappreciated at work, to being unable to pay her bills, to being unable to cope effectively with the behavioral problems of her young son, born on the day of his father’s death. When the woman and her son are then assailed by the malevolent supernatural entity of the film’s title, we can never be sure whether the Babadook is real, or whether it has been conjured up in the imaginations of mother and son, driven by the difficult conditions in which they live. Both the everyday struggles that face this mother and the emergence of the Babadook suggest the extent to which life in the twenty-first century has become so frightening and confusing that, in order to cope, adults often resort to magical thinking and other sorts of illogical explanations of a kind often found in children’s culture.

Works Cited

Balanzategui, Jessica. “The more you deny me, the stronger I get”: ‘Mister Babadook’ and the Monstrous Empowerment of Children’s Culture.” Terrifying Texts : Essays on Books of Good and Evil in Horror Cinema. Edited by Cynthia J. Miller, and A. Bowdoin Van, McFarland, 2018, pp. 107–19.

Creed, Barbara. ““Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 35–63.

Kenny, Glenn. “The Babadook.” Roger Ebert.com, 28 November 2014, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-babadook-2014. Accessed 5 December 2021.

Rieff, Michael C. “Mediating Trauma in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.” Terrifying Texts: Essays on Books of Good and Evil in Horror Cinema. Edited by Cynthia J. Miller, and A. Bowdoin Van, McFarland, 2018, pp. 120–131.

Riggs, Elizabeth E. “Mental Illness and the Monstrous Mother: A Comparison of Representation in The Babadook and Lights Out.” Film Matters, vol. 9. No. 1, Spring 2018, pp. 30-38

Notes

[1] Riggs contrasts The Babadook in this sense with David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out (2016), another film that features an unraveling mother, this time one who succumbs to the darkness of the abject, ultimately committing suicide in order to remove the supernatural threat that seems to be emanating frm her own mind and threatening her children.

[2] See Michael C. Rieff for a reading of The Babadook in comparison with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.