The Babadook (2014): A Parable of Motherhood and the Changing Shapes of Repressed Grief
Following its 2014 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, The Babadook was quickly recognized as one of the finest horror films ever made. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist (1973), declared The Babadook the most terrifying film he had ever seen. And it was created by first-time writer-director Jennifer Kent, who made The Babadook on a modest budget of $2 million– which was partially funded via Kickstarter.
Like The Exorcist, The Babadook follows the anxiety-inducing relationship between a single mother and her disturbed child.
The Australian horror flick follows Amelia, an exhausted mother and hospital worker who struggles to look after her six-year-old son Sam. Amelia’s husband died in a car accident that occurred as he was driving her to the hospital when she was in labor. Sam is unmanageably erratic; he’s unable sleep and frequently imagines vicious monsters, for which he builds home-made weapons to combat.
Amelia is further stressed as Sam’s birthday is approaching, which marks the seven-year anniversary of her husband’s death. With the responsibilities of motherhood, she’s never given the time or opportunity to grieve. On top of this, she is frequently let down by her sister who seems incapable of providing Amelia with emotional support. Their sibling relationship is further splintered by the fact that Sam doesn’t get along with Amelia’s sister’s daughter, who taunts Sam for being fatherless.
One night, when Sam is unable to sleep, he requests that his mother read him a bedtime story. He pulls a pop-up book that mysteriously appears on their shelf called Mister Babadook. The book chronicles the stalking of a boogeyman figure named Babadook who is a tall, pale-faced creature in a black top hat and long slender fingers. The book becomes increasingly threatening, which prompts Amelia to cease reading the book– but not soon enough to avoid traumatizing Sam who becomes convinced that The Babadook is the creature who has been haunting him at night.
The Babadook is proof that a horror film doesn’t have to be vague and cryptic with its metaphors to contain deep thematic complexity. The psychological horror classic brilliantly explores issues pertaining to mental health issues associated with motherhood and grieving the death of a loved one. But you won’t need several careful viewings to pick up on these themes. In fact, you should glean most of the symbolism in The Babadook in just one viewing. And that’s one thing that makes this one film so impact: it’s incredibly shrewd but you don’t need a film degree to fully appreciate it.
When Amelia destroys the pop-up book and throws it in the trash, it eventually finds its way back on her doorstep– this time with additional pages explaining that the more Amelia and Sam ignore Babadook, the more powerful he becomes. This further parallels the evolution of Amelia and Sam’s depression. Mister Babadook is not so overwhelmingly powerful– so much so that he is able to overtake and possess Amelia– because they are experiencing grief. It’s because they have spent seven years not addressing the grief. The more one ignores their mental health problems, the more devastating they’ll inevitably spiral emotionally.
Here, The Babadook has accomplished what few horror films (before and after) have. But not for the lack of attempts.
More recently we’ve seen some of the themes in The Babadook explored in other horror films such as 2016’s Lights Out– another indie horror film that attempts to use a shadowy boogeyman (or boogeywoman in this instance) as a metaphor for mental health. For the sake of this analysis, I’m going to spoil the ending of both films.
In Lights Out, one of the film’s protagonists is tethered to a ghostly figure, which represents depression (I’m simplifying the themes here for the sake of brevity). When she realizes that their tie together is haunting her family, she sacrifices herself (read: commits suicide) in order to put an end to the curse. Oof! Now, Lights Out is a generally great horror flick. But its conclusion is problematic in its depiction of suicide and how we should tackle mental health issues.
Compare this to the ending of The Babadook, which ends with Amelia confronting The Babadook (and thus her own long-unaddressed depression and grief) head-on. She puts Mister Babadook in its place. She shouts in its face: “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!”
“It really was connecting to that woman and her journey towards staring something nightmarish in the face. As the film progresses, you start to realize: Oh my God, the kid was right—and that’s where the fear is for me.”
-Jennifer Kent told Rolling Stone
And the film concludes with Babadook living in their basement. The monster, like our own mental illnesses, doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. We must learn how to manage them (sometimes with the help of therapy or medication). But it is a constant battle that is both exhausting and worth it. THAT is a perfect ending to a perfect horror film about depression manifesting as a creepy humanoid.
Made on an independent film budget, The Babadook is a shocking, nightmare-inducing horror gem that chooses thoughtful symbolism over gore and cheap jump scares. Paired with remarkable performances from its mother-son leads, The Babadook is not only one of the best horror films of the decade, it’s one of the best movies ever made. And it’s inspiring a new generation of filmmakers to elevate the genre– and ground its fantastical monsters in with an emotional core.