The Babadook is real

The emotional resonance of Jennifer Kent's new horror film gives it the power to do more than just scare.

(Note: this article contains spoilers for the plot of The Babadook)

In a house stunted by an old tragedy, a boogeyman comes a-knocking. He’ll make you afraid to go to sleep. And you can’t get rid of him…

After the untimely death of her husband several years ago, Amelia has had to raise their son Samuel alone. The boy is unhappy, acting out at school and anxiously preoccupied with monsters. One night, there appears in the house a mysterious picture book about a sinister visitor called “Mister Babadook,” who dresses all in black, with a top hat and a masklike face. Reading the book kickstarts a nightly campaign of terror that leaves them both tormented by fear and sleep deprivation, teetering on the edge of sanity.

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A debut feature from writer/director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a horror triumph: story-driven, emotionally mature, vulnerable without sentimentality, unconventional but still firmly rooted in its genre. It’s rich in genre tropes but doles them out carefully, like Tarot cards that can unlock hidden meanings. William Friedkin, the director of the The Exorcist, has championed Kent’s film as a new classic to shelve beside the likes of Psycho and Alien. It’s playing now at the Hollywood and Living Room theaters and on VOD.

All the greatest horror films exist on two planes simultaneously. The monster is at once dangerously present and unmistakably symbolic. Kent understands this, and tilts her story on the ambiguity – what, exactly, are we watching? A troubled child acting out? The unraveling of a mentally unstable woman? Or is the creature real? The danger certainly is. Kent seems deeply indebted to the superlative horror trilogy of Roman Polanski, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and Repulsion. In his films, mental illness is always a possible explanation for the ordeal of his heroines, but a misguided and insufficient one.

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I find Polanski’s horror films deeply feminist. His notorious crime is all the more painful to consider when you appreciate the depth and sensitivity with which he portrays his female characters. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion are women who shoulder abuse and exploitation, whose sanity is called into question by their peers but whose struggle is championed by the filmmaker. Even The Tenant, which stars Polanski himself, takes up the theme of a woman without allies, who is twisted and warped by her poisonous surroundings. The Babadook’s weary Amelia (Essie Davis) is a perfect Polanski-style heroine: pleasant and deferent on the surface, while cracking under the pressure of bearing much more than she should have to. Davis’ wide-ranging, fully embodied performance swings back and forth from fragile to vicious.

Pacing will make or break any film, but none moreso than horror. The Babadook simmers long on a very low flame. Like The Tenant, the first quarter or so of the film is staunchly non-supernatural, concerned only with the mundane misery of the protagonist. Amelia lives her life without extra money or romantic companionship or a creative outlet. Poverty and isolation are their own horror stories. Madness is drizzled in gradually, tinting the narrative until the whole screen is saturated.

The complete universe of mother and child is contained within their home, and most of the film’s action unfurls between three floors of a cold, gray-toned house. As things become more desperate, the house begins to crumble under the stress, the wallpaper peeling back to reveal a fissure in the drywall. Polanski fans will remember the chilling scene in the The Tenant when Trelkovsky finds a horrible souvenir from the previous renter: a human tooth tucked in a wall crevice. Like Trelkovsky, Amelia and Samuel are held captive not in their home, but by their home, and by the hypnotic draw of the history contained there. What is that history? When the monster begins to haunt Amelia with mirages of her late husband, the pieces fall into place: the Babadook is made of grief. Grief on its own is not deadly, but grief that goes unprocessed for too long (her husband’s death was seven years ago) ferments into something else, savage and frightening and unrecognizable.

When you think of a family held prisoner by the past, The Shining comes to mind. The Babadook has something else in common with Kubrick’s film: the haunting spectre of child abuse. Both films dive deep into the harrowing fear that plagues those who are dependent, that your caretaker could someday be your terrorizer. But in The Babadook, it’s the mother, not the father, who becomes dangerous.

The Babadook taps into the primal dread of a beast: the mother who harms her own children. Or who simply fears that she might. Like Rosemary’s Baby, it distorts dreams of maternal bliss into nightmares: as Rosemary’s Baby makes pregnancy into a hellish, energy-sapping disease, The Babadook presents motherhood as a yoke instead of a gift. Samuel’s volatility and aggressive behavior are too much for Amelia, who yearns for respite from the exhausting duty of being his mother.

Kent gives voice to some raw taboos about the ways that motherhood can fail women – the promised joy of parenting can’t distract Amelia from the void left by the loss of her husband, and at her most monstrous, possessed by the Babadook, she growls at her son, “Do you know how many times I wish you had died instead of him?” What’s truly horrifying about this statement is its honesty.

In one particularly gruesome sequence, Babadook-Amelia reaches into her own mouth and twists out a bloody tooth, the tooth that has ached all through the film (it has to be a hidden homage to The Tenant). Once he inhabits her, the Babadook insists that she do something to ease her own pain. Perhaps he is good for something, after all. The psychological lesson of the film is about the futility and danger of denying your painful emotions. It hurts terribly to confront grief, but the alternative, ignoring it, is much more perilous. And when it comes to mourning, temporarily becoming a monster may be part of the process.

Finally, you can’t get rid of the Babadook, you can only find a way to get along with him.

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