In a similar vein to my Drop Dead Fred post, I would like to offer a different reading to Jennifer Kent’s, The Babadook (2014). While the film gained critical acclaim after it’s debut at Sundance, it is still subject to the ‘I don’t get it’ and the ‘it isn’t very scary’ people of this world. This is a shame, as if you look a little deeper, you begin to realize just how scary the ominous Mister Babadook figure really is. The plot follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a widow who hasn’t learned how to cope with her husband, Oskar’s death. Oskar died driving Amelia to the hospital, seven years earlier, when she was in labor with their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). She still keeps all of Oskar’s things in the basement and refuses to talk about him or his death. This has strained her relationship with Samuel, as, his birth and her husbands death are intertwined together. The anniversary of Oskar’s death and in turn, Samuel’s birthday is coming up soon. Samuel is a spirited child, obsessed with fighting monsters and battling demons. One evening while putting Sam to bed, Amelia finds a strange new pop-up book called Mister Babadook in Sam’s room. When she reads the chilling tale about a monster haunting a young boy, the malevolent Mister Babadook begins to haunt them both and wreak havoc on their lives.
Kent said in an interview:
“Films need to be sold throughout the world, and they need to reach an appropriate audience, but, for me, I never approached this as a straight horror film. I always was drawn to the idea of grief, and the suppression of that grief, and the question of, how would that affect a person”
This movie wasn’t made for the cheap thrills a mainstream horror would offer to its viewers (although there are scenes that make you jump and creep you out). This movie is about something a quarter of the U.K population can relate to, this movie is about depression. It is common to assume a film about depression will come to you in the form of a drama, that depression will be explicitly dealt with and explained. The Babadook turns depression into an ambiguous monster that could be lurking around every corner, ruining your relationships and turning you into the horror that nobody else can see. Kent has made a realistic fantasy, starring the inexplicable monster lurking within us. Here are five scenes, quotes and moments The Babadook offers a clear nudge to depression and mental health issues.
1) Amelia created The Babadook as a coping mechanism In the same way that Drop Dead Fred is arguably a manifestation of Elizabeth’s anxiety and repressed childhood abuse, I would argue to the hilt that Mister Babadook isn’t really there. Well, not the way that we see him anyway. The dark looming figure of a man in a hat with a big coat, coming into your room at night, demanding to be ‘let in’ and tormenting you does sound like a ghost. It also sounds like a metaphor for depression and grief. The big black cloud that pops up here and there, at the worst possible time, stopping you from going to work or getting up. It stops you sleeping, it stops you eating, it stops you doing most things. Amelia tells her sisters friends that she used to write children’s literature, and this book has already mysteriously turned up in Sams room. Mister Babadook is definitely written and presented like a children’s pop-up book:
“If it’s in a word or in a look you can’t get rid of the Babadook. If you’re a really clever one and you know what it is to see, Then you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me. His name is Mister Babadook, And this is his book. A rumbling sound and then 3 sharp knocks. Ba ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK! That’s when you’ll know that he’s around, You’ll see him if you look. This is what he wears on top, he’s funny don’t you think? See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink. I’ll soon take off my funny disguise, Take heed of what you’ve read. And once you see what’s underneath…YOU’RE GOING TO WISH YOU WERE DEAD.”
The question here is, how did the book get there if Mister Babadook isn’t supernatural? Simple, Amelia made it. Amelia used to be a children’s author, which she obviously gave up when Oskar died and is now a carer for the elderly and a single mother. She holds resentment towards Sam, she doesn’t like him to caress her cheek or hug her. Any physical contact with Sam makes her visibly uncomfortable. So in a bid to appeal to her mental health issues, her son and the situation after seven years of mourning, grief and depression; Amelia creates a semi-threatening children’s book about depression.
But why make a book about a monster and make it threatening? Because, Sam is obsessive about monsters. It is easier to explain depression when you explain it like a possession movie – you are not yourself, you are someone else. “Mister Babadook has come in and took control of my mummy,” is much easier to understand than “my mother is angry at me because she is actually angry at herself and life.” The resentment she holds to her son is like a double edged sword, on one hand she wants him to be close to her and desperately needs the affection. On the other hands she wants Sam to stay well away from her. She wants him to stay away because he reminds her of Oskar, she wants him to stay away because she feels guilty, she wants him to stay away because she’s scared of hurting him (mentally or physically). This is why the book draws Sam in with the cute pictures and funny pop-up illustrations and then swiftly pushes him away with threats. Amelia has consciously or subconsciously took the first step to recovery, she has identified with her mental health issues and let someone else know about it, all be it a seven year old boy.
2) A monster is easier to fight than depression
Sam is constantly checking under his bed for monsters, he has also created monster fighting weapons that got him suspended from his school. The Babadook gave his monster obsession form and allowed him to manifest a creative visualization that both he and his mother can battle with. Nice one mum, thanks.
In one scene where Sam is being disobedient and acting out, he says in front of one of Amelia’s co-workers (that is trying to flirt with her) that: “She won’t let me have a dad!” He then pretend plays in the basement, where all his dads things are kept, that he will trap The Babadook: “Don’t worry dad, I’ll save mum and trap The Babadook, like this!” It would be a lot easier to deal with depression, anxiety or any mental illness if it were a physical being, and Sam has cottoned on to the fact his mother is in trouble. He has also tried to take on the role of a dominant male, he is trying to help his mum accept his father’s death, but is unsure how to communicate it so he acts violently. His resentment towards his mum shutting off his dad’s belongings in the basement is made clear when he cries: “He’s my dad too, you don’t own him!” So it is no surprise that once he has been into the basement and immersed himself in the memory of his late father and what his death has done to his mother, he becomes ultra-violent. He snarls: “You will be scared [of the Babadook] when it eats your insides!” He pushes his mother down and shouts: “Do you wanna die?!” He later puts glass in her soup and blames The Babadook. Sam is also dealing with grief, anxiety and depression for the memory of a man he never met, but still holds in the highest regard. Sam would love to stop living in the shadow of his father, so he invited the shadow to come and play. By doing this he and his mum have forced an acceptance and understanding of their issues, and can face them head on as a family unit. Also, The Babadook is coming out of what looks freakishly like their basement door, wanting to make friends with them. Just going to throw that one out there….
3) The Babadook is Oskar The Babadook may as well be called The Dadabook. We have already covered that The Babadook monster was created from the grief and depression surrounding Oskar’s death. So it is reasonable to assume that Oskar is the shadow figure ‘haunting’ Sam and Amelia. In the final scenes, Oskar/The Babadook appears to Amelia in a dream and tells her to: “Bring me the boy,” suggesting that he wants her to kill Sam. In Mister Babadook’s book, there are pop up pictures of her killing Sam with The Babadook behind her. So if Oskar is The Babadook that Amelia created then it is safe to say that Amelia wants to kill Sam because he reminds her so much of Oskar.
Amelia cannot have any sexual gratification, she rebuffs the advances of her colleague and is even interrupted by Sam when trying to masturbate. She is being followed (literally) by old ghosts, and even her sister has told her to move on and be happy. Due to her illness her maternal instincts have dropped to the point where she cannot look after her child. There are a few scenes where Sam has no food (he decided to not eat shit), or improper food such as ice-cream. The continual failings as a mother and lack of sexual activity is displayed through cockroaches. They are first seen coming out of the wall behind her fridge that was empty, Sam was going hungry and the house was in a mess. This yonic hole in the wall represents both her inability to cope as a mother, and her inability to open up sexually to anybody but her late husband. They are later seen on her crotch before she crashes her car. As I mentioned earlier, a man coming in to your room at night, demanding to be: “let in,” is an extremely suggestive picture (alongside being a metaphor for letting grief in).
They are both being plagued by the living entity of grief that appears firstly as a shadowy figure and then finally reveals itself to Amelia as Oskar in the final scenes.
4) If you try to ignore strong emotions they manifest into something frightening
“I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, The stronger I get.”
Amelia has been ignoring The Babadook for a long time now. When she rips the book up and it returns on her doorstep, the situation becomes clear. In a desperate bid to get her conscious self to recognize subconscious repressed emotions, she creates new pages for herself. She spurs her depression on (or is that the other way around?) and wagers that it will get harder the longer she ignores the problem. The expression, ‘coming back to haunt you’ definitely rings true here. While it is an extreme case scenario to go on a murderous rampage, if you hold feelings in or repress things they will eventually resurface. Everyone has a breaking point and holding in grief for seven years will make a person unhinged. What is so clever about this film is that it uses the horror genre and possession to drive that message home, when you are depressed you are sometimes not yourself. You become the darkest parts of you, you become a monster that you or your loved ones do not recognize. This rang most true for me when Amelia tells Sam to, ‘go and eat shit,’ while hugging her dead husbands violin. In a supernatural reading, we have already seen The Babadook crawl into her mouth so we can assume this is because she is possessed. However, in a mental health reading, she has finally ‘let it in’ and has begun to lose grip on rational thought processes. She has even started to speak like the book: ‘talk-talk-talking.’ She hasn’t slept all night, and now Sam wants something to eat, so she tells him to go and eat shit. She then immediately apologizes and feels what we can only assume to be large amounts of guilt and anger, thus making it harder to snap out of her depressive episode.
This propels the narrative forward and into an intervention scene. While it can be seen as expelling the demon, there is a stronger case for her son forcing her to get rid of all this darkness from her body.
“Mum I’m not leaving you. We said we’d protect each other, I know you don’t love me, The Babadook won’t let you, but I love you mum and I always will. You let it in, you have to get it out!”
Sam knows The Babadook has stopped his mother loving him since birth, he knows that his mother is under investigation due to his behaviour at school, so he insists that she deal with the problem. Like anyone with depression will tell you, nobody else can pull you out of it. That is why this illness is so hard to understand, even things a person loves above all else cannot compete with the power of the human brain. It is up to Amelia to want to get better.
5) The Babadook doesn’t completely go away
Depression doesn’t completely go away, and neither does The Babadook. It lives in the basement being fed on earthworms in a bowl of mud, symbolic of death and burials. When Amelia goes into the basement, she faces Oskar head on. When she feels overwhelmed by emotion she uses her new maternal side and soothes herself, before returning to Sam and playing magic tricks with him on his birthday. Depression takes a long time to heal, talking about and managing your symptoms is the key to getting well. You could say The Babadook is an exaggerated view of someone’s self-help guide.
And so… Depression is all around us, The Babadook was one of the most talked about horror movies of 2014. Yet we can’t seem to muster up the courage to talk about mental health issues or ask someone with depression how they are doing – however, people can join together and talk about this film. Mental heath issues are everywhere in this world, it is high time we started talking about it.
If you think you are suffering with mental health issues and need to talk to somebody please contact any of the following services (UK):
Similar blogs that get my ‘fist of approval’:
cesarerhard – a very candid and moving blog post featuring other films that deal with grief, an excellent analysis and an interesting point about the connection between Amelia and her house – good job! If you read anything today, read this post.
dudeigotsablog – short and sweet, a good analogy about the chicken or the egg and well written – go check it out!
gatesofhellandevildead – spot on analysis that offers up both sides to the story, a very entertaining read.