Why is it that we react with such withering contempt to our children when they see monsters? Is it because we really know better than them, or is it, really, because the assurances we give ourselves every day that things are “fine” are a bigger fiction than the shadows under the bed? In director/writer Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) we’re asked some deeply disturbing questions that will leave you checking over your shoulder long after the credits have rolled…
A good horror has you feeling like you’re being watched after you leave the cinema. It breaks the comfort of the fourth wall, and sends the fear home with you. A good horror has you double-bolting the door, checking under your bed and sleeping with the light on to protect yourself from unseen outside assailants. A great horror, on the other hand, provokes you to notice the terror hidden within your tedious ‘normality’. A great horror teaches you to fear what’s hidden within yourself.
Jennifer Kent’s nightmare creation does this masterfully – in what is undoubtedly the finest horror of 2014. Initially, it seems Australian horror The Babadook is a simplistic story told amid spectacular circumstances, much like the overly-hyped space spectacle of Gravity (2013), in which a mother learns to live with bereavement and reconnect with life. In this case the protagonist, Amelia (Essie Davis, whose on-screen duality is a revelation), is living in the shadow of her husband’s tragic death in a car accident on the eve of her son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) birth. Her continued refusal to address the horrors of her past not only distance her from her son, who she is thoroughly repulsed by, but eventually reduce her to a shrieking, dangerous wreck. She is forced to re-evaluate her life when she becomes a threat to her own child, and eventually faces up to her husband’s tragic demise in order to put things right. The process of horror then could be seen as a simple mechanism that reconciles her with her maternal responsibilities, by forcing her to address her grief. The genius of this film is that a deeper, darker meaning lurks in the shadows, and leaves us feeling a disturbing lack of closure come the end of the film.
Mister Babadook – who is introduced through a pop-up picture book suitable only for the children of Tim Burton – is initially only visible to Sam, a child who unashamedly, sometimes bluntly speaks his mind. When he tries to call his mother’s attention to the phantom stalking them, Amelia responds first with scepticism and then with hostility – even when she sees the menace for herself. But why?
Liberation is a painful process, especially the first step of admitting to yourself something is wrong in the life you have learned to embrace as normality. Mister Babadook primarily comes to embody a cloud of denial hanging over Amelia, an insistence that the world is not filled with horrors, and everything is “fine”, and a deep grief that when ignored threatens to over-run her life and steal away her son. And that’s what makes The Babadook such an innovative, gripping and inventive horror. The true fear in this film does not emanate from cheap jumps, or fetishised gore – but from a chilling variance on the traditional model of a haunting.
In many – usually American – horrors, an idyllic, idealised middle-class family home is invaded by a corrupting force or malevolent spirit, hell-bent on wrenching the occupants from their natural states of happiness and contentment. This theme plays on the ideological fear of an assault on capitalist ideology – private property being the basis for the dominant economic system we grow up to think ‘natural’ – as property is often confused as an extension of our identity. Normality and happiness are disrupted by dangerous and volatile ideas entering the institution of the family home.
In The Babadook though, the situation is turned completely on its head. There is no external source, no unseen invader really – there is no great “letting in” of the evil, it is quite at home amongst them already. Sam’s screams of “Don’t let it in! Don’t let it in!” become all the more chilling for the question raised by this. What if it is ALREADY IN? What if, whether it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, the horror of the Babadook has been inside the very institutions we expect to take comfort from all along – employment, the family, property. Amelia is bullied by her boss, tormented by images of happy couples and perfect families; she feels disgust toward her 6 year old son, and isolation in her cavernous house. Every standard she is expected to meet, she cannot, and everything she was told would bring her happiness has brought her nothing but further alienation. She detests every part of her situation, but her desire to desperately cling to the safety of “normal” desires forbids her from admitting that she sees the coercion and oppression within those desires.
Mister Babadook is more than just the repressed grief of a deceased spouse then, his spindly reach creeps into the realm of the audience. As we cower in the darkness, deprived of the safe distance that a lesser horror might permit, he embodies the violence that insidiously structures our lives. It is the implicit violence that lurks within an exploitative world – it is Hegemony incarnate. Sapping the life-force from other people to selfishly communicate and perpetuate its own ideological dominance, it teaches its hosts that their suffering is natural, even desirable (something cleverly woven into the demonic, carnivorous televisual images Amelia consumes at her lowest points). And if, like Amelia, we continue to ignore the dominant ideology lurking within our ideals, and to the damage this cannibalistic violence does, then we inevitably end up serving it, offering up our dreams, our bodies, even our children.
The most terrifying thing about this is the conclusion though. While (without spoiling what is a fine original piece of genre cinema) the ending might initially seem “happy” – with the mother learning to accept her son for who he is, and to live with the past that had emotionally crippled her – she can never ‘move on’. It lives on for her, as it lives on for us all – we can never have closure from the horrors we have been exposed to, so we must learn to see the violence around us at all times, and to ‘live with it’ by calculating how it may alter our behaviour. We are our own worst nightmares – and so we cannot “be the change we want to see in the world”, we can only create a society where others can. Even if, in some distant time, we are liberated from the systems of oppression that govern our lives, we cannot outlive the scars that they leave us. The shadows of our exploitation will continue to loom in our peripheral vision, breathing down the backs our necks to the very end. At best, if we remain vigilant and self-critical, they will die with us – but we ourselves can’t ever get rid of the Babadook.