It’s the boogieman no kids talk about on playdates or at birthday parties. You don’t mention it in the living room, on the porch, or by the baby’s crib. It’s the dark feeling you don’t know how to put into words, the one that keeps you up at night and haunts you during the day as a parent or caretaker. It’s the Babadook.
An unspeakable monster is the basis of The Babadook, a little Australian indie horror film directed by Jennifer Kent that has found surprising success (and rave reviews) since its release in the United States in November. What’s truly frightening about The Babadook is not the creepy monster itself, but the way that much of the movie’s horrors feel plausible, in a Nightmare on Elm Street way. Outsiders unaware of what our protagonists are going through scoff at their problems. Our lead actress lies awake terrified through the night, all the more isolated and vulnerable because no one believes grown-ups who say they have monsters underneath their beds.
The Babadook revolves around Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed mother who struggles to manage her home and her troubled young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). As precocious and caring as her son can be, Samuel has a tendency to see monsters lurking everywhere and act out on his defensive impulses. His school kicks him out for behavior problems and the extended family shuns the overworked mom and her needy son. Stuck at home, Amelia tries and tries to care for her son the best she can. One night before bedtime, Samuel picks a strange pop-up book, The Babadook, for his mother to read. As the pages turn, the story becomes scary. When Amelia skips ahead, she sees the monster threaten the little boy in the story. The Babadook is not a nice book.
Things in the house begin to get weirder—there are unfamiliar noises and doors that open and close with no one around. Amelia first pins the strangeness on Sam’s erratic behavior. But then Samuel’s monster begins to appear to her, too, sometimes wearing the top hat of the Babadook in the book. In a fit of fear, she tears the pop-up book to shreds, only to find it reassembled on her front doorstep. The more Amelia fights the Bababook, the more it appears before it possesses her.
Part of what makes Amelia’s breakdown so chilling is how quickly the mother and son are left to their own to fight the Babadook, making it an internal monster both Samuel and Amelia can see and fight against. There is no one to help them: when Sam and Amelia need help most, both their family and the police abandon them. As it grows more real, the Babadook suggests to Amelia that it can take her son away. As Samuel continues to be a tough kid to care for—in one scene, he disrupts his mother’s attempt at self-pleasure and in another, he outs his mother’s white lies in front of a co-worker—he barricades her further away from her own life and desires, and the monster’s offer to take him becomes a temptation. If you’re into the Freudian stuff, it is a male child acting in the protective role of his mother.
Then there’s the descent into post-partum depression. It’s quite possible to see the beginning of Amelia’s depression at the time of Samuel’s birth—her husband was killed driving her to the hospital. Both life and death are intrinsically linked to her birthing. The feeling of isolation, with no sense of escape, and the unmentionable frustration of parenting becomes unbearable, and she lashes out at Samuel and begins to resent him. One could argue that Amelia was susceptible to succumbing to the Babadook because of her previous trauma.
The lurking beast is a poignant way to visualize depression: it’s a monster under the stairs, an invisible force that can possess us even as we deny its existence. It also seems to represent the unspeakable horrors of motherhood, ones that we’re only just beginning to de-stigmatize and discuss. The Babadook plays on the resentment Amelia has for her kid, the loneliness she feels as she spends her life caring for his needs, and the way she feels she’s failing. Several horror movies play on the concept of motherly love as a pure love and a strong enough to vanquish evil like in Mama, but rarely outside of drama do we see the kind of imperfect motherhood shown in The Babadook, which is what makes this Repulsion-like household of horrors so frightening.
As Amelia and Sam grapple with the shadowy beast in their home and in their hearts, they find they have only one way to deal with the thing that scares them: rather than running, they must confront the Babadook.
The Babadook is screening in select theaters and is also available on VOD services, Google Play, and Amazon.
Monica Castillo is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.