Just last week, William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, tweeted that “he had never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook,” adding that it will “scare the hell out of you as it did me.” This means a lot/a little, depending on how you feel about Friedkin’s film and his Twitter account, which includes many pictures of pandas. Still, I was excited to download The Babadook, Australian Director Jennifer Kent’s independent, low-budget, freshman feature. Baba tells the story of a mother and her son who come to be haunted by a storybook monster, “the babadook.” And while the bones of the plot feel tired and familiar (weird sons, sad moms), there’s an emotional depth to The Babadook that gives it tremendous body. Baba is a horror movie that actually horrifies: a domestic tragedy with claws. While it’s not exactly fun, it’s deeply meaningful, which I guess is the whole point of art anyways(?).
For most moviegoers, horror movies are like casual sex: a fun, typically shameful experience we thought we’d give up by the time we hit 30. As a high-schooler, I watched teenagers get butchered in I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream with considerable . . . delight. I’d like to think I’m not alone. In our culture, horror has become synonymous with fun because trauma – the catalyst for the movie’s action – has become divorced from tragedy. Dead cheerleader girlfriends mean nothing when we’re not the parents mourning their loss. Severed heads and mutilated limbs are meaningless when we’re not the custodian made to clean them up. No one ever has to be abandoned when a ghost offers to revisit. Most horror is misery at a distance: tragedy, made safe.
But Babadook is a different kind of movie: a gorgeously illustrated horror story with real feelings and actual loss. At the center of the film is Amelia (Essie Davis), a depressed, withdrawn single parent forced to take care of her demanding young son Sam (Noah Wiseman). Sam is every parent’s worst nightmare: a needy, unpopular young kid who spends most of his time building weapons against an imaginary monster (the ‘babadook’). He’s the type of kid who aims to please but ends up just leaving his boogers absolutely everywhere. To make matters worse, Sam was born while his father, Amelia’s husband, died on his way to the hospital. Amelia and Sam are enmeshed. And because of Sam’s behavior, Amelia – who appears to use SPF 12,000 – is rejected by other parents at the school, leaving them both ashamed, and isolated.
As the story progresses, this isolation, and our sense of horror, deepens. One night, Sam asks Amelia to read a story about a Babadook, a large, hairy behemoth with claws. Strange, violent things begin to happen, and Sam blames them on the Babadook. Soon enough, the monster appears in the flesh. While Babadook isn’t physically that scary (sort of like a butch Cousin It), the violence he enacts is. Cars swerve, children fall, and a very sweet, fluffy dog . . . is hurt! Amelia begins to lose her mind. All control is lost. But we can’t quite tell whether the Babadook is the cause, or even a physical entity to begin with. ‘The dook,’ we wonder, could very well be a projection of Amelia’s rage or Sam’s aggression: a dark, ugly wish, come to life.
What makes the Babadook so good aren’t the standard-issue thrills (crappy staircases! Old TVs! Pale moms!). For a movie that calls itself horror, I actually wasn’t that scared (and I’m scared of everything. Busy streets. Playful cats. Chapstick). It’s the emotional subtext that drives the story forward, pushing Babadook past its genre into higher level tragedy. Amelia resents her son, both because of the loss he represents (the death of her husband) and the loss he generates (social isolation). There is no worse feeling in this world than the feeling of abandonment. So when the world rejects Amelia, and Amelia rejects her son, you feel tremendous despair. ‘The Babadook’ pushes Amelia to hurt her son, but the anger, we suspect, was there to begin with. When Amelia attacks Sam, we aren’t offered the same adrenaline rush we’re given when we watch Jack go after Danny in The Shining. Jack’s rage is externalized. Amelia’s is present. In The Babadook, horror is misery come closer and closer and closer – home.
There were moments so dark in The Babadook that I literally had to get up and turn the TV off, which says a lot, as a couch-identified person (Some of you may know that my remote was recently destroyed in a tragic tea accident. For those of you who have written letters/sent notes, thank you for your concern. I will be going to Walgreen’s tomorrow to purchase a new one). To be fair, the movie does offer us resolution and eventually, catharsis. Safety is restored, with no promise of a sequel. There’s even a plot in Babadook, a beginning, a middle, and end, and hey: a story! In a movie landscape dominated by Ouija and ten thousand pieces of crap too embarrassing to type, it’s nice to see a director have some sort of respect for her audience (of three).
None of this is to say that The Babadook is a perfect movie, or that I will ever, ever, watch it again. Some of the twists here are hackneyed and trite (unhelpful cops! OMG OMG loud . . . noises!). The color palette is dreary to the point of anemia: a haunted house with no hemoglobin. And there’s an over-explicit parallel between the movies Amelia watches on TV and the story we’re watching from our chairs (bwhat?! Symbolism!?! Get outta here!). But not all movies are made to be re-watched. When the pain is that visceral, once is enough. The Babadook is a true horror movie, whatever that word still means. Sam loves his mother, even as he destroys her. Amelia loves her son, even as he resents him. The monster is the rage behind their bond: an ugly secret, best kept locked in a book, or a basement, or a memory.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.