Ba-ba-ba dook DOOK DOOK!
Y’all, I could not be more excited because today we’re breaking down The Babadook !
I stalked this movie for a full year before it came out. This Aussie psycho-terror is one of the most effective recent horror movies. This one stays with you, and has ruined coat racks for me forever. There is a lot to unpack here – I hope you’re pumped.
First, a brief history
It needs to be said – the best horror is crafted by women. Director Jennifer Kent came up with the idea after learning that her friend was talking to her child’s monster to pacify it. Like seriously?? How creepy and wonderful is that! Her friend is a horror genius and a hero. If you really want to geek out, check out the short film that Babadook came from, Monster. Monster features many familiar things to the viewer: roaches, pop-up books, and a pain in the rump monster-child named Samuel. Babadook is a more complete vision, but Monster is still an impressive artsy short film. I love this movie so much because it epitomizes what horror is to me: a boiling-over of dread, terror, fear, and the broken path to overcoming (or not overcoming) what bothers us the most. People are at their worst and their best in horror, as they are in The Babadook.
The Babadook feels handmade. The set, the wardrobe, so many details in this piece feel like this was made for the stage instead of the screen. Kent pays attention to texture and color in every shot. Amelia’s house is swathed in blues and grays. The textures and fabrics all feel rough, like wool, burlap, linen, and you get the sense that Amelia is always screaming out for comfort, but never finding it.
Kent finds ways to spill Amelia’s unconscious all over the viewer without us knowing it. The television, for example, reveals her worst and most immediate thoughts. One night, when Amelia craves physical comfort, all of the commercials are of the 1990’s late-night variety. If this is based in modern day, I’m guessing this brings her back to when she felt she was in her prime. Other tv moments include a news story about a woman killing her son, and old cartoons about the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. When Amelia begins to be infected by the Babadook, the tv plays nightmarish Halloweenish morality shorts from the 1950’s, including a creepy puppet show of the Babadook. During moments of terror, Kent pays attention to old-school horror techniques (very German expressionism, calling to mind The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and lighting. It feels like Kent is having a bloody good time.
Most of this movie is made up of small moments:
- Amelia finds broken glass in the dinner she made for herself and Sam. We later see that she oddly left the bowls on the kitchen table instead of immediately chucking it.
- The posters in Sam’s room seem to be from the 1950’s. One magician’s poster says, “Do the spirits come back?” Sam is a bit of a magician, but we don’t know if he possesses dark or light magic until the end.
- Occasional moments of surrealism exist, like when Samuel walks up to Amelia with his eyes closed and says, “Mummy, wake up.” The movie keeps one foot in each world. We don’t know which world we are in, and we don’t care.
- Samuel hides in the corner of the treehouse at the birthday party, like he’s wishing that his own house was as easy to conquer.
When the Babadook is on screen, Kent is no wuss. The scenes are long and hard to watch. This is not the jump scare of an Americanized Japanese horror flick. On first viewing, I felt overwhelmed by fear for Amelia and equally crushed by the weight of this woman’s grief. I’ve never experienced a horror scare that was so emotionally charged. As a viewer, you experience horror on the physical level. I have a high terror threshold from years of desensitizing myself on movies, so this was a refreshing new sensation.
Kent recognizes the importance of silence in these moments. The most effective scare was the moment of Amelia’s complete Babadook infection. She flees upstairs to her bedroom, backs into the fireplace, and the Babadook’s top hat quietly falls down the chimney to the hearth. We watch his clothes – Oscar’s clothes – land around her while she continues to deny her grief and what’s happening to her.
The big bad book
The first time we see the red book, “Mister Babadook,” it appears on Samuel’s shelf. He picks the book out to read before bed. That’s worth noting for further discussion later – Sam chose this book. The book is mostly a warning, and an invitation to Samuel, then many blank pages as if it’s not complete. After Amelia tears it up, it reappears on her doorstep looking slightly different. The pop-up pieces have moved around, and now the book is a clear threat. It now says “The more you deny / the stronger I get!” The pop-ups in “Mister Babadook” now move in impossible ways, causing us to question Amelia’s sanity.
This book looks handmade. Choosing a pop-up-style book is kind of brilliant because to read the book, you have to interact with it. That means Amelia and Samuel must interact with the Babadook to read the book. I didn’t catch this on the first viewing, but at the birthday party, the other moms ask Amelia about her writing. She says she wrote some essays and “some kids’ stuff.” It’s now obvious to me that Amelia made this. Once she burns the book, her fingers are filthy for the rest of the film, which is a sign of her guilt.
Everything in this world is slightly off. It’s just a little bit weird, like from a dream. Amelia and Samuel experience the Babadook / their grief in sight of the rest of the world, but no one cares. The world looks sleepy and disinterested. This family is alone and surrounded by people who will not save them.
Every part of the environment is a threat. Seemingly innocuous props of our world like coat racks and wall hooks remind Amelia of Oscar’s shape – or the Babadook’s sharp fingers. We feel the weight of something that is in every frame of a life, the way that Amelia carries her grief.
Amelia is internally screaming. Essie Davis twitches and shakes, then speaks in a compressed angelic timbre. We want her to scream so badly that when she finally does in the finale, I felt a shock of joy. I found it fascinating that though she is incapable of love and affection, she works in a nursing home, and seems to always be wearing her uniform, even when she’s not at work. It’s like her subconscious is telling her to care for her son, herself, or anyone really. I’m not sure that she’s a bad mother; she’s just not capable of showing physical affection. But she does care for Samuel in other ways. Amelia’s biggest problem is her denial. She says she has dealt with Oscar’s death, but a single glimpse of a dark outline brings her to her knees. When her boogeyman finally presents himself in the form of her lost husband, she is lost to her madness.
Oh my God, this kid. This kid is the worst. He never speaks, he only screams. When he isn’t yelling he’s breaking something or attacking something. He is like every evil seed I’ve ever had to babysit. On second viewing, I would diagnose Samuel with hyperactive ADHD. Where Amelia has too little energy and lifeforce, Samuel is bursting with it, and with no outlet except this threat to himself and his mother, he turns to violence. Because the Babadook attacks Samuel first, it leads me to think that the monster was slowly building for years through Amelia’s emotional neglect. As horrible as this kid is, he’s the hero of the story. I read Samuel as Max from Where the Wild Things Are. He is monstrous, but weaponized against the evil forces. Samuel is a child-sized tornado wailing against the Babadook. He even at one point says of his behavior, “I’m not hurting anybody.” When Babadook-infected, he is more monstrous, unhinging his jaw to scream and roar. Once the infection moves to his mother, he is so small and childlike I wondered why I hated him so much.
I have one more note about Samuel: all of the characters who wish him harm – who, in this movie, means anybody that doesn’t actively wish him well – calls him The Boy, instead of Samuel. This mythologizes him as our child-hero. Or anti-hero?
Robbie is really a moment in this movie, but I wanted to point out that he represents a conventional dream of marriage and stability. Amelia isn’t sure what she wants for her future, but Robbie keeps popping up and “jokingly” saying things like “A lady’s place is in the kitchen.” Tool bag.
Mrs. Roach is more of a symbol than a character. We see roaches around the house, and we know Mrs. Roach is the closest thing to outside safety as the family can have. We see the Babadook behind her in one scene. Is the Babadook something we all carry, if we have ever carried grief?
Babadook / Oscar
Yes, Oscar is the Babadook / Amelia’s grief / Amelia’s threat. The Babadook behaves exactly as he said he would – he enters the world with a knock at the door, and someone to answer it. We don’t actually see the Babadook until about the halfway mark, which really speaks to draping of this monster throughout the film. He is everywhere when not on screen, and when he is in the frame, it’s really difficult to look directly at him. Not just because of the way he moves, but so much of him is obscured by shadow that he’s hard to see. We see bursts of ghoulishness for only a second, despite of how long he is on screen. Breaking it down, the Babadook kind of looks like a dirty weird man. But there’s something about his movements, his roach-like unfurling, the way he clicks, and his teeth. We react to him the way we react to seeing a roach: surprise, repulsion, panic to be rid of it.
When either Samuel or Amelia is infected by him, they wear black overcoats. There’s a slight hint that Oscar had a dark side from the nature of his appearance as this boogeyman, and the split reaction of love, longing, and repulsion we see in Amelia. The way he attacks Amelia is proof that he is her grief incarnate. He smothers her, he infects her and changes her.
We have to talk about this ending. Just, whaaaattttt??
The basement scene crushed me. Samuel uses all of his weapons against his mother, then ties her up in the center of the floor. Amelia roars and spits and thrashes. Minutes before we saw that she can’t handle being down there; Oscar is everywhere and she can’t escape him. This basement is the foundation of the home and it’s been corrupted by her fear and neglect of what’s been festering. I have to hand it to this film for really going there – this business is dark. Child-strangulation dark. On first viewing, I was sitting there saying, “they can’t show this, right? There’s no way this can happen, right??” And Samuel’s tiny hands stroking his mother’s face. All of the feels! That tiny gesture of affection expels the darkness from Amelia. In silky, endless, projectile black bile.
But Amelia confronts the monster in her bedroom, not the basement. Amelia establishes her dominance in the home by becoming more monstrous than the Babadook. She faces her dead husband and relives the accident. The gash in her leg stains her nightgown like she’s given birth.
Cucumber sammies, anyone?
The garden party for Samuel’s birthday was an oddity. It’s so obscenely contrasted with the previous lunacy that it has to be intentionally bizarre. Samuel does a magic trick with coin, then places the coin on a silver plate with a lid, then lifts the lid and there’s a white dove there. Why does Samuel have a white dove?! Where did he get it? Did he go into a pet shop and say, “Hiya sir or madam, I’m an eight-year boy and would like to buy a white dove, please, for no suspicious reason.”? He tells Amelia earlier that he’s used her credit card to buy things online, so does that mean he bought this poor bird online? Did it show up on their doorstep cooing and Samuel was like, “Oh, mum, that’s nothing to worry about, I’ll just head up to my room with this cooing crate.”
Ok, no more fixating on the bird. Let’s talk worms. Amelia and Samuel have kept the Babadook in their basement and are feeding it worms. NBD. She tells Samuel he can see it and feed it someday, when he’s older. What does that mean? If the Babadook is grief, does that mean that grief never goes away, that we carry it with us? But we have to be in control of it? I think we learn that the Babadook, that grief, is a choice these characters make or don’t make every single day. When they choose it, they are crippled. When they deny it, it’s just as bad. Or if Amelia is the creator of the darkness, does it just mean that she’s now responsible for her own darkness, and will keep it where she can control it? I don’t know. The only thing we are given in the final moments of the film is that these two are finally able to love each other without hurting each other.
Whoosh. Thanks for sticking it out to the end with me, kiddos. Please feel free to comment below – I love horror chatting and geeking out about this stuff. This is still a baby blog, but I intend to keep on posting regularly, and I hope y’all will keep reading. Until next time!