Bright Lights Film Journal

The Return of Repression: How Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook Undoes Itself

The Babadook presents a normative vision of what it believes is a stable, happy existence, one in which if our emotions are difficult to bear, we simply lock them in the basement and give them some worms to eat, and go about our happy lives. Here we have the film’s deepest betrayal of not only the horror genre but human life itself: to be happy, for The Babadook, is to not feel anything but happiness.

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Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook has been highly praised by critics, and not without reason. It sits, as I’m writing, at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and at 87 on Metacritic. A glance at these pages reveals the ecstasy of the majority of reviewers. Michael O’Sullivan, in The Washington Post, notes that “With its mixture of frights both literal and literary, The Babadook will, I suspect, satisfy horror’s devotees as much as the genre’s doubters.” In Slate, Dana Stevens writes of “a final half-hour of harrowing emotional and physical intensity, an extended climax that made me gasp aloud, hide my eyes, and weep at least twice.” James Verniere, in The Boston Herald, explains that the film is “The Shining in miniature. If Sylvia Plath made a horror film, this would be it.” What the majority of reviewers are rightly quick to praise is Kent’s facility with the constituent elements of the horror genre. The Babadook is remarkable in its use of both visual and narrative approaches to suspense and terror, and Kent is able to elicit strong, eerie, convincing performances from her actors. The plot of the film (it was also written by Kent) is nicely shaped and verges on giving the film a great deal of thematic interest. But it’s in this last, minor detail – the film’s notion of “theme” – that things come undone. And they come so far undone that The Babadook is not, in the end, a horror film, so much as an anti-horror film.

At base, the movie is about, or initially appears to be about, the relationship between a single mother and her son. The mother, Amelia (played with range and depth by Essie Davis), is a widower whose husband was killed in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital to give birth. It’s now six years later, and neither she nor Samuel, who was born on that night (and is portrayed by an exquisite Noah Wiseman) have recovered from the accident. Amelia seems to live in a state of raw fragility; Samuel is precocious but ill adapted to social life, and convinced that he needs to protect his mother from some undefined but approaching malevolence. As the film progresses, their relationship deteriorates. Samuel’s erratic behavior gets him expelled from school, and Amelia begins to feel she cannot cope with the difficulties he presents. At the same time, a children’s book about a fearsome creature named Mr. Babadook is introduced. The book describes the titular monster and explains that once he appears he can never be vanquished. It warns that he will take over your life by getting inside you, and that after this happens you will wish you were dead. We understand, of course, that this monster will soon be making an appearance in Amelia and Samuel’s house. So far so good. In many of these details, The Babadook is simply the newest entry in what might broadly be called the “Domestic Space Invaded by Evil” film that has come to dominate much of the contemporary horror genre. But two things set The Babadook apart from the majority of the films like it (other than the high quality of its crafting): the relationship between the mother and the child, and the ending.

As Amelia falls farther and farther into the rabbit hole of being “possessed” by the Babadook (the details of this possession are left intentionally unclear), we are led to believe that she is going to kill her son Samuel. The specific mechanism of this foreshadowing is the children’s book, which has new pages each time she opens it; one of these additions shows her slitting Samuel’s throat. The more subtle mechanism is the film’s depiction of Amelia’s increasing antagonism towards her son and his erratic behavior: at some point, we realize that the trajectory of their relationship, combined with the tone of the proceedings, is going to lead to a violent confrontation. Samuel has been building weapons with which he says he will defend her against the Babadook; we begin to suspect that these weapons will instead be turned against her.

And indeed they are. Amelia ultimately falls entirely into the grip of the Babadook and tries to kill Samuel. He manages to restrain her by tripping her down the stairs of the basement and tying her up; in the film’s climax their love for one another then prevails and the Babadook is expelled from her body. But if we think back to the children’s book, we remember that the Babadook can never be vanquished. So it is not enough to expel it: there is a final confrontation, in which the Babadook is not quite fully defeated, and then we are given a short postscript, in which everything has returned to normal. In fact, things are even better than they were at the beginning. Both mother and child are happy and well-adjusted in a way they’ve never been. The catch is that they are keeping the Babadook locked in the basement, feeding it with worms they dig up in the garden. In the closing minutes, we see Amelia delivering these worms. The Babadook charges out to threaten her, but she manages to calm it; when she emerges, Samuel asks how it was feeling, and she tells him that it wasn’t as worked up as it sometimes is. We realize that the Babadook is indeed becoming domesticated and end on an upbeat note.

The problem with all this lies not in any technical aspect of the film, but in its basic thematic stance. The Babadook, we come to realize at some point, is grief. In the most bald and banal sense, the film is an allegory. The Babadook is continually linked with the dead husband/father, and in case we miss the point, it literally appears as his apparition in one scene, asking Amelia to kill her son. The message of the children’s book that determines the narrative is thus a coded homily: you can never do away with grief, and once you let it take over your life it will make you wish you were dead. In the end, the lesson is that you must learn to live with it.

An allegorical film of this sort may or may not, according to your taste, automatically be “bad.” In this case, I think it’s not only bad, it’s troubling, and ultimately malignant. It’s bad because it’s so awfully reductive, in the way of much of M. Night Shyamalan’s work: it reduces itself to a puzzle for which there is one direct answer, which has the effect of simplifying rather than complicating the human experience. It’s troubling because of its relationship with, and understanding of, the genre of the horror film, which is one of the most beautiful of our cinematic traditions. It’s malignant because it represents the increasing incursion of a certain vision of human life into a realm which is one of the last areas of resistance to that vision.

Without getting too deeply into theoretical positions, we can say, I think, that a good horror film ought to exacerbate our fears, rather than allaying them. We can also say, although here there might be more disagreement, that one of the beautiful things about horror films is that they offer a way to examine, take apart, and sometimes undercut the values and attitudes of our culture. This latter approach is one of the things that makes films like Whale’s Frankenstein so enduring, and it’s one of the things that makes people revere the horror films of the 1970s. It’s also a tradition that has continued, if fitfully, in contemporary work. Regardless of the judgments we might make about the overall success of films from Hostel to All the Boys Love Mandy Lane to The Cabin in the Woods, from 28 Days Later to Kill List to Let the Right One In, there is something in them that suggests a certain amount of disjunction in our social structures. The Babadook, on the other hand, neither exacerbates our fears about the world nor suggests that there might be problems in our basic operations of our lives. In fact, it does the opposite on both counts. For much of its running time, the film indeed seems to be working on a basic fear: the conflict between parents or children, or more specifically, between mothers and children. In an era of “helicopter parenting” and tremendous financial pressure on single parents, there’s a great horror movie in this idea (which is not to mention the deeper political and feminist possibilities). But this is where the baldness of the allegory undoes things. We cannot simply ignore all the imagery and narrative linking the dead husband to the Babadook, nor can we pretend that the ending of the film doesn’t exist. To put it directly, this is not actually a film about the conflict between parents and children. This is a film about a woman undone because of grief over a dead husband and father figure, who nearly kills her child because of that grief. What has the appearance of being a terrifying subject – the question of whether we all, in some deep, dark way, are in eradicable conflict with our children because of the demands they put on us – is made perfectly anodyne. No, no, the film tells us, while it may appear that there is a real conflict between parents and children, this actually isn’t the case; keep watching and you’ll learn that the real problem is just this pesky grief business. Other than that, everything is okay with the system in which we find ourselves. That is to say, there is nothing fundamentally troubling about the operations of society; it’s only when those normal operations are disturbed – when the husband in the husband/wife team is killed – that problems arise.

Thus, instead of making us uneasy about the world we live in, The Babadook functions essentially as a work of twisted self-help. It serves not to scare us, but to teach us a positive “lesson” about “life.” Grief is difficult, and can threaten to destroy you, but what you really have to do is subdue it – then everything will be even better than it was before. For an adult viewer, this construction of a horror film is not simply un-scary, it’s insulting. The film treats us like children: it uses all its technical wizardry to scare us with images of man in a dark coat with long claws, but at the level of its actual content, the level of what it’s about, it not only wants to be reassuring instead of scary, it preaches at us.

It is in this preaching that we cross over from troubling to malignant. The notion that our deepest drives and emotions can take us over and push us into sociopathy is, again, fertile ground for a horror film. That we might never be able to reconcile ourselves to something like grief is itself a terrifying idea. But The Babadook clearly does not mean us to be disturbed by its ending. It is not about the power of our emotions over us, but about our power over our emotions; it argues that the repression of emotion is an empowering thing. In this, it presents a normative vision of what it believes is a stable, happy existence, one in which if our emotions are difficult to bear, we simply lock them in the basement and give them some worms to eat, and go about our happy lives. Here we have the film’s deepest betrayal of not only the horror genre but life itself: to be happy, for The Babadook, is to not feel anything but happiness. If events give you anything difficult to deal with in your life, don’t worry – it will be a struggle, and it will be scary, but eventually you too can get those difficulties locked away and go back to being happy. One wonders whether the better horror film would have started where The Babadook ends.