Amelia has cultivated a fearful respect of Mr. Babadook. She is in control of him and feeds him worms from her garden. Instead of trying to exorcise the demon, she lets him live in the basement, where he’s supposed to live. The dark residue of her trauma is in herself, her life, her house, her soil. But, like the COVID-19 pandemic – the end of which hovers on the horizon with vaccines in early distribution – the dark times have passed and roses grow.
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As the nursery rhyme within its iconic pages warns us, You can’t get rid of the Babadook. Since its first release in 2012, The Babadook has proven over and over again that it can’t be gotten rid of. A creation of Australian director Jennifer Kent, Mr. Babadook has become omnipresent in pop culture, mostly as an ironic or satirical joke. He made a parody appearance on an episode of FX’s What We Do in the Shadows. Most famously, thanks to a quippy Tumblr meme, he has been embraced as a queer icon, living an out-of-left-field second life as a festive figurehead. During an interview for Bloody Disgusting, Kent said she “loves” the LGBTQ meme, because “that bastard!” Mr. Babadook “doesn’t want to die, so he’s finding ways to become relevant.”1
Mr. Babadook is more relevant than ever. Upon a revisit to The Babadook, the film’s original themes of depression, trauma, and mental health have taken on new significance. Mental health disorders are on the rise. Since 1999, suicides in the United States have risen every year. The CDC says one in four teenagers now say they’ve considered suicide since the pandemic hit. Yet less than 1 percent of the $175 billion in emergency funding to hospitals during the pandemic went to mental health facilities. COVID-19 has exposed the cracks in the country’s mental health infrastructure.
During the pandemic, horror films have risen in popularity in part because watching horror actually reduces anxiety, according to Psychology Today.2 In this time of crisis, revisiting films like The Babadook has taken on a new significance, and the film deserves a second look. Mr. Babadook is shadow encased in shadow, because he is the shadow that cannot be ignored, hidden, or killed. He is a silhouette born in black, pulled into the light beyond the secret places, forcing us to face him head-on.
The Grotesques of Motherhood
The Babadook follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a grieving widow who struggles to raise her hyperactive six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia suffers from severe PTSD and postpartum depression after she witnessed her husband Oskar horrifically killed in a car crash. Oskar was rushing Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel – which further ambiguates the genuine love she feels for her son.
Samuel discovers the mysterious Mister Babadook pop-up book in the basement – where Amelia has shut away all of her husband’s belongings – and brings it up for a bedtime story. The book is filled with grotesques. Like Alice in Wonderland and Coraline, it blurs the boundaries between childhood innocence and corruption, a funhouse mirror distortion of familiar nursery rhymes and monstrous nightmares.
Illustrator/designer Alex Juhasz’s expressionistic tableaus call to mind the gothic images of Stephen Gammell, who illustrated the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series and traumatized a generation with his single portrait of the Pale Lady from “The Dream.” The Babadook calls to mind Gammell’s work: these still, silent, whimsical nightmares who stare at us from beyond the page or screen.
The Mister Babadook nursery rhyme, written by director-screenwriter Kent, echoes the grotesque’s juxtaposition of something familiar and safe that morphs into something foreign and menacing.
If it’s in a word, or if it’s in a book,
You can’t get rid of the Babadook,
… you’ll see him if you look.
Amelia’s Mister Babadook bedtime reading is the specter of impending doom that announces the Babadook haunting. Mr. Babadook is not here for Samuel; he’s here for Amelia. Every time she denies or ignores his appearance, he responds by growing stronger, larger, and more terrifying. He fills the frame of her life. Amelia begins to lose her grip; Mr. Babadook slowly denigrates her sanity to the point of apocalyptic fury and violence. (This is a movie that fails the “Does the Dog Die?” test.) Ominous foreshadowing warns that Amelia’s story could end like the newscasts of maternal filicide: China Arnold, who stuffed her daughter in a microwave; Brenda Drayton, who strangled her toddler because she believed her to be “the Devil’s baby;” and Debra Jenner-Tyler, who stabbed her daughter 70 times because she was “stressed at work” and the child had been acting “very finicky.”
Amelia begins to unleash everything she’s bottled up since Oskar’s death upon the person she secretly blames. It is a rage she has stuffed deep down inside herself, because to admit it would be to admit that she hates and blames her son for what happened to her husband.
The Jungian Shadow Self
Mr. Babadook is clearly a manifestation of Amelia’s … something. Think pieces and critics can’t quite agree, but seem to have settled on grief – an oversimplification. Samuel R. Murrian argues in Parade Magazine that The Babadook is the best horror movie so far this century, because “Mister Babadook’s meaning can be as malleable as his physical shape. One reason people have connected to this film on such a deep level is that the title character can stand for any kind of haunted past, trauma or loss: something so powerful it can threaten to fundamentally change a person.”3 Mr. Babadook’s appearance is up for interpretation. What does he really look like beneath that hat? We don’t know.
This is because Mr. Babadook is all the things that we stuff inside ourselves because we cannot, will not, admit that they are there. Mr. Babadook is the Shadow Self.
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In his studies of the collective unconscious, psychologist Carl Jung proposed and coined the idea that there is a part of everyone called the Shadow Self.4 It is, to put it colloquially, the shitty side of you. The part that thinks bad thoughts and does selfish or horrible things. It is all the negativity within.
Jung has inspired works across the spectrum of the storytelling canon. German author Hermann Hesse, tormented by a difficult youth, sought therapy from one of Jung’s disciples. Hesse then went on to write his 1919 novel Demian. In Demian, the Shadow Self manifests as a duplicitous bully and criminal named Kromer, who blackmails the protagonist, Emil Sinclair. Kromer only appears after Sinclair tells a lie about a crime he did not commit: the sins and denials that pollute his life. Demian was written in the midst of the German Expressionist creative movement, which explored the nightmarish confines of the mind with surreal imagery and stories that reflected humanity’s darkest aspects. Not by coincidence, Jean Epstein’s 1928 expressionist silent film, The Fall of the House of Usher, greatly inspired The Babadook’s production design.
Jung’s influence is not confined to the turn of the 20th century, but has branched out into many facets of modern culture. Most famously, when writing Star Wars, George Lucas was inspired by Jung and the closely associated monomyth of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In Star Wars, the Shadow Self is represented by Darth Vader – Luke’s father and the murderous black reflection of the heroic Jedi that Luke wishes to become. Like the Shadow, Vader is an inescapable part of the protagonist; he is writ in Luke’s DNA. Vader is the “dark side” of everything Luke hopes to be, so as Jung predicted, upon learning about his link to the Shadow’s true identity, Luke denies it. (Vader: “I am your father.” Luke: “No! That’s not true. That’s impossible!”)
Jung says mental health cannot be attained unless the Shadow Self is confronted and seen for what it is. The Shadow Self must be integrated into your personality in order for you to be a whole person. Fighting the Shadow Self only makes it worse. You can cram your negativities down, tuck them in the recesses of the gut, the locked away caves of the mind. But to do so is dangerous. It’s like the tectonic plates that push and push and push until finally they explode. These plates are far below the surface of the earth, hidden, but the longer and harder the pressure, the greater the violence of the earthquake that follows.
Because, like the Babadook, you can’t get rid of the Shadow Self.
In Rikke Schubart’s book Mastering Fear: Women, Emotions and Contemporary Horror, Jennifer Kent confirmed all of this. “I think we all have to face our own darkness, whatever that entails. Beyond genre and beyond being scary, that’s the most important thing in the film – facing our shadow side.”5
At the Threshold of the Modern Horror Renaissance
Shadow Selves have materialized in every possible way across the horror genre. Werewolves represent our primordial impulses. Vampires our malignant survivalism. Cenobites our sadomasochism, IT is childhood trauma, and Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees and every slasher villain are murderous psychopathy. The list goes on and on and on.
Mr. Babadook’s design and roots in German Expressionism are also not horror anomalies. Ever since F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu crept across our collective unconscious, whimsical, weird figures with knife hands and long black coats and pale white faces have been the stuff of cinematic incubus. The Wraith. The Slender Man. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Gentlemen. These long, thin Jack-the-Rippers and bogeymen in black suits all prey upon their victims, not with weapons and blood, but with silent, ominous stalking and existential dread.
Though Mr. Babadook’s visual design isn’t its own invention, The Babadook stoked the imaginations of a huge swath of filmmakers, old and new. The Exorcist director William Friedkin tweeted, “I’ve never seen a film more terrifying than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” Friedkin compared Kent’s film to the likes of Psycho, Diabolique, and Alien. He said, “It’s in a class with the best horror films I’ve seen.”
Before Hereditary (2018), Get Out (2017), and The Witch (2015), Kent’s film embraced the haunting visuals and existential terrors that hallmark the modern horror renaissance. Its contemporaries include It Follows (2014), The Conjuring (2013), The House of the Devil (2009), and – perhaps the commercially successful root of them all – Let the Right One In (2008). The Babadook originated even sooner with Kent’s black-and-white short film Monster (2005). These movies capitalized on audience fatigue and a desire to return to the nostalgic dread that marked horror films of decades past. Expressionist-inspired horror steered away from bullish bloodbaths. The early-21st-century marketplace was being suffocated by unending thrasher sequels like Scream 4 (2011) and not one but two Halloween reboots (2007 and 2009), as well as torture porn: Hostel (2005), The Human Centipede (2009), and the seven Saw movies produced between 2004 and 2010.
What makes The Babadook and other existential, expressionistic horror withstand the test of the time is their universality. Like Jung’s Shadow Self, they deal in the collective unconscious, a timeless narrative that can be traced all the way back to the mythologies of the Greeks, the Olmecs, the Babylonians. Throughout history, humanity has wrestled with silent nightmare figureheads. We are drawn to them not because they are the killers and monsters that torment us on the outside, but because they are the spectral shadows that haunt us from within.
The Garden, the Basement, and Self-Actualization
Mr. Babadook is not Medusa (beheaded), IT (crushed heart), Dracula (staked), or the Wolf Man (shot with a silver bullet). Mr. Babadook cannot be killed, so how do you defeat him?
The answer is: you don’t. The Babadook unveils this hat trick in its oft-discussed resolution: Amelia kneels amongst the flowers in her garden while Samuel happily plays. She is awash in the light that PTSD had previously leeched. She gathers a tin bucket full of worms from the dirt, then heads to the basement, where the Babadook still lurks. There, he lives amongst her husband’s belongings like an eccentric uncle or couch crasher who has taken up residence.
Amelia has cultivated a fearful respect of Mr. Babadook. She is in control of him and feeds him worms from her garden. Instead of trying to exorcise the demon, she lets him live in the basement, where he’s supposed to live. The dark residue of her trauma is in herself, her life, her house, her soil. But, like the COVID-19 pandemic – the end of which hovers on the horizon with vaccines in early distribution – the dark times have passed and roses grow. In her garden above, the full bloom of Amelia’s flowers promises a more hopeful future for her and her son. And lingering in the last frame, a single black rose grows. It is the spot of darkness that blends with the rest of the garden, the shadow that makes the colors all the more radiant. One hopes that traversing the road of the darkest times, like seeing and acknowledging the country’s mental health crisis, will lead to betterment.
Like the worms she feeds it, the Babadook and the Shadow Self are fertilizer. They are shit, but beauty grows out of shit.
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All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD.
- Fred Topel, “Director Jennifer Kent Comments on Those LGBTQ Babadook Memes.” Bloody Disgusting, January 30, 2019. [↩]
- Scott McGreal, “Why Fans of Horror Movies May Be More Resilient.” Psychology Today, December 24, 2020. [↩]
- Samuel R. Murrian, “The Babadook Is the Greatest Horror Movie So Far This Century – Here’s Why.” Parade Magazine, May 6, 2020. [↩]
- C. G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Routledge, 1951. [↩]
- Rikke Schubart, Mastering Fear: Women, Emotions, and Contemporary Horror. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. [↩]