Facing the shadow: The Babadook

⌈WARNING: SPOILERS ALERT!!! If you haven’t seen “The Babadook,” think twice before reading this.⌋

I’m a huge fan of horror movies, but truly good ones are increasingly hard to come by. Hollywood mostly churns out paltry remakes and franchises long devoid of any scary titillation or meaning, with decent but not entirely convincing attempts coming out every once in a while (think Insidious, Sinister, Oculus, The Conjuring). The heyday of Japanese and South Korean horrors, many of them genuinely frightening game-changers, is also long gone. (Think The Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge, Dark Water, A Tale Of Two Sisters.) In the past five years or so, you had to turn to smaller national cinematographies – Spanish, Swedish, Mexican, British, Australian – to find excellent horror movies.

I realize it’s unrealistic and pretty spoilt of me to expect to see more than one good horror flick per year, because let’s face it, horror as a genre is as tough as comedy: on opposite sides of the spectrum of emotion, genuine fear and genuine laughter are notoriously difficult to elicit, especially with today’s jaded and desensitized audiences, as well as being bound by genre conventions. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a good proper comedy, whereas every year I’m likely to average at least five good dramas, and even more good drama/thriller hybrids. So good horrors are increasingly becoming rare gems, and the thrill and delight of finding them should be half the reward, methinks.

Enter this year’s Australian horror par excellence, The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. With its simple, straightforward premise, it could’ve easily been a trite, mediocre affair with cheap scares and much insulting of the audience’s intelligence.  Its genius, however, lies in taking a few well-known, much-(ab)used horror tropes – single mother and child, haunted house, children’s storybook, invocation by reading out loud, curse that cannot be lifted – and adding two twists to the mix which elevate the story to a higher psychological level. And if that wasn’t enough, the ending is completely unforeseeable and just plain brilliant.

The twists, or turns of the screw as Henry James would call them, are in themselves nothing new, but working them into the story took some careful thought, and possibly a background in feminist psychology, if you ask me. (The writer and director being female, it wouldn’t suprise me.) One is making the child an everyday reminder for the mother of the father’s death: he died in a car accident en route to the hospital on the day the boy was delivered into the world. So the mother never celebrates the son’s birthday on the day itself, which the son resents. Also, it’s been seven years since her husband’s death, but her grief is still very much fresh and active, and she behaves as a wounded, dazed animal. The son’s response is to try and claim her attention and focus her on himself with some disturbing, hypersensitive behavioral patterns which indicate a highly strung, highly anxious child. So much is clear from very early on into the film that, at least subconsciously, the mother blames the son for the father’s death, and for claiming so much of her focus and energy.

The second twist is related to sleep. Right from the start of the film, the son is exhibiting disrupted sleep patterns, in that he wakes up every night in the middle of the night from a nightmare, moves into his mother’s bed, and demands to be read to until he falls asleep again. This naturally disrupts the mother’s sleep pattern as well, as she can’t seem to get back to sleep once he’s woken her up. So we have an increasingly sleep-deprived, deeply grieving mother conflicted about how she feels towards her son, and an anxious, hypersensitive son claiming his mother’s attention and love. Another curious and important detail here is the nature of his nightmare: it’s the same one every night, where he claims that somebody is coming for him and his mother, and vows to protect her. Naturally, she doesn’t believe him, but is also visibly and increasingly irritated/unnerved by his earnest manner and persistence.

Cue “Mister Babadook,” a children’s pop-up storybook which somehow mysteriously appears on the boy’s shelf one day. After the mother reads it to him, he becomes convinced the Babadook is stalking them, and tries to convince his mother of it, but she refuses to acknowledge strange occurrences around the house (attributing them to her son acting out), and even gets rid of the book. When the book equally mysteriously reappears on their doorstep, she finds new pop-up pictures in it depicting her killing their dog and strangling her son, which is when she finally starts believing in the Babadook’s intention to possess her, and starts seeing him around the house.

Both Freud and Jung would have a field day with this movie and its psychological symbolism. The child interferes with the mother’s budding romance with a co-worker; he interrupts her attempt to masturbate just before she hits the climax, waking up from one of his regular nightmares. The mother’s sexual frustration adds insult to injury in combination with her sleep deprivation. As Freud would read it, the boy is fighting his dead father over the mother’s affection, his Oedipal claim sabotaging her both physically (sexual/sleep deprivation) and mentally (looming nervous breakdown).

As Jung would have it, the boy is forcing his mother to confront her shadow: when she finally breaks down, succumbs to the Babadook, and tries to attack her son, he tricks her into coming down to the basement (a space she normally avoids because it’s cluttered with her late husband’s belongings) where he manages to arrest her onslaught via a series of booby traps. I see this as a clever nod both to Jung’s house dream and to Freud’s superego/ego/id triad, where the house represents an image of the psyche, with the upper floor referencing the superego, the ground floor the ego, and the basement the id.

Once the mother, possessed by the Babadook, is trapped in the basement (seat of the unconscious), she coughs up the Babadook in the form of black goo from her system, in effect exorcising herself. Finding herself surrounded by her late husband’s items, the mother is suddenly confronted by her shadow and realizes its nature: it’s her grief/guilt over his death. It’s been seven years since then, but she still hasn’t moved on, and hasn’t dealt with her emotions, refusing to acknowledge their reality (mirrored in her refusal to acknowledge the son’s insistence that the Babadook is real). The boy, in fact, seems to have a much better grip on reality than his mother throughout most of the movie.

Proof that grief is her shadow is found a minute later into the movie, in the scene where the Babadook assumes the form of her husband inviting her to leave her wretched life and join him. The scene takes place on the upper floor of the house (superego/authority/guilt), where mother and son have retreated after the events in the basement. Having faced her shadow, the mother is now free of its influence, and when she protects the boy from the Babadook and threatens it, it is cowed into submission, and retreats as a spirit to – yes, you know it – the basement.

The ending bears out my Freudian/Jungian reading of the story: mother and son are shown in the garden preparing for his birthday party (symbolic of her acceptance of the circumstances of the husband’s death), with the boy digging out worms from the dirt. The mother then proceeds to carry the worms into the basement, ostensibly to feed the monster lurking there. The spirit of the Babadook makes a show of threatening to overwhelm her, but she calms it down with almost motherly reassurances, and it accepts the food. I read this as a healthy ego’s way of dealing with the id monster in the basement – you have to acknowledge the monster’s existence (embrace your shadow) with your conscious mind so that it doesn’t creep up on you from your unconscious mind, but you also have to firmly let it know who’s in charge.

The great thing about this movie is that it works perfectly as a straight-out horror flick even without taking into account all this high-falutin’ psychological mumbo-jumbo. The fright and mounting sense of dread are achieved through careful scene editing and camera cuts and a proper musical score, rather than relying on gore and similar tools of the trade. The Babadook itself is barely glimpsed for more than a second in any of its scenes, and racks up about 60 seconds of total screen time. As the best horror moviemakers know, what is not seen is much scarier than what you do see. And Kent doesn’t forget to pay careful homage to the movie’s celluloid forefathers, either – The Exorcist and Poltergeist in particular, but also The Shining: Noah Wiseman, who plays the boy, is in many ways an uncanny Danny Torrance 2.0.

Warmly recommended if you like horror movies.

What are some of your favorites from the horror genre?

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5 thoughts on “Facing the shadow: The Babadook”

  1. I really liked Oculus actually. Not from a horror perspective but from a storytelling perspective. That film works brilliantly as a film, the same story couldn’t be told as well in any other medium.

    The trailer for the Babadook looks scary. I skipped the middle of your review so not to spoiler myself, lol.

  2. Watched it. Nice one. I like the ending of Babadook even more. Like you say, these days good horrors are a rare gem. Indeed. I hunt desperately for them, although almost always in vain. Most themes have been overdone (and over-redone!). I mean, they still make Dracula in 2014!!

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