Once You See What’s Underneath
I remember when “The Babadook” was first released in multiple editions. Not knowing much about it other than from various articles, hype, and a positive review from Stephen King, I took a chance on it and snagged a copy of the pop-up book blu-ray edition from Scream Factory. Later that night, I devoured the movie and all its Special Features.
To this day, horror fans seem pretty divided on the film. Navigate through various social media horror groups, and there are plenty of people who hate “The Babadook.” To each their own, but I’m here to defend what I consider to be a beautiful work of art and a thorough exploration of grief. Well done, dir. Jennifer Kent.
“The Babadook” was possibly my first “wait, the monster is a metaphor” movie. Before “Hereditary,” “Midsommar,” and other contemporary psychological horror flicks, there was this. I’m not saying “The Babadook” was the first movie of its kind, but it felt refreshing to me and unlike anything I’d ever seen. It chillingly depicts denial and repressed grief as a dark, parasitic thing inside of you and all around you. You can’t get rid of it and you have to face it. More than a horror movie, “The Babadook” is a story of one woman’s survival as she climbs back up from her lowest point.
“The Babadook” suggests the possibility that we all have a dark or private, hidden part of ourselves – a part of us that needs healing and tending to. There’s a part of us that maybe we feel no one could ever understand, so we suffer in silence. As a gay man, I think that’s why The Babadook works as a queer icon. I think a part of me that always knew I was “different,” but I tried as best as I could to keep it locked away. I just wanted to be “like everyone else,” and to be accepted. But, like The Babadook, it manifested and entered my world. To be my authentic self, I had to face my Babadook, and I realized it wasn’t so scary. That aside, let’s take a look at why “The Babadook” deserves a rewatch, even if you hated it.
I’ll admit that I had never heard of Essie Davis before this movie, but she has an impressive filmography, including a recurring role on “Game of Thrones.” Davis’s performance as Amelia makes me question how anyone could 100% hate “The Babadook.” She deserves props for her multifaceted depiction of an exhausted and grieving widow just going through the motions, with a son, Samuel, who is way too much to handle.
Offscreen, what we don’t see is the storybook being created. I’m pretty sure this is an accurate interpretation – that Amelia created the book. Plagued by grief over her husband Oskar’s violent death on the drive to the hospital to deliver their son, Amelia pours her anger and regret into creating Mister Babadook, the book that haunts her and later shows up reassembled, even after she destroys it. But what’s more horrifying than the book is Amelia’s grief manifested as the creature from the book. It wears her husband’s top hat and trench coat. It taunts her in different ways. We get some classic horror fan service here – doors open and close by themselves. Lights dim. Cockroaches emerge from the wallpaper behind the fridge (I like the use of roaches here, since they’re hard to get rid of, like her demon). In another scene, she spots The Babadook at the police station, but at second glance, it’s just a hat and coat on a rack. If the viewer interprets the creature as a manifestation of Amelia’s grief, then they can gather that Amelia’s house obviously isn’t haunted – she is. Her unhealed trauma is appearing in a way that she can no longer avoid.
Amelia is the heart and soul of this movie, and I can’t see anyone else in this role but Essie Davis. She brings so much depth to Amelia. Aside from being a mom and a nurse, she’s a human being who craves and misses the intimacy she once shared with her partner. There’s a scene where she finally has a moment to herself, and she’s treating herself to chocolate and watching TV. She observes two people onscreen passionately embracing. She goes upstairs and tries to pleasure herself, but she’s interrupted, and you can’t help but feel bad for her – she can’t get a single moment of peace. She has a potential love interest who she works with, but it goes nowhere fast. I couldn’t interpret whether Amelia was even interested in her coworker, but that’s not the point. I think the point was to show that she isn’t in a place where she can open her heart to love again, or even casually date. She needs to face the darkest part of herself first – which brings us to the second reason why you should rewatch “The Babadook.”
Eventually, we see Amelia possessed by The Babadook, and it’s terrifying. Her entire demeanor changes. Her movements are insect-like (I think the frame rate was sped up for some of these scenes). Her pupils, expanded to almost completely black, dart back and forth. She uses obscene language (insert comparisons to “The Exorcist”). She intends for the entire family to be reunited in the darkest way. But her transformation into Possessed Amelia is gradual. Early in the film, she suffers from a toothache. Then, like Samuel, she starts to hear the noises. Soon, she finds a piece of glass in her bowl of soup. The Babadook increasingly makes its presence known, even over the phone as Amelia tries to call for help. It shows itself in full to Amelia while she’s washing dishes – she spots it in the next house over, behind her neighbor watching TV. Then, in the middle of the night, in a very “The Conjuring”/”Night of the Demons” moment, the creature enters Amelia’s room and flies into her mouth. Amelia becomes increasingly irritable. Soon, the creature manifests itself as Oskar and asks Amelia to bring him, Samuel. With her last bit of strength, Amelia runs from the creature, but The Babadook wins and possesses her through her back. From this point on, Davis delivers a completely wicked performance, killing the family pet, pulling out her tooth, and chasing after Samuel. Davis’s transition from exhausted Amelia to all-out monster is something to see.
Davis’s performance aside, the design of the creature itself is simple, memorable, and iconic (I’m honestly surprised we don’t have a Funko Pop). Mentioned earlier, Amelia’s grief personified is a monstrous reminder of her husband, sporting a top hat and black trench coat. I like that the director used multiple ways to show the creature – in its true form through various methods (over the phone, on the TV), through Oskar’s likeness, and through Amelia directly possessed.
Okay, this reason to rewatch might surprise you, but without Samuel, the movie wouldn’t work. On the way to the hospital to deliver Samuel, his father is killed in a collision. Amelia obviously survives and delivers Samuel. But it’s clear from the very first scene that Amelia resents him. That dark part of her blames Samuel for Oskar’s death. If she hadn’t been pregnant, if they hadn’t been driving to the hospital to deliver him, Oskar would still be alive. It is heartbreaking to see how she recoils at Samuel’s hug, or, when he’s fully asleep, how she pulls as far away as possible from him until she’s almost falling off the bed. So, how can we the viewer really hate Samuel under these conditions? Let’s start with the negative stuff.
In the first ten minutes of the film, Samuel breaks a window using a device to combat the monster when it arrives. Then he’s pulled out of school for using another weapon he created. Then at the grocery store, he overshares with a woman that his father was killed. The list goes on. Perhaps the most extreme thing Samuel does is push his cousin out of a treehouse after she tells him no one wants him. His actions weren’t right, but like his mother, he’s experiencing extreme heightened emotions. To be honest, I almost wonder if Samuel had his own Babadook that we never saw (or it’s likely to be the same one his mother manifested, since they’re bound by the same tragedy). In any case, on the drive back from his cousin’s party, Samuel clearly sees something out the window that his mother can’t, and it shocks him enough that he experiences a convulsion. This is a turning point in the film, and from here on out, Samuel doesn’t behave as badly.
Now for Samuel’s redeeming qualities, and why we should give him a second chance. As I mentioned earlier, four minutes into the film, Samuel breaks a window using a device to combat the monster. Samuel knows all along that something’s coming, and he’s been preparing. He doesn’t get enough credit for that. He’s also the first to hear the noises and he warns his mother that something was in his room. He has a protective streak and from the get-go he is concerned with her safety. After his mother is possessed by The Babadook, Samuel takes full charge and becomes the protagonist of the story. In “Home Alone” fashion, he uses a variety of traps to capture his mother, and we basically get an exorcism – but Amelia is ultimately the one who tames the creature, as we see by the movie’s end.
Many viewers can’t get past that Samuel is super annoying and does little to make life easier for Amelia. But Amelia isn’t the only one with grief – Samuel clearly acted out at school and elsewhere because his life is out of balance too. He has to sneak downstairs to look at his father’s belongings because they’re all he has of his father. They’re relics of someone he never got to meet. When Amelia confronts him about going downstairs, he rightfully declares, “He’s my father. You don’t own him!” Samuel, though annoying, asserts himself at the right time and he’s there for his mother when it counts. He saw the darkest, ugliest, evilest parts of her and he stood by her while she faced her demon.
“The Babadook” has a lot going for it, but don’t take my word for it. If you’ve already seen it and didn’t like it, I recommend a rewatch. There’s a lot there, and it isn’t just a monster movie. Maybe that’s why some horror fans didn’t like it. It wasn’t straight-up horror, but something else entirely. You can definitely appreciate the elements of horror that are there. But you can also appreciate the incredible performance from Essie Davis, cut the annoying son a little bit of slack, and go into “The Babadook” with fresh eyes. Maybe you’ll like it once you see what’s underneath…
Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan living in Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in English at Worcester State University and currently has six years of editing and social media marketing experience.
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