is a brilliant symbolic representation of the female experience of family
I’ll begin by saying that The Babadook is not a horror film. I think it is brilliant that the writer/director got it made and advertised in a way that reached audiences, but it is simply not a horror film. It is probably the best family drama ever made in Australia (and before you say that was Once Were Warriors, remember that I said Australia and then go look at a map of the world). The reason for this is the leeway that the supposed horror format allows for the use of symbolism, a much richer palette than kitchen sink realism will ever provide.
***SPOILER ALERT: I am about to ruin this movie for you if you haven’t seen it yet.***
First, the ingenious construction of this film makes the little boy the monster for pretty much the first half. He is awful. Loud, annoying, intrusive, unresponsive, violent, the list goes on and on. In one scene, where he is in the back seat screaming “Mum” over and over again, I actually wanted him to die right then and there.
As the plot unfolds, we discover that the boy’s father Oskar was killed in a car crash while driving the mother Amelia to hospital to give birth to the boy, whose name is Samuel. The father is killed and replaced by the son. The mother is left with this shrill, dependent, incomprehensible creature in the place of her strong, sensitive, talented man. We join the story in the weeks leading to Samuel’s birthday, which of course falls on the anniversary of his father’s death and therefore is never celebrated at the right time due to Amelia’s ongoing grief.
Samuel exhibits all the positive attributes of childhood — an active imagination, a passion for magic, a certain wistful daydreaming quality, all underpinned by a desire to protect his mother from forces she can’t or won’t acknowledge. These forces, namely her grief for the death of her husband, her resentment of Samuel for being the catalyst for Oskar’s death, her loss as to how to raise this boy who she doesn’t fully understand, her unwillingness to accept that her life contains a man she cannot love in the same way that she loved her husband and, related to this, her obvious and deep-seated sexual frustration. Amelia’s grief makes her distant to her son, her sister and her colleagues. She lives in a nice house but she is poor, as compared to her more well-off sister and bitchy entourage of shallow friends. She is courted hesitantly by a male colleague but she is not receptive to his advances.
Samuel is preoccupied with magic and with constructing weapons a booby-traps for a showdown with a monster he constantly alludes to which his mother cannot see and refuses to accept the existence of.
Meanwhile, the house is separated into three floors, each one containing a specific symbolic connotation. The basement, of course, is where the husband’s effects are stored and Amelia is very keen to keep Samuel out of there. We can see the basement therefore as the seat of her grief, the sanctum in which she wallows and does not want her son to bear witness. The basement can be seen as the ‘emotions’, specifically Amelia’s emotions. The ground floor, with the front door, living room and kitchen, is the ‘body’. This is where they spend most of their time, where Samuel watches TV and where Amelia discovers something behind the fridge that we will discuss in a moment. Upstairs is the ‘intellect’, the bedrooms where they sleep and dream. But Samuel insists on sleeping with Amelia; his clinging and neediness are a tremendous source of her sexual frustration and resentment of him as an unwelcome intrusion into her life. In one early scene, Amelia finds some quiet time for much needed masturbation only to be interrupted by her yelling son jumping into bed with her. This confusing and off-putting sexual climate infuses the film and, I believe, forms a large part of its true meaning.
If we can extrapolate at this point, we could say that Amelia is, as most people deep in grief are, preoccupied with her emotions, and the further from the basement she is the more agitated she becomes. Anything that pulls her into the moment and therefore out of her stupor is a cause for annoyance. It is therefore no surprise that the first time we meet the Babadook, as a character in a book, is upstairs in one of the bedrooms. This signals that these seething forces at work have taken intellectual form and can now begin to be articulated. It’s also worth noting that ‘Baba’ is an extremely common word for ‘father’ in a tremendously diverse range of languages. Although a great deal of the film deals with the arising of the Babadook from within Amelia, it also has the resonance of being related to the absent, dead father attempting to impose his presence on the family from beyond the grave. The repetition of “bring me the boy” reinforces this idea, which jibes with numerous traditions that state that boys must be initiated by men and cannot fully become men under the sole tutelage of women, but more on that later.
So the Babadook is established. Samuel’s experiences of seeing or interacting with the monster become more frequent, even to the point of him having a seizure after one such encounter. Viewed from Amelia’s perspective, these can be seen as indications that the boy will become a man, like his father, and therefore one day leave her, just as his father did. In fact, with the exception of a vista from Social Services and a single amorous colleague, the film is notable for the absence of men almost entirely. Amelia lives in a very female world with her son but no mature sexual male as her counterpart. This issue is best symbolised when she discovers an infestation of bugs in the kitchen and, upon tracing it to its source, discovers a vagina-shaped hole in the wall behind the fridge from which the bugs are streaming. Bugs are a symbol of decay or stagnation. They pour out of a dark, violently formed and neglected vaginal opening in that most female part of the house, the kitchen. I am speaking traditionally of course — I’m not suggesting that women belong in the kitchen or that there is anything other than a cultural propensity to view the kitchen as feminine. It is very clear, however, from the anatomy of the scene (forgive the pun) that this is what we are actually seeing: Amelia’s neglected, stagnating sexuality becoming externally perceivable to her in the most disgusting way possible. This read is reinforced by the fact that the hole in the wall behind the refrigerator is one when she goes back to show it to somebody else. The intellectual incarnation of the monster has moved down into the body, and in fact, from that point in the film, begins to take hold of Amelia in a terrifying manner.
The refrain of the Babadook (“the more you ignore me, the stronger I get”) is especially powerful as it clearly shows the internal nature of the monster. The more that Amelia declares to Samuel that there is no such thing as a monster, the more that she tries to ignore her own sorry state, the stronger the Babadook gets.
Now let’s get to the really interesting stuff.
When Amelia begins to manifest as the monster herself, being violent or aggressive towards her son, Samuel defends himself. What is key here is that Samuel knows that it is not his mother. In fact, throughout the whole film, he is the only person who actually knows what is going on. He sees what is haunting his mother. He knows that he cannot help the many ways in which he is making it worse and he tries to arm himself against the inevitable conflict that he can see coming. To that end, he builds a few charming weapons, all of which are really a single weapon: male sexuality. You see, whether he is loading a cricket ball into a homemade catapult or using a dart in a crossbow, all of the weapons used by him against the demon possessing his mother are phallic, either cocks or balls, to be blunt. What his mother thinks is him being violent is him simply developing male sexuality, as all little boys do, and when she attacks him, his masculinity is his only defence. Amelia’s response to being thwarted by him in this way is of course rage, just as any attempt he makes to reconcile himself with the loss of his father is a trigger for her as well.
First Amelia kills the family dog (man’s best friend) and then tries to kill her son, only to be thwarted by a series of phallic objects. Finally, after being tied down and forced to acknowledge what is happening, that she has been entirely taken over by the Babadook, she vomits out the filth that is inside her and returns to normal. The Babadook, meanwhile, does not go away. The spectre of grief, the conflict of male vs. female, never does after all. Instead, it returns to its proper place, the basement, where she learns to feed it regularly and acknowledge it rather than ignoring it to the point that it overwhelms her again.
The final moments of the film are incredibly powerful: Samuel performs a magic trick for his mother. He produces a coin, out of thin air, and then turns it into a dove on a silver platter. This shows that he is reassuring his mother that he will provide for her, that he will be the man in her life, and that by producing money (the coin) by using the skills that she previously thought were troublesome (the magic, all part of his burgeoning masculinity) he will bring her peace (the dove) and stability (the silver platter).
So The Babadook really isn’t a horror film. It is a powerful investigation of what happens to a woman when she is confronted with loss but also with the negation of her own female energy at the same time that she is forced to nurture the masculine energy of her son, an energy that she resents because it destroyed his father, her true counterpart.
And that’s the movie you didn’t see.