It’s not unusual for us to talk about difficult emotional states and life circumstances as separate, external creatures. Jealousy is a green-eyed monster. Addiction is a monkey on our back. Our secrets are skeletons in our closet. Difficult memories and experiences of regret leave ghosts. Sometimes the only way we can communicate how much something is hurting us is to describe it in the language of horror. Which I think is interesting because most of the time we talk about horror as a way to safely distance ourselves from our real problems, to take our sources of anxiety and externalize them as part of a work of fiction. But it’s not a one-way street. Insofar as horror (film) has created a shared language, we can use that language to articulate to others the dimensions of our own personal horror (experience). Sometimes the only way to understand our experience is in the language of monsters.
So that’s a lot of hot air to basically say that The Babadook is ostensibly about a monster, but it’s really a taut, masterful examination of one woman’s psychological disintegration in the face of unresolved grief.
We meet Amelia in the middle of what seems to be a reverie. She appears to be floating in space, bathed in light. The light whirls around her, and then glass shatters, and then the world shatters around her as she bolts upright in bed. Amelia has, yet again, had a nightmare about the night her husband Oskar drove her to the hospital. The night that they got in a wreck that killed Oskar but spared her and their as-yet unborn son Samuel.
And so now it is six or seven years later, and it’s just Amelia and Samuel alone in this big old house, a house and a life with a huge Oskar-shaped absence. The circumstances of his birth (they were driving to the hospital to deliver Samuel when it happened) and his mother’s persistent grief have made Samuel a troubled little boy. He’s sensitive, and very anxious. He’s got an active imagination and is obsessed both with the idea of monsters and the need to protect Amelia from them. He’s also like any lonely, awkward little boy, desperate for his mother’s love and attention, which can be hard for her given that he’s essentially a reminder of the husband she lost. But she and Samuel manage, hard though it sometimes is, and then one night, Samuel asks his mother to read him a bedtime story he found - a story about the mythical Mr. Babadook. It’s a pop-up book, filed with black and gray figures apparently made of living shadow, that pop up to gulp down the unwary. When you hear the Babadook knocking, you can’t let it in, or it will eat you all up.
Needless to say, this sends Samuel into a panic spiral, his behavior at school getting worse and worse. He’s terrified of the idea that the Babadook is going to get him and his mother, and an already-tenuous situation turns into a full-time struggle to keep Samuel from hurting himself or other people. Amelia has no help in this, she’s managing it all on her own.
And then come the three knocks on the door. The three knocks that herald the arrival of Mr. Babadook.
What occupies most of the movie and really forms its emotional core is the story of Amelia as a woman under tremendous strain. The circumstances under which she lost her husband are fraught and make her relationship with her son complicated. Her son’s anxiety and active imagination and obsession with monsters and protecting his mother means he keeps playing with dangerous homemade weapons in an effort to defend her. He gets in trouble when he brings them to school, and the stories he tells about monsters alienate him from other adults and from his peers. His demands on Amelia’s attention, his constant neediness combined with his tendency to get himself into one form of trouble or another, means she never has time to herself, or really the opportunity to engage in any form of self-care at all. One scene, where Samuel falls asleep next to her in bed, his arm draped carelessly around her throat, says a lot about Amelia’s life. This is all magnified by her job as a nurse at a retirement home. It’s a dispiriting job under the best of circumstances, and again she’s taking care of people who, like her son, cannot really be expected to take care of themselves. Caretaking then is her entire life, and there’s nothing left over for romance, hobbies, or even a good night’s sleep. She is literally taking care of everyone except herself. It’s like the worst expression of the old maxim “the shoemaker’s children go barefoot” ever.
And, as is so often the case with grief, she isn’t really surrounded by sympathy or understanding. Her son’s school just sees a boy making life difficult for the other kids (though their observation that he appears to need specialized professional help is pretty much on point), her sister finds being around her depressing and doesn’t understand why she can’t just, like get over it already. Her boss at work is sort of a pinched, bitter, unsympathetic figure all-around, and the messiness of her life drives away people with any sort of friendly or romantic interest on top of everything else. Just when she needs support and companionship the most, it is the furthest away.
So the first half of the film is really just Amelia being stretched tighter and tighter and tighter, and it’s when Samuel finds out about Mr. Babadook that she snaps. So even though this is putatively a ghost story, the real horror here is more in Amelia’s steady, gradual decompensation. Time-lapse footage and jarring transitions make the days bleed into each other, time doesn’t really seem to pass the same way inside her house, a house whose disarray - along with Amelia’s - only becomes readily apparent from people from the Australian equivalent of Social Services come to check on Samuel. Everything is falling apart, and Samuel can’t be expected to understand that or the role he’s playing. He’s just a kid, he can’t know how upsetting and disruptive his behavior really is, he’s just trying to work out some really complicated shit about not having a dad. The editing and direction is sharp and impressionistic, and repeated motifs (Amelia trying to sleep, Amelia watching TV) convey both the monotony of her existence and, in the ways they change over the movie, her slide downward. When things start getting overtly creepy, it is wisely done through little things - the half-glimpsed figure, the innocuous sounds with sinister alternate meanings, the mysterious reappearance of the book, shadowy forms in the corner of rooms. As the film moves on, everything becomes progressively more and more drained of color, and the light, when it comes in, is increasingly harsh. This movie does a really nice job of sort of telling two stories - the monster/ghost story happens around the edges, in the little details, in suggestion. And then right in front of us, a woman rapidly losing her grip on reality.
The degree to which the Babadook is literal or figurative probably doesn’t matter - it is certainly possible to read it as an externalization of Amelia’s grief and rage and sadness, and the film’s conclusion would support that. In that sense, this film reminds me of Repulsion, another story of a woman essentially trapped and consumed by unresolved trauma. But knowing the “right” interpretation, knowing whether the monster was “real” or not, isn’t the point. It’s the way the natural is often just as horrifying as the supernatural and how the best horror isn’t afraid to put them in parallel. Sometimes the only thing that can articulate our real struggles - our pain, our grief, our sadness, our exhaustion - are monsters, that only things too horrifying to be real can give shape and volume to the horrifying real things we deal with.