Updated: Mar 30
Grief has the power to seed a deep depression that can completely overwhelm and consume a life. It can cling like an entity, constantly lurking in every shadow. It can isolate one from their closest friends and family. The more it is denied, the more it grows. Such is the demon personified in Jennifer Kent’s horror thriller The Babadook. The Babadook, like grief, becomes a part of you. You can face it, and you may even be able to overcome it, but it never goes away.
When we are introduced to the The Babadook’s central character, Amelia, she is already deep in the throes of depression. She is approaching seven years as a widow, as her husband was killed suddenly in a traffic collision while the two were on their way to the delivery room. Amelia now lives alone with her son, Samuel, and presumably has been since the tragic incident. From the very start of the film, Amelia appears at her wit’s end.
Amelia’s depression hangs over her long before the film’s ghastly apparition appears. Amelia’s life is dull, grey and lonely, as expressed by the visual language of the film. When she is at home, the film’s color palette is cast in shadow and washed out, appearing at times almost black and white. The house in which Amelia and Sam reside seems devoid of any sign of warmth and compassion. The sky remains constantly overcast. Accelerated camera shots show Amelia lying awake through sleepless nights. The only glimpses of light and color come from scenes where Amelia is out of the house with her sister Claire, but even then she is cold and withdrawn.
Her son, Sam, is approaching his seventh birthday. Sam proves to be a handful for Amelia, regularly throwing tantrums and misbehaving. While Sam’s unruly behavior is not wholly abnormal for a six year old, the boy clearly seems both troubled and wise beyond his years. He constantly rattles on about defeating a monster and protecting his mother before the two discover the storybook that releases Mr. Babadook. It seems as though Sam is cognizant of his mother’s struggle with depression and wishes only to help her.
Despite Sam’s show of love, Amelia remains distant. The boy’s entire life is stigmatized by his father’s death. Sam’s birthday is also the anniversary of the car crash, and Amelia has refused to celebrate on the day of for the past six years. As a mother, she struggles with an unshakable feeling of contempt for Sam, subconsciously blaming the boy. She wants to return her son’s love, but is troubled by the struggles of raising a child alone and haunted by the loss of her husband. This feeling clearly eats away at her. Pain, regret and guilt drive a wedge between Amelia and her son.
Kent personifies Amelia’s pain with the titular Babadook, a shadowy figure that haunts Amelia and Sam throughout the film. He is unleashed through a mysterious storybook called “Mister Babadook” that appears unexplained on Sam’s bookshelf. What is seemingly at first a normal children’s fairytale quickly reveals itself as a foreboding warning of pain and suffering. In the scene, Amelia reads the storybook to Sam as a bedtime story. What is so often a bonding moment between mother and son becomes corrupted by the twisted tale of Mister Babadook. This moment reflects Sam and Amelia’s entire relationship, as the two are prevented from truly bonding by the grief that overshadows their home. In the story, Mister Babadook warns “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” So too is Amelia unable to relinquish her grief. Over the course of the film, Amelia becomes more and more frayed. She can’t sleep, and Samuel’s misbehavior seems to only intensify as his birthday approaches. She denies her troubles, insisting to family and colleagues that she is fine. But the more she denies her grief, the stronger the Babadook becomes; its presence becoming increasingly more tangible. She is taunted by the returning presence of the storybook, the visualization of the grief that she repeatedly tries to destroy. The book threatens her with depictions of Amelia harming Sam, her dog, and herself. Before long, Amelia becomes desperate and attempts to find relief for herself and Sam through sedatives.
As Amelia’s health deteriorates, she rapidly begins to lose control and the Babadook’s presence takes over. Sam is clearly concerned about his mother’s deteriorating mental state, warning of the Babadook’s power and repeatedly begging his mother not to let it in. But his mother falls prey to sleep deprivation and self-medication. She has lost her battle with depression, and the Babadook takes control. When it does, Amelia loses herself, swinging wildly in a near manic-depressive state. In one scene, she is bedridden and refuses to feed Sam. In the next, she is apologizing profusely and offering ice cream. A few moments later, she threatens Sam with a knife and murders the family dog.
While visions of the Babadook terrorize Amelia throughout the film, the demon itself never actually inflicts any physical harm. Amelia sees visions of The Babadook both in and out of her home, his cloaked figure looming in the shadows, his presence creeping in with increased intensity as her health declines. However, he remains only a threatening influence, as it's only when Amelia loses control to the monster that any physical violence begins. It's here we see that the Babadook’s true evil is its power to manipulate us into causing harm to both ourselves and the ones we love. With the depiction of the Babadook, Jennifer Kent creates a terrifyingly tangible vision of grief’s ability to completely derail a life. Amelia’s grief prohibits her from finding peace with her son, and when she is at her lowest point causes her to attempt to hurt him. Amelia’s unchecked depression nearly causes her to take her son's life with her own hands.
Amelia’s salvation comes not from using some ritual or magic spell to defeat the Babadook but instead from her son’s love and her own introspection. Sam never leaves his mother's side, even after the Babadook has taken full control. He loves his mother unconditionally and keeps his promise to protect her. It’s his tenacity and compassion that frees Amelia from the clutches of the monster. Ultimately, love is the counter to the depression that has hung over Amelia and Sam for so long. Sam’s unrelenting courage is enough to help his mother overcome the Babadook. In her final confrontation with the monster, Amelia rewitnesses the moments that led to her husband’s death. She is only able to regain control of her life by facing the source of her grief head on. She peers into the deep blackness of the Babadook’s visage and demands that the monster leave her and her son alone. In the film’s final scenes, normalcy has seemingly returned to Sam and Amelia’s life. The sun finally shines as we see the two celebrating Sam’s seventh birthday. They are smiling, and for the first time in the film seem happy together. Though Amelia overcame the monster and has seemed to have found some peace, its presence remains. We see Amelia feeding a diminished Babadook, now residing in the basement. As she approaches, the demon howls an intimidating roar. Amelia coos in reply and is able to console it, sending it shriveling back to a shadowy corner of the room. This scene shows that though Amelia is able to come to terms with her grief, the pain of her husband's loss never wholly goes away. His absence will be felt for the remainder of Sam and Amelia’s life, and she must learn to live and cope with it on a daily basis.
Theorizing that the monster never really existed and that the scenes in which we the viewers experience paranormal activity are simply Amelia’s delusions is a fun mental exercise. However, the film is truly effective horror because it does not matter what occurs in physical space or what is a mental projection. The Babadook establishes empathetic characters with human issues and creates a demon to personify those issues. We as viewers can partake in the very tangible fear and pain that these characters experience by dreading the boogieman that Jennifer Kent has created. While depicting a character plagued by grief and depression may elicit sympathy, it does not always invoke the same visceral suffering as a terrifying demon. Kent has given mental illness a face, one that lurks in every shadow and is a menacing threat. For Amelia, the Babadook’s haunting is just as real as the grief that has tormented her and her son since her husband’s death. The film allows the viewer to peer into the same ghastly face of depression that so many face every day.
Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.