Blue on Black – A Psychoanalysis of The Babadook (2014)

A friend of mine tells me, “You HAVE to watch The Babadook! It’s been called the horror movie of the year!” So I check out the trailer, it sufficiently creeps me out, I invite a few friends over, and off we go. I expected to be covering my eyes, jumping out of my seat, whimpering a little bit – the usual symptoms of watching a horror film done right. I was not disappointed in this regard by any means. However, what I wasn’t expecting was to experience a brilliant and surprisingly moving and eye-opening metaphor for a topic I would consider relatively taboo. I will not be going into much detail on the cinematic aspects of this film so much as my interpretation of the story. This is all just one girl’s humble opinion, of course, but here is how my mind decided to let in The Babadook.

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First, a little setup, in case you haven’t had a chance to see this one yet. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother to her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a fairly normal little boy except for the fact that he is almost cripplingly afraid of monsters. Samuel’s father, Oskar, was killed in a car crash on the way to the hospital on the day Amelia was in labour with Samuel. Every night before bed, Amelia must check his closet (while he cowers behind her) in case something is lurking in there. His fear has escalated to the point that he has built his own weapons, including a crossbow and a catapult, to protect himself and his mother. As his fears intensify, he even takes a weapon to school, from which his mother is forced to remove him as his behaviour is justifiably considered intolerable and threatening towards the other students.

As petrified as Samuel is of monsters, he still insists on being read a bedtime story every night, despite his mother’s warnings that certain stories may frighten him even more. One night, Samuel produces a pop-up book (only replying “on the shelf” when his mother asks where he got it) called Mister Babadook. The spooky black and white artwork combined with the interactive pull-tabs are mildly disconcerting, but the story overall starts out almost funny, describing how the Babadook will knock 3 times (“That’s when you know he’s around, you’ll see him if you look.”) and making him sound relatively benign (“Then you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me.”) But it doesn’t take long for Amelia to become troubled by the contents and for Samuel to start screaming as the tone changes: “See him in your room at night, and you won’t sleep a wink.” Amelia silently reads the final pages to herself: “And once you see what’s underneath, you’re going to wish you were dead.” Mister Babadook is clearly not a ‘friend of you and me.’ Amelia eventually gets Samuel calmed down and to sleep and once she’s alone, hides the book somewhere he won’t find it.

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The story of Mister Babadook talks of something sinister hiding behind something that appeared trustworthy. He appears as a friend, but quickly becomes something dangerous, something to fear. He represents the pain and the unresolved grief within the mother. She lost her husband, the love of her life, on the day her son was born. No doubt it was nearly impossible to properly process such a sudden and horrendous loss when you are also instantly a parent to a helpless newborn, someone who literally needs your care, focus, and attention 24/7.

When a woman becomes a mother, I think a lot of people (the woman herself included) tend to forget that she is still her own person underneath all that. She is still the woman her partner married, she is still the best friend, the sister, the Aunt, etc. But that title of MOM dominates her time spent, her emotional and mental priorities, and her general identity. I think it’s just as easy for her as well as the spouse, the friend, and the sibling to ignore and forget who this woman was before she was a mother. This concept is represented several ways in this film. One scene is particularly blatant: Amelia is in bed, alone, lonely (you get the idea), and is interrupted at the exact wrong moment by Samuel, who has gotten out of bed frightened yet again. This, to me, shows how she has little to no opportunity to be her own woman, her own person, to indulge in and fulfill her own desires, because being a mother is always a more pressing priority. She is forced to throw things aside (or in this case, on the floor) in order to be there for her son.

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Amelia ends up ripping pages out of Mister Babadook and throwing the book outside into the trash. This action symbolizes her burying those feelings of loss and grief that had begun to surface, demonstrated by her originally reading the story to Samuel. The Babadook represents the conflict taking place inside of Amelia: She loves her son, but if her son hadn’t been born, her husband would likely still be alive. That’s a very complicated emotional process, to say the least. The book of course reappears the next day on her doorstep, the pages poorly taped back together, but with new text, including the lines: “The more you deny, the stronger I get,” and “You start to change when I get in.” The images have also been replaced to show a woman breaking the neck of a dog (who looks an awful lot like Amelia and Samuel’s dog), and towards the end, an image of the woman strangling the little boy from the original version.

We all avoid uncomfortable emotions. If we start to feel upset or stressed, we take a deep breath in the hopes that it will just go away. We distract ourselves with anything we can. We surround ourselves with people we don’t even like just so we don’t have to be alone with our thoughts. We do these things because sometimes all we want is to feel something else, something different, something that hurts a little less. When something feels bad, we try to drown it out. Turn that TV up louder. Eat more. Drink more. During those times when a deep breath isn’t enough, we look for sedation. Make it stop. “Don’t let it in.” We’ve dodged a bullet but usually end up with the barrel of the gun jamming us in the chest. Nothing has gone away. We’ve just silenced the monster a little while longer. Unconfronted feelings often mutate and manifest themselves in extremely damaging ways, and often take on the forms of resentment, bitterness, anger, and hatred. This is represented pretty plainly by both the book returning even though she had attempted to bury it outside in the trash, as well as by the imagery in the book appearing even more disturbing than before.

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Amelia feels alone. Isolated. No one understands what she has gone through, or what she is currently going through. This is presented in a very literal way when Amelia is in any social situation – she sits alone, she is never a part of the conversation, and everyone else talks about their daily trivialities while she is quite obviously facing much more distressing issues. There’s a fantastic moment where she actually interrupts and shouts at the other women present at a child’s birthday party, “That’s a real tragedy. Not having time to go to the gym anymore – how do you cope? You must have so much to talk about with those poor disadvantaged women.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

There is a short but revealing scene where Amelia makes soup for herself and for Samuel, and Amelia quickly realizes as they begin eating that there are somehow shards of glass in it. She panics, tells Samuel not to eat it, and Samuel begins shouting that the Babadook did it, and not to let it in. He screams this over and over. Samuel, whether he is referring to an otherworldly monster or the darkness within his mother, clearly senses that there is a threat and it is growing stronger. It’s interesting that he doesn’t blame his mother (“The Babadook did it!”) but knows that only she can prevent this from progressing (“Don’t let it in!”).

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There is no love stronger than that which a parent has for their child. As a mother of a daughter, I know this to be true. It’s incomparable love. It’s a love so deep, so powerful, that it physically hurts sometimes. It’s an achy, relentless, nothing-else-matters love. I mentioned a taboo topic that I felt was touched upon in The Babadook. I was referring to the idea of a mother NOT loving her child. A mother hating her child. A mother hurting her child. These are universally unacceptable concepts. It’s in our very nature as humans to protect children in general, especially our own. So when a parent themselves is responsible for the harm of their child, it’s blasphemous. It is a violation of something sacred. Even the minor things – a sharp tone when you’re tired after work, an overreaction to an accidental spill or break, getting busy with work and forgetting something you promised. There is no other form of guilt that compares. Because I want so much to do right by my daughter, the idea of even these minor infractions are uncomfortable to think about. But this film doesn’t care. It takes this discomfort to an entirely new level as Amelia grows colder towards her son, and eventually becomes cruel and abusive. She also stops taking care of herself altogether and goes days without sleep, slipping further and further into the darkness in her mind.

There is a recurring reference to a persistent pain Amelia has in her tooth, meant to show her emotional pain. As the film reaches it’s climax, and her grief over losing her husband manifests itself in full and she is possessed by the Babadook, the first thing she does is pull the tooth out with her hands. This is obviously excruciatingly painful, but provides relief. This is meant to represent the pain of facing our issues head on. It hurts to do this, it hurts to rip that pain out by its root, but it is the only way to heal.

I’ll insert a great big ENDING SPOILER ALERT here because I am going to interpret the final scenes of The Babadook as well, because they are so revealing and poignant from my perspective. If you haven’t seen this film yet, please skip the next paragraph.

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The Babadook appears before Amelia in the form her deceased husband, Oskar, though if you’re following me so far, it’s nothing more than a representation of Amelia’s mind. He tells her that if she brings him the boy, they can be together. Since I believe the Babadook is Amelia’s pain, this means submitting to that pain by sacrificing the one she has been subconsciously blaming for the loss of her husband. This means letting the ‘monster’ win, killing her son, presumably herself as well, and joining her husband in death. However, something (I’m guessing the love she truly does have for Samuel) stops her from doing this, and she vomits black slime symbolic of the possession of the Babadook (the pain, grief, resentment that have taken her over) and banishes him. In the final scene, Amelia is outside with Samuel, finally celebrating his birthday on his actual birthday (which they’ve never done, due to the tragic events of that day and her inability to cope), and she tells him she is going to go inside to “feed it” and that Samuel can see it one day when he’s bigger. The Babadook lives in their basement, symbolic of the deeper parts of Amelia’s mind. As she enters the room, it threatens to attack her and she is clearly terrified as it advances on her. However, she composes herself, stays calm, and insists that it’s alright. She shushes the monster, and it backs down from her and retreats. This entire final scene to me is as beautiful as it is frightening. I see this scene as Amelia still having the monster to face, the same pain she’s always had, but making the choice every day to not let it possess her. What an absolutely phenomenal way to illustrate that concept. The metaphor behind Samuel being allowed to see the Babadook when he’s older, to me, is that it’s not something he needs to worry about right now. He doesn’t need that guilt, that shame. He can just be a little boy for now and she will share her feelings and experiences with him when he’s old enough to understand properly, so that it doesn’t “possess” him too. When she returns outside, Samuel asks how it is, and she says, “Pretty quiet today,” and she smiles as she wishes him a happy birthday.

Maybe The Babadook was only meant to be a scary movie and nothing more, but I found more. I thought it used the medium of horror film to tell another type of story entirely, and I found it as moving as I did chilling. If you haven’t watched this one yet, let it in.