Mothers get a bad rap in horror movies. They’re either defined as the angelic defender, seen in The Exorcist, The Shining, and Poltergeist, or an inherently corruptive evil: Carrie, Psycho, Friday the 13th. That latter characterization evolved into a prominent sub-genre, the Bad Mother, a force of terrifying violence born from an inability to conform to the socio-political qualities associated with motherhood. While some of these characters are impressive figures, few challenge their old-fashioned interpretations by offering complex, honest portrayals of mothers. Even less originate from the perspective of the parent — which is where director-writer Jennifer Kent’s masterpiece The Babadook makes waves.
The film follows Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis), a widowed mother whose husband died the night her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) was born. Seven years later Amelia exists in a profound state of mourning. Exacerbating her turmoil is Samuel’s frequent misbehavior: he’s unpredictable, prone to temper tantrums and causing trouble in school. Despite trying so hard to be the perfect, patient mother, Amelia can’t find a moment of rest or privacy. She’s perpetually exhausted and stressed, nerves shredded to their utmost, especially when Samuel turns unexpectedly violent in the wake of reading a disturbing children’s book titled Mister Babadook. Convinced the Babadook is real, Samuel’s outbursts intensify, and in tandem Amelia’s emotional and mental stamina frays — leading her to wonder if there actually is a demonic entity haunting her house.
There is, of course. The Babadook is a real creature, its book foretelling the violence that occurs when it possesses the mother of a child. Beyond the immediate physical danger it represents, the Babadook serves as a triple-threat subtextual allegory for grief, depression, and motherhood.
It’s clear Amelia has never healed from the trauma of losing her husband. His loss has emotionally paralyzed her into a deep depression that colors her interactions with the world and everyone in it, especially Samuel. His very existence is an inescapable reminder of her pain, but she soldiers on in favor of altruistically providing for her child, as a “good mother” should. As much as she does care for Samuel, she’s fracturing under the minute-to-minute responsibility of parenting a difficult son. She can’t sleep the night through, talk to colleagues, experience sexual pleasure, or even have a moment of quiet to herself without Samuel disturbing her — not to mention his increasingly frequent anxiety attacks and violent tendencies. “Why can’t you just be normal?” she cries out in frustration during one of his screaming fits. She’s claustrophobic, isolated, lonely, and at wits’ end striving to fulfill the role of domesticated mother. Her home, so often misogynistically coded as the woman’s “proper place,” has become a living hell.
These struggles are a taboo subject in both media and culture. The truth is, motherhood isn’t universally easy for everyone. It doesn’t always come naturally. For Amelia it certainly doesn’t, and understandably, between her untreated depression and an irritating, demanding child. It’s hard to always feel love for Samuel. But society dictates that a woman unable to demonstrate that nurturing, caring, patient, protective, perennially smiling expectation of motherhood is an aberration. Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) judges her parenting methods and deems her unfit, a failure. Rich, fancily-dressed socialites treat her with disdain when she rebukes them for calling her a “disadvantaged woman” — their worst stresses are not “making it to the gym anymore.” Social workers visit Amelia’s house and scrutinize her attitude. In every instance, she’s found wanting, all because she hasn’t raised her child to meet suitable social standards. She’s inadequate, wrong, for breaking under the constant pressure to measure up to gendered mores of behavior demanding perfection.
Not only that, Claire impatiently demands why Amelia hasn’t just gotten over it already — something almost every person with depression, or anxiety, or PTSD, has heard before. Everyone’s refusal to extend empathy or understanding to Amelia about her trauma, let alone offer her help, causes her depression to spiral out of control to the point Amelia herself refuses to acknowledge its severity — which allows the Babadook to possess her. “The more you deny me,” the book warns, “the stronger I’ll get.” And so it does. Amelia’s grief consumes her whole. The stigmatization of mental illness is rampant in today’s culture, and the dangerous repercussions of not acknowledging it as legitimate are made readily apparent. Amelia can’t justget over it; she’s ill, and needs to heal as much as she would from any debilitating physical ailment.
It’s only through the Babadook’s possession that Amelia is granted an avenue to acknowledge and express the depths of her feelings — which, at their darkest, include a repressed hatred for her son. “You don’t know how many times I wished it was you, not [my husband], that died,” she hisses while under its control, and later she attempts multiple times to kill Samuel. Mothers are supposed to be givers of life, the caretakers, accepting and loving no matter what hardships their children present. Anything on a spectrum from frustrated resentment to vitriolic impulses is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. A mother who won’t selflessly sacrifice for her child is the worst abomination.
But Amelia isn’t an evil cliche. Her pain doesn’t stem from a violation of predetermined patriarchal constructs. Her grief is a festering sickness, making the tenuous push-pull of her feelings about Samuel a personal struggle rather than a narrative condemnation. This is a woman who’s endured horrific loss, who tries and struggles with all the strength she has. A flawed, complex, multi-faceted female with many dimensions, a grown woman with worries and desires. Most possession films are executed from an outsider perspective; Babadook places us squarely in Amelia’s experience from start to finish. We empathize with what she’s feeling pre-possession as well as during — her confusion, terror and fury.
The Babadook wants her to believe that if she kills Samuel, if she’s no longer bound to her role as a mother, she’ll find peace — but Samuel isn’t the ultimate problem. What she needs most is healing. She wants to love him, but her depression keeps her from doing so. The Babadook is a representation of her illness made manifest.
At the end of the film, with Sam’s help, Amelia confronts the darkness within her and overcomes it by denying it any further hold over her life. She begins a delicate path toward recovery, and she and Samuel grow closer. We learn the Babadook wasn’t killed — Amelia keeps it locked in the basement. She can’t ever forget her pain, but she’s learned how to control it. She faces it daily, and lives with it.
That’s the most powerful and satisfying ending to a horror film I’ve had the pleasure to witness. As someone with depression and anxiety myself, I’m not ashamed to admit I cried. The Babadook is a brave, thrillingly honest, much-needed voice for the unspoken trials of both motherhood and mental illness — told entirely through the eyes of a woman.
Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in some of the genre’s most iconic films.