(Probaby contains spoilers…)
The Babadook is a refreshingly good Horror film. When was the last time there was a child actor part this good? I’m thinking The Orphanage. And for Horror to feel so small-scale, even claustrophobic, in its visual privacy. The story of a young widow, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), still suffering since the death of Samuel’s father in an accident whilst driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth, is disorienting in its tragedy and dealt with in a particularly contemporary manner. What’s also interesting is how the film borrows from previous Horror cinema, the most explicit being from The Exorcist (1973). In this post I’m going to look at how Horror often liberally borrows from itself – visually and sometimes narrative form – with The Babadook being a prime example.
With Horror, homage and repetition are often particularly overt, where echoes of what came before frequently haunt new projects. Of course, this has been the same with the Ghost Story: Sheridan Le Fanu’s fictions explicitly influenced those of M. R. James, and in turn it’s hard to imagine, say, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black without envisioning M. R. James stylistically or Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw in narrative form. But it would be unfair to say that Hill rips-off James (or James.) Instead what we have comes down to thematic inevitability. The Ghost Story (and sometimes the Horror Story) is often more a refrain than a completely original piece; a reinterpretation of a particular sensation, seen through a more contemporary authorial voice each time it reoccurs. Susan Hill’s stories, although often situated in the past, are written from a contemporary consciousness, so the focalisation is always ultimately going to be modern. This often means the “scares” must come from somewhere else or be in some other form, somewhere relatable to the modern reader.
Treading water: The Innocents (l) and The Woman in Black
Interestingly, even the initial film adaptations of The Turn of The Screw (renamed The Innocents, 1961) and The Woman in Black (1989) feature clear aesthetic borrowing. Herbert Wise’s adaptation of Hill’s novel practically re-stages Jack Clayton’s chilling “lake” scene by having Jennet Goss stood silently on the lake, looking towards the viewer, just as Miss Jessel does. Where the supposed appearance of Miss Jessel is never resolved further than Miss Gidden’s account, Jennet Goss’ appearance is portentous of the tragedy of the very next scene, giving this cinematic homage to The Innocents a more narratively-overt meaning.
They all float: The Babadook (l), and The Exorcist
The initial scene in The Babadook is Amelia leaving a dream/re-enactment of the car crash, her levitated body slowly coming back down to the bed. This references Regan’s violent salvation in The Exorcist, in both design and atmosphere. However, Regan’s eerily silent levitation happens close to the end of the film – an unexpected stillness in the relentless physicality of her possession – whereas Amelia’s occurs right at the start. So straight away Amelia is alluded to being under some kind of ‘possession’, not her son. Samuel, instead, is damaged, but not possessed, at least not in the sense that Amelia might be. Which asks the question, what sort of possession is she under?
If we put The Exorcist (now 41 years old) in context, there are several still-relatable and some now-historical themes. The religious element was clearly the predominant factor during the original controversy; Regan’s use of blasphemous language and masturbating with a crucifix remain shocking images, but today their religiosity is far less sensitive. Chris and Regan’s hitherto non-religious lives are key factors to their contemporary, middle-class household and the dark, looming figures of Fathers Merrin and Karras remind the viewer of religion’s imposing might. But if The Exorcist were to be made today, it’s doubtful that the blasphemous elements would be as potent. It’s because the film was so authentic and well-executed 41 years ago that it works and isn’t reduced to cheap digs at Catholicism for scares. Since then, Catholicism has been sidelined in anything from Braindead (1992) to Troll Hunter (2010) as a source for either comedy or commentary on its limitations, even obsolescence. It would be hard for a modern Exorcist to work with such cultural reassessment, especially given current media-driven and political fixations on certain other religions. Instead, contemporary homage films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) foreground the religious ambiguity of “possession” through a courtroom drama stalemate, and Requiem (2006) is equally ambiguous, but with allusions towards undiagnosed psychological issues.
And it’s through psychological themes that The Babadook achieves much of its power. The setting of the single mother and her only child are relatable, as are elements of their resultant struggle and loneliness. In The Exorcist, Chris is a film actor: a middle-class professional renting a large house in middle-class Washington suburbia. The privilege of her life compounds the trauma of events invading her family’s wholesomeness. Amelia and Samuel’s life is, emotionally, equally realistic – Amelia works as a nurse to support the family, the absence of the father having varying repercussions – but the actual visualisation is very different. Visually, Amelia’s house is all subdued blues, greys and black; a shadowy mournfulness akin to German expressionism. The house is Amelia’s mental outlook; a cold fortress of grief, where the only sounds are the unhinged chorus Samuel’s incessant campaigning for attention and whatever is on the TV.
Disorient Express: The Babadook (l), and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
In The Exorcist, Chris is playing what seems to be a politically charged, progressive role: Amelia passively watches horror films on TV, alone. At one point, she is watching the “Drop of Water” scene from Black Sabbath (1963). Her stillness whilst watching this particularly unnerving scene – scary because of the scene itself, and doubly scary because of Amelia’s inactivity – presents a commentary on watching Horror. To many, Black Sabbath is a potent European Horror experience, up there with Black Sunday or Suspiria. For Amelia, it’s just what the TV is; a carousel of fantastical Gothic images, outside of the “horror” of her own grief yet somehow connected to her experience.
Samuel also turns to the Fantastic, sometimes Gothic, for solace. Unlike Amelia’s passive viewing, Samuel watches magicians performing tricks and then attempts to replicate them. Compared to Chris and Regan, Amelia and Samuel’s media intake means they automatically turn to fantasy to escape (often each other.) Amelia’s job is unstimulating and depressing, leaving her too much time to dwell on her situation and meaning that even in social situations, she and Samuel have no real stimulation, so they have never have any respite.
When Amelia visits her sister for her niece’s birthday, the other childrens’ mothers appear dull, even arbitrary. Their middle-class non-concerns provoke a reaction in Amelia, and she vocally belittles the scale of their problems. Her reaction is to inflict the same discomfort on others who repeatedly point-out her situationand how it should be dealt with, medically or otherwise. To Amelia, what is meant as “concern” is taken as an invasion of domestic privacy, so she closes the doors fast to outside help.
When the “Mister Babadook” pop-up-book appears in Samuel’s room, Amelia’s worst fears about invasion of privacy and the destabilization of her role as mother slowly come true. Although Samuel is clearly vulnerable, it’s Amelia who becomes “possessed”; obsessed with stamping-out (i.e: fending-off) the power of “Mister Babadook”, but with a demented logic that finally destroys her already disturbed outlook. Amelia embodies a re-imagining of Regan in The Exorcist, the innocent vulnerable to attack because she cannot see her inability to protect herself from the unknown. Samuel has psychological issues, of course, but specialists have been offering Amelia life lines for him all along. Contemporary concerns with modern parenting, ADHD and child counselling might not have been so prominent when The Exorcist was made, but now the viewer can see how Amelia could get help for Samuel.
Samuel’s only real outlet comes from embodying “the hero”, playing both the father he never had and protector of his mother. But more than simply the Freudian template for the Son taking his Father’s place, Samuel is also reflecting on his daily media intake: fairy tales in books and magicians on TV. Through deception (magic) and defence (home-made weaponry) Samuel equips himself for a life of subterfuge and struggle. The tragedy of his situation comes from the fact he is a half-orphan; grieving for a father he never knew and fighting to retain the only parent he has, who is gradually fading from everyone around her. When Mr Babadook begins terrorising the household as promised in the book, it’s Samuel who can deal with him better: he’s scared, yes, but not anymore than anyone would be. He puts up defences; he hides; he deflects. Where Samuel has learned something from the TV he avidly drinks in, Amelia has learned nothing; finding only, through passively watching Horror, a medium that relates to and sustains her personal experience.
Without the grounding in survival or even rationalism that Samuel unexpectedly gains, Amelia attempts to abuse her son verbally and physically. But Samuel knows what to expect, having taken it all in from the pop-up-book. The semantic field of The Exorcist essentially comes full circle during Amelia’s “exorcism” of Mr Babadook, when, in the basement, she projectile vomits out her possession. Conversely to The Exorcist, where Regan is at the mercy of an actual demon, Amelia’s possession is the grief over Oskar’s death that will most likely always be with her, but that she must accept and therefore control. Mr Babadook therefore cannot leave, but it’s Amelia and Samuel who call the shots from now on.
The film ends with Samuel celebrating his birthday for the first time, the only other guest apparently being Mrs Roach, their kind neighbour. The fact that there are no other children at the party is representative of the small steps which need to be taken to rehabilitate Samuel into accepting who he is (rather than automatically reacting to the torment of other children) and for Amelia to re-establish the relationship she almost destroyed. Like any decent contemporary Horror, there must be grounding within an authentic, relatable setting. The Babadook is an affecting commentary on the risks of self-deception and fantasy, and the vulnerability of so many to the lives they create behind closed doors. But, like The Exorcist, it also ultimately conveys the goodness of others and knowing when to take help when it’s offered. Visually, Jennifer Kent’s film is a rewarding experience for Horror fans (and film fans in general), and its homage and repetition of other films is an intelligent commentary on the uses of Horror from a modern perspective, as a signifier and a survival kit.