Spoiler alert: It’s hard to talk about this movie without revealing too much. For best results, see it before reading.
Is The Babadook a horror movie? Sort of. It’s certainly being billed as one: critic descriptions like “expertly unsettling” and “deeply disturbing” discouraged a few friends from seeing it with me recently. But calling the movie “horror” doesn’t seem quite right. The main characters are mother and son, giving The Babadook an obvious parent-centric interpretation, but what the premise turns out to be—what the horror actually is—is relatable enough to encompass what different viewers, parents or not, might bring to it. I think that’s why The Babadook doesn’t feel like a horror movie, exactly, to me. It’s so subjective and personal that how scary you find the movie may depend on how scary you find yourself.
When the story begins, it appears to be about a mother, Amelia, worn ragged at the edges. Her son, Sam, is her entire world, both because he demands that much attention—he’s a terror at school and he builds weapons to fight imaginary monsters at home—and because her husband died years earlier. We find out the fatal accident happened on the way to the hospital when Amelia was about to give birth, leaving her alone with her new son. She’s still mourning her late husband to an extent that worries her sister, who thinks Amelia should be more stable than she is by now. But we’re on Amelia’s side, we get it—how can she be expected to feel in control when her son has been singlehandedly wrecking her life since the day he was born?
It’s not until late in the movie, though, that we realize just how thoroughly we’ve been on Amelia’s side, how subjective the movie has been. For the most part, Amelia is who the camera follows—we see what she sees and how she sees it. She’s the adult in the parent vs. child conflict, and the movie is arranged to show us the fear, worry, and frustration she feels about her son in ways that feel totally natural and sympathetic to her. As the movie progresses and the Babadook’s influence on Amelia grows, we’re still there with her, questioning whether the monster is real or whether she’s just losing it from stress and panic. Then the Babadook takes hold of her and everything shifts.
Where the camera’s perspective was Amelia’s, suddenly it’s now Sam’s. We see his mother as he does: detached, harsh, nasty. We see the fear in his eyes when he looks at her and isn’t sure which version—the kind, caring one or the angry, bitter one—woke up today. We see how Sam’s conception of his mother is that she resents him for existing—given that, how could he not have a history of acting out?
The subjectivity extends to the movie’s formal elements in some really lovely ways. In one scene the camera is slowly tracking toward Amelia in bed at night when there’s a faint, ominous knocking sound. The camera freezes for a few nervous seconds, seeming to hold its breath. Then it continues slowly forward, exhaling with Amelia. Also excellent are the handful of times the Babadook’s appearance is teased in Amelia’s waking world. The scares are wonderfully homemade, several innocuous props—a hat, a coat, some shadows—that at the right angle cohere into the monster for a terrifying moment. The old-fashioned illusions are a terrific nod to super-old-school magic in the movies, going back to early master Georges Melies, whose old routines the Babadook fittingly pops up in at one point as Amelia watches.
It’s the subjectivity, being unable to escape how the world is to you, that has stayed with me since seeing the movie. The Babadook is scary, but the horror tropes are a little loosely applied, draped over the story like a sheet that’s not tucked in at the corners. What’s really frightening, what the movie is finally about, is not what the Babadook is but what the Babadook isn’t: a part of Amelia that will ever be gone. The monster is a metaphor for her grief and anger and depression and guilt about her husband’s death, her son’s role in it, and her own feelings about it. What brings the monster under control is Amelia starting to make peace with her feelings instead of trying to bury them. They aren’t going away: they are who she is, and all she can do is give them their due and try not to let them become too strong.
The movie is of course about a single parent, but the metaphor is transposable. Not knowing what you’re capable of, worrying that you aren’t in control or that you might hurt someone you love, is more frightening than a monster could ever be. You don’t have to be a parent to know the feeling of having an ugly black lump on your heart that won’t go away. The Babadook is about being resolved to dealing with something emotional, mental, existential simply because, through no choice of your own, it’s there. Some days it’ll be hungrier than others; there may not be a fix or cure for everything that’s “wrong” with you. The matter-of-factness to the final scene of The Babadook, how the monster has become a routine part of Amelia and Sam’s life, is the most unnerving part of all. Sometimes the worst things are here to stay.
JM Olejarz holds an MA degree in film from UCLA and coedits the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD.