In the midst of the usual dreck that fills cinemas over the Halloween period, there was something special this year. That special film was Australian chiller The Babadook, from first-time director Jennifer Kent. With plenty to think about under the surface, it’s one of the best horror films of the last few years.
As well as being a psychological horror movie, The Babadook is an in-depth study of the ways in which human beings deal with grief and loss. Through the great performances of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, the film says an awful lot whilst showing very little on screen.
Note: Do not read past this point until you’ve seen the film.
The power of loss
At the beginning of The Babadook, there’s something immediately odd about the house in which our central characters – Amelia and Sam – live.
It looks every inch the ideal suburban family home, but there’s a sense of despondency and decay to it. This is created by Jennifer Kent’s direction and some excellent work from colourists and lighting technicians.
Maybe this was once an idyllic family home, but it has been infected and altered by grief at the loss of Amelia’s husband in a car accident whilst she was in labour.
Davis, too, is the picture of a frazzled mother. Grief is apparent in her tired eyes and the way in which she is only ever a few seconds away from a complete breakdown. So upset is she that there’s a permanent black cloud over her head that has even made its way into the very foundations of her home.
Grief is personified
The central antagonist of The Babadook is the villainous spirit of the title. Housed within a Tim Burton-esque popup book, the creature is little more than a black mass. Adorned with the clothes of Amelia’s departed husband, the character from the book becomes a full-blown manifestation of her grief.
Just like the memory of her husband, Amelia cannot rid herself of the Babadook. She tries the most obvious means of disposing of the book, but it keeps returning to affect her life, just as grief often does.
The same goes for her son, Sam. Sam‘s grief manifests in his desire to rescue his mother from the monsters that he can see everywhere. Whilst Amelia is able to keep her grief at bay until the arrival of the Babadook, Sam’s grief is allowed to roam free in the forms of the ghouls and dangers he sees everywhere.
These two characters at the centre of The Babadook provide differing perspectives on how humans deal with loss. For Sam, it’s something that he can never escape from and that is constantly all around him. Alternatively, in the case of Amelia, it’s something that she expends all of her energy trying to supress and hide away.
Overcoming the darkness?
The final act of The Babadook is triggered by a tipping point in the grief of both central characters.
Sam’s battle with monsters has become so severe that he has been expelled from school. For Amelia, the grief she has tried to hide has invaded her life in the form of the Babadook character, which is preventing her from sleeping. It is even forcing her into doing horrible things, manifesting in the film as the murder of the family dog.
Just as with grief, the Babadook cannot be allowed to get in the way of their lives. At this point, they have to do something to put an end to the grieving process and move on as much as they possibly can.
This sets up the final showdown between Amelia, Sam and Mister Babadook.
Sam and Amelia are able to prevail in the battle against their grief. At the end of the film, Mister Babadook is locked away in the basement of their house. The colour palette of the film has brightened, showing that the weight of grief has been removed from their lives.
However, crucially, the Babadook has not disappeared entirely. Amelia is shown heading down to the basement to feed the creature, which menaces her slightly, before returning to her life. She then has a brief chat with her son before they embrace, smiling for the first time in the film.
Sam: How was it?
Amelia: It was quiet today.
Sam: It’s getting much better Mum.
Yet again, this is an example of The Babadook‘s understanding of human grief. The loss of a loved one isn’t something you can ever completely forget, but it is something that you can lock away and prevent from taking control of your life. There will be times when you need to feed that grief to keep it at bay, but it needn’t be something that stops you living a happy life.
Over time, grief may get better and you may need to feed it less, but it’s never going to stop being upsetting and it’s never going to completely disappear.
After all, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.
What did you think of The Babadook? Do you agree with my analysis of the film’s grief allegory? Let me know how you feel in the comments section below.