Analysis – The Babadook as a study of human grief and bereavement

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in terrifying Aussie horror The Babadook
Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in terrifying Aussie horror The Babadook

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.

 

A gruesome popup book provides the centrepiece of grief allegory The Babadook
A gruesome popup book provides the centrepiece of grief allegory The Babadook

 

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.

 

The Babadook book is manipulative and dark
The Babadook book is manipulative and dark

 

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.

2 thoughts on “Analysis – The Babadook as a study of human grief and bereavement

  • 11/05/2015 at 19:18
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    Great analysis! I just watched this film last night on Netflix. I was blown away. I definitely appreciated that it veered away from cheap pop-out scares as I tend to hate that experience as a viewer. What’s chillingly ironic to me is that I had just watched “Rabbit Hole” right before. Although I had seen Rabbit Hole before, I had not seen Babadook. I realized afterwards that these films are ironically similar all while being very different genres. They both showcase the same theme: grief and how it manifests in your life. Late in Rabbit Hole, Becca asks her mother if it ever goes away. Her mother compares it [grief] to a brick in your pocket that you walk around with. It’s always there and you’re conscious of it, but you learn to live with it. ‘The Babadook’ does the same thing under it’s metaphoric hat and cloak. It still lives in their house, but they’ve learned to live with it and tame it. Powerful stuff!

    What struck me about this film before grief was the theme of motherhood. The casting/acting of Sam was extremely effective. He is this little boy who would seem unbearable to be around and throughout the film, I questioned her love for the child. On an analytical level, the one question I have is her confession that she wished it were him that were dead instead of her husband when she’s posessed by the Babadook. She also admits later that she didn’t know what she was saying. What I’m still pondering is: Does she really have resentment for her son? Did grief make her say something she didn’t mean or is this a deep dark reality that she fights to suppress. Ultimately, her motherhood overcomes grief and she saves her son. It made me think: Do we ACTUALLY say things we don’t mean or do we absolutely harbour those thoughts and feelings somewhere? To me, it speaks to two things: The dark, disturbing capabilities of the human mind, and the power of maternal instinct.

    It’s films like this that push this genre from entertainment into art. Kubrick would be proud.

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  • 14/05/2015 at 00:09
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    the babadook is represented by an empty set of male clothing. such a amazingly poetic representation of being tortured by the loss of a loved one.

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