Of all the supernatural terrors that have graced our screens, perhaps the scariest one is the thought that we, not the things hiding in the closet or under the bed, are the scariest things of all.
However, while the concept itself is scary, finding a way to translate it so that it actually scares the audience is terribly difficult.
Sure, you can have a character descend into madness, but you run the risk of it simply being too human to scare anyone other than the most timid movie-goers. Conversely, you can have a big scary monster, but then you may not really be saying anything about the human condition at all.
Via a masterful blend of the former and the latter, Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film, “The Babadook,” delivers a chilling tale of loss, depression and the eventual result of all that tension.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a woman whose husband died while driving her to the hospital to give birth. Ever since then, she’s been living alone with her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). To make matters worse, Sam has what teachers would (and do) call “difficulties.” He is rowdy and disobedient, and even brings weapons to school, something that he believes will assist him in fighting an imaginary monster he sees everywhere.
From the movie’s first moments, we’re given an almost unending stream of visual cues that tell us that something isn’t right in Amelia and Samuel’s relationship. At night, he likes to sleep in her bed, keeping her up all night with his teeth grinding and prodding. They eat at opposite ends of the table. She seems to want to keep up with him, but his constant energy and annoyances are wearing Amelia’s patience down further and further each day.
One night, as Amelia is tucking Samuel into bed, he requests that she read him a story of his choosing.
This particular book, entitled “Mister Babadook,” tells of a creature by the same name. The Babadook, with its long nails and goofy face, is as preposterous as its name implies – and a little creepy. The tone of the story (told in creepy, charcoal-drawn pop-up) progresses from whimsical to terrifying as it tells the reader about this “funny look.”
Now Samuel is getting frightened. The final lines Amelia reads before Samuel has another one of his fits is “Once you see what’s underneath/ (take heed of what you’ve read)/ you’re going to wish you were dead.”
At this point, Samuel has become unhinged. Now, instead of just making vague paranoid statements about “a monster,” Samuel is terrified of the Babadook. However it’s not just Samuel who’s become unhinged. Amelia starts acting…different. She is more angry at Samuel and more apathetic about his continued health.
Soon it becomes clear that there is more to the Babadook than just the book itself, especially after Amelia starts seeing the thing.
As I said before, if you’re going to make a monster movie, it’s imperative that that monster is a good one. The Babadook is, at least visually, a bad monster. Sure, he’s got the long finger creepiness down pat, but the rest of him isn’t all that scary – just goofy.
To be honest, the look the Babadook had in his book is his best. The Babadook book look. Say that ten times fast.
But then again, that’s not the point. It’s what the Babadook represents. The thinly veiled metaphor within the film is that the Babadook represents Amelia’s “dark side.” Since her husband died, Amelia’s life has been a living hell. Her child drives her up the wall, and a part of her blames him for the death of her husband. But a normal person would stuff that down deep inside of them. Their love for their kid would force them to be patient and drive such thoughts far, far away. However, when the Babadook comes knocking at your door, you can’t help but indulge them.
Why feed your child? After all, the only thing he does is make you miserable. In fact, why not just get rid of him? You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
By exploring a good woman at her worst, “The Babadook,” shows us the extent to which our own monstrousness can go. While it was the Babadook making Amelia do these things, the truth is that they are one and the same. As she gets closer and closer to the edge, Amelia begins to act like the Babadook. Her fingers are always stiff and elongated when she’s stressed. Every shot of her in this new state makes her seem like she’s looming over Samuel.
Don’t get me wrong. I would hate to meet the Babadook in a dark alley, but at least I know he can’t really hurt me. Really, whom I definitely wouldn’t want to meet coming straight for me in the dark is myself – and that’s terrifying.