The Babadook – a film about life’s real horrors

Where does fear come from? Jen Izaakson, PhD student and revolutionary socialist, examines this question through a psychoanalytic review of new horror film, The Babadook. Jen tweets at @izaakson.

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If we accept the psychoanalytic stance of a ‘continual return of the repressed’, ghosts and demons offer a way to battle unconscious psychic constellations of horror that would otherwise torment us with little recourse. It’s far easier to combat a physical monster than transform our own inner treacherous and debilitating states, to which we are truly vulnerable.

One of the ‘horror movies’ released in time for Halloween this year is Australian film, The Babadook. The content is about far greater fears than a boogeyman. Of course, The Babadook, is literally a creepy monster who comes to scare you at nighttime, but the film shows just what being afraid of ghosts or monsters is – projection, paranoia and attempt to externalise and combat our own feelings of terror.

From this point on, there will be so-called ‘spoilers’.

The Babadook is essentially about grief. The Babadook itself begins to visit a single mother and son, not only after they read a book about it, but also after domestic strain begins to take its toll. The mother is isolated, struggling to find the attentiveness and emotional labour required for working in a care home, especially as most of these reserves are constantly depleted by looking after her son. The father of the child died in an accident, whilst driving the mother to a hospital to give birth and it’s this event that casts a shadow over their homelife, with the wife/mother never fully able to go through a process of mourning this immense loss.

The storybook that tells of The Babadook, which when read is what conjures him, outlines that his creepy form isn’t real and ends with, “when you realise what’s underneath, you’ll wish you were dead”. The Babadook psychically serves a protective function, as a way for the mother to not fully experience her grief – facing a ghoul, however macabre, is infinitely preferable to bearing the overwhelming tragedy of a husband who dies hours before he would’ve become a father. At other times the dead husband appears as The Babadook, asking for the son. When the mother’s sister and friendly neighbor bring up the husband in conversation, they’re rebuked – this strategy of silence has led to uncontrollable echoes of the dead man.

In a narrative twist, The Babadook once inside the house begins to possess the mother, as she grows increasingly possessed by melancholia. Introjecting The Babadook’s style of speech and posture she becomes the monster, tormenting her son and eventually harming the family pet. The mother performs her grief, helplessly railing against being dominated by monstrous hopelessness, acting as the domineering fright instead of being subject to it. At one point the mother kills the household’s dog, demonstrating an early ego mechanism of defence; identification, acquiring a preferable position psychologically within a dynamic of aggression; to be the one who does harm rather than feel/be harmed.

Inevitably, the mother’s attempts to keep up appearances and deny the tragedy of the circumstance begin to fail at work and with family. After a doctor prescribes sleeping pills, taken irregularly by both mother and son, the pair start no longer leaving the house, with visiting school truancy officers sensing the rot of the situation (represented by a decaying kitchen and cockroach infestation appearing as they arrive). Spiralling tensions come to a head, with the little boy arming himself against The Babadook/his mother’s outbursts and her guilt, when not animated by The Babadook, moving her to offer the child ever larger bowls of ice-cream.

The externalisation of pain by hallucinating the husband/Babadook at times, works as an onscreen rendition of Kleinian ‘splitting’. The ‘bad’ feelings inside, of loss and rage, cannot be coupled with the ‘good’ loving feelings towards her son, that exist despite him being the reason her husband was driving the car on the fatal night of the crash. The Babadook steps in, providing an object for the ‘bad’ feelings, so she can love her son and hate the grief that started with his birth, without associating it with him. But the association has a real basis in truth, and however ‘unthought a known’ is, to borrow a concept of psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, so it remains within us, repressed but powerful. Pain and loss buried unconsciously, haunting our lives from below, as in this case concretely, a phantom.

How does the ‘splitting’ binary of the paranoid-schizoid position become transformed? By integration of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings, to a ‘depressive position’ for Melanie Klein, where a process of reparative mourning can be undertaken and for us simple viewers, this solution arrives in emotional containment. The mother cannot alone psychically resolve the seven years of grief since the passing of her husband and so it’s left for other characters in the film to offer this emotional containment.

The Babadook/monster mother is partly defeated when the neighbor visits the house, explaining she is worried about the mother and son, loves them and would do anything for them. The mother is still capable of being loved, despite all the loathsome, unlovable feelings she cannot manage to hold together herself. Similarly later, as the mother strangles her son in rage, he tells her, “you don’t love me anymore, but mummy…I still love you”, and caresses her face as she grips his neck. The mother’s psyche and world are deeply impoverished, ravaged by melancholia, yet to the little boy she is a passionately loved object. Now expelled outside of her, the mother touches The Babadook’s hat gently and soothes it. Depleted of power, The Babadook/feelings of grief leave the mother, fleeing to the basement of the house – the room where the mother keeps all the dead husband’s belongings.

The final scenario is that of the mother, feeding worms to The Babadook in the basement. Her grief now has a place to live, where she can visit it. The Babadook’s symbolism and analogy work to expose the reality of fear and this is one of the most useful things horror films can do. Real terror does not live in a darkened corner, on spooky streets or wear a frightening mask; it’s the people around us who can cause pain and our own vulnerability and losses that truly terrify us.

There are 36 comments

  1. Stefan

    As a horror fan i really like what was written here because its like getting several movies for the price of one, people tend to make up their minds about what movies are about some get it right and some get it wrong but its still interesting because nobody really knows what is the truth. Theres things which are not put into perspective like for example the sudden loss of her teeth, that can be attributed to stress MAYBE, but as a horror fan when a body begins to deteriorate suddenly my first thought is “Ghost”, or possesion of a spirit which has not been laid to rest, and my thoughts are that the father never left them though he died, he haunts his belongings in the basement and after 7 years his sudden death has taken its toll on his mind and as we all know spirits who linger always end up the same even if they dont mean to, enraged, jealous of the living and can become almost evil even to their loved ones… My thought is that the father never left and after lingering he started blaming the one thing that indirectly made him die, his son.

    Baba is the word for father in several languages, and dook is defined as a chuckling animal… babadook translates into “Chucklingfather”.
    thats my thoughs anyway.

  2. Shubham

    This is the best review that I’ve come across and made me look at the movie from a completely different perspective, which I believe is completely true

  3. follier

    “Baba is the word for father in several languages, and dook is defined as a chuckling animal… ”

    Baba is father, yes. Dook is an antiquated carpentry term.. it’s a plug that is used to conceal something, like a nail, screw, hole, etc. So the Babadook is the plug that is used to conceal the the father.

  4. Vajd

    Beautifully written. Your review summarizes my thoughts about the film completely and furthermore explains the psychological and sociological symbolism of the film. Fantastic review.

  5. Steve

    This is a film that when watching you’re aware it isn’t simple horror. I partially sorted it out in my head after, and then came back this morning, did some googling and found this excellent analysis! Great writing and helped me flesh out what I had intuitively thought already about the movie. Bravo!

  6. Rami

    Also in Arabic baba is dad, dook sounds like the imperative verb Duq: knock, it also can be used to indicate the sound of knocking on a door, which is interesting because when reading the pop up book the dook part of the name is used to indicate the knocking sound.

  7. Kevin Navas

    This is what I have been saying the whole time! Great review! This is easily one of the best horror films I have seen in a very long time. I did say horror. For those that complain about the child actor, I would argue that he needed to be portrayed as a child suffering from severe mental torture with traits that grind on the nerves. His violent and loud fits serve up a fastball for the perfect ending in horror cinema in decades. Without his performance, the film would have been dead in the water.

  8. damon archary

    Is it possible that the father never died . I think that the mom kept the dad locked in the basement .. thats why she told her son its not safe down there . She visits the dad regularly . He was the one that asked her to bring the boy . I think she was a pshycho

  9. S

    My friends and I all agreed that this was the scariest horror movie we’d ever seen, and this article is able to explain exactly why. What struck me most was the “Once you see what’s underneath you’ll wish that you were dead” line. When the mother unmasks the Babadook (as foreshadowed in the book), it’s only her that’s there. She has to confront the fact that the monster has been HER the whole time, and who wouldn’t wish they were dead after that revelation?

  10. Keiran

    Excellent review. Just finished watching it and felt that, even though a really good movie, the ending was its weakest element. Now, after reading this perspective, I like the ending and have an even better opinion of the movie overall.

  11. Bobby

    The ending is not a reality. The mother kills the dog and the son. She even hears the report on the news. Think about it… The son’s magic trick, when he turns the coin into the dove, is just not possible. Also, the perfect home all prepped for a birthday party that no one is at. These final scenes are simply the insanes mother’s delusions. She is on her way to the very ward she worked at. Shoot, maybe she’s been there all along.

  12. Alan M

    This sounds great, but the dove still throws me at the end. The only thing I can think of is that it is still metaphorical. She sees her son as being a great magician because he’s her son. Her grip on reality, while less harmful, still isn’t all there.

  13. Kim S.

    I saw the dove as a sign of peace. The two of them had finally found it. I have seen that trick done before and the pan with the lid is a typical magician’s prop. Earlier in the movie Samuel performed other difficult tricks. I believe he could have performed this trick. The boy was smart and was the only one who knew what was really happening.

  14. chechiwa

    Phenomenal acting. That child deserves an award. I just watched this so the ending did not make sense to me but now that I’ve read this and a few other reviews, it hits me what a masterpiece it is. Just wonderful!

  15. Moon

    I’m not saying this is right at all, but what I was thinking while watching the movie was that maybe the babadook represented trauma. It fits with the fact that the more you ignore it, the stronger it gets and the more it begins to affect you, just like the babadook. Also, you can’t get rid of the babadook and you can’t get rid of trauma or bad things that have happened to you, but through dealing with them you learn to live with them, just like how she learns to live with the monster in her basement. That’s probably a theory with a lot of holes though, I know.

  16. Rachel

    This is an excellent review, and I appreciate the movie much more after reading it. I was put off by the end, originally. I made the mistake of thinking this was yet another run of the mill horror film, and because of this, it never occurred to me that there was a deeper meaning. I never attempted to analyze it, I just took it at face value and assumed it didn’t have any layers; that it was a silly film with a cheesy ending. I feel quite foolish now – I’m glad I decided to Google the ending and found this, it has proven me wrong and entirely changed my point of view!!

  17. Rebekah

    According to Jennifer Kent (the creator of The Babadook) Babadook is a play on the Serbian word “Babaroga” which means boogeyman.

  18. Adrian Acevedo

    Beautiful movie. I decided to watch this movie using a method that I normally tend to use, which is watching a film just because no one else thinks it looks good and doesn’t give it a chance because it’s not directed by Michael bay. I give credit to all films. I understand the complexity of film making, so I believe every movie, whether it’s the worse or the best, should be given credit. Every movie is created through some form Of inspiration in some way or another.

    Babadook was perfect! I believe it captured the correct portrayal of a broken family. The mother obviously never recovered from the death of her husband and is in denial. The son can see it, but because he has lived with it his whole life, he can’t distinguish the difference. The director captured perfect symbolism. I like the ending, even though it was a little cheesy, because it explains that people just have to “live” with things even if those things are haunting memories.

  19. Research – Kelcey Bamber

    […] The 2014 film, directed by Jennifer Kent, ‘The Babadook’ scares you long after you have watched it, it still to this day makes me uncomfortable about thinking or talking about it, it does require thought and analysis, and it is only after you attempt to understand what it all means that it will start to haunt you. The whole atmosphere of the film feels off, we start the film thinking that the child has some access to a demonic dimension which then slowly turns around to the mother being the problem leaving the audience to wonder what they’ve just watched. The tension in it is high, reaching the peak of its tension at the end when the character embraces her grief and accepts it. Ghosts and demons offer us a way to battle unconscious psychic constellations of horror that would torment us usually with little to no recourse, therefore it is easier to battle something that is physical then face our own debilitating states to which we are all vulnerable. This particular monster projects what each and everyone of us feels, we attempt to defeat and combat those feelings, the Babadook is a representation, a symbolism and analogy work to expose what her reality truly is, the reality of fear. The film reflects real life horrors, the stuff thats in the mind and can be hidden away until it breaks free or we let it out. (https://rs21.org.uk/2014/10/30/the-babadook-a-film-about-lifes-real-horrors-jen-izaakson/) […]

  20. C.

    Late to the party on this one, but a good review of a good movie is never old…ecspecially since I just read and watched both today, haha.

    In reference to the person who was confused by the tooth scene, this is what I made of it:

    As the author states, the killing of the dog was a way of projecting the widow’s pain and grief onto another being, a lashing out, if you will. Being the hurter and not the hurtee (yeah, I probably just made those words up).The ripping out of the tooth occurs just after this incident. It is my belief that this symbolized her losing a piece of herself in the act of projecting her grief and pain onto another being. This is made all the more significant as the one she hurts first (the dog) is seen, culturally, as one that lends unconditional love and attention no matter what. We see the dogs attitude change towards her as the film leads up to this breaking point.

    Additionally throughout the film, that small piece of her (i.e. the tooth) was always bothering her. It may not have always been consciously as the rubbing of the tooth turns into an unconscious coping mechanism whenever the stress/grief/anger becomes too much. While it was something she should have taken care of (maybe like that stress/grief/anger) she never did and instead tries to forget about it. She keeps putting off what most, if not all, of us would have taken care of long ago (be it a rotten tooth or rotten feelings). This all culminates in that scene where she finally snaps, lashes out and throws away that small piece of herself, physically and metaphorically.

    Damn fine write up, one of the best for this movie.

    Cheers

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