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.
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.