Grief: The Real Monster in The Babadook
It’s being hailed as a great horror film. But at its heart it is also about the realities of grieving and loss—both monsters that don’t have to consume us.
There may be some wonderful places to watch the rightly acclaimed scary movie The Babadook, but screen five of New York’s IFC cinema the night I went was not to be one of them.
At a packed-to-capacity recent screening, there was a couple making out in front of me, beside me a guy twitching and turning in his seat like a human kebab, and behind me four college-age guys laughing lustily at the film’s wilder moments. Why is watching a film in public so stressful now even in one of New York’s artsier cinemas?
With The Babadook my irritation was maximized because, as The Daily Beast noted, this may well be “the best, and most sincere, horror movie of the year.”
Yes, there are some witty moments in the film—just because things get so out of hand, and extremes breed extremes—but, for the most part, the film is not only scary and disturbing, it is one of the most moving—and true—movies about loss and grief, and how they can corrode and consume, yet also make us, re-shape us, change us.
The sense that grief and loss and their discontents were the bedrock of The Babadook, and the grim intensity that gave the film made me want the moronic young men behind me to vaporize themselves.
In Jennifer Kent’s film, a mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), has barely recovered from the death of her husband many years before. He died in a car crash on the way to the hospital where she gave birth to her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Mother and son live in a silent, airless house painted a really attractive grayish-blue, which—in the films grosser moments—proves usefully diverting for décor fans.
The film feels funereal. It is lit and designed in the color of mourning, and in its propulsive, crazy way, is its very own funeral march, even before the Babadook itself appears—a mix of monsters from nightmares, including Edward Scissorhands, Freddy Kruger, with dashes of a dark angel, unkillable spider, bird of prey, and The Cat in The Hat.
But long before he announces his presence, the film’s unease and horror accrues with deathly, heavy knocking on doors, silent rooms, a cellar where the weapons-obsessed Samuel is building something that immediately carries the portent of horrifying injury.
Her husband’s death has shattered Amelia, almost literally. She moves, pale as a ghost, through the shards of daily life she must negotiate: her work in a care home among other living ghosts, the elderly patients with dementia. She is incapable of responding to kindness and enquiry, even very gentle flirting on the part of a co-worker.
Her sister’s exasperated criticism—of her, and of creepy Samuel who is becoming far too scary to play with—are piercing, but her loss and grief have removed her from the world in a fundamental way. She is numb. Wiseman as Samuel is alternately Devil-child and a cute young kid.
Kent herself has said the movie is about parenting, the unsayable extremes of what mothers can feel.
But the death of Amelia’s husband is not just the heart of the film, but—for this viewer—the heart of its subterranean message. This film is about the aftermath of death; how its remnants destroy long after the dead body has been buried or burned; it’s about how a loved one’s death can erode, and then threaten to kill a family.
Samuel is not weapons-obsessed because he is the kind of young boy who gravitates to wars and fighting. His refrain, as he imagines vanquishing monsters, is that he must protect his mother, a common—and in its own way heartbreaking—trope familiar to many children who have lost one parent, and who fear losing the other. They intensely want to keep safe what is left of a decimated home life, and the all-too-visible shell of a parent they have been left with.
The Babadook is present before it is officially summoned up by Amelia when she reads Samuel the story of it, which speaks of a shadowy figure and its desire to consume and kill all in its path. Then the stalking and siege of Amelia and Samuel begin: the knocking, the terrifying monster invasion of a bedroom, the sleepless nights.
Yet it is significant that when the Babadook seems to take over Amelia it passes over her: a shadow of darkness; she may swallow it, or its horror, at one point. In its presence--jolting, sudden, horrific—the monster is the monster of grief. The grief in this house is extreme of course; this is a horror movie, after all. It controls, differently, mother and son. It warps them and yet makes them, and horrifies them both as it does so—just as grief does.
Amelia in the film is quite literally driven mad by grief. It imperils her relationship with Samuel. Her sister is disbelieving that she cannot get over and move on from her husband’s death. Her sister’s insensitivity and pig-ignorance will be familiar to many of those who’ve lost loved ones. Their intentions may be good, but their execution and insight are lousy.
But it is another great and piercing truth of The Babbadook that the reality of grief, the horrible truth, is that—unlike what you typically see on TV and in movies—is that you don’t get over the loss of a loved one. Time yanks and chivvies you forward, edges are softened, life trajectories evolve, but years down the line that baseline, incontrovertible grief is still there.
You can be doing some cleaning and bam, you’re floored. You can be working, and then you remember. Suddenly, you are crying, breathless, raging, and on quieter days just going through the motions. “Moving on” from the death of a loved one is rarely uniform.
Once The Babadook’s metaphorical imperative had gripped me, I wondered—as the boys behind me laughed inanely, and Mr. Kebab Man next to me tied himself in knots—would something happen in the film to torpedo my grief theory? But it doesn’t. As the bloodiness rises, and surprises mount, The Babadook’s grief mirror only reflects more harshly.
Amelia says some truly terrible things to Sam, supposedly inhabited by the Babadook but really consumed in grief. Sam watches her fall apart, tear herself apart and is desperate. And then, at the Babadook’s moment of most vicious, from its dark heart, emerges her dead husband: the physical, literal, handsome embodiment of what she and Samuel have lost.
He is at the heart of the Babadook, not because he was a monster, but because his loss—and the grief it enshrined—has become a monster. The Babadook is the shape of grief: all-enveloping, shape-shifting, black, here intensely, terrifying, then gone. The house decays around Amelia and Samuel, their world narrows and becomes mad, undealable with. Energy is sucked from them, the world around them becomes impossible—the Babadook of grief and loss exerts its force everywhere.
The matter of life and death in the movie becomes whether her husband’s death will kill not just mother and son’s relationship but also mother and son. This is obviously heightened for dramatic purposes—a Greek tragedy meets Nightmare on Elm Street in modern-day Australian suburbia—but it is no less true or heart-breaking.
The fantastic Babadook is released at the same time as the lush, big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, which again makes you cry, not because of the thwarted hopes and imperiled dreams of its characters, but because what links them is loss—various losses of dreams, children, loved ones, safety.
Each major character faces loss head-on, and even when superficially evil, like Meryl Streep’s Witch, you root for them to come to terms with that loss before more damage flows from the tangled paths they are following because of it.
The brilliant sleight of hand at the denoument of The Babadook is that after a final confrontation in which Amelia finally finds her voice to face this home-wrecking demon down, after she has literally vomited its poison from her, that is not the end. We know the monster is not dead, and so we are primed for a darkness-streaked Carrie coda, a Final Destination sting in the tail, where mother and son are left the opposite of safe.
But Kent will not let us off the familiar horror hook so easily. Amelia and Samuel, it emerges, live with the Babadook. They are not threatened by him. But he has his place, and they feed him. The two parties—mother and son, and monster—live in the same house, and are safe and healthy.
Of course, you can read this just as a brilliant, subversive coda to a horror movie. (Hell, you can read The Babadook as a horror movie.) But, for this viewer, it again underscored the thrum of grief and loss at the movie’s heart.
Just as in real life, you can come to live with grief, so Amelia and Sam do at the end of the film. It doesn’t have to destroy you, but it may never leave. Oddly you nurture it, it is part of you, and inescapably part of your past, present, and future.
But it has its place. It has a presence, it remains potentially destructive, but all we can do is attempt to marshal it.
Grief is part of us, living with loss is part of us. We do not “get over it.” Grief, like the Babadook, never leaves. Terrible loss may never be surmounted. But it needn’t warp us, destroy us, kill us. You can accord it a place, and then—hopefully—like Amelia and Sam find a way to get on with your life. Rather than terrifying me, The Babadook moved me to tears—like Into The Woods, it is an unflinching exposition of the realities of grieving and loss, but in very unexpected, and vivid, clothing.