When I first saw The Babadook, I wrote that the monster therein was, to my eyes at least, a metaphor for grief. What I apparently missed was that all that tapping and flapping of black wings in this masterful movie was a flying, swooping LGBT icon.
Somehow this transformation of fortunes has taken place online, because… where else?
A Tumblr post has “Ianstagram” claiming the Babadook—which lives in the dark and forbidding suburban home of a widow and her young son—as “a man who fearlessly and proudly loved other men in spite of a society telling him that his love was wrong—like, watch the movie??”
This, when I read it, I took as a joke, because as someone (I hope) keenly aware of cultural gay signals, I had deduced nothing gay, closeted and unable to same-sex-love about the Babadook—unless being gay now also means being a monster and scaring the shit out of lonely widows who come to live in the place you call home.
(We’ve all had unsuccessful houseshares and thoughtless roommates, but that seemed a stretch.)
But hmm… Perhaps it could have been a drag queen or drag ghost done up in amazing feathery Philip Treacy, living in secret, pissed off at having their space invaded. Perhaps a single LGBT just needing a little space to themselves, forced to suddenly deal with enforced heterosexual problems landing on them. Bloody annoying! Maybe it was the ghost of Leigh Bowery.
The other factor in the queer appropriation of the Babadook was the film getting listed in the LGBTQ section of Netflix, according to Buzzfeed, noting how this has got everyone “babashook” (love this).
And so, over the last 24 hours, the internet has exploded with a gorgeous bunch of silliness about it, culminating with the grimacing, screaming Babadook now accessorized with a series of background rainbow flags. A new queer icon is born.
But there has to be more to claiming The Babadook as an icon just by putting a rainbow background on a tweet. Let’s rewatch the movie again through rainbow-colored spectacles.
For one, the Babadook is an outsider, and on the day I saw it so most definitely was I. I felt as furious as the Babadook watching The Babadook. I saw the film in screen five of New York’s IFC cinema. At a packed-to-capacity screening, there was a couple making out in front of me, beside me a guy twitching and turning in his seat, and behind me four college-age guys laughing lustily at the film’s wilder moments.
The film may well have been, as the Daily Beast noted at the time, “the best, and most sincere, horror movie” of 2014.
These people made it very difficult to view it in such a way. I wanted the Babadook to burst from the screen and terrify them to silence.
For me, the movie, was one of the most moving—and truest—movies about loss and grief, and how they can corrode and consume, yet also make us, re-shape us, change us.
In Jennifer Kent’s film, 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 greyish-blue.
This is the first truly gay thing about the film: that grey-blue wall color is just too tasteful for a straight monster.
However, the film is also designed in the colors of mourning—and black is always chic, and slimming.
The Babadook itself appears as a mix of monsters from the most extravagant nightmares, in flashes it is a mash-up of Edward Scissorhands, Freddy Kruger, with dashes of a dark angel, unkillable spider, bird of prey, and The Cat in The Hat. You don’t get queerer than that.
The Babadook is the archetypal shape-shifter. You seek it here, you seek it there, but you will never capture or define it fully. As some internet wags have posited the ‘B’ in LGBTQ could stand for Babadook, and that is entirely reasonable. The monster is polymorphously perverse. The Babadook wants to screw with Amelia, not screw her.
The Babadook also is all about the drama. Not for this monster one resonant “Get the fuck out of my house,” and DONE. Instead, the Babadook begins a tortuous, Gothic litany of scares for Amelia and Samuel.
We begin with deathly, heavy knocking on doors (this isn’t the Babadook attempting to leave the closet, sorry, but archly reminding the heterosexuals they are on its territory), silent rooms (much cherished by single people everywhere), and a cellar because a cellar’s like a dungeon and, well, the Babadook has to have his own private place, OK.
Bloody Samuel keeps going down there.
Fuck off, kid. And leave those poppers alone.
Her husband’s death has shattered Amelia. She moves, pale as a ghost herself, through daily life: her work in a care home among other living ghosts, the elderly patients with dementia. Samuel himself is disturbed. Death is all around.
Imagine being the Babadook, and having a whole house to flap around in as outrageously as you can for centuries and then you have these two depressed and disturbed people move in. You’ve gone from private party central to miserable funeral parlor. Maje downer!
Kent herself said the movie was about parenting, the unsayable extremes of what mothers can feel.
But for this viewer, before the Babadook’s grand Pride outing of recent days, the film was about the aftermath of death, and how grief, unexorcised, can destroy the living.
Samuel, bless him, is the best kind of mommy’s boy: he imagines vanquishing monsters, and protecting her. In fact, mothering is sideways-responsible for the Babadook’s manifestation in the movie, as the monster is really summoned up after Amelia reads Samuel the story of it, and we see the image for the first time, a mad, skinny, black figure with deranged face.
In the house, the Babadook passes over Amelia. I saw it as a monster of grief. But really, it was a tired queer monster, done with haunting and scaring. It just wants its house back. It wants the dreary, nutty heteros outta there. And so, remembering perhaps the behavior of some crazy past partner, it decides to drive them mad—just as grief drives people mad.
The crazy, bitter Babadook, and its dervish, queeny hissy fits, almost break mother and son. The ’‘dook is a piece of work, a total queeny nightmare. At its most evil-queen, it embodies the image of Amelia’s dead husband, mocking the very imperiled heterosexual union that has invaded this LGBT haven.
Can’t we all just get along? Apparently not. Well, not yet.
From there, because drama must always top drama, the house itself goes into a kind of decay. Energy and life leak out of it. But hell hath no fury like a gay monster whose territory has been invaded, and who may or may not have drugs, uppers and downers stored up for hundreds of years. And anger. Maybe the big queer Babadook is paying back all the times it has felt invaded upon, abused, and marginalized.
But poor Amelia and Sam: it’s not their fault.
And so, finally, if you’re desperate for a gay reading of this deranged, amazing movie—and that reading really isn’t about grief, but about a queer monster dealing with a hetero home invasion—then the good news is there’s kind of a happy ending, albeit a perverse one.
Amelia vomits, like everywhere, near the end, because what else can a heterosexual do faced with all that gay anger?
I thought this magnificent spew session was a metaphor for grief, but now I think the Babadook had forced her to eat bad tuna wraps. Or had somehow laced Amelia and Sam’s breakfast cereal with rat poop. The ’‘dook is a total bitch. Amelia vomiting should be the monster finally done and over, but bitter, angry queens don’t give ground easily.
At the end of the film Amelia and Samuel and the Babadook all end up living together in a new queer community of mutually accepting perversity. They turn out to be as weird and damaged, as misunderstood and marginalized, as each other.
Amelia and Samuel are not threatened by their housemate at the end. Indeed, the ’‘dook has his place, and they feed it. The two living units—mother and son, and monster—cohabit in the same house, and are safe and healthy.
You can take that literally as an appositely weird ending to a brilliant horror movie.
You can also take it as an extended metaphor about how those who have been bereaved or damaged learn to live with grief and loss.
Or you can read it as how straight people and queer people learn to get along, and get to live in a big house—a metaphor for our big old world—all together.
So, it turns out the Babadook is a perfect queer icon for Pride month.
Now we just need Babadook 2: Dark Rainbow, where mother, son, and monster all start dating and staying up late to swap Golden Girls-style gossip over cheesecake.
Samuel will deadpan: “I hate all these black feathers,” to which the Babadook will snap back: “Oh come back when you’re 16—and interesting.”