I’ve never been a huge fan of the horror genre, since just watching the previews for scary movies as a kid would keep me from sleeping for weeks. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to understand the merits of horror films, and gotten better at telling myself the shadows in my room are just tricks of the eye. “The Babadook” brings those childhood fears of dark corners and monsters in the closet back to every viewer’s mind.
Amelia (Essie Davis) and her creepy son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) are a family wrought by tragedy and trauma. We learn early on that Amelia’s husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital where she had her son. Seven years after the accident, Amelia is still visibly depressed. Every time she sees her boy, she is reminded of the love she lost.
And it’s not like Samuel seems very lovable at first. He is peculiar, afraid of the dark, disobedient and doesn’t get along with other children. He speaks his mind, giving this dark film moments of wry humor, such as when he admits to visiting social workers that his cousin won’t attend his birthday party because he broke her nose in two places.
When the movie began, I thought Samuel, with his shaggy hair, black and blue stained eyes, and shaky voice, was the villain. Turns out, nothing I expected from this movie really happened quite like I thought it would.
Amelia is a fatigued single mother, juggling a caretaking job and Samuel, whose habit of sleeping in her bed leaves both of them tired and dysfunctional. The characters follow strict, unintentional routines, watching tv, checking closets for monsters, reading a bedtime story and finally – hopefully – falling asleep. One night, the routine is broken when Amelia lets Samuel pick a book to read before bed. A book that neither of them have seen before appears on the shelf: “Mister Babadook.” A red, scrapbookish, pop-up book, “Mister Babadook,” Amelia soon realizes, is not a children’s book. The book describes a monster that enters people’s homes and torments them, making a silly but shockingly terrifying cry of “Ba-ba dook-dook-dook!” when it is about to attack.
Mister Babadook, always lurking in unseen corners, is suited in black, with long fingers sprawled at its side. Although the monster takes many forms in the film, from possessing humans to appearing as a slick, spidery creature, it is always terrifying in the sparse moments it is onscreen. Its minimal screentime adds to the Babadook’s intrigue, and I began searching for its shape in the dark backgrounds of shots.
The Babadook, the film seems to say, can appear to any family and change their lives like a whirlwind. With Amelia and Samuel’s tragic history and tense relationship, it was only a matter of time before this thing took over their home. It is clear that the Babadook was born of family trauma, as it manifests often in the basement where Amelia keeps her late husband’s belongings.
The Babadook, like trauma, makes these characters do terrible things, pushing them to the very edge of sanity. As a psychological horror movie, “The Babadook” shows us what people are capable of after experiencing fear and heartbreak. Juxtaposed with utter insanity, the film shows also that recovery from the terrifying is not impossible, even if fully escaping it is.
Content warning for this film: death, animal cruelty, violence, family dysfunction.