The Babadook and Single Motherhood
by Sean Bottai
THIS MONTH WE’LL BE THINKING THROUGH SOME OF 2014’S BEST AND/OR MOST SUCCESSFUL HORROR FILMS. WE’LL TRY TO SPOT CONNECTIONS, TENSIONS AND LARGER THEMES, AS WELL AS FIGURE OUT WHY SOME FILMS SUCCEED AND SOME FAIL AT ACHIEVING THEIR GOALS. MOVIES WILL BE DISCUSSED IN TOTAL, SO BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
The Babadook wants to have a conversation about motherhood; namely, what it costs when attempted alone. We meet Amelia (Essie Davis) after she’s already begun to recoil from her son, though the movie never casts judgment on her ambivalence. In fact, it deeply empathizes with Amelia as she struggles to remain patient and kind with Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who presents several possible behavioral disorders. He’d be a tough kid to parent, the movie shows us, even in a two-parent household, and Amelia’s found herself, unexpectedly, a single mother. Samuel’s father died in a car accident driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth. Samuel’s need to be close to Amelia is portrayed as grating, suffocating. His hugs easily become strangleholds. Single motherhood makes it hard to breathe. And so the movie’s title card appears out of the blank space Amelia creates when she perches on the edge of her bed, as far away from Samuel as she can get without falling off. The Babadook is about that need for space, about the desperation that arises when Amelia finds she can no longer exist as an independent entity. She’s stuck with Samuel; she can’t escape him. Let the horror movie begin.
It is interesting that The Babadook, which seems poised to be this year’s most praised horror picture (by mainstream websites like Slate, Vulture and The New York Times as well as genre mainstays), is about an absent father figure. So many of 2014’s genre films feature Hero Dads: Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Into the Storm, Frank Grillo’s father-on-a-rampage in The Purge: Anarchy, even The Rover’s Guy Pearce (though I’d have to spoil that movie’s twist ending to explain how he qualifies). In a year that’s ending with celebrated mainstream indies like Whiplash and Foxcatcher warning us that Daddy is very, very angry with us (and possibly also a little fucking crazy), genre cinema has been presenting Dad’s very existence in the family as a kind of revelation. At least that’s what it seemed like as we watched the events of Devil’s Due unfold from the prospective father’s point-of-view or averted our eyes with embarrassment during Annabelle’s perverse concoction of demonic melodrama, race-baiting, and father worship.
If genre cinema’s been having an informal Year of the Father, then The Babadook generates a special frisson because the absence of Dad is the source of its horror. To riff on Carol Clover, it’s the “opening” through which the malevolent entity can enter the home and terrorize the family. I’ve been wondering if the realization animating Amelia’s terror is not just about facing her own capacity for violence, but about coming to understand what male archetypes do in culture, how they’re configured, and what the absence of them may portend, especially for working class single mothers. When Amelia goes to the police station and attempts to explain what’s been happening to her, she glimpses the Babadook’s outfit hanging on one of the coat racks behind the desk, implicating all the male officers who watch Amelia with an air of menace. That’s where The Babadook signals that its monster doesn’t represent just one uncanny father figure, but masculine authority in general.
If the father’s role within the American family has never been more uncertain, as some cultural forces explain, than The Babadook perceives the absence of the traditional father not as liberation or utopia, but as trauma. Amelia can’t successfully dispel her son’s fixation on her dead husband. She finds that Samuel’s hung an empty suit on the basement wall like an uncanny totem. Samuel’s basement playroom behavior revolves around one-sided conversations and highly-charged training exercises that prepare him to do battle with ‘monsters.’ Amelia is transfixed by her son’s attempts to instinctively fill the archetype of father-protector, something that she herself feeds with bedtime stories about slaughtering the Big Bad Wolf.
The movie itself follows the fairy tale logic of the magician on Samuel’s DVDs, who states the movie’s thesis: “Life is not always what it seems. It can be a wondrous thing, but it can also be very treacherous.” This reformulation of Lewis Carroll is repeated by Samuel as he performs for the empty suit in the basement, but it also seems to serve as an excuse for his most violent impulses. “I’ll kill the monster when it comes,” Samuel tells Amelia. “I’ll smash it’s head in.” His fantasy is that there is a Wolf in the first place, something to commit these acts of violence against. Samuel’s desire to smash and crush and hit is bound up with his fantasies about what his dead father might want him to do, as well as the existence of the monster itself. The movie conflates the father figure with the Babadook (the film’s version of the Big Bad Wolf), staging one scene where Amelia’s dead husband appears in the basement and speaks in the voice of the Babadook, telling her, “You can bring me the boy,” as if demanding a child sacrifice. All these archetypes swirl around and infest Amelia’s single-parent household, like the bugs Amelia perceives inside the walls behind the refrigerator. And if the Babadook itself is a nightmare-projection of the missing father/husband, it’s also a manifestation of Samuel’s own violent and destructive side – the monster wears the same top hat Samuel puts on when he’s enacting his magician persona. Is it Samuel or the monster who is responsible for sprinkling broken glass into Amelia’s soup? The Babadook’s initial manifestations can be explained away as Samuel’s delinquency.
Wisely, the movie is frank about connecting Amelia’s panic to her economic circumstances. As a piece of sociology, The Babadook is a report from the trenches of single working class motherhood. Samuel’s outbursts at school call her away from her dreary job as a nursing attendant at a retirement home. Amelia’s sister Claire, who judges Amelia and Samuel a bit too contemptuously, is clearly upper middle class. She drones on about her husband losing sales at work, and her well-to-do girlfriends complain about struggling to find the time to go to the gym and offer condescending platitudes about the at-risk women they’ve encountered doing volunteer work with the less fortunate. Part of Claire’s class status means she is stuck playing mother at every turn: she must respond patiently to the whims of the finicky patients at her job, must comfort her neurotic sister’s sense of guilt over finding Amelia’s life totally depressing, must offer her assistance to the kind elderly neighbor who cannot bring her trash barrels in and out on her own. Amelia’s erotic life is one of the primary casualties of her single working class motherhood. She’s only reminded of it by sex line infomercials on late night television and when she attempts to masturbate she’s violently startled by Samuel’s appearance in her bedroom. Her sexuality is literally spooked by her single motherhood, scared away by the child who is ‘haunting’ her life.
The Babadook itself is a Gothic monster that consists of “what is underneath” or buried, of what lies inside. Like a classic Gothic tale, The Babadook makes uncanny hay out of sites of interiority – the space in the wall behind the fridge, the space under the bed or inside the wardrobe. When Amelia insists that she’s not scared of the Babadook, Samuel tells her, “You will be when it creeps into your room at night. You will be when it eats your insides!” That fear of an attack on the interior drives The Babadook. “Don’t let it in! Don’t let it in!” Samuel chants from within a paroxysm of terror. Later, he screeches “Get out!” to some unseen presence with such ferocity that we, like Amelia, begin to believe the Babadook is real. The monster itself comes from inside a book, from inside Samuel’s – then Amelia’s – imagination. If fiction is about imaginary spaces, then a storybook narrative has the power to coincide with our everyday paranoias and anxieties. So Mister Babadook bleeds from dark fantasy fiction into Amelia’s reality. It is the book that foretells her acts of violence, like her strangling of the family dog. The image of Amelia brandishing a butcher knife first occurs in the pages of the storybook; then, and only then, in reality. Her insomniac hallucinations use the language of cinema, repurposing imagery from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the films of Georges Méliès. The movie stages moments, like when Amelia sits fully clothed in a bathtub full of water and pulls Samuel in to join her, which are animated by tabloid stories of murderous mothers like Andrea Yates (who was also a working nurse), Susan Smith (who invented a ‘monster’ – in her case, a fictitious black carjacker – to explain her own monstrous actions) and Kasey Anthony. Like in A Nightmare on Elm Street, whose own Freddy Krueger is evoked in the Babadook’s claw-like hands, the film climaxes with the monster being beaten up by the jury-rigged survivalist weaponry of it’s would-be victim. Heather Langenkamp’s suburban teen Reaganite is rendered as a disturbed little boy and the Boogeyman has fully merged with the clinically-depressed mother figure (Nancy has one, just like Samuel).
The Babadook’s ending is what qualifies it as a true horror movie. The status quo has not been restored, the monster is not comfortingly banished or destroyed. Though Amelia and Samuel seem to find peace in their final scene together, I still wonder if the movie’s ending is an affirmation of the single-parent household’s ability to successfully raise healthy kids. Or, instead, does the ending suggest there will always be an underlying horror to Amelia’s household, because even though Amelia wins the battle against her own inner demons, she can never really account for the staggering absence of a father in her family? The movie leaves Amelia and Samuel with their Gothic secret: pain and rage lie deep below and cannot be exorcised. Instead, life going forward consists of an uneasy balance, of daily visits to the basement to feed the monster to keep it contained. So, insists The Babadook, goes parenthood.
Next: The Purge: Anarchy