As The Babadook begins, we are caught in Amelia’s (Essie Davis) nightmare, tossed about helpless, surrounded by shattered glass, and the inevitable impact that’s coming. As she wakes from her tumultuous sleep, the bags under her eyes bespeak many nights of the same terror. Soon, we learn from her precocious, verbally diuretic son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) that his “dad’s in the cemetery; he got killed driving mom to hospital to have me.” Suddenly, the dream makes sense, but, as Samuel is now seven years old, we begin to understand that this nightmare has been running in perpetuity.
The Babadook is a fictional monster with broad shoulders, shear-like hands, and a top hat. Mostly seen in silhouette, the creature is incepted through words and looks – “if it’s in a world or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Here, The Babadook separates itself from the gory horror genre. Instead, it relies on slow camera movement, intermittent silence, and psychological scares to thrill its audience. The most frightening part about the Babadook is that the monster can’t be eradicated. There is no technologically advanced monster vacuum procured at the end. Rather, the monster lives because the trauma lives.
Here, Samuel is red herring. In a traditional horror film, the child exists as bait for the monster or as a surrogate. But here, the Babadook seems less interested in Samuel, who becomes the de facto protector and father figure, and more interested in Amelia, whose sanity is increasingly questioned as the movie progresses.
Thus, the more frightening aspect of this film is watching Amelia slowly descend to madness, thus forcing us to acknowledge our own precarious state of self. The seven years of insomnia, coupled with the tragic death of her husband is doubly complicated by Samuel’s birthday occurring on the anniversary of the death. Her son is therefore a constant symbol of death and loss as well as something that is frighteningly “other.” He has a seemingly preternatural ability to sense evil and he is forced to take over the paternal role in the family.
As a replacement for his father, Samuel throws Amelia’s existence out of whack, constantly prohibiting him from making weapons and devices to scare away the Babadook. In one sense, this is fine parenting. Letting your child assemble a dart gun hardly seems wise; in another, she cannot lend Samuel ascend to the position of protector. If she does, then her husband will be vanquished.
And herein lies another trigger for Amelia’s trauma. It seems that her husband’s things are locked away in the basement of their home. Prohibited from going downstairs, Samuel is only familiar with the fact that his father once lived, but now is dead. By compartmentalizing the deceased parent, Amelia has given him life and effectively boxed him up for herself. She refuses to speak about the incident – even if Samuel does. Until the very end, she bars Samuel from celebrating his birthday on its actual day – thus forcing him to celebrate on a separate day with his cousin.
The Babadook is not frightening because of gallons of blood, cats jumping out from closets, or horribly disfigured killers. The Babdook is frightening because it exposes the threats of all of those things that we keep inside and refuse to leave behind, while forcing us to recognize the marriage of trauma and existence.