The Babadook: Facing & Feeding Our Fears

Honestly, I’m not a fan of horror movies. Or haunted houses. I blame the Jaycee’s Haunted House when I was in third grade. My older brother planted me in the dentist chair and suddenly countless hands grabbed me. I screamed and very nearly wet myself before launching into the arms of a mustachioed man who was not my father. He carried me through the rest of the house. I think haunted houses are cathartic–all that screaming release, but I don’t enjoy being terrified and this goes for films too. Occasionally, I will read enough about a horror film that I’ll feel compelled to watch it, as was the case a couple months ago with In Fear, an Irish film following a couple who have been dating for a couple of weeks. They’re on their way to a music festival and decide to stop for a romantic hotel stay before joining friends who are camping. I appreciated this film because it takes place primarily in a vehicle, and the couple is forced to confront what they know about one another and the great deal that they don’t know. They end up in a maze, pursued by a sadistic monster of the human variety. The ending was fascinating too, so if you do watch it, drop me a line and tell me your thoughts.

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My main squeeze loves horror films, and usually watches them alone. I’d paused on The Babadook several times, each times concluding it looked too damn creepy. But then visiting poet, Bruce Lack (check out his incredible collection In Service) talked about it and I thought I could share the couch with my man for this one. Do a little Siskel and Ebert. And we did, friends, we did. As in we discussed this film at length.

This film was fascinating and terrifying, but what raised the hairs on my arms wasn’t so much the shadow creature of the Babadook–it was the fear single mother (Essie Davis) lived with, lived in, swallowed, and suppressed daily in supporting her child (played with wide eyed intensity and great humor by Noah Wiseman). Her son is obsessed with monsters, and builds weapons to fight the monster that he knows and dreams will come at night. It is a weapon he brings to school that forces her to take him out. She works in a nursing home, plodding along patiently and with kindness, but she is unravelling from lack of sleep and uncertainty about her son who is obsessed with an impending monster attack.

We must note that her husband died in a car accident, as he drove her to the hospital to deliver. Her son’s eighth birthday is approaching. She is a woman skin hungry and lonely, still in deep mourning though she masks it with self-contained smiles and a fenced in gentleness. She can not bare for her son to hug her too hard or hold on to her in sleep. The house is stark, barren, and the basement contains all of her husband’s belongings. The basement is kept locked, but children, even if they fear basements dare themselves to dart into the darkness. And her son does more than that. He builds an alter of photographs, constructs a father outline by hanging his father’s hat, a shirt and pants on the wall. And to this outline, he performs his magic act. His mother drags him out of the basement and he screeches, “He was my father too. You don’t own him.”

That night, the boy chooses a book that neither has seen before, but that was in his bookshelf. There is no author or publisher. It begins benignly,

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but soon the rhyming cadence give way to a terrifying, albeit compelling pop-up narrative  that the mother cannot help paging through with speed. When she closes the book, unfinished, her son clings to her sobbing. She hides the book, but it returns. She tears it up and throws it away, but it returns on her door step. Only the narrative has changed. She is the protagonist. The tale it tells is terrifying because we have seen it in our own world.

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Of course the Babadook comes, and it is a creature of shadowed corners and insect legs,bat wings and top hatted terror.  Of course, her victory comes in facing her fear, understanding what she has survived is far worse than the Babadook, and that what truly horrifies her  can’t be relegated to a locked basement. She must, as the ending makes clear, climb the stairs down to the basement of her psyche daily, no matter how horrific the act is, face her fear, and feed it gently–understanding it is part of her and it can only be controlled through mindful care.

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What’s truly terrifying is understanding that the Babadook is not just the roaring creature that lives in the basement. The Babadook could be each of us, given the right maddening accumulation of conditions. It made me think of the sleeplessness of early motherhood, the terror in realizing I am responsible for human beings, the powerlessness I often feel to protect them from this world. Writer-director Jennifer Kent goes in a direction I did not think I could handle, and yet, in her capable hands I would go down any dark path. It’s a brilliant film.

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