Australian horror The Babadook tells the tale of a single mother, Amelia, struggling to raise her increasingly violent and disturbed son, Samuel. Samuel’s father, Oskar, was killed in a violent car accident as he was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son. The anniversary of her husband’s death coinciding with her son’s birthday has caused Amelia to avoid celebrating Samuel’s birthday on the day for years. This, among other behaviors, is a manifestation of the subconscious resentment she feels towards her son. Amelia expected to have her husband’s support in raising their child, but due to his untimely death, the task is a burden that she must now carry alone. On her own, she is afraid that she will be unable to steer him away from negative influences as he might one day grow into a sociopath. The ‘demon child’ is a common horror archetype (The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby) that plays on a parent’s fear that their parenting will prove ineffective in correcting their child’s behavior. This and Amelia’s resentment towards Samuel turn into an outright fear of her son.
Amelia’s and Samuel’s mental states go into a state of decline after the appearance of an innocent children’s book titled “Mister Babadook” about a monster entering homes and terrorizing families. The actual Babadook begins to appear before Amelia and her son several times, as the contents of the story become a reality. The Babadook is tall figure dressed in black, wearing a coat, slacks, and a hat. It first appears on screen as it scurries across Amelia’s bedroom ceiling, greeting the audience with insect-like chirping. From Amelia’s perspective, we are lead to believe that the Babadook parallels Samuel, and that his erratic behavior manifests itself as the Babadook or his inner “demon child.” Yet, as the film progresses and Amelia sees the Babadook as real and not just her son’s imagination, she too begins to exhibit increasingly disturbed behavior. When she grows violent towards her son, we also hear the sound of chirping insects. As the role of Babadook seemingly shifts from son to mother, the true nature of the monster reveals itself to Amelia in a dream state. In a haze, she descends into the basement where she keeps all of her husband’s old belongings. There, she encounters a vision of Oskar as he tries to comfort her. It seems to be alright until he asks for her to “bring me the boy,” at which point, his face is obscured by darkness, his voice distorts, and we hear the familiar audio cue of insects.
The origin of the creature is revealed to be the husband, or rather, the memory of Oskar which feeds off of Amelia’s grief. This is hinted at when we see a brief flash of her husband’s clothing hanging on the wall in her basement, closely resembling the outfit that the Babadook wears each time it appears. To put it more accurately, the monster is the specter of mental illness. Amelia, who suffers from depression, exhibits psychotic episodes where she abuses her son Samuel. In one of her dream states, Amelia has a vision of Samuel’s dead body on the couch. She howls in pain but is then awakened by Samuel’s cries when she awakens from her dream and realizes that she was coming at Samuel with a knife. The Babadook is a manifestation of Amelia’s psychotic side that she keeps buried deep within her psyche, occasionally breaking out and preying on Samuel.
Subtle hints within the film suggest the origin of the Babadook book. During the princess party being thrown for Aunt Claire’s daughter, of the women asks about Amelia’s past as a writer. Amelia responds that she mainly wrote magazine articles and occasionally some “kid stuff.” This is the biggest clue that Amelia in fact wrote the book, possibly as a way to explain her depression to Samuel in terms that he can understand: a monster that lives within people. Though Amelia is the author of the book, she deludes herself of this fact, unwilling to accept the she still struggles with these feelings. She tries to rid her family of the book at every occasion, denying that the book, or her psychosis, have any effect on her and Samuel. After tearing up the book, it appears on her doorstep several days later, taped together and with new pages added in. When she finally burns the book, we see her calling Claire about someone stalking them and leaving them with this book. When she turns to the camera, we see her hands are blackened with ink. When she hangs up the phone, she moves off screen and the bookshelf against the wall comes into focus. There is a red book in the center of the shelf, potentially containing a new copy of the book. The phone rings once again, she comes back on screen, her head eclipses the bookshelf (suggesting their intimate connection), and the Babadook’s croaking voice is on the other line, signaling its return. The mother is blind to the fact that she clings to the memory of her husband, thus prolonging her depressive state.
An Infested House
Much of the film takes place within the home. Time spent at home further increases as Amelia spirals further into her paranoia. The house is a metaphor her psyche as she becomes trapped within her own head. She watches Mrs. Roach out of her window, longing for the solitary life she leads, and peers suspiciously out of the peephole before letting anyone into her inner sanctuary. The basement is home to her husband’s possessions, which comes to represent her deepest, repressed memories and feelings. Amelia’s health and the house’s foundation are sound until Amelia uncovers a cockroach infestation within the walls. This also coincides with the Babadook terrorizing the family. Yet when Child Services arrives at her home, Amelia tries to explain her cockroach problem only to find that the hole in the wall has vanished. The cockroaches being a figment of her imagination parallel the psychosis that has burrowed itself within her mind. The Babadook itself takes on roach-like qualities, suggesting the psychological nature of the Babadook. The Babadook, like the cockroaches in her house, has infested her mind with mental illness.
Having lost her husband, Oskar, Amelia carries the full burden of parenthood on her own. Her role as caretaker extends beyond her son and into her professional life as a nurse in a retirement home. She has a number of people dependent upon her, but no one that she can depend on. Her one partner was taken from her in a tragic accident, and any chance of a romantic relationship with her coworker, Robbie, was thwarted by Samuel. Deprived of a partner, all she has is a son to watch over. The task is made more daunting by being under constant scrutiny by the community. Her authority as mother is threatened by “surrogate parents.” First, Amelia speaks with Samuel’s teacher and principal over her son’s behavior in school. They suggest isolating him from other students and having a monitor keep Samuel in check. Rather than work with Amelia, they aim to correct Samuel on their own terms. Next, a man and woman from DCS wish to speak Amelia upon hearing that Samuel has not been enrolled in classes for days, further questioning her ability as a mother. She experiences other challenges when she gets into a car accident with another man, shouting and accusing her of potentially killing Samuel in her recklessness. Once more, when Amelia goes to the police to report someone stalking her family, the police question the credibility of her story and her sanity and attempt to exert their power over her. The Babadook’s outfit appears on the wall of the police station in a mocking gesture to her mental health and also to assert its increasing control of her life. Returning to the basement scene, when Oskar asks for Amelia to “bring him the boy,” it hammers in the point that Amelia needed Oskar to be her partner in raising Samuel. His request is an assertion that she is not capable of this on her own, but also, because the memory of the husband is linked with psychosis, it suggests that Samuel too will struggle with mental illness due to years of abuse under Amelia. Only when Amelia confronts the Babadook and protects her son is she able to confidently assume her role as mother, accept full responsibility for her actions, and banish the insecurity she had been feeling for years.
Under constant pressure, Amelia seeks an escape from Samuel to live a life of her own without the restrictions of parenthood. Her neighbor, Mrs. Roach, provides an example of the idealized independent life that she longs for. Unlike, the elderly patients she cares for at her job, Mrs. Roach is fully capable of taking care of herself. Also, she seems to be free of all responsibility except for her own self. Mrs. Roach helps take care of Samuel from time to time, and Samuel even favors her company, yet she is not obligated to do so. She can enjoy her life alone at home, comfortably watching television and eating sweets. So it would seem to Amelia when she gazes through the window at her, but upon further inspection, the fantasy is an illusion. While washing dishes, Amelia watches Mrs. Roach watching television through her window. Upon a second glance, Amelia sees the Babadook preying on Mrs. Roach as well. Despite having the life Amelia craves, Mrs. Roach’s independence is not everlasting as she will eventually succumb to the “roach” growing in her own mind: dementia and her worsening Parkinson’s.
Sweets and Fantasy
Throughout the film, Amelia has a persistent toothache that worsens as the story develops. The root cause of this is her indulgence in sweets. We first see Amelia enjoying some chocolate while watching TV. After a brief candy bar commercial, the scene immediately cuts to Amelia eating a piece of chocolate and indulging the fantasy suggested to her by the television. The candy commercial is followed by ads for a sex hotline and romantic movie. Soon after, Amelia goes up to her bedroom and pulls out a back massager to masturbate. Just before orgasm, her son barges in crying that there is a monster in his room. In this sequence, her drive to satisfy fantasy is at odds with her reality. She stares at two lovers passionately kissing in their car, she watches Mrs. Roach living an independent life, she is eager to start a relationship with Robbie, and she is envious of her sister’s life. For Amelia, all she has is a relationship with her son, yet that too is shaken by her own erratic behavior. After shouting at Sam, she tries to make amends by eating more sweets with him and watching TV together. Her persistence in avoiding reality in favor of fantasy culminates in her pulling out the rotten tooth that has been causing the ache. The over-indulgence of fantasy causes Amelia to lose control of her life through inattention.
Sam’s increasing preoccupation with the Babadook book urges Amelia to remove its influence on Samuel to stem his mischievous behavior. Constant talk about the Babadook causes Samuel to experience enormous amounts of stress resulting in seizures. Aside from the book, there are other influences on Sam and Amelia that she grows wary of. As any parent would show concern over exposing their children to graphic images, television is presented in a negative light and its influence over Sam and Amelia is demonstrated in various ways. The first instance we see is with Amelia watching television alone and viewing a chocolate commercial. Immediately cutting to her eating chocolate demonstrates TV’s ability to suggest certain behaviors to the characters. The commercial is followed by sex hotline ads and romantic scenes, making Amelia increasingly aware of her isolation and longing for intimacy. All images on the television screen are of a violent or sexual nature: martial arts violence, car crashes, subtly erotic exercise equipment ads, and scenes of animal violence. While bombarding Amelia with this content, it also depicts scenes relating to her own growing psychosis: horror scenes of a woman possessed, wolves dressing in sheep costumes, and a news report of a woman killing her child which briefly features Amelia herself on screen. Amelia also watches a sequence of monsters and occult rituals where the Babadook makes its appearance, introducing its psychotic nature into the world of television.
Samuel too imitates what he sees on television through his fascination with magic and the instructional DVD he emulates. Amelia watches her son with a worried expression as the magician says that with this DVD he’ll be able to “shock his friends and family.” When he practices his magic routine in the basement, Sam quotes the DVD verbatim when he says, “Life is not always as it seems. It can be a wondrous thing, but it can also be very treacherous.” He also learns to use bang snap fireworks to imitate the poofs of flame that the magician is able to summon. The consequences of such behavior are made clear when Samuel uses the bang snaps against his mother when she scolds him. Yet the menacing nature of media is more a result of Amelia’s worry rather than any actual threat being posed. It is also with magic tricks that Samuel is able to cheer his mother up. Samuel decides how he chooses to use his magic, demonstrating how it is what one chooses to focus on that determines their actions. Though both the television and the book feature prophetic scenes of Amelia’s violence against her son, it is she who controls the remote and she who wrote the book.
Amelia’s deep suspicion in her son’s behavior drives a wedge between them, emotionally. She assumes to role of domineering parent more to reassure herself that she is the one in control, and this prevents Amelia from bonding with Sam. Samuel tries to help her in what few ways that he can. He tries to distract her with magic tricks (which she dismisses) and urges her to not “let it in.” Samuel is finally able to break through to her when she is at her most desperate. With Amelia tied to the basement floor, Samuel tells her that he will not leave her, despite all she had done. She tries to strangle him, but in response, he holds her face. Letting in his love and trusting Samuel pulls her out of a crazed state and she regains control of herself. After a final confrontation with the Babadook, the monster is banished to the basement and to the deepest corners of her mind. In the final scene, Sam and Amelia at last celebrate his birthday on the actual day. They receive a visit from the same Child Services agents, but Amelia no longer feels insecure as a mother, so she wins their trust. At their party, Sam performs a magic show for his mother. The recurring theme of magic corresponds with illusion and how we choose to see. When Amelia was fully under the influence of her depression, her world appeared more menacing, but after banishing the Babadook, the birthday party scene appears absolutely delightful, perhaps even deceptively so. With Samuel’s last magic trick, he is able to conjure a dove out of thin air. This trick is advanced for child of Samuel’s age, and for it to go so smoothly seems unbelievable. It may be that the trick appears to go so well because we see how she sees it. She chooses to suspend her disbelief and buy into the illusion, allowing herself to be surprised and marvel at her son. Similarly, she copes with her depression by choosing to take on a more optimistic view and not dwell on her troubles as she had in the past.
To keep the Babadook at bay, Samuel collects worms for his mother to offer to it. With the bowl of worms, Amelia can safely descend into the basement and calm the monster. When we see Amelia tend to the garden, we see the dog’s body buried beneath. From that same garden, Samuel collects worms to give to the Babadook. The same worms that will decompose Bugsy’s body (and erase Amelia’s memory of her killing the dog) will also wear away at the memory of her husband. In this way, she will be able to let go of the trauma that has been plaguing her all these years, allowing her to move on with her life and care for her son.