With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards. Spoilers are guaranteed.
The Babadook (2014)
Worldwide Gross: $6,690,092
Certified Fresh: 98%
“I would hate my kid.”
I’m rewatching The Babadook, and that’s the first thing I write down.
It’s a familiar phrase, one my fiance and I toss off now and again. We laugh, joke about the ways we’d fuck them up. We go gaga over our nieces and nephews when they’re content and giggly, then thank our lucky stars that we get to walk away when the shrieking starts. We go to the movies, we have another drink, we book a vacation, knowing full well that finding someone to feed our cat is a lot easier than finding a babysitter.
And then, sometimes, we get bored. We’ve gone to the gym, eaten dinner, washed the dishes, but the idea of another episode of The Amazing Race is near frightful. We could go out, but we’ve been doing that too much lately. We sit there, antsy, itchy, looking out the window at one of the biggest, most beautiful cities in America (see: Chicago), wondering what there possibly is to do next. It’s a horrible feeling, one that exposes an existential emptiness, a fundamental void of meaning that inevitably summons visions of alternate realities. Every “what if” is a loosened screw. Light bulbs shatter, floorboards snap. Bullets dodged begin to look like missed opportunities. Suddenly, abstract concepts of “permanence” and “legacy” begin to crystallize.
And it’s like every choice I’ve ever made is wrong.
I say to my fiance, “This is why people have kids.”
It passes, eventually.
There’s nothing worse than having nothing to do.
There’s nothing worse than having everything to do.
The Babadook is about parenting, though it’s less about the practical difficulties of raising a child than it is the emotional toil, especially when that child represents all that you’ve lost. The film follows Amelia, the single, overworked mother of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a loud, precocious child whose affection for her is outmatched only by his propensity to act out. His obsession with monsters and homemade weapons (dart guns, catapults, etc.) alienate his classmates and cousins, not to mention get him in hot water with authority figures. He’s too much work for an entire school district, let alone Amelia (Essie Davis), whose growing disdain for the boy is evident from the film’s opening moments when he climbs into her bed, grasping at her hair as she scoots away, closer to the edge. But It’s hard to judge her: Amelia’s husband died on the day Samuel was born. The boy is a living, ubiquitous reminder of her greatest trauma.
One night, Samuel pulls a new book off the shelf, a crimson red hardback called The Babadook. In it, a ghastly, Gorey-esque beast with googly eyes, a gaping black maw, and an ominous top hat torments a child who made the mistake of letting the creature inside his home. Samuel becomes obsessed with the Babadook, and, soon enough, the creature itself begins to manifest in ways both subtle (his garb manifesting in Amelia’s periphery) and abstract (weaving in and out of vintage Segundo de Chomón and Georges Méliès footage). From here on out, the film takes on the tone of a fever dream: manic, sweaty, and adrift.
It’s also here that the Babadook crystallizes as more of an internal threat than an external one. What we’re watching is not a monster terrorizing a family, but rather the manifestation of one woman’s inner rage and resentment. The final act unfolds in such a state of dreamlike fluidity that it’s easy to chalk up its events — canicide, drugging, starvation, and a general disregard for cleanliness — as being as imagined as the monster itself. Such ambiguity is undoubtedly resonant from a storytelling perspective and most certainly helps paint the film’s themes in broad, graspable strokes. But it also goes a long way towards rendering the horror nothing more than a means to an end. I want the horror to follow me home afterwards, not fizzle away in celluloid.
The Babadook is a wonderful, terrifying creature, rendered with stop-motion animation that centers the film’s grounding in storybook aesthetics and myth; that it’s ultimately not real is both a testament to that aesthetic and a backhanded slap to anyone, like myself, who wants to be invested in a tangible monster. To say a threat is more figurative than literal is to leap up at film’s end and scream, “It was all a dream!” Sometimes, in horror, I hate metaphor. Sometimes, in horror, I hate art.
The threat has to be real.
The funny thing is, my mom does think it’s real. The Babadook, that is. Not in real life, obviously, but in the world of the film.
“When her husband died, that kid, she resented him and her depression built up and a poltergeist appeared,” she tells me. “Poltergeists feed on depression and negative feelings.”
Sure, sure, poltergeists are historically unseen spirits of noise and action, but not actual apparitions. What my mother is referring to is the belief that poltergeists are born from negative energy. According to her, Amelia and the house itself, which she leaves in a certain state of unkempt throughout the film, are founts of negative energy and what led to not only the manifestation of the Babadook, but also Samuel’s manic episodes and bad behavior. “Negative energy feeds upon negative energy,” she says.
It’s a fascinating take to me, as I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone who didn’t come to assume the Babadook itself was simply an internal manifestation. And it’s not like she doesn’t get the movie. She’s on the same page as myself, my dad, and the rest of its audience as to what the Babadook represents: depression, resentment, and rage. To her, however, what they manifest are not figurative demons but literal ones. When I ask her if there were any times as a child that I was as annoying as Samuel, my mom quickly responds, “No, but there was no poltergeist in the house.”
I wish I was as sure of anything as my mom is sure of this.
But it also emphasizes the divide between myself, a single, childless male, and a mother who’s actually lived out the horrors (and joys) of childbirth and parenting. In my mind, raising a child would be an unending nightmare. For others of my age and station, it represents fulfillment, excitement, and companionship. Of course, anyone who’s even remotely self-aware knows it’s never just one or the other. But we need our stories; they’re our justifications, after all.
Because, really, all there is for me in The Babadook is empathy. For people like my mother, however, there’s something much more real. When I try to needle her into admitting that maybe there were times she regretted having my older brother or I, she is adamant that she never did. Once motherhood becomes real, as it does for Amelia by film’s end, it seems to change the very fabric of our ideas of what is and isn’t possible. The “negative energy” that created the monster is a spectre I fear, but for my mother, it was a living thing she overcame, that she had to overcome. She wasn’t afforded the luxury of musing about it.
I think that’s what she means when she said there was no poltergeist in the house.
I’m not sure whether or not writer and director Jennifer Kent has children. I would assume so,= since the filmmaker has repeatedly described The Babadook as a very personal project, and it very much feels like one. It’s intimate and introspective and blessed with a singular point of view and a rich personality, qualities Kent has said she looks for in her favorite filmmakers.
It’s also obvious, whether you know who directed it or not, that it was made by a woman. Not just because of the film’s insight into motherhood, either — the one-upmanship and false empathy that can arise in female friendship is explored, as is Amelia’s sexual frustration and how the very idea of sexuality changes once you’re sharing your house with a child. One of the film’s quiet nuances is how a love interest for Amelia appears early in the film, then fades away unceremoniously; there’s no time for such frivolities.
Kent’s elegant, resonant POV here was a breath of fresh air in a year when 85% of the films coming out of Hollywood were directed by men. A female horror director was an even larger rarity, especially among the glut of found-footage sequels and slick Hollywood spookers clogging up the multiplexes. But 2014 was a good year for indie horror, both local (Starry Eyes, Creep) and international (What We Do in the Shadows, Housebound), and a refreshing one in that three of the year’s best were written and directed by women.
The Babadook enjoyed much of the goodwill, but Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night also stood out as smart, meaty slices of horror that paired solid scares with a distinct POV. Honeymoon dissects marital roles from a woman’s perspective in much the same way that The Babadook illuminates issues of motherhood. And A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night offers its female characters power and sexuality without punishing them for it, a trait horror has always been notorious for.
Kent is also just a fantastic filmmaker. The Babadook is consistently gripping and well-paced, and her dogged use of practical effects coheres the narrative and texture of the piece in a deeply satisfying way. The film’s intimacy and homespun approach almost feels reactionary in a genre that’s lost so much of its magic in the digital age.
It feels reactionary to a lot of things, actually — the pressure to smile, the pressure to lie, the pressure to appear happy.
The pressure to say everything is okay. Because it usually isn’t. And that’s okay.
Oddly enough, I both appreciate The Babadook more and like it less after rewatching it for this column. As a statement, it’s powerful. It’s also quite scary and remains so with subsequent viewings. The Babadook’s first glimpses are still some of the most captivating stills I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. But, as I wrote above, it’s hard to be all that invested once you realize the spectre is all in Amelia’s mind and that much of the third act is likely nothing more than an imagined scenario.
My biggest complaint when I first saw it was with Amelia and Samuel’s final confrontation with the Babadook, when it threatens to overwhelm them from a wall of darkness that forms in her bedroom. Holding her son closely, Amelia screams, “This is my house. You are trespassing in my house! If you touch my son again, I’ll fucking kill you!” That’s some sharp cheddar right there, and that these words were all it took to banish the Babadook to the basement felt to me like a cop-out. You can’t yell at a ghost or a monster or a psycho to just “go away.” That’s not scary, nor is it believable.
But it’s also the only way, really. For this movie, it’s integral to the film’s central truth: that our fears and resentments never go away; all we can do is shout them down to the basement of our soul. Were The Babadook to give us something more definitive, like, say, a definitive blow delivered by Samuel’s trove of homemade weapons, it might be more satisfying. But it would also be less complicated. The Babadook’s greatest strength and biggest weakness is its reliance on theme, which, especially by film’s end, tends to overwhelm the horror.
But it wouldn’t be as good otherwise, I suspect. Nor, probably, would it have been as good if the Babadook were a real monster. Because, really, the point is that the stories we tell ourselves, the storybooks that come alive in our minds, are simply fiction. The other lives I’ve constructed in my head are not real alternatives, but absurd fairy tales. And the horrors I associate with parenting? It’s like not boarding a roller coaster because you’re convinced it’ll fly off the tracks. Could it? Sure. But you’ll never know until you live it.
That said, do I now want kids? Hell no. But, should I ever change my mind, I feel as if I’m better prepared to guard my doors against the monster outside.
As we discussed the movie, my mom told me a story about how, when I was three, we would sit in my bed and make up our own stories. One night, she told me there was a creature outside and that it was going to look in the window at me. She wanted to scare me, to get my reaction (and clearly scar me for life). Instead, I told her with the utmost sincerity that the monster wasn’t looking for me, but for my brother. And since my brother wasn’t there, it would go away.
If I could only act now like I did back then.