One of the more intriguing aspects of horror is the cathartic effect. On many levels, it’s just the pleasant feeling of stress and relief that comes with a good scare. But, given how frequently horror gets into metaphor as story, more interesting modes of catharsis sometimes come along.
The Babadook focuses on Amelia, a single-mother raising a troubled boy, Samuel. Samuel acts out and is clingy and his dependence on Amelia repulses her, probably not least because she became a mother and a widow at the same time, her husband dying in a car crash on their way to the hospital. It’s clear that she has had little to no support in raising Samuel (her sister is clearly resentful of Amelia’s needs) and the constant reminders from those who knew him that Sam is “just like his father” doesn’t help much either. One night, a strange pop-up book that Amelia has no memory of appears in Sam’s room, and the boy insists on hearing the story of Mister Babadook, a strange figure that comes into your life and can never leave, whose presence and actions will make you “wish you were dead.” Amelia’s attempts to destroy the book only results in its continued reappearance, and her fear that someone is stalking her and her son soon changes into a very real concern that they are being menaced by something unnatural. The situation comes to a head when Amelia, desperate for some sleep and relief, exhausted and drugged, becomes possessed by the Babadook and attempts to kill Samuel. Samuel eventually manages to exorcise her, and in a final confrontation with the force Amelia, while not defeating it, comes to a place of understanding with the creature.
Amelia exists in a world of greys and blacks, her depression and exhaustion reflected in her physical surroundings, her home almost hallucinatory in its bleakness. The entire visual design of the film is amazing, with the contrast between interior and exterior worlds reflecting the minds of Amelia and Sam and their complicated relationship. The Bababadook fits perfectly in this world, never fully seen but glimpsed in flashes, and somehow even more unreal the more his physical presence becomes inarguable. Again, this is a film where the scares are slight, but the palpable dread is inescapable because of the care with which it has been made.
The Babadook itself is a brilliantly realized horror creation, as well. While supernatural creatures only having power if you believe in them is a groan-worthy cliche at this point, the Babadook upends that, becoming more powerful the more you doubt his existence. Within the symbolic logic of the film, this works, because the Babadook is in some way all of Amelia’s darker thoughts made manifest, her grief and depression and anger at Samuel made manifest. Though, interestingly, there’s no real indication that it is Amelia who has created or summoned the Babadook, but Samuel. It’s Samuel who first has the book, and the Babadook bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam’s favorite magician on a video he watches over and over, somehow cobbled together from his father’s hat and coat, and even at multiple points appearing as Sam’s father. Because while Amelia is dealing with her own feelings, Sam is equally angry at his mother, blaming her for his father’s death and keeping his father’s things from him.
It’s particularly fitting that, given the metaphoric nature of the Babadook itself, that there is no real way to defeat him. We’re told this, of course, right at the start, that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Amelia can only achieve a kind of defeat over him, driving him back and diminishing him, but not eliminating him from their lives. Just as neither she nor Sam can ever truly escape their grief, by confronting the Babadook they can confront it. And by confronting it, they can reduce it so that, while it will always be there, it’s now simply part of their lives. Something they live with and take responsibility for and watch as, slowly, it diminishes more and more.