My mother was my first horror guru.
She was a huge fan of the genre in all its forms, be it literary (she worshipped at the altar of Stephen King) or cinematically (I can still see the VHS copies of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Night of the Living Dead peppering the floor of her bedroom). When I was little, she tried to shield me from horror but as I grew older my enthusiasm broke down her defenses, and she began to guide my budding love of all things weird and macabre. Mom was a single parent so I’m sure finding something that preoccupied me for longer than five minutes at a time was just as valuable a tool as it was a means of bonding us. Still, I think it pleased her that I was infatuated with something that had been important to her for so long.
My mother was also very sick. The memory of her illness stretches back as far as I can remember. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was five, and by the time I was eight or so, it began to feel more like I was a live-in nurse and confidant to her rather than a son. I cared for her as cancer spread through her body and mental illness ravaged her spirit, and for a time she did her best to care for me too. Then it became all she could do to get out of bed each day, and I had to fend for myself. I was thirteen when she passed away. She had fought and hung on for so many years, and to many people’s eyes (including my own) she was a warrior.
But there were also many dark days in the house that we shared, times that few people knew about, and the psychic imprint of the trauma from that time was left buried in my mind as I tried to rebuild my life after her death. Little did I know, a reckoning with those mental scars was on the horizon, and it would not disappear no matter how fast or far I would run.
Jennifer Kent’s 2014 directorial debut The Babadook is the kind of film the phrase “jaw-dropping” was made for. It follows the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother struggling to come to terms with the hardships of raising her troubled son Sam (Noah Wiseman) while simultaneously wrestling with the deep-seated grief she feels over the death of her husband. As tension builds in their home due to Sam’s continual outbursts at school, things in Amelia’s life appear to be reaching a dangerous boiling point.
Then one day Sam finds a strange pop-up book on his shelf called “Mister Babadook.” Neither he nor his mother can recall ever seeing it there before and its story (which outlines how the title monster will invisibly creep into their lives before making itself known and wreaking bloody havoc) terrifies them. At first, Amelia doesn’t know what to make of the book, believing it to be either some sort of elaborate and cruel joke or possibly a sign that they’re being stalked. Turns out the truth is closer to the latter assumption as strange occurrences begin to take place in their home and the reality of Mister Babadook becomes horrifyingly clear. As the evil entity slowly begins to take hold of Amelia, Sam must figure out a way to bring his mother back from the brink so that they can defeat the monster that’s threatening their lives.
The Babadook displays a level of confidence, control, and grace rarely seen in the first offerings of filmmakers, and it left many audiences a tad shell-shocked upon its arrival. People walked away from those initial screenings feeling rocked by its masterful creation of dread, uniquely nightmarish imagery, intense performances, and (perhaps most of all) its raw, heartfelt, and painfully honest depictions of parenthood. Those with children felt a direct connection to the way some of the hard realities of raising kids were displayed, and it’s usually from that lens that people talk about the film today.
But upon my first viewing of The Babadook, I couldn’t help but connect with it in a different way. Almost certainly owing to the fact that I experienced an uncommonly scarring childhood (my “tragic backstory” as I jokingly refer to it in an effort to downplay the sadness of the situation when it comes up in conversation), the relationship between Amelia and Sam hit incredibly close to home. And as someone who continues to deal with the psychological aftermath of that time in my life on a regular basis, I found the way in which Kent talks about trauma in the film extremely helpful. Most entries in the horror genre that personify the complex emotions born of trauma as a physical monster usually have the hero at the end slay the beast, which in turn silences the ghosts that have been haunting them for so long. Yet in the case of The Babadook, and specifically its controversial ending, we’re presented with a different — and I would argue more realistic — means of dealing with our demons.
We must become their caretakers.
Amelia and Sam are en route to disaster even before Mister Babadook arrives in their lives.
The former appears to be suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the car accident she was involved in that took the life of Oscar, her husband. With Amelia in labor, the two had been on their way to the hospital when their vehicle was struck and the would-be father, if we’re to believe one of the forms the shape-shifting Mister Babadook takes, died an incredibly gruesome death in front of her. Since that day, Amelia has suffered from terrible recurring nightmares about that moment, seems to be detached from others despite her best efforts to connect, and is incapable of confronting the devastation of that night, as best displayed by her refusal to celebrate Sam’s birthday as it coincides with the night Oscar died.
Sam’s situation is just as difficult. I’ve heard many viewers dismiss the child as an annoying brat and, while some of his behavior may justify that title a tad, I can’t help but think that the description is lacking in the empathy department. The child was quite literally born out of trauma. The physical and emotional turmoil Amelia was experiencing while giving birth under such uniquely awful circumstances almost certainly affected the boy, and that’s not even taking into account any damage that may have been done to him by the car accident itself. His world was filled with fear before he had lived even a single day on earth, and the anxiety bred by the situation he was born of practically drips from the boy when we first meet him. Sam is on constant alert for threats to him and his mother, with his anxiety manifesting as an obsession with monsters. To him, the world is a frightening place, so can you blame the six-year-old at all for being high-strung?
We’re never really told what Mister Babadook is definitively. Is he a real malevolent entity attracted to their home by the trauma they’ve experienced, or is the monster a hallucination shared by Amelia and Sam due to their overlapping anxieties and dread? Part of the movie’s charm, to me at least, is that this isn’t spelled out for us. Kent chooses to leave the existence of Mister Babadook in relative ambiguity, but there is one thing that’s certain: what mother and son experience throughout the film’s 95-minute runtime is a direct result of what happened to them on the night of the car accident. It represents the years Amelia and Sam have spent tamping their emotions down, ignoring their grief, sadness, and resentment in hopes that it will stay buried.
When Mister Babadook announces his arrival to them, the knock they hear at their door is the sound of those emotions finding their way home and demanding to be heard.
During my first viewing of The Babadook, I was struck by how Amelia did her absolute best to deny the existence of the eponymous monster and, by doing so, gave it more and more of a foothold within herself, eventually leading to Mister Babadook fully possessing her. It was one of those moments you sometimes have when watching a film where it feels as if it’s mirroring your own life experience beat for beat.
My Mister Babadook appeared to me about a decade after my mother’s passing when I was in my mid-20’s. When she died, I was adopted by a wonderful family that took me in as their own and saved my life in the process. All of a sudden, everything changed. My days finally had normalcy to them that I had previously only observed from afar in the lives of my friends and schoolmates. Basic needs like clean clothing and regular meals were being met, as were more complex ones such as structure and discipline. These things are easily taken for granted, but when you’ve rarely known them, you understand how much of a luxury they truly are.
What’s more, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt safe. Through no fault my mother’s own (her depression at the time was severe, untreated, and amplified by her terrible situation), she had become emotionally abusive in her final years. She spent the majority of her time asleep, but when she was awake, I felt as if I was constantly walking on eggshells. I never knew if the person rising from her drug-induced slumber would be the mom who loved me more than anything in this world, or the woman who resented my existence, criticized my every action, and, on particularly bad days, told me I was useless.
But now I felt like a normal kid, and for a while, I thought the new life had allowed me to forget about my old one. Like Amelia, I thought that the emotional wreckage from the trauma I had experienced could be forgotten if I gave myself enough distance from its memory. While she packed away her husband’s belongings in the basement of her home, I tried burying all of the complex and conflicting childhood memories in a sea of activity and new experiences. For a time, that worked.
Then one day I heard the knocks at my door. First, there was depression (most likely inherited from mom) which I tried to combat with alcohol at the time. You can probably guess how that went. Then when the depression ebbed, the anxiety flowed. I started having panic attacks and couldn’t decide what was more frightening: their intensity and ability to cripple me in mere minutes or the fact that I had no idea when one would erupt. Yet I denied that anything was happening, hoping that it would just go away. It was the mental equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and shouting over the din inside my brain.
But eventually, that internal hurricane of past traumas had to be met face-to-face. Just as Amelia finally stands her ground and screams at Mister Babadook with the wonderful line “YOU ARE TRESPASSING IN MY HOUSE,” a declaration of acknowledgment needed to happen in my life, and after that recognition, a reckoning. And it’s in those moments following Amelia’s stand that The Babadook truly sets itself apart from its peers.
After being bested in its climactic showdown with Amelia, the Babadook entity is reduced to a quivering mass that remains unseen to the audience before the camera switches to a POV shot when it speeds away into the family’s basement. During this moment, it lets out a wail that feels more rooted in anguish than anger, as if the act of Amelia and Sam denying it power over them has reminded it of how pitiful a thing it is.
Fast forward a day later and we find a family and home that’s been utterly transformed. Sunshine floods the once dark halls of their house; Sam appears to have had a great weight lifted from his small but strong shoulders and, most significantly of all, Amelia is celebrating her son’s birthday despite the painful memories the date brings. It is an idyllic picture but, though they’ve made great progress, we’re also shown that their trauma still lingers.
Taking a bowl of worms and bugs collected from their garden by Sam, Amelia brings the meal down to the waiting Mister Babadook in their basement. As she presents its supper, the advancing creature nearly overwhelms her until she does something remarkable: Amelia soothes the beast. In tender tones, she repeats “it’s alright…it’s alright” while calmingly shushing it the same way a parent does a frightened child. The presence recedes and then we see its bowl pulled into the shadows by unseen hands. We get the sense that, for Amelia and Sam’s newfound peace to continue, this relationship between them and their monster must be maintained.
Horror is a genre comprised of symbols and placeholders for our worst fears. We take the realities that keep us up at night and cloak them in elements of the fantastic in an effort to gain a better understanding of them. The Babadook isn’t the only film to present a terrifying creature as the embodiment of psychological suffering, but it might be the first to feature the victims caring for said beast after they won the battle. They understand that, just because they have stripped the thing of its power over them, it will not be going anywhere soon. So, Amelia and Sam show it a kindness it has probably never known, acknowledging Mister Babadook’s existence while granting it the combination of patience and love that is required to keep the pitiful thing at bay. Out of this comes a harmony that, while not completely monster-free, is certainly better than what they’ve known for years up until that point.
To some, this ending does not work. Its meaning and effectiveness are still debated vigorously amongst genre fans while others have written The Babadook off entirely as overhyped, which is the danger any horror film runs into when it’s dubbed “THE SCARIEST MOVIE IN YEARS” by mainstream critics. To me, though, it has one of my all-time favorite conclusions because it offers some constructive advice on how to move forward with the pain that might be haunting us rather than just giving us an escape from it for a short period of time. It understands that, for those who have experienced trauma, the reality is its effects may never leave us. The pain can lessen but it will always be our companion in some form or other.
But trauma can also breed resilience, and with that strength, we can learn to live with our monsters.
I have a small shrine to horror in the corner of my living room. Heaped upon two large bookshelves are the films and novels I’ve collected over the years. Resting on top of one of these is a photo of my mother, the one that was used at her funeral over 20 years ago. In it, she’s healthy, celebrating a birthday in fact, and even though it was taken long before I knew her, I like to imagine what she must have been like then. Maybe very different from the person I remember from those final years, but maybe close to the one I knew before the sickness overtook her.
There came a moment years ago where I could no longer run from the trauma connected to my mother’s memory, and every attempt I made to drown out the beast reminding me of its presence just seemed to make everything worse. So eventually I started seeing a mental health professional who helped me begin to come to terms with the conflicting emotions of love and resentment I feel for her. It’s hard to make sense of how someone could be both kind and cruel in equal intensity, but looking back at everything she was going through at the time, I guess circumstance can turn even the people we love the most into something unrecognizable.
But that’s how I’ve learned to coexist with pain: you have to acknowledge the realities of it, be as brutally honest as possible, and then smother it with empathy. It doesn’t take the hurt away by any measure — I can’t just jettison it like a snake sheds its skin — but it does make my relationship with the past far more manageable.
So now, on nights when I cannot sleep and I can hear the knocking at my door, I invite the memories in. And when their despair threatens to tear my heart out, I soften my voice, take them in my arms, and say to them what my mother used to say to me when I was frightened and too small to understand what was happening to us: “it’s alright…it’s alright. You’re going to be okay.”
And after a time, we drift off.
Pat Brennan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Rue Morgue, Dread Central, Certified Forgotten, and Killer Horror Critic. He lives in New Brunswick with his wife, son, and very needy cat. Follow him on Twitter @PBrennan87.