Mental Illness and ‘The Babadook’
Spoilers ahead for The Babadook, Hide & Seek, and Shutter Island.
The Babadook, debut of writer/director Jennifer Kent, was released earlier this year to a storm of positive reviews promising that it is one of the most terrifying films in recent years. Whilst this is absolutely correct, Kent herself stated that The Babadook wasn’t necessarily meant to be a horror film, and you can see that behind the action. The key source is fear is the familiarity of it all. The film introduces us to mother and son, Amelia and Samuel, who are terrorised by a monster called the Babadook.
Even before the Babadook arrives, we can feel Amelia’s exhaustion at holding down a job at a care home whilst looking after a very demanding child who is at best precocious, and at worst disturbed. Samuel’s father died in a car crash whilst taking Amelia to the hospital to give birth to him, meaning that Amelia refuses to celebrate Samuel’s birthday and convinces him to always share it with a cousin. When Samuel asks that Amelia reads him Mister Babadook, an assumed children’s book that has appeared on his bookshelf, she doesn’t think anything of it until the story gets increasingly threatening, promising that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. From then Samuel becomes uncontrollable due to his fear of the Babadook coming to murder him and Amelia. Amelia, too, starts to feel it as she destroys the book, only to have it reappear, taped back together and with even more violent additions on her doorstep. From here both Samuel and Amelia fall into emotional distress, both caused and represented by the presence of the Babadook.
This kind of emotional distress is often exploited in horror and thriller films to create fear. Admittedly, there is little more frightening than the unpredictability of another person, or the idea of losing a sense of self. Many horror films use illnesses such as schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder (and, often, incorrectly interchangeably) to have a now fairly tired “twist” where we realise the antagonist was more than ‘inside the house’, but inside the protagonist all along. Hide & Seek is one example of this, and a film not dissimilar from The Babadook in that we suspect the child being mentally unstable for a large proportion of it, only to discover that Robert De Niro’s character suffers from dissociative personality disorder, which makes him extremely violent. Hide & Seek indulges in the stereotype of identities that come out of such disorders are often inherently violent, when this is rarely the case. The National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that, whilst alternative personalities may exhibit aggressive behaviour, those who suffer from dissociative personality disorder are likely to be depressed and suicidal, so any kind of violent behaviour is much more likely to be directed internally.
In Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is also suffering from dissociative personality disorder after killing his wife, largely because his wife drowned their children. The murder of his children is heavily implied to be due to her bipolar disorder, and the use of the term “manic depression” instead of bipolar, whilst era-appropriate, is still a loaded phrase for the illness. The Psychiatric Times states that less than half the people who suffer from bipolar have any kind of violent history, and on the whole any violent outbursts are usually during manic episodes which can instigate an inappropriate “fight-or-flight” reaction for the person, something that almost definitely wouldn’t lead to the drowning of one’s own children. These examples are two of the few that actually name the condition we’re dealing with. More often than not, too, films like this neglect to indicate the mental illness and, admittedly, so does The Babadook. However whilst mental illness is often used as a reason for violence, The Babadook takes it in a different light.
The key exploration in The Babadook is the relationship between mother and son, Amelia and Samuel, and how their anxieties impact on each other. Tense at best, Samuel is already an unpredictable and often aggressive child whom with Amelia struggles to maintain a normal life. A lot of the anxiety and violence in The Babadook seems to initially stem from Amelia’s resentment of Samuel as a reminder of his father’s death. Amelia is clearly an anxious woman, and she repeatedly pushes Samuel away when he begs for her attention, both emotionally and physically. In one scene where he hugs her she violently pushes him away after the hug lingers, possibly as a sign that she doesn’t want to be so close to him, or that his touch reminds her of her dead husband.
This pain that Amelia still carries obviously has a profound effect on Samuel’s behaviour, and is the fuel to the fire in terms of the appearance of the Babadook. Samuel is initially built up as the character who may become a threat after pushing his cousin from a treehouse and constructing a rather impressive crossbow to protect his mother and himself from monsters. When he suffers a convulsion, Samuel is even put on medication to suppress his assumed fantasies and disobedient behaviour, which is also then meant to keep his “delusions” of the Babadook away. However we soon discover that it’s actually Amelia who is both the cause and target of the Babadook’s attack.
When Samuel tells Amelia that he sees the Babadook, she assumes that he’s lying and being disobedient, whilst the doctor takes it as a mental disorder for which he prescribes this medication. Yet when Amelia starts to see the Babadook, her reaction is that someone real is stalking her and her family, rather than the realisation that maybe she is the one who needs to see the doctor. Strange things happen that she cannot explain, such as her hallucination that insects have made a nest behind the refrigerator, only to discover she’d been clawing at solid wall. This infestation in the house mirrors her fear of personal infestation as she loses grip on her own mind, and the fear that the normal life that she’s holding together by a thread will fall apart as a result. At this point her job is in jeopardy, her son has been expelled from school, and social services are turning up on her door. When she tries to control the insects that she’s imagining are bursting from the wall, she’s trying to control the spiralling factors of her own life, and failing. It is just after this that the Babadook possesses her, and it is just after this that we realise how vulnerable she really is.
Before the Babadook possesses Amelia, we watch him stalking her from afar. He appears in the neighbour’s window, and his distinctive hat and coat are seen hanging in the police station. As a result of this we know that he and she are not synonymous. If the Babadook is a metaphor for Amelia’s unnamed mental illness but is still separate from her, then she cannot be the antagonist of the story, and so her actions whilst possessed do not define her character. Jennifer Kent uses traditional “possession film” tropes to convey this separation between Amelia and the Babadook. When it leaps inside of her she quickly moves from her anxious self and becomes increasingly irritable and violent.
This “possession” is both inside and outside of her, so she does not become the Babadook and the Babadook does not become her. It changes her behaviour towards Samuel (and the dog, may we all weep), but it also attacks her, so she is still a conscious being inside the possession. This is quite different from many depictions of possession (and mental illness, which possessions are frequently a metaphor for). The person who is possessed is generally given no point of view as they become what is possessing them for the duration. For example, in the archetypal possession film The Exorcist, Regan ceases being a little girl as the demon engulfs her, both through her actions and, eventually, her physical appearance. Instead, Amelia is aware that something tremendously bad is happening but can’t figure out what it is, where it’s coming from, or why it’s happening, and we are made aware that she still exists outside of what has overcome her. This is much like an experience of a mental illness, particularly an anxiety disorder, in the sense that someone who has it is often unaware that the fear and anxiety that they are experiencing stems from their own brain, as their brain will be telling them it’s from external sources.
Although the Babadook appears to be a metaphor for the manifestation of a mental illness, The Babadook keeps its monster as purely supernatural. At the point where Amelia breaks the audience will ask themselves whether the Babadook is, in fact, a creation of her own mind. Had this been the case, many viewers would surely be disappointed by what has now become a fairly tired trope, but thankfully it is not. There’s no questioning that The Babadook is a deeply metaphorical film, but the metaphor exists outside of the mythology of the film itself, allowing the Babadook as an entity to have free reign within the story. If the Babadook, as a creature, had been all in Amelia’s mind, the effect is the same as the story being “all a dream”, which removes the impact from its action. With the Babadook being a reality within the film, we as the audience cannot dismiss it as fantasy. This is something that is key to much of Western society’s treatment of mental illness, particularly depression. It can, bizarrely, often be dismissed as fantasy because there are no physical symptoms, and sufferers expected to “man up” or “get a grip”. The comic site Robot Hugs demonstrated this perfectly with a comic demonstrating how harmful this is. The Babadook using the monster to represent Amelia’s mental breakdown gives a fresh and realistic portrayal of mental illness, as within the film it hasn’t been “made up”, and is a tangible, frightening, and very real threat, despite its physical ambiguity.
Once Amelia acknowledges it as an entity, and feeds it worms in the basement, it practically becomes a pet. Whilst it occasionally threatens to overwhelm her, as evidenced in the scene where she takes it food, her acknowledgment and understanding of it is what gives her the power to control it. The Babadook hasn’t gone away, and it hasn’t been defeated. Much like a chronic mental illness, it is not something that can be “cured”, and so the most important weapon against it is knowledge and acceptance. For Amelia, the realisation of how she is hurting her son is the moment where she finds the strength to separate herself from the Babadook. In traditional possession-film style, she vomits black sick before pulling herself out of the depths of her own mind to fight the invisible entity of the Babadook. Once she is able to face the Babadook for herself and finds a way to take it head on, the Babadook submits – not entirely – but it is manageable. The Babadook retreats to the basement, and becomes a containable, but still possibly dangerous, presence
Jennifer Kent has said that she didn’t intend for The Babadook to function as a horror film, and perhaps this is why it works so well, both as a horror film and as a film outside of the genre. The Babadook could really be part of the psychological thriller genre, and is comparable to films such as We Need To Talk About Kevin, in that it presents a raw and painfully honest portrait of a troubled relationship between mother and son. However the introduction and intensity of the monster, of the Babadook, turns the film into a horror film due to the generic conventions that it entails. This difference in approach is probably why The Babadook presents such a powerful and realistic metaphor for mental illness, despite not being explicitly about such. The portrait of Amelia and Sam is sensitive, but the examination of mental illness/the Babadook is removed enough to prevent traditional stereotypes and prejudices to seep into the depiction, rendering The Babadook as both a great stand alone horror film, but additionally one of the more convincing and interesting metaphors for mental illness in recent years.
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