Mental Illness and ‘The Babadook’

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.

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 Babadook
Samuel and his home-made crossbow.

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.

Prophetic image from The Babadook book before Amelia's breakdown.
Prophetic image from The Babadook book before Amelia’s breakdown.

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.

Robot Hugs: "What If People Treated Physical Illness Like Mental Illness"
Robot Hugs: “What If People Treated Physical Illness Like Mental Illness”

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

Amelia faces the Babadook
Amelia faces the Babadook

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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49 Comments

  1. McCaggers

    I’m such a huge fan of this film, particularly for the reasons you described. I really liked the section where you discussed Amelia’s possession and how it compares to mental illness. Well done!

  2. The scariest part is when the Babadook mows the lawn, takes out the rubbish; lacquers the back deck and pays a f#%king bill on time.

  3. This movie is not about a monster…. it’s about something much more scarier…. and more real. Something most people have struggled with, something that makes you want to kill yourself.

  4. I thought this was going to be another lame jump scare horror movie…. boy I was wrong.

    This movie plays with your fears and use the exact dosis of ambient horror sounds, dark and greety atmosphere.

    It’s a must watch for those who love real horror movies.

  5. I really like the idea’s of the evil force in this movie, it’s just the way they made it glide in the air with its limbs stiff down without separation and its arms and finger long with the fingers spread out. I hope this turns into a franchise. 

  6. Hwa Moll
    1

    Weird ending of the movie!

  7. bornrebel90

    While I generally do not follow the horror genre I like the concept of this movie as it removes a stigma of mental illness in society.

  8. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    Great analysis. I look forward to re-watching “The Babadook.” Nice work!

  9. Liz Havens

    Amazing article. I really enjoyed reding this analysis. I have not seen the film, but I will be watching with these points in mind. My favorite part was the discussion of how the monster remains as a tangible presence even at the film’s conclusion thus fighting the notions that mental illness is something to be gotten over or dismissed.

  10. its good movie. i loved it.. but seriously Samuel was really annoying on the first half movie. if i were his mother, i would give him a good slap becoz he never give a break and never respect to other.. but then later he becomes much better at the end of the movie. really good movie but not scary at all 

  11. Welp. Just finished watching it at 4am in the dark alone. I don’t feel very good. Why can’t more horror be like this? 

  12. Stefanie
    0

    Fantastic movie, for people with brains

  13. I’m going to see this tomorrow, but I’m regretting it already!

  14. Nickelodeonian
    0

    OMG i cannot belive that this movie deliverd so good, the plot was good but the way the characters were acting and the script was awsome, they highlighted very good the characters emotions and was able to bond and understand main character very good. AWSOME MOVIE!

  15. Harwood
    0

    The film created an overall creepy mood but I’m not sure what it was going for. If the monster was just a metaphor for the main character’s depression, why is she feeding it worms in the basement? And if it was real how could it be defeated just by a lot of yelling in the end? I guess it works if the main character is insane, in which case she was the monster all along.

  16. samcel

    Great article! I really liked this movie. I especially liked that the ending wasn’t simply Amelia being insane. You’re spot on about The Babadook’s metaphor, and I think the whole movie was just well done in general.

  17. Akira0577

    I really like how you delve deep into the metaphor Jennifer Kent hints at in the film especially in comparison to other films. There have been times where I was lost when you went from explaining the irrational logic of using mental illness as a horror genre then going into how Jennifer Kent uses it. At parts it seems like you agree with her use of the metaphor towards her mental illness in the genre but still feel it shouldn’t be considered a horror topic at all? I think if you went into deeper comparisons between the Babadook and other films that use mental illness as a leeway for horror then people could really get the hint on how well or unwell you felt Kent went about the idea.

  18. August Merz

    I’m really looking forward to watching this film, and in all honesty, I must confess I didn’t read the entire synopsis of The Babadook so that I may still be a bit surprised while watching it. Even still, I enjoyed the comparisons you drew between this film and other psychological horror pictures like Shutter Island. Whilst the latter dealt with a man actively trying to create a fantasy world where nothing in his life has gone wrong, it seems like the former presents the idea that a woman is trying to keep a dark fantasy out of her real world. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the movie, they’ve convinced me to watch it sometime.

  19. Jessica M Farrugia

    This film is going straight on my watch-list!

  20. I’m intrigued by this film now, and I may have to look it up sometime. I feel the article is well written and allows readers to gain interest in this genre of movie. Personally, I find psychological thrillers to stimulate my movie watching experience.

  21. Lafleur
    0

    Movie was incredible. Does what a lot of horror movies today can’t do. Doesn’t rely on jump scares, creates spooky atmosphere, and forges an emotional bond between the audience and the two characters. You feel sympathy for the mother, and after her situation leaves an impression on you the movie then goes out of it’s way to attack not only our characters, but our expectations as the audience. The movie exploits our own fears, anxiety, and emotions and this makes the film as unique as it is scary.

  22. Awesome parenting skills, right there.

  23. HyonBox
    0

    The best horror this year. 100 times better than Annaballe!

  24. Greenwalledtower

    I hadn’t heard of it until I read this and then went and watched the trailer. I think that the monster is presented in the form of a children’s book makes it that much more terrifying.

  25. The movie is far more along the lines of a psychological thriller focused on the way the human psyche handles guilt and mourning. The Babadook. while an evil presence isn’t the focus of the movie in many ways. Its unsettling, not particularly scary, but its a very solid made film, especially considering its modest 30k budget. It reminded me of the Spanish film “The Orphange,” in that the supernatural elements are freaky but the human psychological torments were the main focus. 

  26. Thank you for this article, it’s very insightful. I like that you made a distinction between what most horror films view mental illness as and what else it could represent. It’s on my watch list. Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Shutter Island or an older film, Hitchcock’s Psycho?

  27. Definitely better than the the last bunch of horror films I’ve seen, but it didn’t really get to me. It’s a well made film, that’s all I can say.

    I’m too much of a nihilist. It’s been many years since I’ve felt psychological fear. 

  28. Fidelio

    “The Babadook” is arguably considered to be a psychological horror movie. Many of these movies are scary because of the inherent nature that is our own mind- fear of the unknown- fear of our selves. We look at movies such as “The Descent,” where a group of girls go on cave-diving and spelunking adventure. However, one of the girls is still recovering from the tragic death of her own husband and daughter. Is she seeing things? Or has she gone completely mad? The demons that reside in her mind play tricks on the audience and that makes it psychologically horrific, as well as a masterpiece.

  29. Jane Harkness

    Fascinating! I’m really looking forward to seeing The Babadook, I’ve heard only good things.

  30. remembrance

    The best films reminds us both of our fragility and the dignity of our struggle to endure and overcome it.

  31. Literally just came back from seeing this in the theatre and remembered there was an article about it here. I had to come read it! I think you completely nailed the metaphor, that’s exactly how I saw the ending. Acknowledging mental illness as a constant battle instead of a war that can be won was a great decision that I’m pretty surprised hasn’t been used in the genre to quite the same effect, at least that I’ve seen.

  32. Very clever review. I absolutely agree with the reading. Thank you.

  33. Sorry but you really need an editor. I couldn’t finish your review, as grammar mistakes make it difficult for me to read.

  34. Hello,
    Well here is my point of view about this film. I disagree with a big part of your analysis. I watched the movie 4 times, trying to understand it more and more. Although still a few parts of the movie are a mystery for me, this is how I see the big picture.. The Babadook is a monster inside Amelia’s head. After she lost her husband, the monster was born and it always existed and after reading the book, the monster simply turned into the shape of Babadook for her. This movie explores how it is like to lose a loved one… “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” suggests that it is impossible to get rid of the thoughts of losing someone. Then we learn that ” the more you deny [the babadook], the stronger [it] gets,” this also clearly indicated that the more you try to escape from the reality, the more you get hurt. I think near the end, the movie concludes itself by suggesting the only way to deal with such horrible experiences such as losing a loved one, is to accept it and also control it and don’t just escape from it. An evidence that proves my point when I said the babadook is the trauma of losing Oscar, is actually when near the end Amelia is finally facing the Babadook, she hears Oscar saying “only ten more minutes and we’re there” or when he mentions ” I think it’s going to rain” .. I believe these are two of last sentences which Oscar told Amelia before they had an accident. However, I am not exactly sure what are the worms for in the end, but I guess the worms suggest that Amelia now doesn’t escape from the tragedy anymore and she somehow feeds her negative thoughts as well, instead of just “denying” them.

  35. I enjoy how the Babadook is about managing mental illness instead of making it go away altogether. That’s what makes this film work both as a horror movie and a metaphor for mental health.

  36. That’s interesting that Kent herself stated that The Babadook wasn’t necessarily meant to be a horror film, because when I was watching the film I remember thinking this doesn’t feel like a horror film. It felt like a very interesting and expressionist representation of mental illness. Great research!

  37. There’s a part in the film, I think it was at Claire’s daughter’s birthday party, where Amelia says that she used to be a writer (of various articles and children’s stories). Is this an indication that she herself created the babadook? Could she have put the book back together after ripping it up?

  38. My sister has mental illness and is a single mom of a spirited boy, so the metaphor of this film was VERY obvious to me and I haven’t stopped thinking of it sense. People keep asking “what’s up with the worms?” I felt like the worms represent medication. Giving the Babadook worms keeps it pacified and contained. The Babadook never leaves, and it is clearly still dangerous and seems like it could take over again, but for now, the worms keep it calm.

  39. This review absolutely nails it & actually redeems the movie a bit for me. I especially appreciated the commentary on the ending. Glad to have read it.

  40. Incredible movie! I didn’t know the writer did not intend for it to be part of the horror genre, super interesting. Very good article!

  41. Jemarc Axinto

    A bit late, but finally watched this movie with my friends and I absolutely LOVE it’s depiction of mental illness. In particular I love how her son is not allowed to see the Babadook until he is older because he needs to be at an age to fully understand and comprehend what they’re dealing with. Particularly, what she is dealing with.

  42. Essie Davis is fantastic in this film.

  43. Michael Lanich
    0

    Hi,

    I wanted to comment on your analysis of the movie. I think that what we are really seeing play out here is Amelia struggling with depression. The Babadook is the personification of grief; a grief that fertilized a mustard seed of anger shortly after her husband was killed and her son was born.

    Since then, that mustard seed grew into a dangerous plant who’s roots have gone deep, leading to a deep level of resentment and vitriol towards her son.

    She created the Babadook during one of her nights where she struggled to sleep. I do think there is a level of psychosis here. She created the book itself (she used to write children’s books) without any memory of doing it.

    Anyway, what we see play out here, is her giving into this hatred, grief and blame towards her son, who has been preparing for this, I believe, for years. Then she sees the Babadook for what it really is (her grief and pain) and screams into the void whilst clutching her son.

    What we see at the end is two things. One is that the pail of dirt and worms represents her husband being in the ground with the worms. The other is that going into the basement often represents her confronting her grief. Of course, grief eventually can lead to healing and we see already that is done her quite a bit of good. Her relationship with her son appears to be night and day, and she seems much healthier appearance-wise.

    So there you have it. My idea of what was going on in this movie.

    You can check out my review on this on my podcast “Freaking Geeks”. Go to http://www.freakinggeeks.com

  44. Your fascinating analysis expressed my thoughts exactly. I was expecting an interesting horror film, but was instead struck by the familiarity of it….as the mother of a son with a psychotic illness. The first sign of his descent into madness is an inability to sleep. And the illness is part of him, but not him. The author seems to have a keen insight into the experience of a mental illness.

  45. i’m so happy I found this article. I’m glad someone else thinks like this. Know one truly knows how terrifying this film is without acknowledging the reality of it. it’s very true the familiarity is the worst part.

  46. Steve
    0

    Great Film and great article. It also has a strong message about letting go and grieving and acceptance. Great film!!!

  47. Kric
    0

    Thank you for this insightful, careful and clear analysis. Also for Robot Hugs. My friend called The Babadook “a treasure” and your writing makes it more clear to me why i agree.

  48. Ben
    1

    Hi-

    I just discovered this gem and have been watching it reading reviews and thinking about the film. I’ve read reviews that argue Amelia is suffering mental illeness and viewed through that lens the movie takes interesting and distrubing turns. The Babadook could then become immaginary, and unexplained things and Babadook interactions could be explained by Amelia performing them under a dissociative fugue and schizophrenia. For example, it is Amelia who then puts glass into the soup and drags Sam up the steps at the wnd of the film. Sam is aware of his mother’s mental ilness and has prepped for it by build weapons to protect himself. However I do not believe that the movie is commenting on mental illness.

    I believe the movie is commenting on dealing with grief. It also is commenting on the difficulty of Motherhood and a Mother/Son relationship. I think the Babadook is grief or represents grief. To me the ending symbolized that Amelia acknowledged and accepted the grief that came from her husbands death. She also learned to begin to accept her son and not blame him for her husbands death (which I always thought was odd as another driver or her husband could have been responsible for the death) as she came to terms with her husbands death or at least began to deal with it. Notice her conversation with the social serviceworkers at the end where she mentions Sam’s birthday and her husband.

    The basement (which could represent the past and defintiley held her husbands items at one point) just represents that grief is always present. Somedays it is manageble and others less so. She might not ever totally get over her husbands death but she will deal it as grief comes and goes. Taking it day by day. Feeding grief can mean acknowledging it and the feelings that come with it. Ignoring those feelings comes with consequences. Some of the consequences played out in her relationship with Sam. On a side note I thought that feeding the Babadook worms from the grave of the family dog (topped by a black rose meaning death, life, or courage) and was on interesting touch.

    I tend to think that lack of sleep played a large part in Amalia’s seeing things and mood shifts outside of the possessions. I actually think the Babadook might have possesed her (via swallowing) temporarly the first night she saw it.

    As I re-watch the movie I question what exactly is the Babadook. Amalia is a writer of children’s books so did she create the book (to terrorize Sam or predict or create the Babadook) and retweak it during a dissociative fugue or sleep-deprived moment but not remember? Sam seems to interact with it (talking to it in front of Claire, and the car or was that stress of his mother betraying him and asking him to be normal?) and it with Sam (dragging him upstairs, tossing Sam around, and tipping a closet over to scare or hit him). Sam also claims that the Babadook made his Mom crash the car so he seemed to be aware of the being. The Babadook toke the form of a horrifying humaniod intrepretation (the person with the top hat), Amelia’s dead husband, Sam (to lure Amelia to the basement), and had knowledge of conversations that would emotionally hurt Amelia so it interacted mentally, vocally, and perhaps physically with her. I wonder if Amelia was referencing grief when she said Sam would see the Babadook later. The film is open to intrepretation which I love.

    The Babadook certainly exisits on an allegorical level for me but I’m not sure if it exists on a spiritual or physical level. And honestly, it isn’t imporant, Amelia and Sam are.

  49. Eskiripitik
    0

    very late comment, but i just wanted to say. The *magic* in this film is really in Sam loving his mother despite her coldness throughout his life (even after she tries to kill him lmao). It’s what saves them. It’s both endearing and impossibly unrealistic. But it really gives humanity something to look up to, doesn’t it?

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