I wish The Babadook wasn’t so terrifying so more people could watch it. I personally took it in at five-minute intervals, checking Twitter and writing an essay in between scenes. I’ve long been fascinated by horror movies, but I’ve never particularly enjoyed being scared by them. Fortunately, The Babadook provides more than enough grist for meditation by way of its terror.
Note: There are plenty of spoilers ahead in discussing the film’s themes.
In The Babadook, a grieving widow named Amelia (Essie Davis) struggles to deal with the worsening behavior of her 6-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), as his imaginative play turns more violent and centered around “protecting” her from monsters. They read a mysterious, chilling pop-up book together that throws his concerns into overdrive and gives shape to his fears that his mother will be devoured by the book’s titular Babadook. As his behavior and her grief progressively isolate them from family and community, the Babadook quickly moves from a figment of the imagination to a physical presence as it stalks them ever-more vehemently — and the more Amelia denies its existence, the stronger it gets.
At the movie’s climax, Amelia has apparently become possessed by the monster, though no CGI effects or makeup (besides some smeared blood) indicate as such. Instead, she speaks (or screams) her darkest thoughts, spewing profanity-laden death threats against Sam in a manner far more frightening than any creepy monster-claw sequence (though there are plenty of those, too). The real horror is not in being pursued by a malignant, outside force — it’s yielding yourself to the frustrations and griefs that accumulate in both run-of-the-mill parenting and more extreme traumas. The real battle isn’t chasing out a monster — it’s figuring out how to live so we aren’t devoured while recognizing we can’t eradicate certain evils as long as we live.The only way we can reckon with the evil in the world — particularly as it’s experienced by people who don’t even get the choice about how to care for themselves — is to find ways to bear the risk and pain together.
Sometimes after a particularly difficult bedtime or dinnertime with our kids, my wife and I will look at each other and ask, “Why are things so difficult for our children right now?” There are days, it seems, when no amount of cajoling or compromise soothes a cantankerous child and no amount of discipline or asserting authority fosters obedience. Parental frustration gives way to anger, shouting, and physical intimidation — a theme that The Babadook takes to horrifying extremes as it captures what it feels like to watch your mom lose her cool.
Lately, when I’m staring into my wife’s haggard face and she’s looking back at my exasperated countenance, one of us will observe that we’re both stressed. And the kids feel that stress in our lives. Being children who can’t stress-eat or withdraw into Twitter, they express their feelings by whining about everything. There’s a scene halfway through The Babadook that captures this feeling perfectly as Amelia, shamed by her son’s violent outburst at a party, drives home with him kicking the back of her seat all the way. As their frustration with one another grows to a fevered pitch, Sam’s eyes dart off to the side and his face grimaces in terror at the Babadook lurking off screen. The feedback loop of distress invites the monster into their relationship.
As this cycle repeats throughout The Babadook with more violence each time, we also see how the lack of community support worsens the problem. Many have discussed how the Babadook draws power from Amelia’s denial, but the indifference of others seems just as important. The authorities at Sam’s school label and isolate him, prompting his withdrawal and a visit from social services. The state’s agents are appropriately concerned but are unable to grasp the horror of what’s happening because they can’t appreciate the dire nature of the family’s situation. Even worse are Amelia’s friends and sister, who urge her to “get over” her husband’s death while withdrawing themselves for fear of Sam hurting their kids (he does break another child’s nose after she torments him about his dead father). Like many people who would rather not do the hard work of loving people through their pain, their self-protection creates space for evil to grow.
This vision of emotional and physical safety, anchored by the glorification of the autonomous self with only the state left to help the hurting, still drives a great many real world choices. It shows up in the relationships we form. It shapes the places we choose to live (or not to live) and the schools we choose to send our kids to. The secular zeitgeist would imagine our selves completely buffered from any real obligation to others except to make everyone else as autonomous as we are. (And hoo boy, does The Babadook skewer any notion of a “buffered” self.)
Dealing with the grief and trauma within ourselves is risky and costly. Amelia has lived in denial for seven years, forbearing denial’s cost until it threatens to consume her life and her son’s. Her school, family, and friends have all built walls around themselves to guard against the pain that will inevitably come from loving a hurting mother and her wounded son. Both those who experience trauma and those who are close to the hurting often find themselves walking a difficult tightrope. On the one hand, it’s tempting to close yourself off completely and give in to self-preserving instincts that justify total indifference to the sufferings of others. On the other hand, there’s only so much you can give before you have no time, energy, or money left — causing other monsters to emerge from within.
Whether one is conditioned to give pat answers and out-of-context Bible verses to life’s most grievous tragedies (like far too many Christians) or inclined to run headfirst into every burning building (like a small but influential minority often called “Radicals”), it’s easy to fall off the wagon one way or the other when confronted with suffering. Furthermore, there aren’t any simple formulas for figuring out how to aliquot our sufferings in manageable bites with appropriately scheduled breaks for “self-care.” As much as people who live in a world of abundance would like to think otherwise, we cannot control the realities of life that invade our protective bubbles and we cannot abdicate our responsibilities to people without such bubbles. We can do our best, but sometimes our decisions or our circumstances will create wounds that create ugly, painful, and disfiguring scars.
I have two children under five and work at a hospital in one of the world’s poorest countries. I pursue a pretty aggressive self-care regimen that consists mostly of computer games and hamburgers from the one restaurant in town that delivers, but there’s no amount of micromanagement that lets me completely preserve my sanity. I cannot just roll over and go back to sleep when my son has a dirty diaper at 3am. I cannot walk away when I must figure out if I should use our last dose of medication on a child who is about to die anyway or save the drug for a child who might have a better chance of living. The sleep we lose seems like a trifle sometimes to the pain we suffer or the evil we witness, but they all take their toll.
That toll can certainly be mitigated through self-care. But there are some costs that can never be bought back. Eve Tushnet has noted that The Babadook’s mother-son relationship ends too happily for all they’ve been through. However, the end sequence is filled with reminders of the trauma they’ve suffered (e.g., stitches, bruises) as well as the defenses they’ve built to keep the monster at bay in their basement. This is part and parcel of life on Earth: you can’t get rid of the Babadook. For now, you can only contain him, pacify him, and keep him from destroying everything you love.
The Babadook features two moments of reprieve before the final battle — during which Amelia finally defeats the beast by directly reproaching it instead of denying its existence — and in each, loving tenderness stuns the beast and buys Sam time enough to survive. The first is a neighbor’s simple gesture of concern, which physically disrupts the house where mother, child, and monster are all locked inside. The second is Sam’s caress of his possessed mother’s face as she tries to strangle him: in contrast to the callous friends who rejected his family, Sam demonstrates a willingness to love even when he is under assault.
I don’t want to minimize the value of pacing ourselves for the marathon of love; if we want to genuinely love others, we’ll take care of ourselves so we can keep giving and serving for as long as possible. But for many people around the world without many choices for how they use their time, what it takes to stay alive and keep their families fed is enough make a mockery of the self-care. For those of us who have the choice to flee, just honoring the commitments we’ve made will often cost us more than we can bear at any one time.
The Babadook’s point is that denial can be deadly, but so can love that is fully aware of the risks and pains. I was recently witness to such an instance, when a friend and colleague was senselessly murdered as she drove an ambulance to help a laboring mother. Those of us who live in places like this weigh such risks very carefully, but we cannot always avoid death. Like Amelia, we live with the deaths of loved ones and the fear of our own. In any case, taking up our cross and following Christ means our souls and bodies will both bear scars from the battle with evil.
The only way we can reckon with the evil in the world — particularly as it’s experienced by people who don’t even get the choice about how to care for themselves — is to find ways to bear the risk and pain together. As has been frequently pointed out, the word compassion means “to suffer with.” This begins and ends with Jesus, of course, but even we “fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ” as we wrestle with the evil in the world. Oftentimes, our perseverance in Christ won’t make us feel any less pain — sometimes, we may feel even more pain — but we simply have a little more hope. We anticipate a time of ultimate victory over evil, but until then, the Babadook is still living in our basement.
Trauma and grief multiply into monstrosities when the people experiencing them are cut off from the compassion of others, but they can be borne together if we’re willing to open ourselves up to the necessary risks and pains of love. Struggles as small as a defiant child or as enormous as death and war will shape us and push us beyond our limits no matter how we try to protect ourselves. The lingering terror of The Babadook forces us to confront the darkness within ourselves that we must live with, but it also hints towards the hope that evil can be beaten back — so long as we’re willing to stand together and call it by its name.