45. The Babadook, directed by
Jennifer Kent

45. The Babadook, directed by
Jennifer Kent

Why Is Your Vomit Black???

By Rose Marel

The mind is a powerful thing. More powerful than we give it credit for. Within each of us is an entire world, one that is complex and vast, and one that can’t be inhabited by anyone other than ourselves. In this way, our individual mind can be an isolating space to exist within, especially when it begins turning against you. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is most terrifying not because of its effects and shocks, but because of the psychological implications which resonate with us all.

Adding to the creepy atmosphere of the film is an atavistic aging of the present, like a layer of dust over the modern context. Living under this cloud is Amelia (Essie Davis), single mother of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a squealing, agitated and behaviourally-challenged eight-year-old boy. His habit of devising homemade weapons has everyone worried, although not because of his conviction that he’s protecting Amelia from some kind of monster. His aggression towards fellow children, and the violent assertion that “I’ll kill the monster… I’ll smash its head in”, is hugely disturbing. However, the primary focus is his behaviour itself rather than its irrational origin. Although… is it really irrational? Either Samuel is naturally disturbed, or something is gravely disturbing him.

Elevating the unsettling presence of Amelia’s child and the toll he takes on her, sound effects are exaggerated: the grinding of his teeth and the sawing of wood (which is an odd activity in itself). We see its constant drain on Amelia and, as his screaming and crazed manner worsens, she becomes more sleep deprived.

It’s a cyclical pattern of exhausting days rerouting into troubled nights, when sleep is snatched at but rarely grasped. When it is, Amelia loses herself in recurring nightmares of the past – a traumatic memory of the car accident that left her husband dead seven years ago – that conclude in her tumbling endlessly downwards until morning breaks her fall. The tangible nature of these dreams is conveyed in a literal ragdoll-esque floating of Amelia, as well as a strobic flashing of lights. As powerful as they are creepy, these effects segue into the broader supernatural element, which begins to dominate more heavily as the film progresses.

Every night, in the bid to invite sleep, mother and son curl together for a bedtime story, although it’s debatable if their reading material is really ‘bedtime’ appropriate. Falling under the wider umbrella of ‘nighttime’ routine, this tradition is established through repetitious shots of the pair opening the cupboard to select a book, and the reading of Samuel’s favourite book. One night however, Samuel selects a different book. A new one. From where? Who knows. It’s called ‘The Babadook’.

Image result for the babadook

Starkly red and noticeably thick, the book draws attention to itself. Unsuspectingly, Amelia begins to read. Inside are striking black words, mismatching and unaligned as they crawl across the pages; words that threaten of a monster called the Babadook. Once you let it in, the book says, you can’t get rid of the Babadook. Accompanying the scribbles are grotesque cartoon pictures, sometimes in 3D, that leap upwards off the page. The style is almost childlike, and hugely arresting in its geometric shapes and bold colour contrasts. This is all revealed like it is to Amelia, looking down on the book as she begins to quickly and silently read ahead, flashes of words placing us inside her panicking head. It’s all horrible, and Amelia soon stows it away out of Samuel’s reach.

Soon the days start to get even worse. Then the nights. Samuel continues to claim that he’s acting out in order to protect her from the monster. Glass materialises in her dinner. A chronic toothache plagues her. Samuel starts seizuring. Close-up shots reinforce Amelia’s depletion, in drawing focus to her washed-out, colour-drained face. Her voice is a wispy apology, as if even vocalising is an effort. Unable to relate to the vacuous gossip of fellow mothers, and criticized for still mourning her husband’s loss, Amelia finds herself more isolated as her patience wears thin, and uncharacteristic outbursts drive the mothers away. In this state, her relationship with Samuel continues to shift, in an exaggerated examination of the maternal shackles that can, at times, be strangulating. Wrapped up in their bond, along with love, are exasperation and resentment which, in turn, is swaddled in guilt. Taken to an extreme level, Kent is keen to implode societal conditioning that mothers are always totally loving and grateful.

But is it all really to do with Samuel? Or is it actually about Amelia? The child’s conviction is passed off as ‘behavioural issues’ and imagination, but it starts infiltrating Amelia’s mind, making the audience question the truth. Letting us into her mental state, cartoons are layered over images, POV shots are often utilized and suggestions of paranoia are gradually added to, until doubt shrinks into the shadows and is replaced with something else. And thus, the film operates on an insidious slide, a reversal of expectation and focalisation, as Samuel’s manner turns more normal, and Amelia’s more destabilized.

To get too specific would be to ruin the psychological power of the film, but it must be said that Essie Davis’ performance is all-kinds of 5-star incredible. From her voice to her physicalisation, the arc her character undergoes and her commitment to the role, it’s thanks to her that the film hurtles forwards and upwards with staggering potency.

Director Jennifer Kent, on the set of The Babadook.

The environment that Kent creates is a claustrophobic one, in spite of the huge house that they live in. Containing us within the same rooms, and cutting away to shadowy, unused parts of the manor, help achieve this, as does the limited colour scheme of blue, red, white and black. It’s an extension, perhaps, of the fact that our own individual existence is limited. Unable to ever truly escape our minds, we can at times feel internally claustrophobic. The environment in The Babadook, and the events that unfold, are all within the metaphorical landscape of Amelia’s mind; therefore, regardless of whether you’re concerned with the literal or figurative, we are still experiencing what she does in her own truth. Of course, Kent’s use of minor themed music, child singing and complex, unexpected terror compound the film as one that, while delivering the horror, is rooted in the psychological.

Leaving the ‘jump scares’ to other horror films, Kent delves into the horror of our mind and shocks the audience more slowly and deeply with the darkness that exists within us all, hyperbolising what we are all capable of. The gradual deterioration of the title character  – seeing her beginning and her end, and the shifts that bring about changes are all the more horrifying. So is the implication that our smallest impulses – maybe just a kernel buried inside us – can snowball into a real, full-blown possibility. More than that though, Kent suggests that we all have demons within us, whether that be loneliness, sadness, or our past, and without facing them, they’ll remain there, always, stalking us, unable to get out.

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