Last week my husband had to spend a night in another city, so of course I took the opportunity to watch a horror movie that he was unwilling to watch with me. What better thing to do when you’re home alone in a creaky apartment?
The Babadook is a 2014 horror film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. While it didn’t hit box office gold, it won the hearts of critics and horror fans around the world due to it’s intense psychological horror. It follows the story of a woman (Amelia) who’s husband died while driving her to the hospital to give birth. Seven years later, her son (Samuel) has behavioral issues that she struggles to cope with while repressing the grief she still has for her husband. A mysterious book appears on his bookshelf called The Babadook. I’m going to be discussing spoilers so if you haven’t seen The Babadook yet, I strongly suggest watching it before reading my post after the cut. Suffice to say I absolutely loved it and would recommend if you liked horror classics like The Haunting, The Exorcist or The Shining.
I don’t often like saying a film is “feminist” just for having strong female characters. A feminist film in my mind is a film that actively explores feminist themes, rather than a film that appeals to feminist sensibilities. With that in mind, The Babadook is essentially a feminist possession film. In most possession films, a male priest must exorcise a woman or girl and free her of demonic forces. The woman cannot do it on her own, she requires the power of a patriarchal figure. Sure, there are exorcism movies out there that portray men becoming possessed, but they’re few and far in between, and I have yet to find a film in which a woman performs an exorcism. The closest we get, I would argue, is The Shining, in which Wendy and Danny both overcome the possessed patriarch of the family. In the book it is made clear that Jack is possessed by the hotel, and the book is, to me, far more scary than the movie, although I love both versions. Of course The Exorcist set the precedent for the sub-genre, and as a result they are almost always all Catholic films and women cannot be priests. There is also of course a long history of associating possession with women almost exclusively and according to The Rite at least, most exorcisms performed by the Catholic Church are done on women. Maybe it is more disturbing for viewers to see a young girl or woman commit violent or perverted acts than for males, but then I remember The Shining and how scary Jack Nicholson was in that role. Of course Jack Nicholson is a very talented actor, and many horror films are shot on a shoestring budget with unknown actors, so possibly it is easier to coax cheap thrills out of the evil little girl trope than it is to get grown men to be convincingly disturbing.
The Babadook is not steeped in Catholicism, but I still classify it as a possession film. The book in the film warns Amelia and Samuel that the Babadook will invade your home, and you can never ever get rid of the Babadook. The book freaks Samuel out, and Amelia hides it from him. The book serves as a catalyst that sets off Samuel’s behavioral issues into frightening new territories; he breaks his cousin’s nose, he has a seizure, he stops sleeping. For much of the first half of the film, it is Samuel we view as suspect. Either the Babadook will make a sinister appearance and harm him, or Samuel’s mind is snapping.
In the second half however, expectations flip. Amelia rips the book up and throws it out, but it appears again on her doorstep. There are new pages added, in which it shows a mother just like Amelia killing her dog and child before killing herself. Repulsed, Amelia burns the book. She now believes she has a stalker, especially after getting a phone call from a man who just says “Babadook dook DOOK”. She tries to file a report at the police station, but sees the Babadook there and flees.
It is now Amelia that we fear will unravel. Deprived of sleep and peace, something dark grows within her. She sees a vision of her husband, who tells her to bring him the boy. She tells Samuel to eat shit, she cuts the phone lines, she chokes her dog. At first it isn’t clear that she is under the influence of The Babadook or if she is just going insane. In an attempt to stop his mother, Samuel stabs her and ties her up. She gets lose and tries to strangle him, but then fights back against the Babadook and spews up black ink, not too unlike Regan’s vomiting in The Exorcist. However, once the black is out of her, she has regained control of herself. She did not need a priest to do this, she did this all on her own. She then confronts The Babadook, who tries to make her feel guilty about her husband’s death. She stands her ground and the Babadook flees to the basement. A week later, we see Amelia and Samuel collecting earthworms to feed to the Babadook, whom they’ve found a mutual peace with.
The Babadook is not immediately identifiable as a demon, but it behaves much likes demons in other exorcism films. It presents itself as male, and perverts the innocent, in this case a child’s pop up book. Its sole victims are a woman and child, and it is even hinted that he is responsible for the deaths of other families. It can be read as the grief and depression Amelia has repressed for so long before it bubbles up and threatens to destroy her life. You can never truly get rid of the grief following the death of a spouse, but you can learn to live with it and manage it, as Amelia learns to live with the Babadook. In most other exorcism tales, the woman possessed either dies as in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, remains possessed after a false sense of security such as in Paranormal Activity, or goes back to her life before as in The Exorcist, seemingly untouched. The men involved however, are forever changed if they survive. The story is really about them and their character arc, rather than the victim. Even though the priests die in The Exorcist, Regan’s possession was truly a means for Karras to grapple with his doubts, a test of faith. But Amelia prevails on her own, or at least with only the help of her six year old son. Her character evolves, and she is finally allowed peace in the end after grappling with her demons, figuratively and literally. Amelia is alone in a sea of exorcism heroines who is a complete character unto herself.
While themes of grief, depression, and the dark thoughts of mothers were intentional, and enough to quantify The Babadook as a feminist film, I can’t help but find it’s subversion of exorcism tropes to also be feminist, albeit accidentally. Jennifer Kent has never labeled the film as an exorcism flick, nor has she listed any in particular as influences. Regardless, The Babadook is a refreshing horror film, free from the tropes that mar the genre and yet still a wonderful tribute to the classics that came before.