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THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

The Babadook opens
with an enigmatic, dream-like sequence depicting a car crash with one fatality: Oskar, husband and father to Amelia and Samuel, the film’s protagonists.  This traumatic event haunts them, as mother
and son try to make sense of their loss. 
Like the film itself, they have recourse to those age-old narrative
structures we call fairy tales, whose major themes run like red threads through
the often-maligned horror genre.  This is
the first film by Australian director Jennifer Kent, and with it she boldly
reclaims horror as a nuanced and imaginative structure for working through the
deepest of psychic traumas, enfolding us in an uncompromising and original
vision that is at the same time disturbingly familiar.

After the opening car-crash sequence, we see six-year old
Samuel waking his mother to tell her, “I had the dream again.” She helps him
look under the bed for his imaginary assailant, and then she reads him a fairy tale
in which the Big Bad Wolf is destroyed. 
“Did they really kill the wolf, Mom?” Sam asks.  “I’m sure they did,” Amelia replies.  Then a strange look comes over the boy’s face
as he says, “I’ll kill the monster when it comes and smash its head in.” Fear
at the unexpected violence of this outburst passes briefly over Amelia’s face
before she rearranges it into a motherly smile. 
Then Sam demands she read the story over again and Amelia wearily
complies.

This early sequence establishes the tensions in this
mother-child relationship with remarkable economy and vividness.  Intriguingly, the fairy tale is as much a
soothing force on Samuel’s psyche as it is a weapon of manipulation.  In the sequences that follow, Amelia struggles to keep it together while her boy goes from one disturbing
outburst to the next, alienating friends and family.  The ostensible cause of these outbursts is an
imaginary monster who Samuel feels compelled to slay, in order to protect him
and his mother.   At one point he speaks
to the imagined presence of his father, assuring him that he’ll protect Mum,
underlining the Oedipal dimension of this obsessive narrative. Yet, as in the
Big Bad Wolf scene, this monster narrative is used as much against his mother
as for psychic release.  “Acting out” is
how a child therapist might describe Samuel’s behavior, a cliché that
inadvertently reveals the abiding role of drama and narrative in the troubled
mental lives of children, as well as adults.

The film’s visual and symbolic hook is an evil pop-up book, Mr. Babadook, that magically appears on
Samuel’s bookshelf, and which, of course, he forces his reluctant mother to
read to him.  Both are frightened yet
fascinated by the book’s sinister, black and white images of a top-hatted, trench-coated
figure who occasionally smiles with evil, three-dimensional glee.  This dramatic figure provides Samuel’s vague
monster a more palpable identity, and his obsession with slaying it becomes increasingly
urgent and violent.  When his cousin
mocks him for believing in monsters, he pushes her out of a tree-house and
breaks her nose.  The fanciful, Goonies-like weapons he builds in the
basement to defend himself against Mr. Babadook are eventually turned on his
classmates.  When they seek help from a
therapist, he observes that Samuel is “committed to the monster theory.”

As Amelia and Samuel grow increasingly isolated, they both
become committed to this theory, and the figure of Mr. Babadook serves as both
an externalization of their fears and a weapon to be used against one another.  Through intimate close-ups emphasizing the
pair’s uncomfortable proximity, and agonizing shouting matches and screaming
fits, mother-child tension builds to the point where the horror sequences
actually serve as an emotional release.  Kent
has said that in the film she wanted “to explore parenting from a very real
perspective. Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot
of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is
anything but a perfect experience for women.” How do mothers cope with such
feelings, in a culture where they are expected to be consistently loving and
lovable? 

The Babadook makes
a persuasive case for horror films as a form of therapy.  Relentlessly kept awake by Samuel’s outbursts,
an increasingly insomniac Amelia seeks escape by watching television, but the
shows that seem magically to appear become visual manifestations of her mental
life.  Kent displays an extensive
knowledge of the history of horror, and of the fantastic in film
generally.  One sequence portrays Amelia
watching some particularly haunting sequences from early film master Georges Melies,
featuring dancing devils, tentacled monsters, and flying body parts.  Out of these black and white sequences from
the early age of film emerge images of the Babadook, at once an homage to one
of the director’s inspirations as well as an uncanny merging of personal demons
and public domain.  The pop-up book,
which later reappears after Amelia tore it up and threw it out, takes on a
stop-motion animated life of its own, in sequences that deftly combine the
visual styles of figures as diverse as Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Jan
Svankmajer, and F. W. Murnau. 

The Victorian-styled house in which Amelia and Samuel live gradually begins to look
more like the black and white illustrations of the book, and the realistic
elements of the narrative gradually fall away to plunge us into a realm of
utter horror.  With nods to the lurid and
dream-like European horror films of the 1970s, by directors like Mario Bava,
George Franju and Roman Polanski, Kent creates an imaginary realm in which the
commonplace becomes fantastic, as the domestic sphere draws in like a noose on
mother and child.  In a clear nod to
Polanski’s agoraphobic masterpiece Repulsion,
Amelia becomes obsessed with a scratching sound coming from behind the
refrigerator.  As she moves the appliance
away, she sees cockroaches crawling from a slit in the wall, which she worries
until it becomes an ugly gash, at once wound and vagina. 

The Babadook addresses
difficult issues from a uniquely feminine perspective, and the female-led
production is able to take us into areas where few films have been able to go
without falling back on clichés and stereotypes.  Essie Davis turns in a harrowing performance
as increasingly unhinged mother Amelia, and Kent’s careful direction just
manages to keep this character from becoming a caricature of the hysterical
mother.  At one point she watches Lon
Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera on television, and Davis shows a similar
capacity for physical transformation, at times recalling Faye Dunaway’s
exploitation-camp meets Kabuki-theater wildness of Mommie Dearest.  From mousey,
beleaguered mother to vengeful monster, Davis shows an astonishing range,
inhabiting the many personae horror films and fairy tales have to offer.

If Amelia begins as the damsel in distress of Samuel’s
boyhood fantasies, she eventually becomes the evil stepmother of fairy tale
myth.  But this, too, is only a role, and
whatever constitutes her true identity remains elusive, hidden.  The monstrous figures and harrowing
narratives of horror, like the fairy tale, can serve as a means of imaginative
self-actualization, as psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously argued.  But The
Babadook
suggests that they can also become traps, enclosing us in vivid
fictions that cunningly replicate our repressed mental lives.  Or, in the words of Samuel’s pop-up book, “If
it’s in a word, or it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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