Ghosts have been embedded into our collective consciousness as something translucent or faded, something to find more by absence and presence, as they have historically been depicted in literature and cinema. In fact, it is the state of liminality evoked in their image that is the very foundation of their horror: Transgressing established boundaries by existing between the living and the dead, human and inhuman, being there and also not. Disrupting the conventions that have come to define the ghosts and haunted house genre, independent horror cinema is increasingly challenging these preconceived notions of absence, disregarding the unsettling blurring of opposition in favor of ghosts that are physical, messy, and most definitely there. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, for example, falls more distinctly into the familiar haunted house archetype while providing its own ghost that is as undeniably present.
Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in The Babadook.
It is important to address whether the film’s monster can be considered a ghost at all, since the Babadook is not the spirit of someone who has died as the term ghost implies, instead seemingly drawing on the childhood’s idea of a kind of boogeyman who might hide in cupboards or under beds. But still, the recognizable language of haunting comes clear especially encountering the image of Amelia’s deceased husband. This visual language continues as Amelia’s grief manifests as a possession, a phenomenon the audiences of the ghost subgenre would certainly be familiar with. The film also extends this notion of haunting beyond the usual context of past trauma or loss to include a particularly modern sense of being haunted by the expectations of others, the collective expectations of a society that leads us to be haunted by the life we could have had or feel we should have. Amelia struggles to live up to an idealized figure of the mother, and the Babadook manifests these uniquely motherly fears. These fears are similarly reflected in the TV adverts and films, showing images of romance and cleaning products by a medium that could be seen as the very embodiment of societal pressure and ideals.
The idea of ghosts is not just evoked through the association of haunting, it is equally conjured by the cultural association of repression. With ghosts frequently viewed and presented through the Freudian lens of Das Unheimliche, a sense of creating unease proceeds from something familiar that has been repressed, and that is presented by anything having to do with death, bodies, spirits, revenant, and ghosts. This theory shapes the foundation of many depictions and interpretations of the ghost in both literature and cinema. The motif has become prevalent in post-modern narratives staging the ‘haunted self’ of survivors of trauma, and the Babadook is clearly created in this image. So what does the film gain from merging these ghostly conventions with ideas of monsters, and why make them so undeniably present when so much of recent psychological horror would choose to leave things ambiguous or even explicitly shown to have been imagined? The repressed feelings that are specifically being dealt with here are those of depression, particularly the kind that results from grief. And the film repeatedly shows how depression is often dismissed and ignored, much like how we might see ghosts. Amelia is constantly under pressure to move on to deny her own suffering. Her concerns and fears are not treated seriously by other parents, the school, the police, or even her own sister. And initially, the Babadook is introduced in a way that mirrors this perception, something that a child might invent that might reveal itself to be just the product of an overactive imagination. But as Amelia becomes more and more overwhelmed, The Babadook becomes increasingly physical, and by extension, it even needs to be fed. Jennifer Kent’s uniquely physical specter shows that for those suffering from depression or intense grief, the mental and immaterial nature of the affliction is no less than real. In subverting the language of the ghosts in haunting, Kent questions how these conditions are perceived, and in using the idea of childhood monsters, she questions our primary rhetoric to dealing with these problems.
The film opens with The Three Little Pigs, a classic children’s fable that provides an easily visible and identifiable monster, the Big Bad Wolf, a monster that can be defeated. This childhood idea of monsters frames how the depression is often mistakenly viewed in a similar vein to this kind of oversimplified good-versus-evil narrative and is something that can be overcome. But the film makes it clear that this is not such a simple fight. This undeniable physicality also complicates the binary distinctions between reality and fantasy, particularly as they’re depicted in the film. The Babadook, and it seems of supernatural terror, are contrasted with scenes of banal realism. This opposition replicates the way that horror as a genre might itself be seen in opposition to cinematic realism and drama, and thinking back to that television, the romantic dramas and adverts that initially plays would somatically play into the idea of the television as a kind of window onto reality, the proscribed ideals Amelia feels like she cannot live up to. But in later scenes, this footage is intercut with that of horror films as well as more abstract imagery of the Babadook itself, blurring the lines between the two and perhaps suggesting that these interpretations of reality can be just as accurate or maybe even more accurate than what we would traditionally consider realism. The cinematic framework that might have been first seen is best suited to the depiction of grief. Even the pop-up book, the very harbinger of the Babadook, can be seen to embody this distinction. Its simple rhyming structure creates the illusion of stability and certainty. Although we might associate with dramatic realism, its mechanics work against the simplicity, introducing an element of the unknown that can destabilize this order, not unlike horror or fantasy.
As we draw near to the finale, Amelia finds she cannot defeat the monster, but she can manage it as long as she feeds it. Despite taking the appearance of a haunted house film, this act of consumption undertaken solely by living things refuses to confine the film’s monster to its ghostly associations, refusing to conform to these conventions and so refusing to be ignored or erased as it might be so easy to do with a condition that we cannot see. Unlike the monsters, we’re so used to, whether in children’s stories or ghost stories, depression and grief cannot be defeated and they will not go away, but with help perhaps, they can be managed. And if we allow ourselves to acknowledge these feelings to feed them, instead of starving them, a new life can grow from what has been lost. Rather than playing into the established associations of absence, the undeniable presence we see here proves that the monster’s status as a metaphor makes it no less real and suggests truth in the line repeated by Sam and his magician role model that life is not always what it seems.
“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
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