When discussing the 52 Films by Women series with Kristy Puchko, I volunteered to do one for Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. I did so for two reasons, one being that it’s October and I wanted to do a female-directed horror movie. The second is that I’d never seen it and I had a pretty good feeling that the only way that I’d ever actually watch it was by forcing myself to do it for this project.
The thing is that I rarely choose to watch horror movies because I’m admittedly a bit of a wuss about them. It’s strange because in general I have a fondness for dark and twisted things. I devour the works of Neil Gaiman, I keep telling myself I’m gonna go to the Guillermo Del Toro exhibit at LACMA. But if I am really being honest about it, I think the real underlying problem is simple: After being assaulted two years ago as the target of an anti-gay and transphobic hate crime, I don’t really enjoy being scared anymore. Or at least, I don’t anticipate enjoying it.
Last night I sat down to watch The Babadook to write about it but first I made the mistake of checking my Facebook. It was then that immediately encountered a photo that a friend had shared of the back of a car in Arizona. It was a decal of a stick figure painted in with the stars and bars of the Confederate Flag, kicking another figure painted in with the Pride flag. In other words, it was a cartoonish depiction of a gay bashing*, strategically placed right above a Trump bumper sticker. I tried to put it out of my mind, but it got my anxiety up so much that as I tried to watch the movie, I just couldn’t relax and enjoy it. When the film’s protagonist Amelia closes up the Mister Babadook book for the first time and places it on top of a cupboard to hide it, I decided to stop the movie in the interests of getting any sleep and instead put on something light hearted. I didn’t need to be made afraid last night by this movie, I’ve already been afraid for months.
Still, I’d made a commitment to writing about the movie, and I also didn’t want to be defeated by it, so I woke up this morning and put it back on. And holy shit. Because, first lets talk about how really scary it actually is. For a debut directorial effort, Kent assembles terror with the finesse of a seasoned veteran. She draws out the tension of potentially innocuous scenes via a very strategically silent soundtrack and tense nervous editing. She is a master at the craft of teasing our views of her monster, only showing the Babadook in quick cutaway shots, and constantly tweaking its physical appearance when he does appear so as to never allow him to be normalized or adjusted to. Even the old house in which Amelia and her troubled son Sam live is terrifying looking, I joked while watching it “I don’t want to victim blame here but if you move into the house from Beetlejuice you really can’t be mad when monsters arrive.”
But what makes Amelia’s terror so amazing, and what made The Babadook the absolute perfect film for me to have had this exact experience with, is that the true monster in her life is her own grief. It can be so hard and often so cheesy for a horror movie’s hook to be “the real terror was you all along,” and yet The Babadook does it with such perfect parallels alongside a real literal monster that is simply a manifestation of the simmering grief and resentment that Amelia feels. It’s reminiscent of the Shining’s overarching metaphor of an alcoholic, abusive father. It’s tense, well-shot meditation on the fact that trauma when left unchecked can be the thing itself that will take away everything you care about in your life.
I think as a female filmmaker, Kent was uniquely poised to dive deep into the concepts of grief, trauma, and the anxiety that they bring out in her protagonist. The darkness eating away at her remind me of the recent conversation we had about everyday things many women do that men don’t even consider. While Amelia’s issues are not the same as those in that convo, I think the internalizing of them and trying to wish them away share a similar psychic imprint. That controlling them, not defeating them or denying they exist, is the way to gain agency back in your life. Or at least that’s how I feel about it as a woman realizing that maybe her trauma is the thing she’s most terrified of too.
Riley Silverman would love it if we could stop killing pets as a go-to move in horror films though.
*I’ve been made aware that there is a version of this image that might even pre-date the one that bothered me, in which the two figures are reversed. I don’t think this is “okay” either, for a whole lot of reasons. But this article is not about the complicated issues surrounding this image, it was included only because of the effect that the visceral reaction I initially had to it had on my viewing of the film I was writing about.