The Babadook – a Review

This is not your common or garden things-going-bump-in-the-night horror film, though there are plenty of bumps.

The Babadook is positioned more within the psychology of horror, and in particular within the area of the horror that is traumatic bereavement.

What we meet in the film is a bereaved family (the film is set 6 or 7 years post the death of the husband/father) approaching the anniversary of the death of the father/husband who was killed driving his wife to hospital the night she went into labour. The film is particularly pitched where the feminine and maternal world meets the imaginative world of her son.

The film starts in a dream, a benign feeling dream, that the mother is having about being with her husband before he died. She is woken by the screams of her son who is in the grips of his own nightmares. Mother gets up to read him a bedtime story, which then leads to the book of Master Babadook being found.

The film tracks the journey the mother and son go through from disrupted destructive beginnings – they can’t celebrate his birthday, he is being excluded from school, she is only just holding down her job caring for the elderly and nobody barring her sister has anything to do with them – to a much more contained and constructive ending. He is back at school, birthdays can be celebrated etc.

My understanding of the disturbances and contents of the film is that they are projections of traumatic dissociated feelings and experiences. When we meet the family grief cannot be contained, it can only be projected. But the family are fundamentally in the grip of it. Consequently, the only way it can be experienced is as disavowed and alien horror.

Yet the stuff of the film is that this all must change and the arrival of the Babadook book is where that begins. The book contains warnings about letting things in, about wishing you were dead. Thereafter things are let in, and death becomes a probability. But that is not how it plays out.

I think the idea I took away was that somehow death, however traumatic, must be worked through. The fact is that instead of defensively and compulsively repeatedly expelling and projecting the unwanted psychological experience of death away, if we are to find a way to live, we have to let something of the hell of the bereavement in. And in this case what fights to be let in is rich in horrific fantasy. Once Master Babadook has been conjured up he cannot be resisted. He comes in, entering particularly into the mother, perhaps the rightful owner or guardian of such horrific and traumatic content. It appears that this may trigger her death or that of her son. But actually, over time, they start to work together in a strange symbiosis, he eventually helps to literally contain her and from that position she then starts to process and manage the now internalised Master Babadook, and by extension her grief. By the end, as I have said, the family unit has become more properly functional, while the thing that used to go bump in the night is locked up, and fed, in the cellar.

My interpretation of the film is that grief, bereavement, however traumatic, becomes destructive the more it is disowned. But, if it can be owned, then the psychological structure of the family can be reformed in a more constructive organisation. The Babadook is a horror film, the journey towards change is brought about by, as it were, the intervention of the supernatural. Anyone who has been caught up in traumatic bereavement will know that the experience can feel supernaturally horrific, but it may not need to end there.