The Babadook

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I have never before seen a horror movie where the monster was so tightly wound with the metaphor. But that’s The Babadook for you, a film that’s been getting a lot of hype, and which we finally saw on Netflix last night.
The Bababook actually established a rule for me in horror writing, which is this: we must care more for the characters than we fear the monster.   Because let’s be honest, anyone can create a scary monster.  Finding some unrelenting, physics-distorting, shadowy people-eater is what horror films do.
Yet The Babadook is, for its first third, not even about monsters. It’s about a mother raising a wretched six-year-old boy who has problems acting out. The kid is violent, building monster-hunting dart-throwers in the basement which he then brings to school and almost puts out a student’s eye. He screams and throws tantrums.  He does not, cannot, listen to reason when he gets overstimulated.  He is getting expelled from his school.
And yet the kid is not a monster. He’s a kid, reacting to stresses in his life, and his mother is oversensitive ever since the father died in a car crash.  Mother and son love each other, even when son has shoved mother relentlessly up against the limits of her coping.
Enter the monster.
The Babadook is both unrelentingly grim and yet strangely hopeful.  The Babadook who stalks them is, quite clearly, formed from the family’s internal stresses, and power dynamics keep changing as a result of the book being opened.  The horror wells out of a mother who, in fact, really doesn’t want to be a mother, who wants to say “fuck it all” and throw the kid into an asylum, and the monster preys upon those urges. The horror is not the monster itself, but rather what the monster honestly reveals about taking care of a kid with issues, and the things that happen when a woman is expected to be a perfect parent.
And yet… the ending is not what I expected. Horror movies are easy to write, by and large: everyone dies and all is horrible. And yet though there is horror aplenty come the end, and is not an ending I can quite categorize as happy, there’s a catharsis in The Babadook that grabbed all my deepest fears and told me that somehow, we could cope if the Babadook came to town.
I wouldn’t want it. But the Babadook wouldn’t show up if things were good. The monster isn’t the monster here, you see; it’s the amplification of all our other stresses, given form.   And in that, The Babadook is almost a perfect horror film.

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