Stories For Ghosts

Horror for the Discerning Fan

The Babadook – A Portrayal of Postpartum Depression

No matter how much I try, I’m not perfect. I don’t work out enough. I could be better with money. I could definitely be tidier, but I’m lazy. I admit it. I like to drink a bottle of wine and watch Netflix if I don’t have anywhere to be the next day. I like to think that someday, if I have kids, I’ll suddenly become perfect and selfless and hardworking.

But do I have to be like that? I’ll certainly step up to plate if I ever have a child, but I won’t be perfect. Should I? Should a good mother encompass all those values?

Such is the focus of The Babadook, one of the best and scariest films I’ve seen all year. Seriously, The Babadook is extremely well acted and written, with inventive camera techniques and an incredible attention paid to detail.

It centers on Amelia, a widow and single mother. When the film begins, Amelia is at the end of her rope. She has never come to grips with the debilitating grief and sorrow that dominates her life, a result of the horrific car crash that claimed the life of her husband. To make things worse, the accident occurred as he was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their child, Samuel.

Samuel is adorable, but mischievous and irritating. He causes endless problems for his mother to deal with – bringing weapons to school, pushing his cousin out of a tree house, breaking windows, and shrieking for her attention at the drop of a hat.

On top of all that, Amelia’s depression and Samuel’s behavior have disrupted her day to day life—after she pulls Samuel out of school for bad behavior, she is forced to make other arrangements, sometimes staying at home, while her work at a nursing home suffers. Eventually her hours are cut back. She rebuffs the gentle attention of a co-worker who seems to really like her, clinging to her depression but also weighed down by it. Additionally, her depression and her son have severely damaged her relationship with her sister, Clare, who seems to be the only family Amelia has outside of her son. Not that Clare is the most caring person to begin with.

A sad, sad dinner.

All of this becomes unbearable for Amelia with the arrival of the Babadook, a shadowy, terrifying monster.

It starts when a mysterious book entitled Mister Babadook appears in Samuel’s room.

 

This book is the pop-up book from hell. It contains deeply unsettling singsong rhymes and ominous charcoal pop-up illustrations of a monster stalking a mother and child. Like the worst Dr. Seuss book ever.

And of course, an onslaught of strange, alarming events follows, which I don’t want to completely spoil for you.

Including this: (SPOILER)

 

 

 

and this:

 

 

 

 

And the freakiest phone call I’ve heard in a. Long. Time.

“Baba-dook, dook, doooooooook!!!!”

Samuel is convinced the Babadook is after them and he is intent on protecting her, inadvertently causing Amelia to resent him more. Her nerves become frayed, shredded even. Her dreams become more surreal and threatening. And we watch in horror as Amelia’s sanity unravels.

Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, because I don’t want to rob anybody of the experience of seeing this film. You may guess what will happen, but this movie doesn’t rely on the shock factor. It’s there, don’t get me wrong, but there is much, much more to this movie than things popping out at you (pun intended!).

Specifically, the real horror of the film comes in its treatment of Amelia and Samuel’s relationship, and the movie pulls no punches. I found it raw and devastating.

And that’s because the bond between mother and child is held sacred, perhaps the most sacred bond in all of human culture. The idea that a mother could resent her child so much that she would turn against him is incredibly disturbing. It’s an unfathomable topic, one that is met with revulsion and horror. This movie confronts us with it.

By taking the time to walk the audience through Amelia’s life, we come to understand a lot. She’s sleep-deprived. She’s over-worked. She’s incredibly lonely. She’s constantly bargaining with Samuel in a desperate attempt to bribe him into behaving. And Samuel, while adorable, is probably one of the most irritating children in film history. He’s constantly hanging on his mother. He is forever whining, crying, screaming for his mother. But he also loves his mother dearly and wants nothing more than to protect her. There are genuine moments of tenderness between them, but those lovely little scenes are always cut short by something terrible happening.

This is all to say the audience’s nerves are frayed after seeing Amelia’s everyday life, and we aren’t even living it.

After the movie, I couldn’t help but think of all the mothers who, much like Amelia, bear the brunt of parenting challenges, isolated, struggling. They might suffer from untreated depression or other mental illness. They might not have an adequate support network. They might not have enough money or time to be an effective parent, let alone a perfect one.

Still, many single mothers succeed in raising their children. But for some, the burdens are too much and the pressures are too intense. Watching The Babadook, it’s clear that Amelia is in way over her head and that this is too much for a person to bear. It’s hard for us to judge her, especially when the Babadook really starts messing with her life.

Amelia may not be the perfect mother, but does that make her a bad mother? She loves Samuel and wants to care for him. She tries very hard to be caring and selfless. She defends her child against those who don’t understand him. But still, there are times when she can’t stand him and the look of repulsion and bitterness etches deep lines into her tired face.

Maybe the image of a mother, a selfless and giving and loving goddess, is too high of a standard. It doesn’t take into account that a person, a woman who has had a child, isn’t a goddess. She’s human and therefore fallible. A goddess has endless patience, but not a person. A goddess is unbreakable, but not a person. A goddess can deny her own needs, but not a person.

And yet, when I hear a news story about a mother who killed her child, I can’t help but think, How awful! What an evil woman!

This movie really challenged my assumptions on this topic. I am not excusing the actions of mothers who kill and hurt their children. On the contrary, that is inexcusable. It’s a crime and it deserves punishment.

But now I try to ask myself why someone would do that to her child. Why did she feel like that was her last resort? What drove her to this?

Asking questions is how we better identify and, hopefully, affect change. It helps us all better understand and challenge ourselves.

So, not only was this movie wickedly entertaining, it taught me something about myself.

What do you all think? Do you think Amelia was a fundamentally good person who was overwhelmed by life, or was she a bad mother? What was your favorite part of the movie?

Leave your thoughts in the comments, please!

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2 Comments

  1. Great analysis.

    For my part, I don’t think there are many “problem children,” mostly just crappy parents. Sure there are some bad apples I guess (Charles Bronson comes to mind), but if Samuel is our example of a child whose behavior sends their mother into hallucinogenic, homicidal rage, then mothers should be strangling their children left and right.

    Most of the reviewers who’ve commented on Samuel’s irritability I’ve noticed are relatively young (i.e. part of the Millennial generation) and have never raised kids. Speaking from my own experience babysitting and mentoring (which is like child’s play…[no pun intended] compared to actual full-time parenting), Samuel may be weirder than your average kid, but his “archetype,” if you will, is not uncommon.

    Parenting is hard, HARD work, especially on mothers who do a ton of work even before the child is born or can even walk or talk. Taking into account the horrible conditions of her son’s birth, the fact that she’s a single-mother, that she’s horribly depressed, and has livid sister, Amelia’s condition is somewhat understandable but not-in-a-million-years excusable. Again, parenting is hard-work, but that’s the parent’s responsibility when they make another human and decide to raise it. To paraphrase South Park, “When you have a child, it’s time to GROW UP.”

    Is Amelia a fascinating character? Absolutely. Her depth and psychological torment is something I not only sympathized with, but empathized as well! This film was fantastic, creating a great and constant feel of dread throughout the entire film that made the keynote scares hit that much harder. It’s one of the best horror films I’ve watched in years (speaking of which, have you checked out ‘It Follows’?).

    But that being said, she’s a terrible mother. Not a bad or imperfect one, but a TERRIBLE mom. She’s a great protagonist, don’t get me wrong, but as a mother she’s quite awful. You asked, “Do you think Amelia was a fundamentally good person who was overwhelmed by life, or was she a bad mother?”

    I’d say she is both!

    Samuel isn’t “acting out.” He’s intuitively realizes that he’s living with a monster.

    • Thanks for commenting! I have to ask, as the child of a single mother who did her absolute best, why do you think she’s a terrible mother? What could she have done with her limited resources to be a better mother? Post-partum depression is an incredibly difficult obstacle to overcome, even when one has mental health professionals to treat it. Throw in her husband’s death and her obvious lack of social and financial resources, and I’m not convinced that she is solely at fault. I think there might be a gray area between “excusable” and “terrible,” which I think is the ultimate question the film poses. Do we just sit back and judge her for not living up as a mythical perfect mother? Or do we try to understand that she’s human and human beings have breaking points? Also, you seem to forget that she fought her way back from the edge and was able to become stronger for both Samuel and herself.

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