the babadook

Welcome to this week’s post! Today, I want to take this blog in a slightly different direction. Instead of looking at how a certain film directly addresses mental illness, I want to discuss my interpretation of a particular horror film as a metaphor for living with mental illness.

The Babadook is a 2014 indie Australian horror movie that tells the story of a mother, her young son, and a monster that comes to haunt them. Amelia, played incredibly well by Essie Davis, loses her husband in a tragic car accident on the same day that she gives birth to her son, Samuel. This leads her to inextricably link his death with the arrival of her son. When she discovers a strange children’s book in Samuel’s room, she unwittingly invites a dark presence into their lives, the Babadook.

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The Babadook, as pictured in the children’s book.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how in the world this has to do with mental illness, which is fair. I’m here to tell you why!

First, a word about horror movies and their history with addressing mental illness: the genre has not done a great job with this overall. Ever since Psycho introduced Norman Bates and his cavalcade of mommy issues, there has been a trend to make the villain in horror movies mentally ill in some way. For some examples, see Silence of the Lambs, Black Swan, Halloween, American Psycho, or Misery. Even if the villain themselves is not mentally ill, mental health institutions are a common horror/thriller setting (see American Horror Story: Asylum, Session 9, Shutter Island, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Gothika).

That being said, I think there are a lot of positives to be said about this movie when you interpret the Babadook as a metaphor for mental illness.

At the beginning of the movie, Amelia is already showing signs of depression. She is isolated from her friends and family, she has trouble sleeping, her movements are slow, and she generally appears to be sad and exhausted. She is a working single mother to a child who likely has some sort of conduct disorder, which adds stress to her life. She has flashbacks to the death of her husband, a loss from which she is still struggling to recover six years later. And then the Babadook comes along.

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Once the Babadook gets inside Amelia, we see her already depressed state become even worse. Though she moves more quickly, her behavior also becomes erratic. The Babadook causes her to say exactly what’s on her mind, causing Amelia to sabotage her relationship with her sister. She also displays a kind of complacency with her situation, not unlike the calmness that overcomes some people once they decide to die by suicide. Of course, since this is also a horror movie, she also becomes more violent and abusive towards her son — and I do not want to imply that mental illness is a cause or an excuse for this type of behavior. However, she still has moments of clarity when she realizes the terrible things she is doing and saying and apologizes.

In a very poignant scene towards the end of the movie, their neighbor comes over and offers her unconditional support of Amelia and Samuel — something that connects with the part of Amelia that is still untouched by the Babadook. We see Amelia come to herself for the first time in a while and start to gather the strength to defeat the Babadook. For me, this speaks to the power that friends and family can have for someone who is suffering from a mental illness. Just one person offering to be there, no matter what, can have a powerful impact on someone who feels as if they are a burden on everyone.

And, spoiler alert, Amelia does end up confronting and banishing the Babadook:

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A fierce and powerful mother protecting her child and herself! Go Amelia!!

But like the poem says: You can’t get rid of the Babadook. The end of the movie finds Amelia alive and recovered, but not without the Babadook entirely. Instead, the monster lives in their basement, where she feeds it a regular diet of worms from the garden and says “it’s all right” soothingly when the Babadook becomes agitated.

For me, the ending of this movie is what really sells it as a metaphor for mental illness. Instead of eliminating the threat entirely, Amelia learns to cope with her new reality. She acknowledges her ugly thoughts, recognizes the place they come from, and reassures them that they are safe — a technique that is common to many treatments for mental illnesses, specifically compassion-focused therapy. She also feeds the monster worms, which would be a stand-in for psychiatric medications, if I’m following through on my metaphor.

For me, the ending of this movie shows someone learning how to live with their mental illness and accepting it as a part of themselves. It’s important we recognize that mental illness is not simply a plague to be eliminated, but a spectrum of functioning and human experiences, some more debilitating than others. No one’s experience with their mental illness is the same as another’s, and many people consider themselves “recovered” from their illness, rather than “cured.” And I think that’s an important narrative to promote if we are to ever fully erase the stigma that mental illness has in our society.

Shout-out to my best friend Camille for being my go-to horror movie expert for this week’s entry. If this post was intriguing to you, I suggest you take a look at Camille’s discussion of It Follows (2014) and rape trauma syndrome that she wrote for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center last year.

Needless to say, The Babadook is a horror movie — and an incredibly well-done one — so watch at your own risk! While it doesn’t have the cheap jump scares that cause me to hate most horror movies, there are some genuinely terrifying moments. If you are scared easily like me, I recommend watching this movie in the middle of the day with lots of friends around to distract you from the scary bits.

The Babadook (2014): ★★★★★