The Babadook and Depression: A Few Thoughts

WARNING: FULL SPOILERS

It’s rare that I write much on film on this blog. I want HFA/AS issues to be my major subject and they feel ephemeral in that light. Movies are fluff that don’t speak to my focus. It makes sense to ignore them generally. But that can’t always be the case. Every so often I see a film that makes the most sense analyzed on this outlet.

That’s the case with Jennifer Kent’s brilliant allegory of depression The Babadook. The film has earned almost universal praise from the horror community and with good cause. It’s a terrifying film which executes the horror element as well as in any film I’ve seen, well, ever. It’s up there with The Sixth Sense. (1) In fact, William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist (2), called it the most terrifying film he’s ever seen. Make no mistake, it will scare you.

But that’s not why I want to write on it. The film is such a thinly veiled allegory for depression and grief that it can’t be discussed separate from that or at least it shouldn’t be. As someone who has suffered from both emotions, this was the first time I’ve watched a movie after my grief that made me know someone got it. This is a profound, honest look at the reality of depression which uses personification to capture the horror of it.

The film depicts a mother and her son as they near the son’s birthday, which is also the anniversary of the son’s father’s death in an accident. The son appears to be a troubled child and the mother is a cold, emotionally numb figure. One night the son discovers a mysterious book about a hideous figure who enters your life and eventually kills you. This figure naturally starts to manifest in the real world before possessing the mother. The only way to defeat The Babadook turns out to be facing him head on, robbing him of his strength, trapping him in the basement, and feeding it.

In order to discuss the film, the obvious must be stated: The Babadook is a personification of depression. The two forms, first a smiling, leering creature and then a dark cloud, perfectly capture what depression feels like. It does taunt and it does consume us. The mother’s behavior under the Babadook’s influence is chillingly spot on. Rage filled, bitter, expressing views we feel but don’t admit. Even before it raises its head, we gets scenes of lethargy, of passive aggression. There’s the none too subtle implication the son’s behavior stems from a reaction to his mother.

There are also signs of the way we give up during depression. The book’s origins are never revealed, but we do learn the mother once wrote childrens books but lost her will to do so, making her almost certainly the creator. We see her lack of enthusiasm for anything in her life including apathetic attempts at a love life and a strained tie to her sister. This is how it works. Nothing sounds or feels good in this moment.

All of these elements rang all too true to me. Even the threat of the mother turning violent, which briefly occurs, sadly reflects truth in the experience. I don’t know what research Kent did, but I can tell a healthy amount occurred. Virtually every beat of the film in some way enhanced the idea.

But it’s the ending that really spoke to me. In the end, the mother only overcomes the Babadook by fighting back, by finding her will. She stands her ground and declares that the creature will not hurt her or her son. The creature retreats the cellar, weakened but unkillable. In the end, the creature survives, weakened but always there.

This is how depression is. It can be weakened if we confront it and fight it but it won’t go away. You can’t get rid of it. But you can treat it. You can be vigilant. And in time, things will get better. But it will always be there.

It shouldn’t be shocking that horror proves the perfect medium to face the pain. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet confronted the pain of mental illness. Fairy tales capture the hell of childhood. The Shining stared hard at the nightmare of addiction. The Babadook is a fine addition to the canon.

On a film level, I have no trouble recommending it. On a thematic level I consider it required viewing.

(1) The Sixth Sense was scary as they came. Just a reminder. Not just a twist.

(2)The exorcist was muted by every scare being a joke in the culture but it is a masterpiece still.

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