Welcome to Mother of Fears – a monthly column that will explore the various roles that mothers play within the horror genre. Mothers are a staple feature in horror movies, and yet, their stories, motivations, representations, and relationships with their children are so varied and complex that we never feel like we’re watching the same story twice. Every month I will take a look at a different mother from the world of horror, explore their story, and look at how they fit into the broader representation of women in horror.
The Babadook (2014) tells the story of a dapperly-dressed, long-fingered monster that lurks in the house of Amelia and her son Samuel. However, the truth is that the Babadook could be lurking anywhere or haunting anyone because rather than your traditional horror movie monster, the Babadook is a representation of Amelia’s grief over the loss of her husband Oskar.
The opening scene of The Babadook shows Amelia reliving a car crash, where she is tossed around and upside down before Samuel wakes her from her dream. We soon find out that Oskar was killed in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. For Amelia, the two events are always painfully linked, meaning that she has a challenging relationship with her son, and finds it difficult to find joy in his life. Amelia refuses to celebrate Samuel’s birthday on the actual day, to allow her to distance herself from the events of Oskar’s death, and basically pretend it didn’t happen.
“[…] the truth is that the Babadook could be lurking anywhere or haunting anyone […]”
Amelia and Samuel only have each other, and this has a very different effect on both of them. For Samuel, it has left him clingy and in need of his mother’s attention at all times. He can’t sleep unless he’s beside her, and he demands that she be actively looking at and listening to him at all times, even when she’s trying to get on with something else. For Amelia, the over-reliance of Samuel has left her over-touched and in desperate need of escape.
At one point, a colleague at work gives her the afternoon off to go home and be with Samuel, and Amelia chooses to sit alone and eat ice cream because alone time is not a luxury that Samuel affords her. It’s impossible for Amelia to not be constantly reminded of Oskar’s death, because Samuel, a living, breathing reminder of that day, will literally not leave her alone.
Unfortunately for Amelia, Samuel also proves quite difficult to deal with, with his teachers commenting that he displays a range of behavioral issues. Samuel doesn’t have any friends, his cousin and aunt dislike him, he’s constantly in trouble at school, and doesn’t seem to have a filter when it comes to vocalizing his thoughts. However, the biggest issue Samuel has is that he is scared of monsters.
Samuel can’t sleep due to his fear of the monster which he claims is coming for him and his mother. Amelia is pulled into a nightly ritual where she checks the wardrobe and under the bed to prove to Samuel that nothing is lurking in their house. He builds traps and weapons so that he can take on the monster, and tells his mother that he will protect her when the time comes.
Amelia writes Samuel’s fears off as nothing more than a childhood annoyance, but it seems that Samuel is more tuned into Amelia’s emotions than she is herself. And as Samuel’s seventh birthday approaches, the crushing weight of another year without her husband, as well as the yearly reminder of her loss is looming over Amelia.
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And this is when Samuel finds The Babadook book on his shelf and asks Amelia to read it. The Babadook is a monster that is hard to ignore once you know he exists. Once you let him in, it’s impossible to get rid of him. Samuel senses the Babadook’s presence almost immediately, but Amelia is quicker to ignore anything unusual and blame it on Samuel’s behavior. And it’s this reason that the strain in Amelia and Samuel’s relationship takes such a drastic turn.
“It’s impossible for Amelia to not be constantly reminded of Oskar’s death, because Samuel, a living, breathing reminder of that day, will literally not leave her alone.”
Samuel is prepared to fight the monster that lurks in their family home head-on. Samuel is more than happy to talk about his father, and the circumstances surrounding his death, while Amelia wants to shut that part of her life away completely. To think or talk about Oskar is too painful for her, and so she blocks him out, locking his belongings down in the basement. Knowing how Amelia feels about his father, Samuel sneaks into the basement to be closer to his father’s things. The differing approaches to grief between mother and son end up pulling them further and further apart rather than uniting them together against the power of the Babadook.
For Samuel, the solution to a monster hiding in the house is simple – he’s going to fight it. You can’t argue with kid logic here, and building weapons to feel like he’s protecting his mother is what gives Samuel security. For Amelia, however, the problem is much more complex. For her, the monster is seven years’ worth of feelings, pain, and missed sleep finally getting to a point where she can no longer ignore them. She knows she doesn’t know how to fight this particular monster, as her coping mechanisms haven’t exactly been successful up until now, and the thought of her pain becoming a physical presence in her home is more than she can deal with.
While Amelia may think she has a handle on her feelings, compartmentalizing them down to a point where she doesn’t think about them constantly, the constant toothache that niggles at her throughout the film seems to suggest differently. Try as she might to get on with her life without acknowledging her grief, and how it is affecting her family, the dull ache of the toothache is a constant reminder that grief is not something that can simply be ignored. When Amelia finally lets the Babadook in, the first thing she does is rip out her own tooth. At this point, she’s past the point of mere grief and has moved on to rage. However, ripping the pain out was never a solution to her problem. Instead, she has to tackle the problem head-on, which means facing-off against the Babadook.
Amelia initially sees the Babadook as something she has to protect her family from, but the Babdook twists this to ensure that she ends up cut off from any type of support system, allowing her to wallow in her grief by herself. She tells Samuel not to mention the Babadook to others, which is really her stopping any conversation about her behavior at home and Samuel’s need to discuss his father. Amelia tries to report the unexplainable incidents to the police, but when she sees the Babadook’s costume hung up at the station, she thinks the police are in on it. When really, the Babadook is warping things to ensure that Amelia doesn’t reach out for the help she desperately needs. It makes her think the only way she can deal with the issues at home is by dealing with them by herself, leaving her weak, scared, and most importantly, alone.
“You can’t argue with kid logic here, and building weapons to feel like he’s protecting his mother is what gives Samuel security.”
For Amelia, the Babadook is offering a tempting, albeit unthinkable solution to her current problems. Samuel is not only a painful reminder of the life she used to have and lost, but he also appears to be the reason for everything wrong with her life right now. The Babadook’s solution of killing Samuel, and then herself, will rid her of all her current worries and offers her the promise of getting Oskar back as well. Amelia fights against this proposition as much as possible, but with her sanity starting to slip, and things only getting worse, it does seem like she’s being left with no other option.
At the point of giving up, when she has allowed the Babadook to take her over completely, it is Samuel who saves her. Despite everything she has put him through, Amelia is still his mother, and he knows that under this version of his mother who has been twisted by pain and grief, there is still a huge amount of love between the pair. Samuel’s unwillingness to give up on Amelia, even when she’s trying to kill him, shows Amelia that she has to fight to ensure both of them survive the night.
Amelia finally does what she’s been avoiding, and faces her grief head-on. The Babadook plays back Oskar’s death in graphic, head-splitting detail, as Amelia watches on helplessly. Though it’s obviously incredibly painful for her to relive this scene, she now knows that this is what she needs to do to process her grief, and ultimately, save her son. Finally united against the Babadook and his power, mother and son are able to drive the Babadook into the basement, locking the door behind him.
At the end of The Babadook, there’s a happier outlook on the horizon for Amelia and Samuel. However, their past troubles aren’t glossed over. Amelia has just had the stitches removed from where Samuel stabbed her. Samuel has the marks of his mother’s fingers bruised into his neck. But they are healing at this point, and finally working together as a unit rather than fighting against each other when it comes to the memory of Oskar.
The Babadook isn’t magically banished like so many other movie monsters before it, because getting rid of grief isn’t that easy. Instead, the Babadook lives in the basement, with Amelia visiting it daily to feed it worms. It’s likely that the Babadook will always be there, but Amelia has ensured it is a manageable problem now.
“At the end of The Babadook, there’s a happier outlook on the horizon for Amelia and Samuel.”
While visiting the Babadook, its power threatens to overwhelm her, almost knocking her off her feet, and yet she manages to stand strong against it. There’s no doubt it’s painful for her to allow the memories of Oskar and his death into her daily life, but she knows it’s making her a stronger person as a result. “It’s alright”, Amelia coaxes, seeming to calm the monster down. However, it’s not clear if she’s talking to the Babadook or herself here.
Either way, she is acknowledging the pain that is caused by the situation between the two and also acknowledging that living together like this is more mutually beneficial than being on opposite sides. By making time to deal with her grief every day, if only for a moment, Amelia ensures that the Babadook will never have the same level of power over her or Samuel ever again.
Samuel asks if he will ever be allowed to see the Babadook, and Amelia replies he can when he’s bigger. Right now, while Samuel feels sad at the loss of the father he never knew and the way the whole thing has affected his mother, he doesn’t really understand loss or grief on the same level that Amelia does. For now, he can deal with his sadness with the help of his mother, and when he’s older and needs to understand the full scope of his grief better, Amelia will be able to introduce him to the Babadook and help him work through his worries and questions.
For now, what lurks in the basement is something he doesn’t need to worry about the enormity of, but it will catch up with him one day, and hopefully, he will be better placed to deal with it. The fact that Amelia promises he can meet the Babadook one day rather than shutting him off from it all like she did before shows that she has grown, and is looking for more healthy coping mechanisms.
“The Babadook isn’t magically banished like so many other movie monsters before it, because getting rid of grief isn’t that easy.”
As the film draws to a close, we leave a much happier version of Amelia and Samuel. Things are getting back on track for them, and most importantly, they are celebrating Samuel’s birthday on the actual day, as Amelia decides to stop blocking any trace of Oskar out of their lives. However, their battle scars are still visible, and no doubt it will take them some time to rebuild all their bridges that the Babadook helped to knock down. There’s no instant happy ending here, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and the promise that Amelia and Samuel are working towards a better life together.
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