Spoilers ahoy: In this discussion of the 2014 film, The Babadook, I'll be talking about the ending, so if you've never seen the movie and you're spoiler-averse, take heed. In classic horror movies, you can typically be one thing or the other: the virgin or the whore. The brain or the jock. Victim or perpetrator. Good mommy or bad. Modern horror is fond of playing with these tropes, upending our expectations for shock or consideration. Sometimes, this is done in service of a scare or a laugh — movies like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods reverse our assumptions to get a reaction out of us.
With The Babadook, writer and director Jennifer Kent doesn’t set out to upend a trope. Instead, by telling a story about motherhood, grief, isolation and depression, she creates a character who transcends archetype to become palpably human. As Amelia, Essie Davis starts the movie as a sweet, doormat-y sort, loathe to be a burden on anyone even as her young son begins to act violently. But as her situation worsens — and the titular Babadook insinuates himself into her home — Amelia becomes transformed, and all the anger, frustration, and madness inside her rockets to the surface.
She’s a mother; she’s a monster. She would die for her son; she would kill him with her bare hands. Like lots of parents, she feels the entire gamut of emotions at varying times, and sometimes all at once.
As a childless adult watching The Babadook, I’m always amazed at the rollercoaster of emotions I go through during Amelia’s transformation. Early on, as she copes with her son firing jerry-rigged weapons in the house, attacking other kids in school, kicking the back of her seat, and screaming — oh, god, the endless screaming — my pity and sympathy know no depths. My god, this poor woman! This awful brat! Amelia can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t even masturbate, for crying out loud, without her son barging in and wailing at her.
But when the Babadook comes a-knocking and Amelia lets him in and begins to change, I’m shocked by how quickly I start judging her. She screams at her son, I go tsk-tsk. She drugs him to make him sleep — what kind of mother is this?
Then she gets out the knife, and I’m no longer judging. I’m straight-up scared.
Amelia is an extreme version of parenting, obviously. But tone her down a bit and lose the monster who’s terrorizing her and her son, and you’ve got a normal parent, with all the love and frustration and joy and anger and anxiety and excitement and layers upon layers of complicated stuff that comes with being one.
Complicating things further for Amelia is the fact that her husband died the day their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born. In addition to adjusting to life as a single parent, Amelia is coping with grief and depression. Is it any wonder she goes a little crazy?
Which is why I find the ending of the movie so touching. The monster isn’t destroyed in the end. It’s still a part of this little two-person family. Amelia and Samuel play, and plant flowers in their garden, and collect monster-food until it’s time for the monster to be fed. Amelia stands outside the basement door with her bowl of worms and tells Samuel to go outside and not to come in, no matter what, until she says it’s okay.
“One day. When you're bigger,” Amelia tells him.
This is another facet of parenting: protecting your kids from the dark stuff. Amelia goes down to the basement — because where do we keep our monsters, all the dark stuff, the grief and madness, depression and pain, if not the basement? She tends to the monster and tells Samuel he won’t have to do this job until he’s older. Because isn’t that the hope of all parents? — that their children won’t have to encounter the truly dark stuff until they’re much, much older.
- Here's a great interview with the movie's director, Jennifer Kent, from The Dissolve (which has sadly been dissolved).
- And a review from Slate's movie critic, Dana Stevens, that had some influence on how I interpreted the movie.
- I swear to god, nothing makes me laugh harder in this movie than this exchange: Amelia: Where did you get those fire-crackers? Samuel: You got them for me on the internet! Amelia: Well, that's the end of the internet.
- Also, this scene. (I am a cruel person.)
- Hey, everybody! I found this year's Christmas card!