Horror movies are our modern-day fairy tales. They use dark imagery to highlight our blackest fears in order to help us manage them. For a horror movie to work well, it must tap into one of these universal fears or struggles, otherwise, the movie ends up being an incoherent, gloopy mess.
The Babadook, a strange little Australian horror flick, had me confused at first. It’s the story of single mother Amelia raising a difficult son, Samuel, who is about to turn seven. Samuel is rambunctious and annoying as hell, going on and on about having to protect his harried mother from invisible monsters ad generally getting into trouble. Watching Samuel in action made me never want to have children. During these first minutes of the film, his antics left me wondering what the hell this supposed horror movie was supposed to be about.
Then The Babadook shifted, subtly and brilliantly. I can’t remember what the exact moment was — most likely it was a small series of moments that built up until the change was undeniable. And I realized what the heart of this particular horror was: Amelia was burdened with grief for her husband who died while she was in labor en route to the hospital. Those invisible monster Samuel was always fighting was real — it was his mother’s suppressed grief, grief which kept her removed from her own life, and her son’s as well.
Of course that’s not what literally happened in The Babadook. It’s a horror movie, after all. A monster called the Babadook possessed Amelia, causing all sorts of cringeworthy madness and mayhem. Kudos to the writer and director for capturing truly horrific moments, from a cockroach infestation to a nasty bit of self dentistry.
But while the outward plot — a monster invades a house and must be defeated — was well handled, the meaning behind it all was what elevated this movie. Parts of it hit mighty close for me. I know what it’s like to be a child in a situation where you have no control, where you feel like you’re being tossed around in a storm, burdened by someone else’s unresolved pain, and this movie, through Samuel, captured that experience.
Even the resolution nailed it. Horror movies are notoriously difficult to resolve. Often the killer comes back, again and again, or some thoroughly unbelievable event wraps up the story, killing all believability. The Babadook managed to avoid these pitfalls, while also keeping true to the horror at the heart of the story — the failure of a woman to mourn the death of her husband, and the wreckage bequeathed to her son.