The Babadook: The New Physicality of Ghosts in Horror

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If I asked you to describe a ghost, the first
characteristics that would likely come to mind are translucent, faded, something
defined more by absence than by presence and this is how ghosts have historically been
depicted, first in literature and then on film, and so this is the image, the description,
that has been embedded into our collective consciousness. In fact, it is this state of
liminality evoked in their appearance that is the very foundation of their horror – transgressing
established boundaries by existing in-between the living and the dead, human and inhuman
– being there but also not. But independent horror cinema is increasingly challenging
these preconceived notions of absence, disregarding the unsettling blurring of oppositions in
favour of ghosts that are physical, messy, and most definitely there. Disrupting the
conventions that have come to define the ghost and haunted house genre. Leading on from the
more destructive tendencies of the poltergeists that have dominated more recent ghost stories, such as Paranormal Activity or Insidious, films like Nina Forever, for example,
push this destruction further in creating a uniquely bodily apparition. But while Nina
Forever provides the more conventional kind of haunting, that of a dead girlfriend
who plagues a new relationship, it is actually Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Babadook’ – a
story of a single mother’s struggle with grief and depression – that falls most distinctly
into the familiar ‘haunted house’ archetype, while providing its own ‘ghost’ that is
as undeniably present. Of course it’s important to address the
extent to which the film’s monster can be considered a ghost at all, as the Babadook
is not the spirit of someone who has died as the term ‘ghost’ implies, instead seemingly
drawing on the childhood idea of a kind of bogeyman who might hide in cupboards or under
beds – but it still quite clearly uses a recognisable language of haunting, especially in conjuring
the image of Amelia’s deceased husband. This visual language continues as Amelia’s
grief appears to manifest as a possession a phenomenon with which audiences of the
‘ghost’ and ‘haunted house’ sub-genres would certainly be familiar. But the film
also extends this notion of haunting beyond the usual context of past trauma or loss to
include a particularly modern sense of being haunted – by the expectations of others,
the collective expectations of a society that leads us to be haunted by the life we could
have had, or feel we should have. Amelia struggles to live up to an idealised figure of the ‘mother’,
her perceived failings consistently based on the conventional and reductive notions
of what that role should be – cook, cleaner, carer. The Babadook manifests these uniquely
motherly fears – that her food will be inedible, her house unclean and her relationship with
her son estranged. These fears are similarly reflected in the television’s adverts and
films, showing images of romance and cleaning products via a medium that could be seen as
the very embodiment of societal pressure and ideals. But the idea of the ghost isn’t just evoked though the association of haunting, it is
equally conjured by the cultural association of repression, with ghosts frequently viewed
and presented through a Freudian lens of ‘das unheimliche’ or the uncanny – a sense
of creeping unease that “proceeds from something familiar which has been repressed” and that
“is represented by anything having to do with death, bodies, spirits, revenants, and
ghosts”. This theory provides the foundation for many depictions and interpretations of
the ghost and the haunted house in both film and literature. As Monica Michlin states in her essay ‘The Haunted House in Narratives of Trauma’. and, as we’ll discuss, the Babadook is clearly created in this image. So what does the film gain from merging these ghostly conventions with ideas of monsters?
And why make them so undeniably physical and present when so much of recent psychological
horror would choose to leave things ambiguous or even explicitly shown to have been imagined?
Well, the repressed feelings that are specifically being dealt with here are those of depression,
particularly the kind that results from grief – and the film repeatedly shows how depression
is often dismissed, ignored and erased, much like how we might see ghosts. Amelia is constantly
under pressure to move on, to deny her own suffering. “I have moved on. I don’t mention him. I don’t talk about him. What strain is that on you, Claire?” Her concerns and fears aren’t treated seriously by other parents, the school, the police or even her own sister, and initially the Babadook is
introduced in a way that mirrors this perception something that a child might invent, that
might reveal itself to be just the product of an overactive imagination. But as Amelia
becomes more and more overwhelmed the Babadook becomes increasingly physical and, by extension,
real – until it even needs to be fed. Jennifer Kent’s uniquely physical spectre
shows that for those suffering from depression, from intense grief, the mental, immaterial
nature of the affliction makes it no less real – and in subverting the language of
ghosts and haunting, Kent questions how these conditions are perceived – and in using
the ideas of childhood monsters, she questions our primary rhetoric for dealing with these
problems. The film opens with The Three Little Pigs, a classic children’s fable that provides
an easily visible and identifiable monster in the ‘big bad wolf’, a monster that
can be defeated. This childhood idea of monsters frames how depression is often mistakenly
viewed in a similar vein to this kind of oversimplified ‘good vs evil’ narrative, and as something
that can be overcome. Samuel, Amelia’s son, develops an obsession with weapons and this
idea of ‘defeating’ the monster, an approach that in fact isn’t so dissimilar to that
of Amelia’s sister or the other mothers. “You just need to get back into it, that’s all.”
But the film makes it clear that this is not such a simple fight.
This undeniable physicality also complicates the binary distinctions between reality and
fantasy, particularly as they are depicted in film. The Babadook and its scenes of supernatural
terror are contrasted with scenes of banal realism – the austere school, the dreary
nursing home, the stifling party – and this opposition replicates the way that horror
as a genre might itself be seen in opposition to cinematic realism and drama. And, thinking
back to that television, the romantic dramas and adverts it initially plays would thematically
play into the idea of the television as a kind of window onto reality, the prescribed
ideals Amelia feels she cannot live up to. But in later scenes, this footage is intercut
with that of horror films as well as more abstract imagery of the Babadook itself, blurring
the lines between the two and perhaps suggesting that these interpretations of reality can
be just as accurate, or maybe even more accurate, than what we would traditionally
consider ‘realism’ – the cinematic framework that might at first have seemed best suited
to the depiction of grief. Even the pop-up book, the very harbinger of the Babadook,
can be seen to embody this same distinction, it’s simple rhyming structure creating
the illusion of stability, certainty – an order we might associate with dramatic realism .
But its mechanics work against this simplicity, introducing an element of the unknown that
can destabilise this order, not unlike horror, or fantasy.
And this brings us back to that ending. Amelia finds she cannot defeat the monster but she
can manage it as long as she feeds it, a scene criticised by many viewers and critics
for being, well, silly – but this is actually one of my favourite details in the film. Despite
taking the appearance of a ‘haunted house’ film, this feeding, this act of consumption
undertaken solely by living things, refuses to confine the film’s monster to its ghostly
associations – refusing to conform to these conventions and so refusing to be ignored
or erased, as it might be so easy to do with a condition we can’t see. Unlike the
monsters we’re so used to, whether in children’s stories or ghost stories, depression and grief
cannot be defeated, and they won’t go away – but perhaps, with help, they can
be managed. And if we allow ourselves to acknowledge these feelings, to feed them instead of starving
them, then, like the worms that aid in decomposition, new life can grow from what has been lost.
Rather than playing into the established associations of absence, the undeniable presence we see
here proves that the monster’s status as metaphor makes it no less real and suggests
truth in the line repeated by Sam and his magician role model.
That “Life’s notalways as it seems.” Hey everyone, thanks for watching.
This video was basically born out of how I kind of consider this film
to be in the ‘haunted house’ genre when it’s obviously not that, but I hope I
managed to explain how and possibly why the conventions of that genre are used here – and
I would love to hear your thoughts on this too, so if you have any you’d like to share
please leave them down in the comments and I hope I’ll see you in the next video.

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