Note: This article features significant ending spoilers for a must-watch film that is only a couple of years old, right as we head into scary movie season.
Your mother’s done it, too (or you’ve done it, if you’ve been a mother yourself for long enough): One day, when you did something you didn’t realize was wrong, the warm, pretty creature who feeds you suddenly snapped and became a heedless, screaming beast.
There are a hundred little technical reasons Australian director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook is a damn fine horror movie, and one of the scariest features I’ve seen in many a long year. But I suspect the reason a veteran like William Friedkin tweeted that he had “never seen a more terrifying film,” or that it continues to persist in my own Netflix rotation, is that it traffics in some of the most primal fears we experience now that we’ve tamed the wilderness that once threatened the family unit and are left cooped up in our nice houses, with only one another for company.
“Don’t let it in!” the child begs throughout the movie. It’s only at the end that he discovers, as do we, the monster that stalks the characters in The Babadook was there all along, and ever shall be.
Adapted from Kent’s 2005 short film “Monster,” her feature-length debut, for which she also wrote the screenplay, follows widow Amelia (Essie Davis) and her grade school son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) as they cope with life in a fatherless household in Southern Australia. Samuel’s special needs, fits of paranoia and predilection for curiously well-engineered projectile weapons are driving Amelia to her wit’s end. She feels stifled at work, isolated from her family and friends by the depression she struggles with, and unable even to get her rocks off in bed alone without Samuel pestering her for motherly affection. Beneath it all is the constant reminder that Amelia’s husband died in a car crash en route to the hospital the day she gave birth to Samuel, in case there was any doubt that childbirth can strain or even destroy a marriage.
It’s a credit to Wiseman and the script that the audience sympathizes with the poor kid rather than view him as an annoying little flibbertigibbet who excites enmity in everyone around him. Anybody with a family member with special needs—or indeed, any parent with a kid prone to blurting out whatever comes to mind in the moment—understands both Samuel’s innocent, earnest love for his mother and Amelia’s feelings of suffocation at being his sole caregiver, her travails at home mirrored in her job at a senior living facility where she calls out bingo numbers to people too senile to play.
Samuel’s inability to get along with other children, and Amelia’s lashing out at well-meaning if oblivious friends, drive them into isolation. And one night, with Samuel home from school after nearly hurting another kid, Amelia lets him select a book to read just to shut him up. He picks one she’s never seen before, though it came from her own shelf in her own house. It’s called Mr. Babadook, and weird things start happening after she reads it to him.
Anybody who’s been raised by one parent—an increasingly common occurrence—knows the feelings Amelia struggles with. I work in a state legislature, and while I know things are different in Australia, I can tell you that there is no political liability in openly scorning single motherhood. Society treats families like Amelia’s as utterly undeserving of help. Tired and stressed and unable to pay the bills? Well, get a man. Need time to go fishing for a husband? You’re an awful mother for wanting to do that instead of controlling your child, and you should feel bad he doesn’t fit into the little box we’ve marked out for him. How dare your asshole kid be an asshole to the hundreds of other asshole kids who fight at ice cream parlors, taunt unpopular children, and whine about their birthday presents (as the kids in this film all do)?
At the brink of Amelia’s breakdown, as she puts herself and Samuel on tranquilizers just to get through the day, the grotesque creature from the mysterious pop-up book encroaches upon the real world. One of the film’s strongest elements is the shadowy Babadook itself, a malevolent silhouette that at one point skitters along the ceiling, insect-like, in a special effects sequence that is as understated as it is fucking creepy.
As the house and the relationship between mother and son deteriorate, Amelia’s overwhelming frustrations mount and the Babadook fully inhabits her body, turning her into a violent beast. The film delivers its most delightfully unnerving moments as a possessed Amelia stalks Samuel, alternating between snarling abuse and sweetly sinister promises of reuniting him with his father.
In an interview after the film’s 2014 Sundance Film Festival debut, Kent said the kernel of the film is the idea of a woman too afraid to face something. Davis added that the script was immediately “confronting” to her as a mother because of how it highlighted some of the worst things one might see in oneself as a parent.
Kent has since argued that horror needs more women directors, and the well-crafted film—with a perspective that is so definitively female yet universal in the themes it uses to frighten us—makes that case with aplomb. Kent’s and Davis’ choices completely sell a feature that in less-skilled hands could easily have come off as trifling or absurd. When Amelia loses herself entirely to the grip of the Babadook and menaces her own son, the camera adopts Samuel’s point of view, from a low angle, Amelia seeming to float forward along the ground. Davis alters her voice to a guttural register as she shouts at her child—just exaggerated enough that it sounds deep and dreadful to us, the audience. These nightmarish stylistic and performative flourishes consciously make us feel like children do when a parent flips out. Like the best horror, it invades our own space.
It’s at this point that the film shifts more fully to Samuel’s perspective. He uses his ingenuity to bludgeon the nightmare creature out of his mother through a combination of clever improvised weaponry and filial love. It works: Amelia vomits the vileness out. But, in the film’s most freakish and awful twist, the fight isn’t over. As Samuel breathlessly whispers, in a line from the demon pop-up book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
The Babadook excites me as a horror film because in one very real way, like its characters, it’s the little movie that could. Made on a modest $2.5 million budget with a subsidy from the Australian government and a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign that helped build sets, the film made enough returns in its homeland to make back its investment and then some. Still, it only really took off once it hit film festivals and the U.S. and European markets, where it has since garnered effusive praise. The Babadook confronts and terrifies without resorting to eye-rolling jump scares or gratuitous gore. It casts a female protagonist in a maternal, caregiving role and torments her with a monster while simultaneously not reducing her to a tiresome damsel in distress or an over-the-top Final Girl.
And it also has one final twist—one far more disturbing than the cop-out, bullshit, all-your-struggles-were-for-nothing nihilism at the end of otherwise fabulous films like You’re Next or The Guest. After discovering the Babadook hasn’t left, Amelia screams the beast into submission in a maternal badass turn to rival that of Ellen Ripley. Subdued, cowed, it runs down into the basement.
Where it remains.
Amelia’s life and Samuel’s behavior get just a bit more on track. They smile and seem to have a healthy relationship. But every day, Amelia goes down into the basement to slip a bowl of worms to the Babadook. So it is with all of us: forcing our discontent and resentment into a compartment somewhere, cautious to acknowledge it so it can’t sneak up on us, more cautious still to feed it only so much.
As she embraces her son before the credits roll, we know we’re seeing a good day. But we also know there will be a bad one, sooner or later.