(This was first published on Wales Art Review, available here)
More than a horror, Babadook is a tale of a woman’s sense of inadequacy before society’s conventions and expectations. Australian director, Jennifer Kent, reinterprets F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to give voice to today’s fears. Nosferatu was inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula; yet the character of Count Orlock deviated significantly from Dracula. Count Orlock lacked Dracula’s gentlemanly charm. Conceived during WWI, Orlock was the spectre of the terror that haunted the nation. Accompanied by rats, Nosferatu is a demonic darkness that falls on a sleepy German town like the plague. The polluting evil in Nosferatu is a metaphor for the Jews (see Maria Tatar’s book Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany).
The Babadook at first appears through an infestation of cockroaches in an ordinary home in white middle class suburbia; yet the dirt does not symbolise a moral panic. It is a psychological breakdown of someone oppressed by social conventions. The Babadook resides in the terrified minds of a mother and her child. Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car accident on the way to the hospital to have her baby Samuel. Since then, she has not completely recovered from the trauma. Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a difficult child and Amelia suffers the judgement of other parents, teachers, and of the audience.
The presence of the Babadook is conjured by a book, which Samuel finds in the house appearing out of nowhere. Amelia reads it to Samuel, but he gets frightened and the book is put aside quickly. Yet, it has already taken hold of Samuel, who becomes even more intolerable. Amelia’s inability to control him makes her isolated in her community. Kent weaves in the hypocrisy of a society which decrees that children be at the centre of a parent’s life, often dominating it, whilst expecting parents to control them. Amelia’s life is ground down by a monotonous and unfulfilling job as a care worker and an unruly child, in stark contrast with the suburban perfect life of her sister and her friends. Samuel’s obsessive fear of the Babadook and its supernatural manifestations begin to haunt Amelia too. She can no longer function in society. She stops going to work, her son is expelled from school, and social services march in. Outside society is just as oppressive and terrifying as the supernatural horror at home. Painted from a dark grey palette, the ‘outside’ is an indifferent and austere world that proceeds relentlessly. Amelia’s mental breakdown is almost the refusal to play society’s game. She cannot win. She looks for a place that is ‘nice and warm,’ as she comments, while sitting fully clothed in her bathtub. Samuel watches her mother becoming possessed by the Babadook. Amelia’s vomiting and strange behaviour echo The Exorcist, but it is the silhouette of Nosferatu that looms large in Amelia’s house.
Like Nosferatu, the spirit of the Babadook thirsts for blood and victims. He requires sacrifice and Amelia, while possessed, duly complies. In Nosferatu, the evil darkness is dissolved by light, an innovation on the myth by Murnau. In Babadook … that is for you to find out.