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“The Babadook” and the Private World of Mothers

February is Women in Horror Month, and all month long, Madness Heart Press has been offering a deal whereby 100% of profits from books by female-identifying authors go to those authors – Madness Heart’s way of trying to promote the community of female horror creators and to highlight their frightening, fantastic contributions to art. If you, like me, enjoy the finer things in life – namely, eating those finer things if they slow down long enough – make sure to check out Rachel Rodman’s Exotic Meats and Inedible Objects. Do you like poetry, particularly of the angsty, rip-my-guts-out variety? Be sure to check out just break my heart already. by Lemons Clemons!

Speaking of Lemons, they co-host the podcast Wandering Monster along with myself and Madness Heart philosopher-king John Baltisberger. In this week’s episode, we discussed female-centered horror stories and monsters. Lemons brought a doozy in the form of Baba Yaga, John brought Tiamet, and I, of course, reached into Hell’s own bookshelf and withdrew a beloved children’s volume: The Babadook.

The Babadook, for those of you lucky enough to have never crossed his path, is the eponymous monster from Jennifer Kent’s mesmerizing (and terrifying) 2014 debut as writer-director. Kent brings us the story of a single mom, played masterfully by Essie Davis, and her emotionally troubled son, played with uncanny skill by little Noah Wiseman. The Babadook shows us an Australian countryside drained of color and vitality the way that Davis’ Amelia has been drained by lack of sleep – a claustrophobic and dysfunctional family life having forced her and Samuel (Wiseman) into a corner.

And it turns out I’s a haunted corner – haunted by trauma, by tragedy, by supernatural forces that may or may not exist outside the minds of Samuel and Amelia. Haunted, most of all, by the Babadook.

I remember being swept up in The Babadook when it premiered in 2014. The film has a very effective and terrifying flow, and at the time that I was first funneled into its world I focused most of my adulation on what I thought was a clever, original, and (most of all) exceedingly frightening monster. I stand by my appraisal of the Babadook himself – he scares the shit out of me. But on re-watching Jennifer Kent’s dark fairy tale of motherhood (and otherhood), there was a lot that went over my head on that first viewing.

There’s the intensely private world of affection, fear, love, and pain that Kent builds around Samuel and Amelia – all the little moments that mother and son spend together reading in bed, for example, or just curled up together watching TV. There’s the creeping octopus dread of madness that slowly sweeps over Amelia, leading us to question who the Babadook is really after; Samuel or his mother? There are all sorts of tiny, subtle moments that emphasize that this is, above all, a mother’s story. We are allowed into its interior to view the events as they unfold, but make no mistake – it’s a very private place nonetheless.

There are so many other themes that The Babadook brings us in a subtle, mother-centric way: the difficulty of arranging child care and a work schedule, even in a largely-Socialist country, even with a support network of family and friends. The toll that insomnia can take (something I know well from an intensely interior hell of my own). Love and lust, lost and mourned. Love, turned to poison. In short, The Babadook is a perfect demonstration of the incredible value and power of storytelling in bringing us inside these private worlds, into places we might not otherwise see.

And if there are monsters there? Sometimes, that’s the price of admission.

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