I don’t consider myself a “fan” of horror films, but a colleague recommended Jennifer Kent’s 2014 Australian film The Babadook to me, and the representation of harried, exhausted single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) resonated with me so much that I decided to make students watch it too.
The film is a cultural phenomenon partly because its depiction of monstrous grief and anxiety resonates with many filmgoers. Other aspects also resonate; the film’s closeted monster became a queer icon in 2016 after the film was listed in the LGBT recommendations of Netflix. The film’s soundmix contributes to the horror, as does the color palette, adding technical interest. And, although some chuckle at the special effects when the cartoonish monster is fully embodied, plenty are terrified: one woman in my Women in Film course said she couldn’t tolerate a second viewing of the film—and her comments in discussion demonstrated the lasting impact of the film’s horror. A young man in Introduction to Film sat through the screening with his hands over his ears. And all my students wondered why I was drawn to such a troubling film.
The horror comes mostly from the unseen: the shadows and flickering light are much more disturbing than the cartoonish drawing. But for me, this film voices a mother’s frustrations and anxieties, and in so doing speaks to what is often unspoken in our culture. As a working academic mother, I feel kinship with the film’s exhausted Amelia, who, when her child keeps repeating that he’s hungry, growls, “Why do you have to keep talk, talk, talking? Don’t you ever stop?” and, “If you’re that hungry, why don’t you go and eat shit?” At the risk of revealing my own parental shortcomings, these lines were the most affecting of the film for me.
The Babadook captures the constant badgering and frustrations of motherhood, and represents the possibility of a mother who both lashes out and loves her son. The Babadook depicts a mother who will fight evil forces to protect her child but still wants him to shut up every once in a while. And that’s the realistic portrayal of motherhood that today’s feminist women mothering within the ideology of intensive parenting need.