No Longer Hidden, Mr Babadook Becomes an LGBT Icon and a Mental Health Mascot
Mister Babadook, a grey-faced, spindly-clawed and top-hatted demon who inhabits a cursed children’s book, has become an unlikely gay icon.
He is the antagonist of Australian psychological horror film The Babadook (2014), the debut of self-trained director Jennifer Kent and a work which has transcended the frequently panned horror genre to become culturally iconic.
BBC critic Mark Kermode even named The Babadook as his favourite film of 2014. So why is it cinematically affective enough to have become such a phenomenon?
Though The Babadook has a supernatural pretext like many horror films, it is unorthodox in lacking a happy-go-lucky setup, instead of having a sombre surface narrative that unnerves viewers from its beginning.
The Babadook’s protagonist is Amelia Vanek, widowed when her husband Oskar was killed in a car wreck, with her nightmare of the tragedy opening the film. Amelia is the single parent of Sam, a precocious but disturbed boy who is expelled from school for bullying and behavioural problems.
For personal reasons, it was obvious to me that Sam is on the autism spectrum (something missed by other critics). His character exhibits the giftedness typical of autistic children, but also their unglamorous difficulties. Parents are often burdened with blame and Amelia is patronised by professionals. It makes sense that a female director like Kent is able to tackle such taboos head-on.
As the pressure piles on Amelia, she stumbles upon Mister Babadook’s mysterious book, which promises readers he will get “under your skin” and foresees Amelia murdering Sam. Mister Babadook becomes an obsession of Sam and terrorises an exhausted Amelia through his poltergeist activity and materialisations.
Thriving on fear, Mister Babadook’s influence grows and he possesses Amelia to kill Sam. But his plans are thwarted by Sam’s creative use of improvised weaponry against Amelia.
When Amelia is set free from Mister Babadook she is able to confront him at the height of his power. All he has left is to transform into Oskar and force Amelia to relive his death, and though devastated, she asserts herself with a strong display of motherhood and promises to “fucking kill” Mister Babadook if he dares to hurt her son. In a strikingly feministic scene, this leaves him emasculated and banished to their basement.
What is really chilling about The Babadook is how it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. It invokes Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which adapted Stephen King’s novel to emphasise its themes of family dysfunction and psychosis.
When possessed by Mister Babadook, Amelia is very reminiscent of Jack Torrance, and when herself his prey come across like Jack’s long-suffering wife Wendy.
When Amelia stays up all night flicking through TV channels while supervising Sam, she spots Mister Babadook in a black and white silent film from the 1920s. He is accompanied by special effects and standing amongst the vaudeville performers.
This is a metafiction in which Kent not only implies the meaning of Mister Babadook but answers the question quite transparently.
it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality
Carl Jung - the father of analytical psychology - conceptualised a “universal consciousness” that could be identified across human culture, folklore and religious traditions. As a psychotherapist, Jung believed that mysticism and creativity were vital in humanity’s quest towards self-understanding.
Through this Jungian prism, we can see Mister Babadook as a composite of movie monsters, which embodies the insecurities and traumatic memories that Amelia and Sam have subconsciously locked away - leading to a shared hallucination when their fragile, lonely unit breaks down. Amelia, an artist, has probably invented him.
Mister Babadook occupies the dream world and grotesquely shape-shifts like Freddy Krueger. His roars and screams sound like those of beasts such as Godzilla and King Kong. Satanic possession was injected into the public imagination by William Friedkin’s sacrilegious adaption of The Exorcist. Yet Sam’s battles with the Babadook-possessed Amelia are age-appropriately cartoonish, almost paralleling with Wile E. Coyote versus the Roadrunner.
Mister Babadook reflects on the Jungian concept of “the shadow”, the negative aspects of the self that embed themselves into the subconscious as the active mind represses and refuses to face up to them.
Only through ritualistically confronting Mister Babadook can Amelia and Sam banish his presence, not unscarred but achieving a relative peace, growing as people and strengthening their bond. Realistically Mister Babadook is still around to rear his ugly head, but they have him on a proverbial leash. Amelia has overcome grief and asserted herself as Sam’s guardian.
Amelia and Sam’s story is in itself a kind of fairy-tale. Is Mister Babadook just a malevolent spirit, or is he something more ambiguous, like an elf from folklore that harasses village folk to teach them a meaningful lesson?
After my first viewing of The Babadook I had some sleepless nights, but upon reflection, I was moved and appreciative of its metaphorical power.
LGBT people (including many LGBT youth) disproportionately suffer from mental health problems. Gay and transgender people struggling with their sexuality or suffering with dysphoria are significantly more prone to self-injury and suicide attempts. Many suffer in silence for years
So, there is a serious reason why they might have embraced Mister Babadook as an LGBT mascot. No longer hidden in the bedroom closet, it transforms him from a sinister figure into a mischievous one whose presence threatens the narrow minds of the prejudiced.
To paraphrase Kubrick: we have to supply our own light to enlighten darkness. And a little humour can help us achieve that.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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