The Babadook is a complicatedly simple movie. Behind the fourth wall (or inside the fictional action) is a kind of ‘third wall’ which stands between symbolism and realism within that fictional world, and it’s this third wall which the movie breaks – and that might be the movie’s problem.
Consider Goldberg and Mccann in (because this is a movie blog) Friedkin’s (1968) version of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They are symbols: of religious authority and state power, but also symbolise two repressed people, in this case Jews and Irish, while still representing actual individual characters – real people – in the play. The Babadook is written in a comparable way in that the monster (initially) represents the mother’s grief over the death of her husband, but the grief is intense enough to actually break the internal wall between symbolism and in-context realism and manifest itself into the movie’s reality. Her grief becomes an actual character in the movie.
Had the behaviour of the mother been just symbolic of the grief she’s feeling and its negative power on and over her, then her son wouldn’t have been afraid of Mister Babadook because he wouldn’t have existed in his reality; in his reality he would have just had an ever more insane mother to worry about.
It’s a rather stark situation we’re given to watch: a worn out mother – who hasn’t slept properly for years – is shown reassuring her son there’s nothing in the wardrobe – a classic childhood fear. But there’s no cuddle for warmth or encouragement: she appears almost bored with the routine and pays not much attention to her son clinging to her, and it’s the shot of them lying in bed – where the mother moves as far away as she can from her son while remaining comfortable – which illustrates the emotional distance she wants to have between them. Some critics have suggested the monster represents her grief, and this is true, but what’s more dramatic is what she does with that grief. She uses it to blame her son for her husband’s death.
(Her tiredness is what finally tears her sanity. Tiredness can cause significant problems, and one thinks of Peter Mullan in Session 9 (2001) as an example of the problems caused by fatigue.)
The mother is in a constant state of mourning for her husband, but also for the emotional attention a man would give her. This is understandable, and realistic. Though it might seem strange that she rejects the kindly romantic advances from a co-worker, given what’s missing in her life, this demonstrates the extent to which her mind is locked in the past, and that is demonstrated by her checking the door to the basement is safely locked tight. The basement is her memory.
So the basics are that she feels intense grief over the husband’s death, blames the son for his death because the crash happened while the husband drove her (in labour) to the hospital, and the emotional distance she subsequently feels is the cause of the son’s ‘behavioural problems.’ In other words he doesn’t feel loved so is fighting for attention.
This is standard drama; that’s not to say it’s bad drama – it isn’t – but it’s standard drama in the sense there’s some element of circular tragedy to the relationships shown: there’s a reason for almost everything.
What works – and is mighty impressive given the movie is the director’s first feature film – is the lack of cheap and easy ‘sudden bang’ shocks which are popular because they’re easy. The Babadook slowly builds its tension, drawing the viewer in to the action by creating trust because the viewer is not waiting for the next ‘jump’ so relaxes into the action. This is done so well that when the mother has really lost it and is trying to kick the door in, we’re in the room with the kid, hiding…