Found below are two reviews of Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film, The Babadook, written by Lewis University students Margaret Gotsch and Elise Rosenberger.
Margaret Gotsch: The “Black Dog” in The Babadook
Research shows that mental illness remains one of the strongest taboos and that people with mental illness face wide-spread stigmatization and discrimination. Mental illness is often described as a black cloud. Portrayals of mental illness frequently appear in films and the media; for instance, the 2010 film by Darren Aronofsky, which detailed a dancer’s struggle with schizophrenia, was entitled Black Swan; and, Winston Churchill – reportedly a manic-depressive – called his mental illness the “black dog.”
In director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film, The Babadook, the black dog of mental illness is depicted as a large, amorphous black shape. In the film, Amelia is reeling from the loss of her husband, the demands of single parenthood, and the troubling behavior of her only son, Samuel. At first, it appears that Samuel is the problem, but like a canary in a mine, it becomes apparent that Samuel’s misbehavior merely foreshadows greater problems within this nuclear family. Samuel has violent outbursts and is expelled from school for hurting a classmate. Samuel blames Mr. Babadook, a character from a book, for his misdeeds. Babadook – “a bad book” – predicts that Mr. Babadook will come to a child and ask to be let in and will then ask the same of the child’s mother.
At first, in a state of denial, Amelia dismisses the significance of Mr. Babadook. Eventually, overwhelmed by stress, grief, guilt, and sleep deprivation, she becomes obsessed with Mr. Babadook. After Amelia destroys the book, a different version of the book appears at her doorstep. At this juncture, we are left to wonder if Amelia has full control of her senses. Ostensibly, under the control of Mr. Babadook, Amelia kills the family dog and tries to kill Samuel. Eventually, she vomits a black inky substance and regains control of her faculties. Symbolically, Mr. Babadook takes refuge in the basement.
Toward the end of the film, Amelia and Samuel celebrate Samuel’s seventh birthday, demonstrating that they have freed themselves from the shadow of Mr. Babadook. Yet, like the “black dog” he is, Mr. Babadook lurks in the basement and Amelia feeds him just enough worms to keep him at bay – for now.
The Babadook, directed and written by Jennifer Kent, creatively uses the primitive foundation set by previous horror films that showcase our beloved monsters, such as Frankenstein and the Wolfman. As we learn more about the main character, Amelia, her son and the struggles they have overcome in the last seven years with the loss of a husband and father, we see that Kent gives this imaginative figure that haunts and lingers over their shoulders, the Babadook, a different face–mental illness. In many ways, The Babadook shares similarities to the French Extreme film L’Interieur (Inside), directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, where again, a single mother finds herself depressed after the loss of her husband, and has to literally fight for her life against the monstrous feminine, which is analogous to her inner demons of depression.
Amelia’s character artfully evolves throughout the film, focusing on each stage of depression from denial to acceptance. She first denies the Babadook, presented as an analogy for depression, but after she faces anger and bargaining, she soon accepts the Babadook and is able to live with him in a coexisting matter. Using various angles, low key lighting, and playing with contrasting dark and light compositions, Kent truly demonstrates the lingering depression and paranoia that Amelia experiences. As we see, the Babadook doesn’t only come at night, but haunts us all day, just as mental illness does. However, most of this film is shot at night, where Amelia and her son are home and most vulnerable in their everyday life. We often see Amelia watching television, with a close-up of her face that is highly lit from the screen but swallowed by the darkness around her. Kent uses camera angles that portray Amelia as cornered or trapped by the Babadook by providing birds-eye shots of her in bed alone, where again she is highly vulnerable.
This film also plays with sound by using everyday noises such as the opening and closing of doors, and the clashing of pots and pans. Kent purposefully takes these sounds and makes them louder, providing chaotic feelings that we cannot escape. She also uses sounds of grasshoppers and other insects to provide an underlying theme of infestation– both of the house by literal roaches, but also of the mind by depression and paranoia.
Overall, I highly recommend this film as it is highly creative and smart in demonstrating the battle with depression. Kent’s The Babadook sets itself aside from other films, in that the main character overcomes depression–unlike other horror films that use depression as the monster, such as Inside by Bustillo and Maury and Lights Out by David F. Sandberg, where mothers with depression face extreme penalties. Kent gives us hope that we can live and coexist with our monstrous inner demons, providing resolution and restoration to our problems.
Margaret Gotsch is a senior at Lewis University majoring in Aviation Maintenance Management. During her career at Lewis, Maggie has earned Dean’s list honors, was selected for an externship in aviation maintenance, and was awarded a scholarship from the Chicago Area Business Aviation Association. After living on campus for three years, she is living off-campus in the Chicago suburbs and working part-time at the Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling. When she is not working on aircraft, automobiles, or motorcycles, Maggie enjoys nature and films. She reviewed The Babadook for Dr. Simone Muench’s course, The Horror Film.
Elise Rosenberger is a senior at Lewis University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. She plans on continuing her education within the next couple of years to enter the medical field. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling as well as watching all genres of movies with her friends and family.
Black Swan. Dir. D. Aronofsky. Prod. S. Franklin, et al. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010. Motion Picture.
Nassir Ghaemi, Nassi. “Winston Churchill and his ‘black dog’ of greatness.” The Conversation,
23 Jan. 2015. theconversation.com/winston-churchill-and-his-black-dog-of-greatness-36570. Accessed 6 April 2019.
O’Hara, Mary. “Mental Health is the Strongest Taboo, Research Says.” The Guardian, 20 Feb. 2009.
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2009/feb/20/mental-health-taboo. Accessed 6 April 2019.
The Babadook. Dir. J. Kent. Prod. K. Ceyton & K. Moliere. IFC Films, 2014. Motion Picture.
Thornicroft, Graham, & Rose, Diana. “The mental illness taboo is a problem for all of us.”
NewScientist, 20 June 2013. www.newscientist.com/article/dn23729-the-mental-illness-taboo-is-a-problem-for-all-of-us/. Accessed 6 April 2019.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Print.