If you haven’t seen The Babadook yet this post may have spoilers although I’ll try my best to be very oblique. It’s just become available in the US, so unless you actively seek out indie horror movies it may not be on your radar. The premise is quite simple: a single mother and her son find a spooky children’s book about a mysterious creature called Mister Babadook, and their reading of the story unwittingly unleashes the spirit in their home. It’s an incredibly effective movie on this surface level, but if you dig a little below the obvious story I believe the entire tale can be seen as a metaphor for mental illness.
Amelia, the main character, lost her husband, Oscar, the night their son, Samuel, was born. The exact nature of his death is never explained, but it seems to have been something car related as the couple sped to the hospital for their child’s birth. While Amelia clearly cares for her son, she cannot celebrate his birthday on the day and stores all of her husband’s belongings locked away in the basement. Samuel suffers from nightmares and overactive imagination, and it’s difficult to understand whether he truly has a behaviour problem or just acts out in response to his mother’s obvious emotional turmoil. Unfortunately, Samuel’s issues about not having a father, which manifest as fear of monsters and not sleeping well, get him into trouble at school and strain the relationship with his cousin, Ruby, and Aunt Claire (Amelia’s sister). When a book titled Mister Babadook appears on Samuel’s bookshelf the story exacerbates the boy’s sleep issues, and the family spirals downward until the conclusion.
I’m not an expert on film making or even have a degree in film, so my interpretations of the film are entirely my own. Jennifer Kent may simply have wanted to create a terrifying story that is mostly rooted in reality. Given we know that Amelia has not fully recovered from her husband’s death seven years previously and appears to not have sought treatment for herself I find it easy to believe that she is perpetually on the edge of a mental break. Samuel’s sleep issues have kept her from sleeping for weeks at the beginning of the movie. It doesn’t seem like much of a leap that the Babadook is actually Amelia’s descent into a mentally ill state that becomes increasingly more violent and frightening over the course of the movie. Given that the plot explicitly states that the Babadook is inside Amelia at one point I don’t think I’m reaching too far.
However, I go a little more out on a limb with my theory that Samuel’s nightmares are actually a response to his mother’s fragile mental state before the start of the film. As a six year old it’s easier for Samuel to cling to monsters as scary things, but it may be that he’s afraid of how his mother acts when she is struggling with depression or untreated mental illness tied to the death of her husband. From a child’s viewpoint a monster is far easier to comprehend than an illness that doesn’t go away and can’t be seen. It also helps me accept Samuel’s refusal to leave his mother during the worst portions of the Babadook’s actions rather than logically fleeing to the safety of the elderly neighbor.
The ending is a little weird with the mental illness metaphor, but it can roughly be interpreted as treatment helping keep the worst aspects of the disease at bay. Everything is well again to some degree because Amelia has taken control of her mental state once again. The family can move forward because she is not at the mercy of her illness.