Analysis of ‘The Babadook’

The Babadook is a 2014 Australian psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent, her directorial debut. It developed from her short film, Monster. The Babadook stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, with Daniel HenshallHayley McElhinney, Barbara West, and Ben Winspear.

The film received recognition and acclaim in the US and Europe. It wasn’t initially a commercial success in Australia, but it’s now on a number of lists of the scariest movies of all time.

Here are some quotes:

“Ba-ba-ba… dook! Dook! DOOOOOKH!” –the Babadook

“I have moved on. I don’t mention him. I don’t talk about him.” –Amelia, to Claire, about Oskar

“It wasn’t me, Mum! The Babadook did it!” –Samuel

Amelia: [about the Babadook] Well, I’m not scared.
Samuel: You will be when it eats your insides!

Amelia: [after Sam has snooped around in his father’s crawlspace] All your father’s things are down there!
Samuel: He’s my FATHER! You don’t own him!

“DON’T LET IT IN!” –Samuel

“Why don’t you go eat shit?” –Amelia, to hungry Samuel

Amelia: [Samuel comes out from hiding and Amelia shrieks like a banshee. Amelia starts approaching Samuel, but he starts wetting himself.] You little pig. Six years old and you’re still wetting yourself. You don’t know how many times I wished it was you, not him, that died.
Samuel: I just wanted you to be happy.
Amelia: [mocking Samuel] I just want you to be happy. Sometimes I just want to smash your head against the brick wall until your fucking brains pop out.
Samuel: [softly] You’re not my mother.
Amelia: What did you say?
Samuel: I said you’re not my mother!
Amelia: I AM YOUR MOTHER!

Amelia: I’m sick, Sam. I need help. I just spoke with Mrs. Roach. We’re gonna stay there tonight. You want that? I wanna make it up for you, Sam. I want you to meet your dad. It’s beautiful there. You’ll be happy.
Samuel: [Sam stabs her] Sorry, Mommy!

“You can bring me the boy.” –the Babadook, pretending to be Oskar

“You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” –Samuel, to Amelia

“You are nothing. You’re nothing! This is my house! You are trespassing in my house! If you touch my son again, I’ll fucking kill you!” –Amelia, to the Babadook

“Happy Birthday, sweetheart.” –Amelia, to Samuel (last line)

Amelia Vanek (Davis) is a widow and mother of her almost seven-year-old son, Samuel (Wiseman); his father, Oskar (Winspear), was killed in a car accident taking her, in labour, to the hospital. The story, therefore, deals with her having to come to terms with her grief, and with Samuel dealing with the trauma of being fatherless.

The boy has constant fears and nightmares of some kind of monster attacking him. She tries to soothe his anxieties as best she can: checking under his bed and in his closet for the bogeyman, reading him stories, letting him sleep with her instead of alone in his bedroom, etc.

Though Wilfred Bion‘s notions of containment (helping others–especially babies–cope with painful experiences), detoxifying of beta elements (raw sensory impressions, typically irritating ones, received from the outside world), and maternal reverie are normally reserved for a mother’s soothing of her baby, in this film they apply fittingly to six-going-on-seven Samuel, because the trauma of not having a father has overwhelmed him so much that, without his mother’s help, he can’t use alpha function (which transforms beta elements into tolerable alpha elements) to ease his anxieties about the agitating outside world. His mother must still be the container of his tension. (See here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Though Oskar, of course, didn’t mean to abandon Amelia and Sam in his untimely death, his absence in the boy’s life can feel like an abandonment in his only-developing mind. Thus, the absent father becomes what Melanie Klein would have called the bad father, the same way she called the breast that isn’t available to feed the baby the bad breast.

Sam’s anger and frustration at the absent, bad father is projected outward, to be contained and detoxified–as he’d hope–by his mother; but since his father–in both his good and bad aspects–exists in his mind as an internal object (like a demon possessing him), the boy’s use of projection can never get rid of the bad father permanently. Repressed, bad Oskar will always return…in the demonic form of Mister Babadook.

Though Kent, when deciding on the name of her story, surely wasn’t thinking about the Mandarin Chinese version of papa, I can’t help noting the interesting coincidence between bàba and the first two syllables of Babadook, the last syllable of which seems like an onomatopoeic imitation of the knocking on a door (“Ba-ba-ba-dook-dook-dook“). So Babadook seems to mean “Papa’s knocking (on the door),” the agitating beta elements of the bad father, which both Sam and his mother would rather leave outside.

Indeed, she doesn’t want to face up to her grief any more than Sam wants to confront his trauma. She hardly sleeps at night, and during her day working as a nurse and going about elsewhere, she does so with half-closed eyes. Apart from being constantly woken up by Sam, she cannot sleep because the agitating beta elements she refuses to process need to be detoxified and made into alpha elements, which are useful for thoughts and dreaming. Without alpha elements, one doesn’t sleep.

Bion explained the situation thus: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha-elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Using alpha function to detoxify beta elements and turn them into alpha elements (done either by our more mature selves, or by our mothers when we’re infants, or by psychoanalysts for their psychotic patients) is just Bion’s idiosyncratic terminology for describing the psychological processing of trauma, pain, or any other form of externally-derived discomfort. And processing trauma and grief is what The Babadook is all about.

A crucial part of processing this pain is putting it into words. What’s so traumatic about what Lacan called The Real is how, in a mental realm without differentiation, experiences cannot be symbolized and verbalized, and therefore cannot be processed and healed. The Symbolic is the mental realm of healthy existence, since this is where language is housed. Amelia’s and Sam’s trauma must be verbalized in order to be healed…and this is where the book, Mister Babadook, comes in.

Healing isn’t easy, though. In fact, it’s terrifying, and that’s why Amelia and Sam try to rid themselves of both Babadook and book (putting it out of Samuel’s reach, tearing up the pages, burning it). Reading the words of the story is terrifying, because to verbalize the trauma and grief is to face their pain head on.

“You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” That hurts. “The more you deny, the stronger I get.” That hurts even more. Sam’s invention of weapons with which to slay the Babadook is largely futile and self-defeating, especially since his aggression only alienates people from him, and the healthy world of the Symbolic, communicated verbally, is the world of society, culture, and customs–the world of other people. Her ripping up and burning of the book is also futile, and for the same reasons.

Amelia has been trying to contain Sam’s agitations, but she cannot even contain her own. This is why, instead of soothing Sam as he needs to be soothed, she makes him feel what Bion would have deemed negative containment; instead of detoxifying his anxieties, she allows them to grow into a nameless dread, or rather a dread going by the name of the Babadook. (See Bion, pages 97-99.)

Bion’s containment theory is based on Klein’s idea of projective identification, which goes a step beyond a mere imagining that another embodies one’s projections, but involves actually manipulating the other into embodying those projections, making him manifest the projected traits. For Bion, projective identification between baby and mother is a primitive, preverbal form of communication.

Sam projects the terror of the Babadook onto his mother, hoping she’ll contain it, detoxify it, and send it back to him in a safe, purified form. She cannot do this, of course, because she has to process her own grief over the loss of Oskar, and she so far isn’t willing to face that pain. As a result, what she projects back to Sam is non-detoxified poison.

In containment theory, the contained (Sam’s fear) is given–via projective identification–to the container (Amelia) to be processed. [Incidentally, the contained is given a masculine, phallic symbolism, and the container is given a feminine, yonic symbolism.] In the film, the container is symbolized by such things as bowls of soup (which contain shards of glass–i.e., negative containment), a bathtub of warm water to contain both her and Sam (something she’d foolishly have them do in their clothes, implying an only foolishly illusory efficacy), and the bowl of worms and dirt (which are an example of the contained) given to the Babadook to feed on at the end of the film.

What Sam projects is the bad father, in the form of the Babadook; but there is a good father, too, with whom Sam would like to identify. Amelia naturally wants to reunite with this good man, too, hence all the things of his that she has in the basement to remind her of him: a photo of her and him, his violin, a hat and coat of his (put up against a wall in a way that vaguely yet eerily reminds us of the hat and coat of the Babadook–i.e., her hallucination in the police station), etc.

Oskar was a musician; Sam is a magician. The boy’s way of identifying with the good father he’s never known is to become, in a verbal sense, at least, as close an approximation to him as he can. After all, music is magic, if performed well.

Sam’s watching of DVDs of a magician gives him a kind of substitute good father to identify with. The boy enjoys mimicking the magician’s words in his act of identification with him. Note, however, how the magic can be “wondrous,” but also “very treacherous”: these good and bad sides of the magic suggests a linking of the good and bad father that Sam isn’t yet ready to accept.

Similarly, Amelia, in her increasing mental breakdown, is trying to revive feelings of the good Oskar. She has their photo…though the Babadook blotches his face in the picture, and she tries to blame the marring of it on Sam. Elsewhere, she takes Oskar’s violin with her to bed, holding it as if it were a teddy bear (in her stress and inability to accept the loss of Oskar, her holding of the violin is thus a regression to a less stressful, childlike state); Sam wants to climb in bed with her for a cuddle, but he gets too close to the violin, and she barks at him: “Leave it!”

On another occasion, she imagines going into the basement (symbol of the unconscious) and finding Oskar there. They embrace and kiss: this is an obvious case of dream as wish fulfillment. But then, he tells her that they can all be together only if she brings him (i.e., kills) “the boy,” a substitution for Sam’s name that she hates. In this request, she sees the horrific combination of good and bad Oskar that she must accept as urgently as Sam must.

The horrific contemplation of killing Sam, as a would-be sacrifice to bring Oskar back to her, is actually an unconscious wish of hers. Deep down, though it’s terrifying to contemplate, is a wish she’s had that it was unborn Sam who died in that car crash instead of Oskar. The obvious guilt, shame, and anxiety that such a wish would give her has forced her to repress it.

Whatever is repressed, however, always returns to consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form…in this case, in the form of the Babadook. It may be tempting to judge Amelia as a bad mother for having these awful feelings about Samuel, but we mustn’t judge her, for a mother is as human and fallible as anyone else. The loss of Oskar has been too heartbreaking for her to bear. Nonetheless, she must confront these dark feelings if she’s to heal.

Naturally, she tries to resist such a confrontation. Her blanket pulled over her head when trying to sleep, with the Babadook on the ceiling, symbolizes what Bion would have called a beta screen, an accumulation of unprocessed beta elements that walls up any entrance into the unconscious mind. Her locking of the doors and windows of her house can also symbolize this beta screen.

She can try to stop the Babadook from getting inside her skin, but of course she fails; it goes right in her mouth, and here begins her real descent into madness…and her abuse of little Samuel.

Since the Babadook represents the bad father and bad Oskar who–in her and Samuel’s minds–abandoned them by dying, his bad internal object entering her has turned her into Klein’s terrifying combined parent figure, the phallic mother who waves a phallic knife at the boy and hallucinates having stabbed him to death with it…another ghoulish wish-fulfillment for a frustrated mother.

She barks abuse at him, telling him to “eat shit” when he’s hungry: this represents a wish to project her own bad attributes (the contained) into him and make him a container of them (the stabbing hallucination also symbolizes such a wish to make the boy contain her rage, i.e., the knife is the phallic contained, and his bloody belly is the yonic container), so more negative containment.

When he, terrified at how vicious and psychotic she’s being, pees on the floor, it symbolizes another attempt to rid himself of bad internal objects, to project them outwards in the hopes that she’ll contain them for him; but, of course, she won’t, as her continued verbal abuse of him demonstrates. She even explicitly tells him she wishes it was he who died instead of Oskar. Now Samuel must try to eject the bad mother, which Amelia has become in her being possessed by the Babadook. He says she isn’t his mother, to which she growls insistently that she is.

In spite of her abusive rage, she is right to say she’s still his mother; for just as Samuel has split his father into good and bad internal objects, so is he splitting her into good and bad. She, too, has split Oskar into good and bad versions, the bad one being constantly projected and split-off, thrown into the external world.

Such splitting is the essence of what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), where persecutory anxiety results from a refusal to accept the split-off bad half. In order to heal, she and Samuel must go through the depressive position (D, whose depressive anxiety involves a saddening fear that one may have destroyed one’s good internal objects in the act of ejecting the bad ones), and reintegrate the good and bad parts of Oskar, realizing they’re two aspects of the same man. There must be reparation.

Since they, up to this point, still won’t accept such a reunification, they continue to reject the split-off parts of their internal object of Oskar, and those projected parts have become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of the Oskar-parts of Amelia’s and Samuel’s inner selves.

Agitating beta elements, symbolized by bugs–found on her shoulder, in a wall in her house, and crawling on her lap when she’s driving–are brushed away, kept from being processed and detoxified (recall her beta screen, a kind of wall of accumulated beta elements–symbolized by the blanket over her head and her locking of her doors and windows).

With half-closed eyes, sleepless Amelia watches TV, seeing images of such things as ants (as symbolic of beta elements as are the bugs in her house and car), a cartoon of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (like the Babadook inside her), and a scene from ‘The Drop of Water,’ from Bava‘s Black Sabbath. [If you read my analysis of that film, you’ll note my…admittedly eccentric…interpretation of the meaning of the female protagonist’s theft of the dead old woman’s ring as a symbolic lesbian rape, for which the old woman’s ghost is getting revenge. As far as I’m concerned, this is the closest to there being anything homosexual going on in The Babadook, as opposed to the Tumblr joke that the Babadook is gay.] Just as the ghost of the old woman terrorizes the young thief of the ring, so does the ghost of bad Oskar terrorize Amelia for not dealing with her grief.

Though Samuel has been splitting his parents into good and bad internal objects (PS), he comes to realize the need to integrate the good and bad (D), and to conceptualize of Amelia and Oskar each as a mixture of good and bad. Amelia is still at the height of her madness, though, being possessed of the Babadook (symbolically having introjected Samuel’s feared bad father), and so the boy must get her to release the bad introjection.

She gets into the basement, and he knocks her unconscious and ties her up, holding her against the floor. Teeming with rage when he’s on top of her, she reaches up and tries to strangle him. Now that she has (unsuccessfully) been containing the Babadook, Samuel himself must be the container of her rage, the contained. He caresses her cheek, thus soothing her and allowing her to vomit out the blackness of the Babadook. Her rage has been contained and detoxified.

Now that she no longer poses a danger to him, she can be untied. Still, she hasn’t fully confronted her grief. Samuel quotes the book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” The demon pulls him up the stairs and into Amelia’s bedroom; now, instead of wishing death on the boy, she wants to save him.

She goes up there to confront the Babadook. She sees Oskar again, the good version of the man of whom the Babadook represents the bad. These two must be reintegrated for her as they have been for Samuel, a shift from the paranoid-schizoid (PS) to the depressive (D) position. She must confront her loss in order to make this shift.

She sees Oskar’s head sliced in two, a representation of his death in the car accident. She must confront this pain; she must feel it to heal it.

Now she must vent out her rage. Screaming threats that she’ll kill the trespassing Babadook if it ever tries to hurt her son, Amelia forces the demon to be the container of her rage. In making it do so, she finally makes it back off and collapse. It then goes into the basement.

After this ordeal, things start to settle down for Amelia and Samuel. They can finally start to live a reasonably healthy life, for they are now facing their demons. The pain doesn’t all go away in one fell swoop, though; in fact, it never completely goes away…but now at least it is bearable, manageable. The management of pain is an ongoing, lifelong process, an oscillation back and forth between the paranoid splitting and melancholy reintegration that Bion expressed as PS << >> D.

This bearability of trauma and grief is the result of what is sometimes called doing one’s Shadow work. It’s painful facing one’s trauma, but it’s indispensable if one wants to heal…and as I said above, this facing of trauma and grief is what The Babadook is all about.

When Amelia goes into the basement (symbol of the unconscious, recall) to feed the bowl of worms and dirt to the Babadook, it frightens her with its furious growling, making her almost fall back. She is able to contain it, though, with her soothing words, “It’s alright…shh.” The fear and terror never disappear altogether, but they can be managed…contained, detoxified, and sent back, transformed from beta into alpha elements.

Now that she and Samuel have learned how to manage their pain, they have the power needed to cope with life, and she can finally give him a birthday party, for he has turned seven. He does a new magic trick for her, she is delighted and wide-eyed, and she can wish him a happy birthday with all the fullness of a mother’s love.

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