“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings,” Macbeth famously mused. Centuries later, this tenet is borne out in countless horror movies, where campy monsters emerge from the veil of mystery to anticlimactic effect. Rarely does our fear — and our exhilaration — survive the grand revelation and the strained explanation that immediately follows it.
But the eponymous monster in The Babadook, a stunningly adept debut film from Australian director Jennifer Kent, is both a present fear and a horrible imagining. Clad in an ominous black cloak and outfitted with long, claw-like fingers, the Babadook poses an immediate threat to widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman) — but it also presents us with a possibility far more terrifying than any of the usual monsters. A creature straight out of a disturbed child’s imagination, the Babadook is as absurd as it is dangerous, suggesting that the fears we dismiss as outlandish or irrational may not be so silly after all.
Set in Australia, The Babadook follows Amelia and Sam’s efforts to cope with the death of Sam’s father, who was killed in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth. Six years later, Amelia is still grieving — and Sam is troubled, obsessed with a seemingly fictive monster he calls “the Babadook.” Amelia and Sam’s relationship becomes increasingly strained as Sam’s fixation escalates into full-on misbehavior: the child sneaks homemade weapons into class, pushes his cousin out of a tree house, and refuses to sleep, keeping his mother awake for days. At first, the situation seems unambiguous: Sam is disturbed, and the Babadook is the stuff of his overactive imagination — even the word “Babadook” sounds like childish murmuring.
But when a morbid pop-up book titled “The Babadook” mysteriously appears on Amelia’s shelf, we begin to question our original take. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” the book begins. It goes on to narrate the macabre tale of a monster who dogs unhappy houses with relentless fervor. Indeed, the Babadook’s defining feature is his persistence in the face of disbelief: “the more you deny, the stronger I get,” the book warns. And as Amelia’s denials grow increasingly adamant, the Babadook’s displays of defiance grow increasingly dramatic: it calls and breaths ominously into the phone, slams doors, turns lights on without touching them, and slithers across the ceiling over Amelia’s bed. Unsurprisingly, Amelia’s attempts to burn the malevolent book are unsuccessful. It reappears on her doorstop, this time with more sinister content still.
Unlike so many horror movies, The Babadook eschews easy and reductive resolutions: we can’t dismiss the Babadook as a figment of Amelia and Sam’s vivid imaginations and waking dreams, nor does the matter resolve itself via exorcism — one presided over by a kindly, moralizing priest. (Spoiler alert.) Only when Amelia confronts the monster head-on, affirming its existence and its power, can she overcome it. In the end, she doesn’t expel it, but instead relegates it to the basement, where she visits it each day to bring it some snacks. Better to get comfortable with one’s emotional demons, it seems, than try to will them away.