Image Credits: IFC Films

The Babadook, Traversing Trauma, and the Personal Importance of Film

By Eva Phillips - Aug. 15, 2017, 6:00 AM

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t escape….”

A woman is so ravaged and consumed by her grief and loss, so exhausted by the daily reminders of how moored she is by her surroundings, so relentlessly trapped by the child that reminds her of her prolonged postpartum trauma, that her only release is manifested in a grizzled, crudely hollow-faced thing that haunts a sinister children’s book. Eyes ablaze, constantly cackling with demonic glee, the Babadook invades the life and consciousness of Amelia (a tirelessly wonderful Essie Davis), fueled by the incorrigible imagination of her son Sam (Noah Wiseman). Despite her son’s childish imploring to not let the Babadook in—which is regarded dubiously, given the boy’s seeming complicity with the villain upon its first introduction—Amelia gradually succumbs to opening herself to the Babadook’s infestation. Her psyche and grasp on existence become feverishly more derailed by the hour. As the repressed trauma stemming from her husband’s horrific death on the night of her son’s birth (and her consequent resentment for and inexorable disconnection from her son) slowly overtakes her through her fixation with the Babadook, Amelia gradually becomes completely possessed, until finally she is able to precariously channel the unfathomable scourges of her own depression and trauma. Amelia must become one with the Babadook as a process of reconciling her selfhood and stability. Tortuously nerve-wracking, my experience with the film The Babadook produced an unexpectedly allegorical result.

I was twenty-three when The Babadook achieved its literal and critical fervor in the United States. I was twenty-three, and at a point in my life, wracked with a panoply of undiagnosed and mistreated issues, where films and even the idea of film spectatorship itself had essentially been emptied out. I no longer felt the exhilarating terror or incomparable elation when watching films or even trailers (once a source of indescribable, spasmodic excitement). Quite frankly, the process of watching films had become exhausting and acutely painful—watching films was too painfully reminiscent of when viewership was a catharsis, an escape, a blissful indulgence that was also interconnected to the aesthetic medium I wanted to base my academic and professional career upon. Being completely absorbed by my depression and related frustrations, films lost their magic.

And yet, in the throes of emotional torpor, The Babadook enraptured me. More accurately, it scared the living daylights out of me (a phrase I’ve never really understood until the daylights were, indeed, frightened right out of me)—not in an Evil Dead or [rec] sort of way, where jump scares and erratic pacing dictated the momentary terror that would electrify me. Rather, the fear that came from The Babadook was one of unshakable dread, a total inability to reconcile my viewing of the film with the things transpiring in the narrative. Not only was I enthralled by the film, I was also in complete, borderline self-defecating shock when even engaging with the film’s imagery—specifically, something about the titular nefarious creature frightened me to the point that it disrupted my sense of being. Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but, I found myself reverting to spooked-out tactics I hadn’t depended on since I was a much more excited child (or an adult on edibles)—I couldn’t keep doors ajar in a dimly lit room at night; I avoided looking at the underbelly of my bed with the breathless expectation that something was going to peak its grotesquely distorted face out from beneath it; and I found myself unable to fixedly gaze at posters or pictures for too long, horrified I might see the image distort into something menacing.

This sounds like the most miserable, prolonged acid trip anyone could conceive of, and yet it was absolutely revitalizing. My complete, childlike fear of this mythical, rabidly gaunt, top-hat-wearing creature reignited my passion for movies. It was no longer painful to sit through films, unresponsive to the vicissitudes of plot development, the multidimensionality of the characters. My unfettered fear was a catalyst—it allowed me to engage with The Babadook, and consequently other films, on a level that once had been a source of tremendous joy, but had been discouragingly muted in years preceding my encounter with The Babadook. My perhaps embarrassing level of fear for the Babadook, for the screeching sound effects, the outstandingly visceral ruination portrayed by Essie Davis as Amelia, reawakened a part of me snuffed out by ongoing personal distress. Just as Amelia allowed the preternatural psychological defilement at the behest of the Babadook to get her to the nadir that allows her to restart herself anew—through embracing the complexities of her psychosis—I allowed the unabashed terror at a film that rendered me stupefied at times to re-illuminate the part of me that thrived off movies in general. The Babadook unleashed the part of me that watched films and wanted to research every aspect of them, to read countless texts about genres and aesthetics, to obsess over directors and actors and actresses. Seeing trauma and repression actualized so brutally and metaphorically on screen allowed me to reconcile with myself in a way I had not been able to prior.

The Babadook symbolizes what independent—and mainstream—films have always represented in my life and my academic work: inspirations, fascinations and, most importantly, salvations. The Babadook, through unapologetic fear and excitement, forced me to examine the parts of myself that I once cherished, which had been stultified through dilution. Film, regardless of the genre, regardless of the budget, regardless of the amount of dialogue, should be preserved and venerated for the powers it possesses for any given individual and for the way that it can tendril into people’s lives in unexpected ways. I will never not be grateful to that horrifying little imp from a children’s book and the film that centers upon him. After all, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

When not considering the possible, perhaps insidious ways the characters from Quentin Tarantino's films and the characters from American Horror Story may be interconnected, Eva Phillips spends most of her time considering whether getting her second post-graduate degree is really her best bet. Eva spends an unnecessary amount of time writing about the interplay of femininity and violence as well sexuality and psychosis in film, while settling in more intimately in the surprisingly not derelict city of Pittsburgh.