I’m a sucker for horror films and their standard tropes – the car that won’t start; the killer in the back seat; the group of friends who decide it’s a good plan to split up in the haunted wood. For me, though, the most successful examples of the genre involve an element of psychological terror, preying on our darkest fears and revealing the madness and violence that lie beneath an apparently ordinary suburban existence.
One of my favourite horror films of recent years is The Babadook. A widowed mother, Amelia, is raising her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel, whose behavioural problems lead to his being pulled out of school and breaking his cousin’s nose when he pushes her from a tree-house. At first his brattish whingeing grates, while Amelia’s drippyness irritates. For God’s sake, why doesn’t she just take the home-made crossbow away instead of trying to reason with him?
Then Sam comes across a mysterious rhyming pop-up book, Mister Babadook, in which a grotesque figure in a cloak and top hat – a cross between Struwwelpeter and Freddy Krueger – terrorises its victims. The Babadook is crudely drawn in charcoal, with a white face, dark silhouette and claw-like fingers. ‘If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look/You can’t get rid of the Babadook.’ Soon enough, the mythical figure comes to life and begins to stalk mother and son: ‘A rumbling sound then three sharp knocks/Ba BA-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!’ as the demon announces its presence.
Sam’s tantrums and night terrors escalate, while Amelia’s growing sense of desperation is compounded by the immaculate friends who close ranks and distance themselves from the problem child and his dysfunctional mother. Amelia’s sister tells her to get back into writing but, significantly, makes no offer of childcare, while the others talk about their charity work and complain that they no longer have time to go to the gym.
As Amelia’s mental state deteriorates, strange noises fill the house and imaginary bugs crawl out of a crack behind the fridge. (I’m reminded of my own post-partum hallucinations brought on by pethidine and sleep deprivation, when the wallpaper seethed and pulsed like a bad acid trip and the hum of the hospital air-conditioning system became a disembodied lament.) What follows is a terrifying portrayal of a mother’s psychosis and descent into insanity, reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment, as the Babadook possesses Amelia and places Sam’s life in grave danger.
The Babadook is more than a demon conjured up by the febrile imagination of a small child, or a symbol of the grief that stalks a bereaved family. It’s also a representation of the terrible power that a parent wields and must never misuse. Here lie our deepest, unspoken impulses; the darkness at the heart of the family. One of the most chilling scenes is when Sam wanders into his mother’s bedroom complaining of hunger and Amelia, half-crazed, lifts her head from the pillow and snarls, ‘If you’re that hungry why don’t you go and eat shit.’ On a really bad day, faced with a small child’s relentless demands, some parents might momentarily relate to this poisonous outburst. In the words of Mister Babadook: ‘Once you see what’s underneath/You’re going to wish you were dead.’
Perhaps the truth is that we need there to be mothers like Amelia. Anyone who has ever bellowed at a child, or delivered a slap in the heat of the moment, needs to feel that there are worse parents and more heinous acts. Like Amelia’s circle of supposed friends, we love to judge others from a distance: the mother in the stained shirt who rages ineffectually at her children in the playground and seems always to be on the verge of tears; the woman with the orange spray-tan who parks on the zigzags and dispatches her grubby five-year-old for a hastily-arranged sleepover on a school night. Of course, this isn’t transgression on the same scale as Amelia’s, but these characters still fascinate us and attract our censure. We use them to preserve and bolster our self-image; we rarely acquaint ourselves with the facts or offer practical assistance. To do so would involve recognising that we aren’t so dissimilar.
By the end of the film, the Babadook has mutated from an evil force possessing the mother to an external reality, acknowledged by her but placated and confined to the cellar (that other classic horror-film trope). Like Amelia, most of us succeed in taming our Babadook and keeping it safely under lock and key. The real horror of the film, and the reason why it disturbs and resonates, is the realisation that it might take only a few small tweaks to our circumstances – bereavement, a difficult child, an absence of social networks – to unleash the demon.