For a film that has been described as “startlingly original” and widely celebrated for its “emotional realism,” Australian actress, writer and director Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Babadook’ (2014) is in many ways very generic. While this might seem like a shortcoming, on the contrary, the film’s restaging of familiar generic tropes facilitates a highly effective cinematic experience. This article considers the ways in which ‘The Babadook’ repurposes the horror film to produce a moving exploration of maternal ambivalence, mobilising elements of the maternal melodrama and female gothic in the process. In so doing, the film foregrounds issues of genre and gender that overlap in these categories. In particular, the film’s focus on the protagonist’s conflicted experience of motherhood explores what American feminist critic Molly Haskell identifies as the great unspoken of the “woman’s film,” namely, women’s guilt for their “inadmissible feelings” about motherhood. Considering the film in this light draws on Sue Thornham’s reading of ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ (directed by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, 2011), in relation to both feminist counter-cinema and maternal melodrama, as a critique of the postfeminist model of over-invested motherhood currently idealised in popular culture. Similarly, I argue that the ways in which ‘The Babadook’ recalibrates existing generic conventions challenges deeply embedded social and cinematic expectations around the maternal relationship.
The film tells the story of Amelia (Esther Davis), a widow who is still grief stricken seven years after the death of her husband, and her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is very troubled. After reading a storybook called Mister Babadook together, strange things start to happen in their house. Events escalate and the Babadook, the monster of the storybook, appears and begins to terrorise Amelia, who in turn becomes increasingly violent towards her son. Finally, Amelia is able to confront the Babadook, and a kind of peace is restored. The film invites an association between the emergence of the Babadook and Amelia’s grief at the death of her husband and rage towards her son. As such, virtually all of the critics and reviewers of the film have read the Babadook as embodying the “return of the repressed” — that is, as the uncanny manifestation of Amelia’s repressed emotions.
However, while Jennifer Kent herself has stated that she’s “quite amused by the need to place it in a box,” there has been some disagreement about how best to position ‘The Babadook’ in a generic context. British writer and film critic Peter Bradshaw, for instance, promotes the film as “a superbly acted, chilling Freudian thriller” and compares it to French-Polish film director Roman Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965) or ‘The Tenant’ (1976). Briony Kidd, on the other hand, imagines that “[a]ficionados [of the horror film] may be unimpressed with the efforts of the domestic distributor, Umbrella Entertainment, to market the film as a psychological thriller.” According to Briony Kidd, “[m]inimising ‘The Babadook’s place within the context of horror is odd,” given its explicit references to key examples of the genre, such as ‘Le Cake Walk Infernal’ (directed by Georges Méliès, 1903) and ‘Black Sabbath’ (directed by Mario Bava, 1963).
Trying to identify the film solely with one of these categories is not particularly productive, however. As has been well established in film studies, the delineation of these genres is more often based on popular perception and for critical bias than on any clearly defined generic boundaries. For instance, through an analysis of film reviews published during the 1930s and 1940s, Mark Jancovich argues that the psychological thrillers he calls “Gothic (or paranoid) women’s films” were clearly understood as “women’s horror films” at the time of their release. Mark Jancovich locates these films within a cycle that depart from the monsters of the Universal Studios and instead focuses on unsettling both protagonists and viewers psychologically. However, despite the contemporaneous evidence establishing the horror credentials of such films, accounts of the horror film since the 1960s have tended to exclude them. This, Mark Jancovich argues, is often based on a distinction being made between the horror film as “masculine” and the “Gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film” as “feminine.” He sees a similar tendency as operating in feminist film criticism, which, he contends, has rarely properly acknowledged these films’ relationship to the horror genre.
If Mark Jancovich identifies the horror in women’s films, David Greven finds the woman’s film “concealed” in the horror genre. David Greven returns to film historian Jeanine Basinger’s definition of the woman’s film as “a movie that places at the centre of its universe a female who is trying to deal with emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman.” Consequently, according to Jeanine Basinger, it is a mistake to limit the woman’s film to the melodrama, as the category is elastic enough to encompass comedies, biographies, westerns, and so on. Following Mary Ann Doane, who argues that “the woman’s film is frequently combined with other genres — the film noir and the gothic or horror film, even the musical,” David Greven stresses the “cross-fertilization” of the woman’s film with the horror film. Like Robin Wood, he situates the birth of modern horror in 1960 with Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960), and the concomitant transition from an externalised threat or clearly identifiable monster, as occurs in classical horror, to a focus on “the family and its attendant terrors.” David Greven further refines this model, however, to argue that “the woman’s film, a classical Hollywood genre seemingly defunct by the 1960s, takes on a new, albeit hidden, life in the modern horror film, in so far as it concerns anxieties within gender, sexuality, and the family and focuses on female desire.”
Sarah Arnold, for her part, more precisely identifies the key point of intersection between the horror and melodrama in representations of the mother. Drawing on psychoanalytic film theory, she posits that what she calls “maternal horror cinema perpetuates an [unstable] ideology of idealised motherhood” drawn from cinema history, most notably the maternal melodrama. Sarah Arnold argues that, following ‘Psycho’ and the focus on family horror in Western cinema, the mother has become a prominent feature of horror cinema. All horror mothers are not the same, however, and Sarah Arnold differentiates between the “Good Mother” and the “Bad Mother.” The “Good Mother” refers to “a particular and popular discourse of motherhood that valorises self-sacrifice, selflessness and nurturance.” The “Bad Mother,” on the other hand, is “a multifaceted and contradictory construct,” manifesting as either a rejection of the traditional expectation of self-sacrifice and devotion to her children, or its inverse, “the mother’s fanatical conformity to the institution of motherhood.” According to Sarah Arnold, both models of motherhood are evident throughout the horror genre and the melodrama, although the level of complicity and resistance to these models within individual texts is a complex field of interrogation.
Thus, the boundaries between the woman’s film, the psychological thriller, and horror could be said to be especially permeable, more like membranes if you will, permitting certain elements to pass through while restricting others, depending on the particular permutation of the film’s articulation, production, and reception. Mining ‘The Babadook’s generic makeup means attending to the ways in which aspects of the woman’s film — ambivalence around motherhood and the Oedipal model in which it participates, in particular — are exposed in all their “horror.” Broadly speaking, the first half of the film draws on key tropes of the maternal melodrama, articulated in terms of the female gothic, inverting and intensifying these tropes in the process. The second half segues into more overt horror territory, bringing those elements that are repressed in the first half of the film, and in the categories, it draws on, violently to the surface.
If self-sacrifice is the privileged theme of the woman’s film (Haskell describes it as “the mainstay and oceanic force, high tide and the low ebb of the woman’s film”), in the maternal variant, the woman must sacrifice her own welfare for that of her children. When we first meet Amelia, just before Samuel’s seventh birthday, she is in precisely this position, having to sacrifice her own needs for those of her son. Samuel is troubled, suffering from nightmares and seeing monsters. His relationship with other children is problematic and he is prone to aggressive outbursts. He is demanding, seeking constant attention and reassurance. As a result, apart from working in a care home for elderly people, Amelia’s life is limited to looking after him. Her only other significant relationships are with her elderly neighbour, to whom she is kind and caring (taking out her refuse, and so on), and with her sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), who is critical of Amelia and hostile to Samuel.
While the maternal melodrama typically struggles with reconciling the woman’s maternal and sexual identities — the good mother will reject romantic relationships for the sake of her child — in this instance, it seems that Amelia has had literally to sacrifice her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) for her son, as Oskar was killed in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Despite her apparent longing for a relationship (watching romantic films on television, wistfully observing a couple kissing, and so on), Amelia is so exhausted caring for others, and for Samuel in particular, that she seems oblivious to her colleague’s (Daniel Henshall) gentle overtures. Thus, Samuel seems to have supplanted the father’s place in his mother’s life, with all the Oedipal associations that implies, as discussed below. Rather than surrender herself to this situation, however, Amelia’s repressed grief and anger at the loss of her husband is the source of her “monstrous” rage and resentment towards Samuel. Thus, the tradition of female self-abnegation within the woman’s film in general, and the maternal melodrama, in particular, is undercut by the “horror” it conceals from the outset.
Amelia’s recovery implies a recognition of this as, ultimately, she assumes a quasi-maternal role towards the Babadook itself, giving it a home (in the basement), soothing it during its (epic) tantrums, and feeding it (worms). Amelia’s process of repression, return and, finally, recognition can be read as analogous to the process of generic incorporation at work in the film, whereby the “horror” of maternal ambivalence, barely concealed beneath a veneer of maternal self-sacrifice, erupts in “monstrous” form and is finally assimilated into the body of the text. In short, ‘The Babadook’ intensifies and inverts aspects of the woman’s film from Amelia’s “fractured perspective,” via the effective potential of the horror genre whereby we are “forced to feel something.” In so doing, the film reflects on the maternal melodrama’s investment in “the spectacle of a mother owned by her children” in ways that illuminate what is normally hidden from view.