“If it's in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.”
If there’s one thing I know about queer people, it’s that we love horror movies. However, one oddity within the flurry of good horror films in recent years, the horror renaissance if you will, is the addition of the titular villain from The Babadook to Pride parades and queer culture at large. In the spirit of Halloween, I wanted to give a brief overview of how this happened and why the Babadook is one of the queerest monsters in horror. Let’s get Babashook!
The Babadook is a 2014 Australian horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent that explores themes of parenting and madness. The film was funded through government grants and assisted with crowdfunding, yet went on to become the most well-reviewed horror film that year when it globally achieved critical and commercial success, despite its art house origins.
The Babadook itself is a ghoulish humanoid figure, nightmarishly brought to life by stop-motion. I happen to have a particular weakness for stop-motion and animatronics in horror films; an affinity that stems from childhood as I always found those to be the most realistic-looking effects, as well as the scariest movement types. I sort of liken both to the flight of a moth; the jerky, unsettling, unpredictable and oftentimes unnaturally fast movements are so much more horrifying than anything CGI has ever created, in my opinion. I suppose I could write a much longer essay on why I always prefer practical effects in film and appreciate their usage whenever possible in any media.
Yet there’s something else the Babadook did that actually made me avoid it for years. It’s the line I quoted at the beginning from the storybook, a line used in the film’s trailer, that I thought ensured it would be far too terrifying for me to see. You see, the Babadook is summoned when you know about it. That somehow philosophically primal fear that my nightmares would come after me if I thought about them, as if my fear would bring them to life or else otherwise alert them to come and terrify me, was one I had as a child. I used to think that’s what ghouls and goblins sought to do and that only by convincingly pretending to be asleep would I convince them not to try and scare me. I thought this concept was the premise of the film and that by watching it, you were in essence tempting the Babadook to come into reality. I thought the horror hinged on irrational fear and paranoia seeping into reality long after the film ends, kind of like The Ring.
Turns out that’s not that case. I'd heard this film was terrifying, but to me it really wasn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed it without any foreboding sense of eeriness creeping into my nightmares. This is the man who sat through Texas Chainsaw Massacre but thought Lord of the Rings was terrifying, so make of that what you will. I may be brave enough as an adult to have sat through Possum, but Dobby the house elf absolutely dominated my childhood nightmares (seriously, he was my worst fear and haunted me until my early teens). Terrifying or not, the film isn’t about some psychological/existential threat. Instead, it explores grief through the eyes of Essie Davis’ character Amelia, an exhausted single mother whose child Samuel is practically framed as the true villain of the story with his endless screaming, disruptive behaviour at school and antisocial, erratic and even violent tendencies. His obsession with the titular storybook monster and creating homemade weapons to defend himself from it lead to endless frustration and pain for the overwhelmed, still-grieving Amelia, who mourns the loss of Sam’s father.
According to the storybook in question, ‘Mister Babadook’, this top-hatted, long-armed, chalk-skinned, ever-smiling creep is summoned whenever a victim becomes aware of its existence and torments them, slowing driving them mad before killing them with his long-nailed spindly fingers. The Babadook’s terrifying assault apparently becomes worse the more the victim denies its existence, getting stronger the more you don’t want to believe it is haunting you. Which is a terrifying concept.
They actually created the pop-up storybook for the film and it is beautifully creepy and impressive. It is so reminiscent of art styles used in real pop-up books for children, but just errs on the side of unsettling enough to be uncomfortable to look at. The psychological terror builds throughout the film, as it is unclear if the Babadook is real and has been summoned or if Amelia is losing her grip on reality. Sam may be on the spectrum, as he exhibits potential signs of autism, but the focus is on Amelia’s struggle to cope with raising him. Her stress compounds her insomnia, bouts of depression and, exasperated with her son’s worsening behaviour, causes her to be short-tempered with him.
This employment of slow, building psychological terror is something the film is lauded for. Rather than relying on needlessly loud jump scares spiking quickly to evoke cheap horror, the unsettlingness builds throughout the film until its climax. I’ve always found jump scares to be cheating, really. I’m a particularly jumpy person, but even if I weren’t, it’s still such an easy way to elicit a response from someone and they’re not memorable the way true psychological thrillers are. Midsommar does this very well by also having the horror take place during 24-hour daylight. The tense sound design and haunting visuals in The Babadook achieve the same by creating an unsettling whistle in the background I’d liken to the tense silent atmosphere of A Quiet Place. Your eyes dart to see the danger before it comes and you never know when or how it will, nor where to look.
As if being stalked and harassed by an unseen person isn’t terrifying enough (see The Invisible Man for a truly frustrating scare), the fact no one believe you as you are gaslit - by a man in a dumb suit of all things - is quite disturbing. Add that to the possibility of a supernatural force that can possess you and cause you to do unspeakable things, and you’re left wondering whether you’re the real monster or not. Is the gaslighting true?
Beyond parenting, loss and stalking, which women will relate to most, many of these themes can be related to queer experiences, especially harassment, loneliness and assault. Perhaps more universally, the film demonstrates the difficulty of facing darkness within ourselves and a fear of losing one’s mind. The cold, shadowy claustrophobia of the film’s set design really sinks these inescapable feelings into the backdrop, notably distant from its Adelaide setting.
I think the film itself is about the endurance of grief and how its aftershocks continue to shake us over and over for years to come. Sometimes the tremor never fully ends. Death may not be a thing to fear so much as loss and the terrible ways it stays with us for the rest of our lives. In this way, the titular monster is loss itself; oftentimes a shadow, shapelessly shifting and sliding in the background of our lives, only briefly entering the periphery before hiding again. Knowing that the beating drum of grief is still lurking somewhere within us, never knowing when it will turn and leer at us. That hiding behind all of us is a fear of what we don’t want to look at.
So how did the Babadook become a queer icon?
You may have heard that this all started when Netflix erroneously categorised The Babadook in its LGBT section, but the origins of the Babadook as a gay icon trace back slightly further to Tumblr, when that was still a thing. A user named ‘Ianstagram’ jokingly made a post about the Babadook being openly gay and how he related to the character, sparking many jovial memes of agreement that inevitably caught the ire of homophobes. As with almost all queer iconography, the homophobic backlash only emboldened and legitimised Mister Babadook’s place in queer canon and journalists began jumping in on the queer subtext interpreted by this Babadiscourse.
It’s no surprise really that a horror icon comedically walking the line of being taken seriously in its interpretation, beloved by queer folk and hated by bigots, became a genuine LGBT icon and staple figure at Pride parades. L.A. cinemas took to hosting charity viewings of the film for LGBT causes, raising a decent amount of Babadollars.
A chaotic, long-nailed hat-lover who not only doesn’t fit in, but is actively ignored and denied by the family he lives with, is reminiscent of many queer experiences and makes for a very compelling interpretation of the character as queer-coded. Add his flair for the dramatic to the fact that his very existence actively pains those around him and you’ve got a portrait of queer identity struggling to be seen, accepted or understood. Perhaps this narrative could be read as a family trying desperately to force their relative back in the closet.
It may not seem so silly for people to see themselves represented in the Babadook after all. Okay maybe it still does, but isn’t that also reminiscent of queer experience? Honestly, what queer person can’t relate to having some chaotic effect on a traditional family structure? The fabulous and the grotesque meet within how the Babadook presents himself and how he is perceived. You don’t have to be the expensive unstable son who likes kissing boys to resonate with the monster’s queer black sheep allegory.
The intention might not have been there on Kent’s part, but the queer reading of the Babadook still is. She’s spoken affectionately about her movie monster’s new role and how enduring it is. Her comments on the meme seem to suggest that the power of the Babadook is real, as he cannot die and is finding ways to stay relevant in the public consciousness.
The film’s ending is more hopeful that we might learn to manage the monster of grief, though it will never leave us. Perhaps we can feed it, acknowledge it, care for it. Show it tenderness and allow it to live with us. Because, like the Babadook, ignoring our pain will only strengthen its hold on us. There is a lot of processing that goes into dealing with any trauma. It takes time for us to heal and to learn to grapple with it. Often it can be years before we emerge whole from that messy battle, not by overcoming, but by integrating. If we do not, then we’re doomed to succumb to our darker nature. When you don’t control your monster, it controls you.
After all, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.