*Sort of spoiler alerts and creepy images ahead!
I totally get it. The Babadook is not the most terrifying film ever made, and I wouldn’t dare argue that. It definitely has its weak points, and for a film that is fairly unsolvable, things sort of brighten up pretty quickly at the end… a little too quickly for my liking. And yet, even with these weak points, I still feel it’s scary as hell. It’s probably just me that thinks this way, partly because I’m a giant chicken.
I never watched scary movies growing up because I have always despised being scared. I hate that electric shock that shoots through the spinal cord when terror slips into the gut and the brain comprehends that it is far too late: some creepy shit is about to go down. I still don’t really care for being scared, but spooking myself has become a sort of exercise in exposure therapy; I baby step my way to coping with the unknown that might be lurking at the bottom of the basement stairs or under my bed or behind the shower curtain. I don’t care if I’m twenty-five years old. I’m still going to sprint up the stairs from the dark, creepy basement, and I probably will for the rest of my life. Full disclosure.
To further complicate matters, I am the easiest person to scare. I am so easy to bring to the edge of fear that you wouldn’t even have to really try. Mice, bats, old houses; it’s easy to freak me out. So it’s not hard to see why I found Australian director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 psychological thriller The Babadook so terrifying. It’s dark, frightening, and intense, though in a mild way. As I said before, I will totally admit that this is not that scary of a film, and yet it left me shaken for days afterward.
So why was I so terrified? Not because of the monster that we never see in its entirety (very smart on Kent’s part as there are many scenes where she could have shown it), not because of the protagonist of the film (played by actress Essie Davis) Amelia’s tortuous descent into madness, and not because of my inability to breathe during the severe moments of the film which seemed nearly constant. So why was I so scared?
Because The Babadook fits so eerily into a Lacanian psychoanalytic model, bringing with it the trauma of the Real, the flirting with the incomprehensible dimension of existence, the experience of tremendous pain in the loss of identity resulting from this realization of the Sublime, that it truly becomes psychologically terrifying.
Let’s start with a brief overview of French philosopher Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic model, and by brief, I mean the bare bones. Lacan developed a theory that consisted of three main “orders” or spheres that he argued determine the psychological development of humans. The first is referred to as the Imaginary Order.
The Imaginary Order can essentially be thought of as the world of perception, specifically of the perception of one’s self, and it is tied with Lacan’s Mirror Stage of psychosexual development (the idea that a child cannot look in the mirror and recognize itself as a whole, coherent being but instead sees a fantasy image created by the infant to cope with the fact that it is a lacking human subject). When an infant enters the world, they cannot differentiate themselves from their surroundings, and as we all know very well, babies are quite demanding. For Lacan, this action of demanding is the first step down the slippery slope of what abstractly consists of the human subject: loss and lack. Once the infant begins to grow and is able to separate itself from its surroundings and its mother, an anxiety develops because that loss is still present. For Lacan, it is important to note that this loss is continuous, and it affects the rest of one’s life. The Imaginary Order makes itself felt through the experiences of the second Order, the Symbolic Order.
The Symbolic Order is best thought as the realm of culture, our networks and social support systems that we make within societies that is learned through the acquisition of language. Once a child has learned language, they are able to better interact with their surrounding society, including the rules and regulations that dictate that society. In the Symbolic Order, humans interact with other humans, thus learning that others have needs, desires, and fears similar to our own; however, they limit the ways in which we can attend to our own needs, desires, and fears, further emphasizing the experience of loss. It is here where we determine desire, as opposed to demand from the Imaginary Order. The Symbolic Order is constantly at odds with the Imaginary Order, but both Orders try to control or to completely avoid the most confusing order known as the Real.
The Real is an “order” that humans do not have access to; it completely lies outsides all human ideologies that exist that could be used to explain this existence. As Lois Tyson calls it, it is an “uninterpretable dimension of existence” that allows us to see through all ideology society has created. Lacan felt that humans are close to this state of nature in the neo-natal stage, and the keyword to the Real is “need.” An infant needs and seeks to satisfy those needs with no concern for the outside world. But this idea can be loosely compared to the breaking of the Kantian noumenal barriers that expose the existence of an absolute. The concepts that cannot be contained in the Symbolic or the Imaginary Orders that ooze from the Real are referred to as the excess, and this is what we witness in The Babadook.
That’s all well and good, but where does this tie into The Babadook? Interestingly, the film fits Lacan’s model almost perfectly. Let’s begin with an analysis of the Symbolic Order in the film.
So if we think of the Symbolic Order as the way society, or the people in Amelia’s life, view her and her single parenthood with a mentally ill and violent son, we can sort of make some guesses as to their perception. The majority of them would probably consider her a bad mother, a woman making horrible parenting decisions that prevents her from being able to control the actions of her son, Samuel. Due to the tragic and traumatic loss of her husband prior to the birth of her son and Amelia’s inability to “get her shit together,” perhaps society would also look at this woman and note that she still is in some stage of grief, grief that she has literally wallowed in for seven years.
She isn’t considered “normal” in that she has friends, goes to social events, brings her son out in public where he also has friends and a social life. Instead, she is mentally unstable, depressing, dark, gloomy, and totally lacks the ability to care for an emotionally disturbed and violent child. No one really wants to be friends with her, and her own sister even states that she doesn’t want to be around her due to the absurd antics of her son. Society’s view of Amelia would probably be pretty bleak overall.
The way society perceives Amelia in the Symbolic Order is important for how we can guess that Amelia perceives herself in the Imaginary Order. Based on the knowledge viewers of the film are gifted, we know that Amelia truly tries her best to love and care for Samuel exactly as he is. However, it is pretty obvious that she has some type of hatred for her son and the mess he has gotten them into, but it also appears that she tries to keep this hatred down until she no longer can do so. She is obviously grieving, and she could use the help of another parental figure in Samuel’s life (if anything a babysitter so the woman can take a nap once in a while!), but she seems sort of in denial about her grief and ability to cope. I don’t think she views herself as gloomy and depressive as others see her, especially because she seems sort of shocked when her sister Claire confronts her with these allegations.
Overall, I think Amelia knows that Samuel is “normal” deep down, but he acts out and is troubled due to the lack of a father figure. Samuel is naturally curious, and he desperately seems to want a father in his life. I do think Amelia wants this to happen, but because she feels so defeated, lonely, depressed, and anxious, she is prevented from taking any further steps in achieving this sense of normalcy. I always felt Amelia is a fighter and a lover, and though it’s sort of obvious that her life and her child are giant trainwrecks, she refuses to give up on this attempt at normalcy.
So then how do we view the Babadook?
The Babadook as the monster is really what pushes us toward the category of the Real. The Babadook quite literally shows up on Amelia’s doorstep one day after she and Samuel read the super creepy children’s book that magically appears on his bookshelf. No one can really comprehend why the Babadook is there, how it got there, why it picked Amelia and Simon, or most important, what it truly is. Worse yet, the hauntings (or stalkings, I guess the Babadook isn’t really a ghost so it can’t really haunt?) are continuous and out of Amelia’s control. There is literally nothing she can do to understand or control this monster.
The Babadook as an entity is an example of the excess from the Real; it cannot be contained in the Symbolic or the Imaginary Orders (there are no ideologies or languages that can be used to comprehend such a monster), nor does Amelia have access to the Real in order to gain comprehension of the monster at hand. The Babadook, essentially, breaks through The Babadook.
If we apply Kant’s work of the analytics of the sublime, we can say that there is nowhere for Amelia to stand in time and space for her mind to conform to the Babadook as an object, nor can the object conform to Amelia’s mind. This results in a breaking of the phenomenal barrier. The moment that Amelia confronts the Babadook and orders it to leave, she becomes aware that in that moment where she sees the monster for what it is, she is has reached the limits of her perception.
And here is where the true horror of The Babadook lies: reason has failed Amelia, but there still remains a reality outside of her perception leading to the ultimate trauma of the human mind. There is a point at which our perception fails us. Our perception and ability to comprehend ceases to exist, but there is a reality that continues on that we can never truly understand.
Well, philosophically speaking, it’s a lot scarier than it reads.
So what are we left with?
The interesting aspect to this trauma is that Amelia’s old identity, the one described in Imaginary Order, is obliterated. Amelia has had a realization of the sublime, an object, entity, or event that exists outside of human comprehension, and this utterly destroys not only how she perceives herself within society but how she views society itself.
She is no longer an owner to a culture or a subjectivity. Amelia, as a subject, is set free from, now allowed to develop a new identity, as she and Samuel begin to heal from this loss of original identity at the end of the film. Ironically, she chooses an identity as the caretaker of the Babadook. Not sure I would have chosen that, but that’s neither here nor there.
I think the phrase that Samuel chants creepily in the film, “Don’t let it in, don’t let it in,” (Samuel telling his mother not to let the the Babadook into the house) contains an interesting link to a Lacanian analysis of the film. Obviously, you’re not supposed to let monsters into your home, as Amelia did anyway, but you’re also not supposed to let monsters into your mind that might push you to experience the ultimate trauma of the human experience, especially if it leads you to reach the perceptual limits of comprehension.
I feel Jennifer Kent had a similar idea in her mind when she wrote the screenplay. There’s a great deal of reflection on the film as a response to how humans deal with their own inner demons and monsters and how we cope and live day-to-day with the bad that is in all of us. However, my immediate reaction, and why I think I was literally so terrified of this film, is because of the Lacanian/Kantian reflections of it.
Some humans never experience anything traumatic, terrifying, horrific, etc. Yet, other humans find themselves in situations like those in horror films where logic fails, the monster wins, and trauma ensues, completely destroying their identity and transforming them into something entirely different. Ultimately, the motto of The Babadook is the age old, nauseating saying, “love conquers all.” But it also contains a very important warning for those looking to avoid real psychological terror.
Don’t let it in.