Before I had a child, I gleaned subconsciously from pop mythology that motherhood was distinctly pastel. Of course, I knew from the delicately-creased eyebrows of the women in the infant Panadol ads that life with a baby wasn’t always perfect. But from the moment the imagined, soft-focus phantasmagoria of childbirth gets shattered by the gruesome reality of piss, shit, blood and – my god! – the crying, motherhood proves for some less a slow-motion skip through a field of daffodils than a visceral yet often lovely roller coaster ride.

In the Australian horror film The Babadook, motherhood isn’t a pastel rainbow of mint, salmon, lavender, and pistachio: it’s grey, black and blacker. The protagonist Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car accident as she travelled to hospital to have her now-six year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), and that destroyed her. While not exactly paralysed as such, Amelia is automated to the point of zombification as she struggles with her own anguish, grief, and loneliness, alongside being the primary caregiver of a troubled young boy.

After garnering praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Babadook’s recent international success on the genre film festival circuit has been remarkable. At events such as London’s Fright Fest and Austin’s Fantastic Fest, Jennifer Kent’s film has won both awards and the near unanimous praise of hardcore horror fans. With an impending local DVD release – just in time for Halloween, of course – The Babadook deserves its reputation as one of the best Australian genre films in recent years.

Built around the premise of a mysterious pop-up book – the eponymous Mister Babadook – the film initially appears to tread safe ground as it steps confidently into the shadowy realm of hauntings and possession. But the real horror of The Babadook lies in far less supernatural territory, as Amelia increasingly collapses under the weight of her bleak circumstances. This is ultimately not a film about monsters in the closet; rather its agonising, bone-chilling terror comes from revealing how a normal woman can turn into a person who abuses her child.

Typical depictions of the child abuser in popular culture are predominantly Manichean, sitting firmly in the domain of The Other. But the fundamental source of horror in The Babadook is our empathy with the protagonist before she emotionally and physically tortures her own son, while he fails to comprehend that his mother could be this cruel outside a mythological fantasy of ghosts and ghouls.

The affective power of Kent’s film stems from Amelia being so sympathetic. We want to fight with her and Sam against the monster: this is what horror, and the mechanics of identification in Western visual culture more generally, have trained us to do. We live in a culture that has failed to provide the necessary emotional language to navigate the troubling grey areas that mark social problems such as child abuse: as the conflicting narratives that circulate around icons like Michael Jackson remind us, the media opts for either good guys or bad guys, with little focus on the important area in between. The Babadook mines this space to create its often unbearably uncomfortable impact.

The Babadook is a maternal nightmare. It shows how a good mum who tries her best can become the villain, for reasons we are miserably forced to admit that we kind of understand. What is fascinating is how this story has appealed so broadly to genre audiences. Kent’s genre literacy verges upon the encyclopaedic: this all too human story still offers all the bumps and starts of the cinematic ghost train ride that the genre at its best affords.

While never slipping into glib Tarantino-isms, Kent is relentlessly intertextual. She constantly reminds us we’re watching a horror movie, not an exercise in social realism. The hyper-gothic set is more Caligari than Ken Loach and, as Amelia spirals downwards, she spends nights watching classic horror movies (a shot is even included of Lon Chaney, doubtlessly an inspiration for Mister Babadook’s character design).

Of all these references, however, the most important is more thematic than iconographic. Famously, Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) tells the story of a young governess whose small charges are either the victims of supernatural foul play at the hands of their now deceased previous governess and her lover, or of the deranged paranoia of the governess herself that eventually causes the death of one the children.

Renowned for its ambiguity, The Turn of the Screw haunts The Babadook as much as that Chaney-like spectre. Although Kent’s film offers a happily-ever-after of sorts, its glare is far too bright. It’s a deliberately bad fit that consciously fails to fully vindicate Amelia. If a good old-fashioned spook story is what you are after, The Babadook, like The Turn of the Screw offers myriad pleasures. The shadowy, cartoon-like monster is, after all, a far more satisfying threat than what the film simultaneously offers: the suggestion that motherhood is often incomprehensibly difficult, the fear that sympathetic characters like Amelia can find themselves on the losing side of parenthood’s never-ending game of psychological Jenga, and the terror that (unlike in a movie), for many kids there just might not be the option of a glossy happy ending.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

More by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas ›

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