(A version of this article was originally posted on my blog, Girl Meets Monster)
This weekend I watched Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s amazingly beautiful and haunting film, The Babadook (2014). It was my second viewing of the film in about a month. My goal was to kick start my brain into generating a blog post; that focused on the darker side of motherhood— “The Horror of Motherhood”.
My intent, while settling in for another viewing of what I consider to be one of the scariest films I’ve seen in a long time, was to inspire myself to write about a series of horror films I feel deeply connected to, horror films about mothers and their children. This connection stems not only from my awareness as a mother who appreciates how rewarding it can be to raise a child, but also how dark and terrifying it can be to realize that your life is no longer your own. Motherhood is fraught with a host of responsibilities, expectations, and societal pressures that go beyond the basics of keeping the children you bare alive. You must adhere to a very strict level of high standards that seem to fall under constant scrutiny, or you will be deemed a monster. As much as I love monsters, I don’t wish to be accused of being one. Notice that I didn’t say I don’t wish to become a monster. If becoming a monster means protecting the safety of my child, then there will most certainly be a gnashing of sharp teeth.
This concept of the horror of motherhood first occurred to me when I was pregnant with my son. I took a film class to fill the void of boredom, or stave off the fear that I would never have a life again after my son was born. True story. Each week we sat in a dark classroom on the University of Pittsburgh campus for several hours watching films and then discussing them. I was a non-traditional student. By non-traditional I mean an unwed thirtysomething pregnant woman of color with a full-time job at the University, and a master’s degree in English literature in a classroom full of mostly white twentysomething undergraduate students oddly misinformed about cinema. If my alma mater had offered a film minor I would have earned one while pursuing my undergraduate degree…but, I digress (and I will keep doing that, because I am in stream-of-consciousness mode lately and there’s not much I can do about it right now if I want to keep writing. Like it or lump it).
So, horror of motherhood…film class…right…what was the point I was trying to make…? Oh yeah! One week we watched The Exorcist in class. I saw the movie for the first time when I was maybe ten-years-old. It scared the living shit out of me. I had nightmares for weeks, and I refused to sleep with the lights off for a long time afterwards. To me, that’s a sign of a good horror flick. But, is that enough? When I was kid? Absolutely. I still watch horror movies just for the thrill of being scared, but now I tend to evaluate them with a different set of standards in mind. And, I honestly think I began to think about horror films in this way during my viewing of The Exorcist as a pregnant woman. As a kid, the film was terrifying because, let’s be honest, some really unsettling things happen to Regan and her mother once the demon manifests and takes control of the young girl’s body. We’re talking body horror at it’s finest, demon possession, a parasitic invasion of the mind and body in which the host is totally helpless to defend herself from the invading entity. The connection between demon possession and pregnancy was not lost on me as I sat in the darkened classroom. The film suddenly took on a very personal tone, and my original fears quickly evaporated as I began to perceive a new set of fears the film stirred up in me. I was about to become a mom, so the fears were two-fold. Like Regan, I had a being growing inside me that I had little or no control over. My body had been invaded, and unlike many women who look forward to the miracle of birth, I was terrified, because I didn’t completely have faith in my own body to do what it needed to do to bring forth life. And, I also saw the film from the perspective of Regan’s mother, who has a very sick child that no one in the medical field can seem to correctly diagnose, and as her behavior becomes more bizarre and she is subjected to test after test, it became very clear to me that the horror in this film is very real. The horror(s) of motherhood – fear that you won’t be able to help your child if she becomes sick, fear that people will accuse you of being a bad parent, that somehow your child is ill because of something you’ve failed to do right. Yeah, that’s scary stuff. And, because I had to think about those very real fears while rewatching The Exorcist as a mother-to-be, the film gained a new depth of meaning for me, placing it higher on my horror film hierarchy list.
I’ve studied film unofficially for many years, and have a love of the art form that goes beyond catching the latest blockbusters Hollywood has to offer. In fact, I would consider myself a bit of a film snob. I enjoy certain large production films, like the whole Marvel superhero franchise that has enlisted the talent of some of my favorite actors, screenwriters, and directors, but I prefer indie, foreign, and classic films – silent, noir, Murnau, Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman, Polanski, Herzog, Universal, Hammer, American International – and my taste runs toward the dark, the uncanny, and the bizarre. However, a film has to be more than just weird or unsettling for me to really engage with it. There needs to be some sort of artistic or intellectual exploration happening to maintain my attention for an hour or two. My senses need to be tingled, my emotions need to be swayed (unhinged if possible), and what I’m watching on screen should be jangling loose memories and connections between other films and narrative forms I have encountered before. My enjoyment as a reader, writer, and lover of film comes from the connections I am able to make between these different mediums.
I love films, especially horror films that delve into our dark psychological past in the form of reimagined fairy tales and myths. I am particularly thrilled when I see a newer filmmaker paying homage to another filmmaker whose work I enjoy. The Babadook accomplishes both. Kent’s dark fairytale that features a fictional children’s pop-up book, Mister Babadook, introduces us to a new retelling of a particular type of fairytale that delves into the madness that can result from unresolved emotional trauma and the isolation that often comes along with it. I have a lot to say about this deeply disturbing, and yet somehow familiar tale of motherhood, in which a woman fights against a malevolent spirit to halt her transformation into a monster. She refuses to heed the entities demands to harm her own child. She fights madness and ignores what the voices are telling her to do. But, I’m not going to talk about that here. Not now. Think of this as merely a teaser if you will. I have more thinking to do on the subject, but I will share my thoughts soon.
As the title of this post suggests, while I watched The Babadook this weekend, it became very clear to me that Kent has a very serious love of David Lynch. So do I. I became even more excited about this film, which I didn’t think was possible. I love surprises.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to give you a very brief synopsis of the film, but I don’t wish to reveal too much, because I really hope that if you haven’t seen the film yet, you will. So, I’m going to steal the two sentence synopsis from Kent’s website (parentheses are mine): “The film tells of a single mother (Amelia), plagued by the violent death of her husband, who battles with her son’s (Samuel) night time fear of a shadowy monster (The Babadook). But soon, she discovers a sinister presence is lurking in the house.”
Kent’s film has been compared to Roman Polanski’s films, and there were many instances when I was reminded of Repulsion (1965). Especially while watching the scenes in which Amelia is wandering around the house alone at night through shadowy hallways in her nightgown. I couldn’t help but think of Catherine Deneuve sleepwalking through her nightmarish descent into madness.
Jennifer Kent admits that David Lynch is her favorite film director, so it is no wonder that his influence can be seen in this terrifying masterpiece about the darkness that lives inside all of us. After noticing the second reference to his imagery, I picked up a notebook and started jotting down notes in an ecstatic rush of joy. Not only is this film well written, carefully crafted, and very scary, but also the filmmaker is asking me to engage in the narrative she has created on a very intellectual level through images that evoke memories of other narratives. Specifically, Lynch’s films and his television series, Twin Peaks.
If you have seen more than one Lynch film, you’ve probably noticed several recurring images and themes. He communicates his narratives through a very surrealistic system of dream-like images, causing the viewer to experience the story in a state of disorientation they share with many of the characters on-screen. Dreams and hallucinations play a major role in his narratives, and so do darkness and the dangers that hide there. Kent employs several of Lynch’s lighting techniques to create a similar feeling for her viewers. She uses light and shadow to define space within a scene, and creates a sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and even makes her viewer squint to get a closer look at what is hiding in the darkness. We begin to suspect that things are lurking in the dark corners of Amelia’s house long before the monster is ever introduced. She goes so far as to use one of Lynch’s trademark images, flickering electricity and burned out light bulbs, which I initially read as a common trope of horror films indicating a supernatural presence. I think Lynch uses this recurring image similarly to convey an element of the supernatural set against the backdrop of ordinary life.
Films often provide us with an escape from this ordinary life, and while we wish to become immersed in the narrative unfolding before us, both filmmakers have a desire to remind us that we are in fact watching a film they have created, and delve into the realm of metafiction. Lynch does this by creating a proscenium arch in nearly every one of his films, and he even goes so far as to include curtains. Usually very heavy red curtains, which most people will remember from Agent Cooper’s black lodge dream sequences in Twin Peaks. He not only suggests that there is a stage where his characters are performing, but he creates one within a scene. Behind that arch, which sometimes has curtains, and sometimes is just a wall of darkness, there usually lurks something his characters don’t wish to face. The truth. Danger. The darkness within us. Kent uses a wall of darkness to create one of Lynch’s proscenium arches during a very emotionally charged and terrifying scene, in which the Babadook is threatening Amelia’s safety and the safety of her son. She screams at the monster hidden behind the arch and refuses to back down. Refuses to show weakness. She protects her son from the darkness and what it hides. And, much like one of Lynch’s films, eventually something emerges from the darkness. In this case, the true cause of Amelia’s grief and depression is revealed. And then, we are rewarded with yet another Lynchian image, a gaping head wound. I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight during that scene. One reason Lost Highway is one of my favorite Lynch films is because it has two head wounds.
Another example of Lynchian themes Kent uses in The Babadook that really confirmed her love of his work is the concept of split consciousness. In several of his films, Lynch features female leads with dual roles: Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Dern in Inland Empire, as well as Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks. These split identities often highlight the darker side of human behavior and puts the two characters at odds with each other. While Essie Davis plays only one character in Kent’s film, Amelia goes through a psychological transformation rather than a physical one, teetering on the edge of madness. She doesn’t become two people like in Lynch’s work, but her grief over the loss of her husband and her unwillingness to fully accept her role as Samuel’s mother creates a similar fractured female identity. She struggles with depression and feels guilty for wishing she could still have her husband even if it meant giving up her son. She is in danger of not only being a bad mother, but of becoming a monster herself.
Finally, the icing on the cake for me came near the end of the film when Amelia goes through a terrible night in which the Babadook enters her body. There is a kind of possession that takes place, further supporting this idea of fractured identity. She is becoming a monster. She poses a threat to her own son. But, Amelia is strong, and she is able to force the darkness out. She exorcises her own demons. In the process of casting out the monster, she expels what I like to call emotional ectoplasm. She literally throws up an inky black substance that made me shout: GARMONBOZIA! She expels her pain and sorrow, which is what the demons in the black lodge eat. Bob expels a similar black substance from his hands in Fire Walk With Me when The Man from Another Place demands, “Bob, I want all my Garmonbozia.” Oddly enough, that inky substance, which I equate with a literal emotional discharge, a physical manifestation of pain, isn’t actually garmonbozia. Lynch depicts garmonbozia as something completely ordinary and mundane. Creamed corn. In my opinion, that’s the true stuff of nightmares.