The Monster in the Cellar – Review of the Babadook

By Cristina Preda

Have you ever been afraid of what might be lurking in the dark? When swimming in the sea have you ever felt that an unknown monster will drag you down, never to return you to the light? Do you ever dream of turning a corner and facing an unknown danger? Have you ever considered that there has to be some truth in all the scary stories, no smoke without fire and all that?

You are not alone.

In the light of day we dismiss these fears as childish (without really stopping to consider why children would have them in the first place). And then maybe sometimes, perhaps once in a lifetime, these fears become more substantial. They take shape. We really would swear (in the privacy of our own mind) that the hotel room was haunted. That the rage we felt was an entity taking over our bodies and minds. That when we turned the corner we saw the shadow of the monster projected on the wall.

Some will believe in the monster and seek confirmation. Others will try to explain these occurrences scientifically – remember the rational scepticism of Agent Scully in X-Files? The medical professional will run to the fifth edition of the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual and come up with terms such as psychosis and schizophrenia. Others, including myself will consider the psychological meaning of these fears.

When faced with the possibility of the supernatural, these options were thoroughly explored in The Babadook, a psychological horror which was one of the best reviewed films of 2014. In the film, the characters are faced with a terrifying monster, maybe just like the one we are afraid of. This monster – The Babadook – is there to drive them insane, take over their lives and destroy them.

For me, the film is a wonderful illustration of how the inner pain and anguish we cannot contain within ourselves is externalised and materialised.

The main characters are Amelia, a widowed single mother and Samuel, her overactive son who is fascinated by magic. Amelia’s husband Oskar died when driving her to the hospital to deliver Sam. The film opens before Sam’s seventh birthday. We find out that Amelia has never had the time to grieve for the death of her husband. Her sister notices that “when someone mentions Oskar you cannot cope” and Sam screams “she won’t let me have a dad”. All of Oskar’s things are in the basement where Sam is not allowed to go because Amelia deems it ‘unsafe’.

the film is a wonderful illustration of how the inner pain and anguish we cannot contain within ourselves is externalised and materialised.

We find out that Sam is afraid of a monster and is preparing for a fight with it. He often wakes up frightened in the middle of the night and Amelia has to read to him. On one such night Sam asks her to read a book called ‘The Babadook’ about a monster who hides in the dark corners of the house. The book scares him and he becomes convinced the monster is real. Amelia tries to hide the book but it reappears, so she rips it up but it turns up again the following day with even more terrifying contents. The Babadook declares “the more you deny, the stronger I get”, and “you start to change when I get in”. The images have also changed to show a woman breaking the neck of a dog and towards the end, an image of a woman strangling a little boy. Amelia tries to burn the book, but when it reappears a third time she is convinced she is being stalked. As Sam’s anxiety increases, Amelia becomes more and more sleep deprived and isolated. While as viewer I was worried for the boy, it was Amelia who slowly disintegrated while Sam tried to convince her to fight the monster and found his inner resources to deal with the situation. When Amalia finally encounters The Babadook, this attacks her and and she is unable to fight back and he enters her body.

After this event Amelia appears in a dream-like state talking to her dead husband and seeing herself on TV in a news about a mother killing her son. Amelia kills the family dog and tells Sam how much she hates him. Sam’s answer is telling: “I love you and always will. I know you don’t love me; The Babadook won’t let you – you have to let him out”. He than manages to restrain her in the basement and asks her to let The Babadook out. Amelia, screaming and raging, vomits a black liquid and is reminded by Sam that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. Amelia faces the monster who replays the film of her husband’s death and she is finally able to grieve for him. This allows her to regain her power and banish The Babadook to the cellar.

The film moves forward and we see Sam and Amelia happy in the garden, recovered after their ordeal. Amelia goes to the basement to feed The Babadook and tells Sam he can come with her when he is older. The final scene is of a calm Amelia and a peaceful Sam on his birthday, having a good, loving time in the garden. Sam plays magic tricks and says grandly: “life is not always as it seems”.

The film has been hailed as “one of the strongest, most effective horror films of recent years”. However, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Jennifer Kent the film’s director says: “I wanted to talk about the need to face the darkness in ourselves and in our lives. That was the core idea for me, to take a woman who’d really run away from a terrible situation for many years and have to face it. The horror is really just a byproduct.” This idea is picked up by several bloggers noting that The Babadook is the embodied trauma of the mother who was unable at the time of her husband’s death to grieve for him.

The Babadook is the embodied trauma of the mother who was unable at the time of her husband’s death to grieve for him

This idea of us splitting off and projecting outside of ourselves that which is too much for us to bear is not at all a new idea and it was first introduced by Melanie Klein in 1946. In psychodynamic psychotherapy projection is considered an unconscious defence mechanism, which is a normal adaptive process in children but can be potentially pathological in adults. Jung saw these disowned parts of ourselves as belonging to our shadow and considered that one of the primary goals of therapy was to enable individuals to begin to acknowledge and own their shadow. As long as the shadow remains unconscious, kept out of awareness by defence mechanisms such projection, it will inevitably cause psychological and interpersonal difficulties. But facing our shadow is difficult. Hillman reminds us that “…the meaning of our sins is that we carry them, which means not that we unload them onto others to carry for us. To carry one’s sins, one has first to recognize them, and recognize their brutality”

For Amalia, her grief for the death of her husband and her rage towards her son whose birth indirectly caused Oskar’s death, were kept in her shadow as they were too painful to face.

In the film, Amalia had the love of a son to help her finally face and conquer her monster.

I often thought of possible alternative endings to the film. What would have happened if children’s social care intervened and took Sam away? Would Amalia have ended up sectioned with a diagnosis of psychosis or paranoid schizophrenia and medicated?

In ‘Falling into the Fire – a psychiatrist’s encounter with the mind in crisis’ Christine Montross talks about the “consequences and indignities of untreated mania or psychosis”. Example after example describe the terrifying world of mental health crisis and the need for medication. Would medication have helped Amelia resolve her grief?

What if Amalia never had the courage to face The Babadook, constantly running from her grief? Would she have ended up using a ouija board or a seance group to communicate with her dead husband?

the meaning of our sins is that we carry them, which means not that we unload them onto others to carry for us. To carry one’s sins, one has first to recognize them, and recognize their brutality

I am a firm believer in the existence of a world beyond our senses. But this is not a world of seduction and escape as is often touted by new-age groups and neither is it a world of untold monsters and horrors.

Both hell and heaven are within us and this is where we need to turn to when faced with something we cannot explain. In the words of Sherlock Holmes who has encountered a few monsters himself: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

At the end of the film both Amelia and Sam have changed: Amelia is stronger and truly calm and Sam can be a carefee child rather than just pretend to be so. Their relationship is no longer a simulation motherly-filial love but is obviously tender, mutually understanding and respectful. The monster is still present and is still strong yet they are both able to live with it.

For me, this is the true meaning of transcendence: to have the courage to accept the pain of our demons, the faith to see the beauty in our angels and the humility to recognise the same in our peers.

As such, I wonder what would happen to all of us if we stopped when terrified, turned inward and faced our own Babadooks. Maybe after the darkness that we’ll encounter we could arrive at the pure state of the alchemists that Hillman described as “redemption, an innocence reborn, forged, created through the trials and courage and suffering of living”.


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