Not wanting to be a mother, or worse yet, being a mother and not loving the experience is still one of the biggest taboos for women in modern society. The Babadook’s greatest frights come not from Mister Babadook himself, but from the terror of being an isolated, broke, single mother with a problem child and no support system.
Essie Davis turns in what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance as Amelia, a single mother to Sam (Noah Wiseman), whose erratic behavior and temper tantrums only intensify after the mysterious storybook of Mister Babadook shows up on their doorstep. Sam becomes convinced that Mister Babadook has taken up residence in their home, and in one of the film’s key scenes, he interrupts Amelia with this knowledge while she tries to masturbate. Female masturbation in film is still fairly rare, and writer-director Jennifer Kent provides a really empathetic beat for Amelia with this scene. Sam has stolen Amelia’s privacy and personal autonomy in every area of her life, as children often do. When Sam invades this incredibly private moment, it’s easy to understand why Amelia has lost all patience with her son. Kent uses this scene to explore how being a mother has neutered Amelia sexually, which mirrors common sentiments about how women lose their sexual agency after becoming mothers.
Already at the end of her rope and feeling like a madwoman when local authorities intervene (Kent certainly highlights the fact that women are usually put off as paranoid or delusional when dealing with danger, as is the case when Amelia tries to convince police of Mister Babadook’s existence), things only get worse for Amelia when Sam breaks the nose of a young friend after she teases him for not having a father, totally isolating them from their support system. The absence of Amelia’s husband, who died driving Amelia to the hospital for Sam’s birth, looms large for mother and son, and Amelia places a lot of undue blame on her son for his death. Most of Amelia’s characterization stems from the resentment and anger she carries for her son for his role in her husband’s death, when of course he had actually had nothing to do with it — it’s an unlikable stance, but certainly a believable one. When Mister Bababook possesses Amelia, it definitely seems as if she might murder her own child in an attempt to get her husband back, something Mister Babadook has promised. It’s an incredibly bold choice to portray Amelia as ready to kill her son in an attempt to get her husband back, but given Sam’s behavior throughout the film, the audience is able to see where Amelia is coming from, even if they can’t fully empathize with her.
Sam’s love ultimately helps Amelia rid herself of Mister Babadook (though not before she tries to strangle him in another maternal taboo-busting scene), but as the storybook promises: you can’t get rid of the Babadook. So, Amelia and Sam learn to live with Mister Babadook in their basement, and the film’s message is ultimately that you can’t ever really get rid of grief or darkness, but you can learn to live with it. Amelia learns to live with her resentment of her son for his inadvertent role in her husband’s death, and can finally reflect on how her own grief-based failings as a mother have impacted Sam’s development. The Babadook is ultimately a horror film about growing through grief, and how the bond between mother and child, even when pushed to the very limits of sanity, can supersede anything that goes bump in the night.