First-time feature director Jennifer Kent admitted as much to Rolling Stone, saying "It really was connecting to that woman and her journey towards staring something nightmarish in the face. As the film progresses, you start to realize: Oh my God, the kid was right—and that's where the fear is for me."
But motherhood is inextricably tied in with childhood—there's the one doing the mothering and the one being mothered. And yet it's easier to focus on Essie Davis's increasingly wild-eyed, unhinged widow as the protagonist and the monster as a manifestation of her own unspoken grief than it is to focus on the trauma of her son, played with measured brilliance by Noah Wiseman.
Perhaps that's because Sam's behavior early in the film is the kind that could make for an effective birth-control ad campaign. Sam brings homemade weapons to school, obliviously tells uncomfortable strangers about the sad tale of his birth, throws poltergeist-like tantrums, pushes little girls out of tree houses, and worst of all, won't let his poor mother sleep. As the Boston Globe notes, "It’s tough at times to decide who’s the worse nightmare, 6-year-old Sam or ... the Babadook. "
Part of this is just Sam being a kid. But it also turns out that his more maddening and arguably disturbing traits—the anger, anxiety-induced seizures, screaming, and risk-taking—fit the behavioral profile of a traumatized boy, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Look past the horror trope of the Satanic or disturbed little boy seen in The Omen, The Ring, and The Sixth Sense, and you'll find a child struggling to deal with the loss of a father he never knew, and Amelia's subsequent, deeply buried resentment toward him—in a completely normal way.
As Amelia succumbs to her madness—a harrowing blend of insomnia and cabin fever—Sam seems to grow more innocent. He's hungry. He's tired. He's scared. And even as Amelia withdraws, turning more violent, Sam is keen enough to understand that the woman who's screaming slurs at him and neglecting him isn't really his mother. She ignored his pleas ("Don't let it in! Don't let it in! Don't let it in!"), but it's still clear that when he told his mother "I promise to protect you if you promise to protect me," he meant it. He saved her, ultimately, with a soft touch on the cheek as she attempted to strangle him. In other words, with his intuitive, stubborn love. (Indeed, personal growth is a frequent result of loss for children).
The film is reminiscent of the 30-minute short film The Grandmother by David Lynch, whom Kent has cited as an influence (the auteur's has a singular approach to horror). Like The Babadook, the title of Lynch's 1970 film is just misdirection; the story isn't about the "grandmother," but the young boy who yearns for her as a source of affection. Lynch's mostly dialogue-free film delves into the twisted psyche of a disturbed, but ultimately sympathetic child who retreats into fantasy as a way to survive (even if his ending isn't quite as hopeful as Kent's).