What the Hellish Babadook Has to Say About Childhood Grief

The best horror film of 2014 understands that kids, especially very young ones, deal with loss much differently than adults do.

Causeway Films

Spoilers ahead.

"If it's in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook."

So begins a mysterious children's pop-up book filled with eerie white charcoal drawings of an overcoated, Slenderman-like figure. The book and the spooky creature inside are ostensibly the big marketing hooks for the independent Australian psychohorror-meets-monster-story The Babadook, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, months before a quiet Nov. 28 release in select U.S. theaters and VOD.

Promotional materials for horror films often try to tell audiences what kind of scary movie to expect. Is it a creepy doll movie? A haunted object movie? Freaky body horror? Possession movie? Another Paranormal Activity sequel? And so The Babadook got billed according to its most salient horror element: the monster.

Those lucky enough to have already seen the movie, which the director of The Exorcist called the most terrifying film he'd ever seen, quickly realized it wasn't quite about the titular boogeyman itself, nor was it about his evil book-vessel that haunts Amelia and her son Sam, whose father was killed in a car crash while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital to deliver him. Many reviews noted how the film gave form and voice to the unspoken horrors and pains of parenting, specifically motherhood, through the metaphor of an insanity-inducing demon.

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).

The Babadook isn’t a tool to help children cope with grief (there are plenty of other films better up to the task), but the film does a sensitive job of portraying the special and confusing way children handle bereavement, and the way exasperated adults often misinterpret and obstruct that process.

The film has a solid grasp on the mutable, but ever-present pain of loss. The Babadook is particularly special for allowing its monster to live, even if it's locked in the basement, acknowledging that Sam and Amelia's shared darkness isn't a parasite to be eradicated. Amelia eventually learns that she can't fully insulate her son from her sadness; but she slowly allows him to recover in his own way, by having a birthday party, by collecting a can of worms to feed the new family member trapped downstairs. Turns out the book was right all along: You can't get rid of the Babadook, but you can at least learn to live with him.