So, my pre-ordered copy of the much-critically-fawned-upon ‘horror’ film The Babadook arrived this morning. And I’ve just watched it.
What a load of crap.
Look, I get what was being attempted here. And it was attempted with a lot of sincerity, and some excellent acting. But, really, what was the point? Depression is a terrible thing. Yes, we know. We all bloody know. Even those of us lucky enough to have escaped direct experience of depression know that we have escaped something terrible. Grief is a terrible thing too. Likewise. It’s better to connect with and love your kids than to not. Yes. I don’t have kids and I know that. These are trite morals.
Of course, there’s no reason why you couldn’t make a film carefully exploring these issues, delineating the experience of suffering from grief and depression so bad that it paralyses even your ability to love your own child. But if that’s what you want to talk about, do so. Make a film about depression. Make a film about mental illness. Make a film about a nervous breakdown. Make it with sensitivity, and with the space and attention these issues deserve. The Babadook isn’t that film, though it seems to be under the impression that it kind-of might be.
If, on the other hand, you want to make a ghost story, then make a ghost story. But don’t make a film which uses the aesthetics of the ghost story as obvious and simplistic metaphors for depression and mental illness, especially if you’re going to spend the entire runtime of the film essentially screaming “THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR DEPRESSION!!!!” at the audience, as if you blatantly don’t trust them to twig.
It’s possible that someone who has actually suffered from depression may disagree with me here, and I shall respect that disagreement from my lucky positionality, but it seems to me that all we get in The Babadook are trite morals dressed up in dark cloaks. ‘DON’T LET HIM IN’ says the book about the monster that will creep into your life through looks and words, attack you in bed, and get under your skin. Well thanks. I’m sure people suffering from debilitating depression never thought of that. The story seems to also imply that, once in, depression is almost certain to lead to murder-suicide if left unchecked… which seems a dubious message to be sending out about the plight of millions of perfectly normal, innocent, non-dangerous people who are suffering from a disease. Also, depression would appear to be a monster that attacks without much in the way of a social origin. The monster sneaks into your life because of loss and boredom and family difficulties, not because of wider social problems. Moreover, the monster must be slain by the lone individual deciding to belt up. Apparently, according to this film, all you have to do to defeat the monster of depression is to pull yourself together. Even at the point where you are a slavering, knife-wielding homicidal maniac who is breaking the necks of pets (a cheap, obvious and predictable shot that one, by the way) and attempting to strangle your own kid, all you have to do is summon up the will-power to shout down your inner demons. Presumably, those people who don’t manage to summon up the last-minute grit to simply intimidate the Babadook and lock him in a closet are themselves to blame for the catastrophes that follow. Your own fault. Should’ve been stronger. This is the most simplistic and offensive metaphorical statement on depression since Paul Cornell had a go for Big Finish.
Aside from how dodgy the film’s implications are when it comes to serious, real world issues, there is also the question of how the film disrespects the uncanny and the hauntological. It repeatedly hammers home that we are seeing a mental breakdown rather than an actual haunting. This is why, despite the hyperbole of reviewers which is larded all over the DVD case, the film isn’t remotely scary. It never takes the monster seriously on his own terms. It never pays enough respect to the monstrous. It refuses to be even faintly mysterious. It puts little ironic clips of classic shockers on the TV that the protagonist stares at in a depressed fug, thus showing us the raw material from which she fashions her dark illusions. It insists on explaining everything. Every creepy glimpse or sound is clearly contextualised as a dream or a hallucination, or as a metaphorical depiction of a mental state. The Babadook attacks a car and causes a car crash… but we are left in no doubt (through heavy implication) that what we have just seen is an accident caused by a woman’s depressed and wandering mind. The little boy in the film believes in the Babadook as an outside force, but the way he talks about it is clearly meant to imply an unconscious perception on his part that his mother is haunted by the demon of depression. This leads, as the film progresses, to the boy’s utterances becoming increasingly gnomic, as it becomes crucial for him to produce dialogue which furthers the metaphor. This shows a contempt for the thought-world of children, which becomes nothing more than a kind of cargo-cult-style attempt to comprehend the doings of adults. Speaking of which… even the origin of the spooky book (the best thing in the film, aside from the acting) is explained in a line about the protagonist once having been a children’s author.
As with The Innocents – another wildly overrated ‘horror’ movie that everyone seems to think is a masterpiece except me – the aimed-for ambiguity fails in a way that smells of the film-makers’ contempt for anything actually uncanny, resolving downwards into a crashingly literal co-optation of hauntological aesthetics in the service of an ostensibly more serious message. (At least The Babadook manages to ultimately treat the psychological problems of the protagonist with sympathy, unlike The Innocents, which takes a patronising and misogynistic tone about a character who is, when all is said and done, depicted as nothing more than a prudish, repressed hysteric.) In both films, the hauntological is disrespected, denied its own integrity and narrative reality, denied its own power to both mean and to defy meaning, denied its own power to be inexplicable or horrifying for the sake of it. It is denied these things because it is being used for the purposes of inaccurately and simplistically expressing a psychological state. It is clearly being put in a subordinate position, mined for usable material while its own potential is ignored.
The fundamental problem with using the horrific in such a specific and sceptical way is that it neutralises the power of the horrific to tug at threads deeper than those we know about, and thus to suggest the deep unknowability of ourselves and the world we live in. Horror often tries to say stuff about the real world, or promote a salutary moral, via a depiction of the return of the repressed. But it ultimately relies upon the repressed returning in a way that represents a fundamental rupture with what we like to think of as the real world. The haunting in The Shining has political valences which refer to actual social issues and/or historical horrors, but because it is the story of a literal haunting rather than self-consciously a visualisation of ‘just’ a mental breakdown, it also insists upon the idea that there is a ‘real’ faultline in reality that we might fall into. I don’t believe in the literal supernatural, but I find uncanny fiction a far more powerful reflection of my experience of the world than ‘realism’, especially realism which cannot tolerate symbols and metaphors unless they be clearly announced as such. The uncanny vision is of a reality riven by cracks, cracks that we all might suddenly tumble into without any understanding of what is happening to us, and with no potential for understanding it. That’s the experience of modernity, for me. I’m not saying ‘realism’ has nothing to say to us. I just generally think it fails to get at the experience of modernity in quite the way managed by the uncanny. And it should say its own stuff without misusing the uncanny in the capacity of a disrespected servant.
When the boy is being thrown around by the evil force near the end of The Babadook, the way it happens directly in front of his mother’s outstretched arms clearly informs us that we are seeing her dissociative perception of her own violence. She sees what she herself is doing, and inserts gaps of empty space between her hands and the violence they produce. This is a perfect summation of the film. In conception and execution, it is very clever… but the ultimate effect is banal, limited and boring.