What's in a Book?: The Babadook

December 19, 2014

Source: Wikipedia
On Wednesday night, a friend of ours asked me and my boyfriend if we'd like to go with him to see The Babadook, a psychological horror film from director Jennifer Kent (also, amazingly, responsible for Babe: Pig in the City). It's received wide critical praise, including a "98% Fresh" score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a positive reception at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. If you've yet to see the trailer, check it out—but maybe use the bathroom and turn on all the lights first. And, of course, if you're really, really not into horror, don't watch it. Maybe skip this post entirely.

Broadly, the film is about widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) struggling to raise her son Sam (Noah Wiseman), who is becoming increasingly sleepless, aggressive and convinced that "monsters" will soon attack him and his mother. When Mister Babadook shows up on her son's picture book shelf, the two are hurled into a nightmare that blurs the lines between the supernatural and the reality of the exhaustion of motherhood and the unresolved grief of Amelia's husband's death. If you want more of a synopsis and analysis, there are plenty of reviews out there. It's a fantastic film, and the raw emotion and terrifying imagery will leave you reeling for hours after watching it.

What I'm most interested in talking about is the pop-up book itself—now, apparently, being made into a real book. All I can say is, "Whyyyyyyyy?" Since watching the film, I've been trying to parse out the symbolism of the book. Evil arriving and being unleashed in the form of a book certainly isn't a new plot device—even J.K. Rowling did it—and maybe (as my boyfriend suggested) it's just a simple, visually compelling way to get the conflict established and moving, without any further meaning lurking beneath.

Source: The New York Times

Bibliophile that I am, I'm not satisfied by that explanation. The power of narrative and myth is well-established—it can comfort us, shock us, make us believe the impossible and the improbable. Putting our feelings into words is a form of catharsis, allowing us to lay down our burdens regardless of whether anyone else ever reads what we have to say. It's undeniable that this is what Mister Babadook is—a physical embodiment of Amelia's grief and anger and what it can (and will) become if she allows it to take over. But why the physical book itself? Why do we (as humans) think that books hold so much power over us?

As you can see in the trailer, Amelia literally destroys the book—she tears it apart, and, when that doesn't work, burns it in her barbecue grill. In The Chamber of Secrets, Ginny attempts to flush the diary away, and Harry literally stabs it, watching it leak its ink in a not-so-subtle nod to bleeding a person out. This suggests something beyond the story's ability to grip us—something about its physical embodiment troubles us, deeply, and we want to destroy it. Why?

Anyone have any thoughts on this? Why do you think we imbue physical books with so much power? Anyone else watched The Babadook? Talk to me!

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  1. The Babadook was SO GOOD (except for the pterodactyl noises, but I can forgive). This is a super interesting post. I'm interested in how we don't even really wonder about if there's an author. At least, I didn't. The book exists on its own. If the book is sinister enough, it also seems to have created itself. Not sure why we give it that much power so quickly.

    1. Yay! I'm so glad you dredged this post up—I was rather excited when I wrote it and was hoping to get someone to chat with me, at the very least about how freakin' creepy this movie was.

      My friend wasn't a fan of the pterodactyl noises either! They didn't bug me so much... well, besides the fact that they scared the crap out of me.

      I definitely didn't even consider that the book could have an author, either—what an interesting point! It so obviously seemed like a physical representation of Amelia's inner turmoil, so, if anything, she might be the author, but that doesn't ring true for me either. The evil definitely seems to exist on its own.

      Thanks for the visit!

    2. I mean I was scrolling through to see how book compatible we were and I couldn't just NOT say something about The Babadook. One of the best horror movies I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot.

      Thanks for making me think about it more!