When a Monster Movie Doesn’t Need Its Monster

By  · Published on December 2nd, 2014

IFC Films

There’s nothing scarier than being a parent. At first there’s the fear that the kid will be born okay, healthy. Then there’s the ongoing fear of physically harming them by accident, especially if you’re normally clumsy and especially especially if you let the idea of SIDS haunt your brain. And then there’s the continuing fear of psychologically damaging them or otherwise doing something unwittingly that will lead to the kid growing up to become a serial killer or worse. The potential to ruin your son or daughter is horrifying, and the worst is that such causation is not really provable and therefore, if even the fault of the parents, not easily preventable. It’s what drives the drama of We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which a mother thinks over her son’s upbringing in an attempt to consider the root of or recall possible signs of how and why he turned out to be a mass murderer.

We Need to Talk About Kevin has been brought up in many reviews of The Babadook, a horror movie that similarly explores a mother and son relationship, only set in the moment rather than in flashbacks. And with the addition of a monster element, as the pair begin to be haunted by the title boogeyman originating from a mysterious children’s book. Before the Babadook even shows up in The Babadook, the movie is plenty scary for parents, particularly new ones, by depicting an extreme case of a child being terribly undisciplined and a mother at her wits end about it. But it’s also, probably more so, about the mother being the worse one, someone who just isn’t doing a great job of controlling and disciplining her son, which is the greater fear for parents, that it’s not that their kid is inherently bad but that they’ve done a bad job rearing them.

As a parent, I am much more interested in and affected by the non-supernatural side of The Babadook, while the scary movie parts do little for me. I tend to be bored with that kind of stuff in horror anyway, but with this movie it seems abnormally extraneous because it’s hardly the core of the story the way most boogeymen are to theirs. A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, isn’t primarily about the fear of kidnappings and sleep deprivation with a Freddy Krueger on the side. But unlike most horror movies, The Babadook could probably work well enough without its monster. Most of those that almost similarly work as scary dramas by excising the explicit supernatural angle tend to also involve parental fears or insanity: Insidious, The Shining, the 2005 version of The Amityville Horror, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, et al.

That isn’t to say The Babadook should just be another movie about an enfant terrible, like The Bad Seed and The Good Son, and not just because there’s the complexity of the mother’s faults, too. As is, the movie is so well done and well acted and the stuff with the Babadook quite cleverly constructed and shot that regardless of its monster element being kind of dumb and unnecessary in theory, the craft behind its execution is too impressive to dismiss completely. Still, it’s like the story has a scapegoat in terms of there being this certain villain distracting from the more fascinating real issue of a parent/child relationship where neither is the good guy or the bad guy. It makes me imagine if someone remade Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and threw in a ghost to haunt Martha and George’s home while they argue. Interestingly enough, that movie also involves some underlying parental themes.

There is another movie that The Babadook reminds me of: Christopher Smith’s Triangle. The meat of that mind-bending thriller is in a mysterious encounter of an abandoned ocean liner by a group of friends, who are then picked off one by one in slasher-film fashion. But bookending the horror stuff in the middle are scenes of one woman’s relationship with her autistic son, whom she can’t deal with and how that brings about a disaster. The story as a whole, including the surreal scary movie meat, has to do with that mother and child and their psychology, at least metaphorically. Smith imaginatively illustrates a manifestation of her grief and his disorder that is the real point of the entertainment. If it were just a drama about the difficulties of raising an autistic child, Triangle wouldn’t be nearly as appealing.

The manifestation of psyche and fear in The Babadook never satisfyingly takes over as being the main attraction the same way, because it’s always more literally, on the surface, about the mother dealing with her son, her lack of sleep and her grief from losing her husband the same day their child was born. We don’t need that metaphoric layer to illustrate it further.

Unless there’s the notion that without the monster The Babadook becomes too close to addressing the taboos of parents admitting to fault, and to fears of being at fault and, most controversially of all, to sometimes actually, never mind just wanting to, yelling at their wild child and maybe even calling them a “little shit” (it’s particularly taboo when there are people in the real world killing their kids and trying to make it look like an accident after having confessed to having occasional desires to be childless again). Even though it takes the dynamic to an extreme, the movie would hit too close to home for parents worried about being bad parents even though they’re merely being normal, realistic. But instead they have the Babadook and artificial, fantastical scares to distract from their total engagement with the relatability.

For them, this monster movie needs its monster. For anyone who isn’t afraid to own up to being an imperfect parent, a human being, and who is more afraid of real things than supernatural fantasies, The Babadook doesn’t need the Babadook.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.