“I’m not sick!”: Re-Interpreting The Babadook As A Pro-Misfit, Dark Fairy Tale
Monique Jones details in "Mr. Robot & The Highly Sensitive: Elliot's Complicated HSP Life" the definition and murky terrain of Highly Sensitive People (HSP) using Mr. Robot's star character Elliot (Rami Malek) as an example of a person who struggles deeply with self- acceptance and isolation in a world that values a much different emotional way of being:
Elliot knows his environment—American society—is wrong on many levels, particularly when it comes to letting money, apathy, and hardness rule instead of allowing sensitivity its day in the sun. But the fact that he knows his environment doesn’t suit him pales in comparison to how much his inability to fit in makes him feel like a huge mismatch with his world. Everyone else around him is able to belong, but his depth of feeling, his ability to feel and see a lot that most people miss or want to ignore, has him feeling out of place to the point of nihilism.
As people with similar dispositions mature into adulthood, pieces of this concept become a bit clearer and we can begin to address the emotional strife that continues with this level of intuition and hopefully, build personal confidence. But as we see in flashbacks with Elliot throughout the series, his mother only exacerbated his feelings of brokenness by bullying him into toughening up. It is critical then, to understand how important the stakes are when parents consistently fail to “get” their children or work towards mending this communication. One well received horror film offered droplets of this idea that deserves further exploration.
After several viewings and listening to various commentary on 2014's buzzed about horror flick, The Babadook, these ideas match well with its two main characters Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who struggles with rearing her spirited son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who was born on the day her hudband died in an accident on the way to the hospital. Samuel’s fear of a monster that has him creating makeshift weapons, sleeping in his mom’s bed, and causing social disruptions only magnify Amelia’s looming resentment and unwavering grief. One night when she reads Samuel a bedtime story from a book she doesn’t recall buying titled Mister Babadook, strange occurrences begin to prosper. Not knowing what’s real and what isn’t, Amelia begins to crumble both physically and psychologically from Mister Babadook’s insidious presence that she’s left to face if she is to preserve not only her life but Samuel’s as well.
We see Samuel ostracized by school authorities due to his craftsmanship of weaponry and disruption, taunted by his cousin because of his familial circumstances. The outside world doesn't accept him, wanting him to conform and rendering him unfit because in many ways, he cannot. The opportunities for the typical, “normal” neutral family were shattered by tragedy. The residual cracks and crumbles are the rubble of his mother's own distance and collusion. She's got her own problems to deal with. And as a child, Samuel reacts obnoxiously, craving the positive more understanding attention he so desperately needs to manage his emotional state. He has a very thin guidebook for how to deal his own sensitivity.
He's aware of why Amelia has constructed a wall between them, and he makes weapons and physically clings to her, looking for a way to make all of their problems go away with honesty and confrontation. He prefers frankness when Amelia demonstrates nuanced moments of suppression. When Amelia is overtaken by the force of Mr. Babadook, those weapons come in handy for Samuel to keep the physical threat at bay, but also finds the strength in knowing intuitively when to approach the monstrosity with patience and persistence. He wouldn't give up on his mother, which in the end, helps her not give up on him. By "his ability to feel and see a lot that most people miss or want to ignore," Samuel in an unspoken way doesn't tell Amelia to "move on" like her sister does, but to move through. To face The Babadook which is in place of all that negative energy she’s stored, take her autonomy back, and keep it all at bay so in time, the grief will no longer overwhelm her. We see this during the terrifying yet strangely amusing battle with Mr. Babadook/Amelia during the sequence of the film's climax and in the final minutes.
The ending operates more as a demonstrative step towards building their relationship as mother and son. Amelia begins come full circle with who Samuel is and her part in who he will become. Samuel symbolically plays multiple roles in Amelia’s arc, particularly in the overall translation of the unpredictability of motherhood that presents itself to many mothers. The Babadook aids as insight into and acceptance of those who are highly sensitive people. Additionally, it mends to those who operate as loved one’s to HSP’s who can and do at times falter in their reactions to those people. Any relationship takes an extreme amount of patience. The Babadook shows the vast range of that concept in such a rich and balanced manner.
My mother and I battled our own monsters as unit growing up. One of the most significant hurdles being my own state of high sensitivity that over time, has enriched her level of compassion. Even well into my thirties, I'm finally coming around in learning to accept my traits as normative to my existence, becoming steadfast in an unapologetic approach to it, and erasing those nihilistic compulsions during emotional slumps.
The Babadook operates as a horror film on many levels. In this case, it certainly shows how our failure to understand our deeply emotional and characteristic differences can put a dangerous strain between us and others. Especially with those whom we love. The film reveals the horrors of our own quirks and dismissiveness, of the human condition and in this case, the way motherhood is erroneously upheld is pinnacle of being female with no room for mishaps. Amelia and Sam show us what manifests if these so-called values and strains persists. If you’re afraid of Mr. Babadook, you should be. In some form, he exists everywhere.
*Originally published in Belladonna magazine