Sunday, May 24, 2015

THE BABADOOK and Why Horror is Important

I watched The Babadook recently, and it was wonderful. (And it’s on Netflix, so you should totes go check it out, post haste!) It also got me thinking about some things. [Be ye warned: SPOILERS FOLLOW.]

Fear: The Great Leveler

First: The Babadook is the best kind of Horror. It’s psychological, not slasher or gorified trash. I’m not a fan of the pornographic style of Horror that uses images for the explicit purpose of eliciting a physical reaction from me.* Rather, the Horror that makes me think, that tells a good story—that’s what I’m in to.

The Babadook is psychological. It’s terrifying. But it also tells a great story with good characters, and I think it’s more about grief than anything else; the main character, a young mother named Amelia, lost her husband seven years ago, but she tells herself and others that she has moved on—in the repeated, scripted way that only people who have obviously not moved on can.

What a horrifying thing to lose a spouse. What a terrible, haunting monster that kind of grief must be. But here’s a truth: that stuff happens. It happens to a lot of people. It might happen to me; it might happen to you. That’s life, and as unfathomably wonderful as life can be, it is nevertheless fraught with horror.

Hence my appreciation of the genre. Certain types of Horror can be cathartic. They help us deal with emotions and trauma we’ve experienced, or might experience down the road. Our own personal horrors are ineffable**—we are all uniquely broken, and suffer unique trauma. No matter how many words we put on a page, no matter how much we talk about what has happened (if we indeed find the courage required to do such a thing), no one can truly understand exactly what we have experienced. And that’s why Horror, as a genre, is important. It gives us a shared experience; it helps us feel less alone.

Unity Through Metaphor

Horror, and storytelling in general, accomplish this chiefly through metaphor. But don’t take my word for it; read it from someone smarter than me:

Metaphors…allow us to communicate about events, fears, and emotions that may not yet be understood fully by members of a society. Thus, metaphor serves as a way to discuss topics for which we do not yet have a language, or for which our vocabulary cannot reach in a one-dimensional way….metaphor creates layered dimensions of understanding by which the speaker and the listener can better communicate and through which a level of emotional or philosophical understanding can be reached that would not be possible with a straight description of the situation or feeling.

…metaphor has the ability to say the unsayable, thus haunting us with the idea that the metaphor and the reality may not really be that far apart. (“High School Is Hell: Metaphor Made Literal in Buffy the Vampire Slayer” by Tracy Little)

Metaphor provides a vehicle through which ineffability can be (somewhat) bridled.  As I’ve mentioned, metaphor is one of the main reasons I loved the BtVS TV series so much. Seeing the myriad metaphors on Buffy helped me to understand—and, in some cases, confront—struggles of my own.

Horror—good Horror—uses metaphor to allow us as readers/watchers/consumers to participate in this catharsis of shared experience. Fear is the great Leveler, and metaphor its scythe…and that’s actually kind of a great thing. Let me explain.

Grief and The Babadook

I loved The Babadook for many reasons—it terrifies on the visual, visceral, and psychological levels, it works as a story, it presents solid characters—but most of all because it’s one of the best examples of horror as catharsis that I’ve seen in quite some time. Mr. Babadook—the monster in the film—is a metaphor for the main character’s grief. That’s really all Mr. Babadook is, when you boil him down to his most concentrated state. If you don’t believe me, check out these lines from the children’s book that herald the monster’s arrival in the film (this is not the complete poem, just selections that were most applicable):

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look,
You can’t get rid of the Babadook.

We can’t get rid of grief; we see reminders of it everywhere. It stays with us, at least on some level, forever.

…you’ll know that he’s around
You’ll see him if you look…

Grief, unprocessed, follows us around. We may not even notice it unless we really choose to see.

See him in your room at night,
And you won’t sleep a wink.

We may be able to white-knuckle our way through the day, but when we’re alone, at night, we can no longer deny it. Grief keeps us up, wondering, questioning, fearing.

I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet.
The more you deny, the stronger I’ll get.
You start to CHANGE when I get in,
The Babadook growing, right under your skin.

Unchecked, unmonitored, un-dealt-with, grief changes us—and not for the better.

(That’s just analyzing a few lines of the poem, by the way; the way Mr. Babadook assaults Amelia and her son, even the way he’s presented on a visual level, scream grief. Re-watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.)

Amelia, terrified both by what Mr. Babadook is doing to her and what he signifies, denies his existence. But, just as the poem promises, the more she denies, the stronger the Babadook becomes, until he finally takes over Amelia completely and she becomes the monster. Only the love of her son, his willingness to protect her, and her ultimate acceptance of her husband’s death save her.

That in and of itself would make a phenomenal film, but The Babadook’s ending truly brought it home for me. Amelia and her son do not kill the Babadook; they do not even succeed in banishing it. The ending reveals that the Babadook still lives in their basement. In a curious final sequence, Amelia and her son gather worms from their garden, and Amelia descends alone into the basement to feed them to the Babadook. (When her son asks if he will ever get to see it, Amelia responds: “One day. When you’re bigger.”) The monster, obviously unsettled, towers menacingly over Amelia in the basement. But Amelia actually comforts the thing, using soft, soothing sounds, until the Babadook takes the worms and retreats to a dark basement corner. Amelia then returns to the light of day outside, and her son.

“How was it?” he asks.

“It was quiet today,” Amelia says, with a soft, peaceful smile.

And there it is. Amelia has not only confronted her grief, but she is learning to deal with it—to live with it—on a daily basis. And she is happier for it.

Do you see what I mean when I say horror is important?

I believe that each and every one of us will experience hopelessness, despair, and genuine terror in our lives, if we haven’t already. Disaster, abuse, heartbreak, horror, addiction, death. We are all broken. But no matter how deep our damage, the best thing it can do for us is help us see how unendingly beautiful life can be.

And, at least in my opinion, horror can help that along.***

* This seems as good a time as any to say that I certainly don’t enjoy, let alone appreciate, all forms and sub-genres of Horror. Some sub-genres offer little to no value, and others can be actively harmful. The Horror to which I’m referring in this essay has a purpose, has meaning, and while it explores dark places, it only makes the light that much more beautiful.

** “Ineffable” is one of my favorite words. It means, basically, that something is beyond description, too great or extreme to be harnessed by language.

*** Quoth Stephen King: "Here is the final truth of horror movies: They do not love death, as some have suggested; they love life. They do not celebrate deformity but by dwelling on deformity, they sing of health and energy. By showing us th emissaries of the damned, they help us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives. ... Omega, the horror film sings in those children's voices. Here is the end. Yet the ultimate subtext that underlies all good horror films is, But not yet. Not this time. Because in the final sense, the horror movie is the celebration of those who feel they can examine death because it does not yet live in their own hearts." (Danse Macabre)

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