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SYFY WIRE Feminist Horror Month

The Babadook, parenting, and mental illness

By Courtney Enlow
Essie Davis in The Babadook

Parenting is hard. Parenting on your own with severe depression and a child who has behavioral issues at times feels impossible. In a world that expects, even requires, single mothers of special needs children to be preternaturally superheroic, The Babadook depicts that in a way I've never before seen onscreen.

Essie Davis' Amelia is a single mother to Sam (Noah Wiseman), the son she had after losing her husband in a car crash on their way to the hospital to deliver their baby. Sam is an imaginative, creative child who deeply loves his mother and wants to protect her, but with that come challenges. He is terrified of monsters, creating traps and weapons to fight them, getting in trouble at school and breaking windows at home. He is a lovely, sweet child who wants his mother's attention, who needs his mother's attention. And Amelia is exhausted and overwhelmed by it, ready to snap at any given moment, either from too tight a hug or an unwanted arrival in her bed at a particularly inopportune time. And all the while she attempts to exist through it, to be "fine" even as her colleague and crush tells her, "You don't have to be fine, you know?"

But moms know the truth: Yes, we do.

I may not have a top-hatted demon wreaking havoc in my home, but I have far more in common with Amelia than feels comfortable. I'm a single mom with two children on the autism spectrum, to varying degrees and manifestations, who also has major depression and anxiety. When I watch this film, I see moments so familiar, so relatable, it makes my heart ache. It fills me with a dread the Babadook himself could only wish to inflict. It's a feeling so many parents know all too well and never talk about: I love my children. My children overwhelm me. And sometimes I feel like I'm falling apart, failing, and I'm going to break them along with me.

The Babadook Essie Davis

We so never talk about it that writer/director Jennifer Kent struggled to find information when writing the film. "I was really wanting to explore parenting from a very real perspective. Now, I'm not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot of women struggle," she told Den of Geek. "And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women. To the point where I tried to look for research, and I found it very hard to find anything on the subject."

Over the course of the film, Amelia shows quiet seething anger mixed with resignation. This is her life and she's stuck in it. But behind that resignation, behind the "fine," her grip is loosening — if she had one to begin with. Her "fine" is threadbare, the seams are tearing, and the darkness is seeping out, with or without Mister Babadook. But she can't seem to get help for herself or for Sam. That's the way depression works sometimes — it's so heavy you're trapped under it, but you also accept it as normal. To get help seems at once impossible, unnecessary, futile, and a million other things that don't feel worth it while also not occurring to you at all. And through it all, this unbearable need to remain "fine" because your children need you and you have to be.

But you're not. And once you notice that you're not fine, it's because you haven't been for a long, long time.

The Babadook is terrifying — not because of monsters, but because of the idea that you, the parent of a child or children who need you, could be a monster. That you could make your child feel hurt or scared with your words, a lost temper, a few nights without sleep, or the crushing debilitating depression you don't know how to get rid of. One of Kent's friends described to her how the film depicted just that. "She came to a screening, and there's a moment where [a figure] glides towards the child, and it's huge. She burst into tears when she saw that, because she thought, wow, I didn't realize how big I must have seemed to my kids when they're that little. And how we all want to be loving and perfect, but we often fail in that."

Failing as a parent is an idea scarier than any film. As I type these words, my chest is full and my breath is shallow just thinking about my kids ever being scared or helpless because I've hurt them or frightened them in some way. No movie has ever taken that feeling and put it onscreen like The Babadook.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.