The Babadook, Horror and the Grieving Process: Why is everyone so scared of grief?

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The Babadook is smart because it keeps things simple. A single mum and her son start suffering night terrors, 7 years after the death of the family’s patriarch, and following the strange appearance of a picture book way too creepy for public consumption. The scares are old school: lingering shots of empty hallways, dark bedroom corners, sheets pulled morgue-like over everyone’s faces, and the scariest selection of horror movie clips playing nightly on our protagonist’s TV, capable of conjuring hundreds of nightmares on their own.

But the horror of the film for me wasn’t in the jumpy moments, the villain reveal, the gradual build, although all those things were solid, if not particularly terrifying or unexpected. What haunted me were the reactions and expectations, to the human experience in general, and to this family and the way they choose to process grief. Or didn’t choose, I mean, no-one asks for grief of any variety and there’s rarely a good, let alone right, way of dealing with it.

Amelia is already aware of her incapacity to move on: she dreams about the accident and keeps all of her husband’s possessions in the basement. Her son practices his magic tricks down there, unpacking objects and photos, and she sees this as another of his disobedient acts: her grief is not yet a manageable package, something she lives with everyday but, at the same time, doesn’t. The basement is the only place for it. But by keeping it out of eye-line, it manifests itself in other areas.

Her son, Samuel, gains a reputation for being unruly, so much so that friends that used to have joint birthday parties with him, no longer want to. He’s an unknown quantity, blamed in part on the lack of a father figure, an uncomfortable mirror to the latent sexism and heteronormative expectations placed on people daily. That Amelia is a resilient single working mother, dealing with a shitstorm of family, friend and emotional problems, isn’t noted enough. But the lack of a man is.

The same person who doesn’t want to hold joint birthday parties for their kids anymore, quizzes Amelia about moving on with questions like: Hasn’t enough time passed yet? Shouldn’t life have returned to some semblance of normality? But what is normal, anyway? Everyone has their own standard of it and, yet, why is it the darkest times we face that other people try to apply their own conditions and expectations on to us. Why is there a time limit on grief, and why are others angry when we don’t follow the timeline they deem appropriate?

In its purest and most positive form, grief is a great syphoner. If, before, you were a person able to project perfection, to manufacture conversation with just about anyone, even people you never shared interests with, after, your patience and tolerance will be appropriately thin. Listening to a group of people talk about how hard their lives are because they no longer have time for gym sessions, is enough to make anyone snap, and it’s in this moment of strength that Amelia asserts herself.

Because the trouble with grief is, it strips you. And in that stripped state, when you’re not the version of yourself you were before, people do what they can. However, this often happens with them assuming you’ve lost any personal capability you previously had, and they don’t even realise they’re doing it, but it’s completely emasculating and power-stealing and fucks consent sideways.

So when Amelia snaps, she claws back a little of her personal space, reasserts her sense of self, her personality. Obviously, this isn’t welcomed, as she no longer conforms to the societal template this group of people has set out, but pandering is the first thing to go under pressure, and rightly so. Sure, grief is a shitty way for this to be forced upon you, but eliminating time-wasters is a pretty stellar outcome. Energy is precious.

Magic is undeniably, Samuel’s (Amelia’s son), way of dealing with grief. In being able to control and create something, and use the darkness which swamps their lives to a little positivity, Samuel finds a direction for his once chaotic energy. If Amelia’s way through the grief process is in learning to assert a sense of self, in shedding guilt, and embracing the role of solo caregiver, then Samuel’s way through it is by harnessing a skill and focussing it.

Grief and the horror films are inextricably linked, and re-watching the Scream movies is no better example of this. Until Sidney Prescott can come to terms with her mother’s death and the effect it’s had on those around her, she’ll continue to be haunted. At its worst, grief’s a killer with a ghost face, interrupting you when you least expect it (on the phone, no less), and forcing you to confront the lessons you’ve yet to learn. Survive grief and you’ll survive anything. Or, like in The Babadook, learn to embrace your grief as an acknowledged part of you, and find a way to live with it, day to day, because it happened. Anyone who tells you different, tries to get you medicated, or sets you on a schedule of their own making? Fuck ’em. They just be hatin’.

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