The Babadook

This low-budget Australian horror film has gotten excellent reviews (98% positive reviews according to Rotten Tomatoes), and I was already looking forward to seeing it on Netflix in April. But after reading this review in The Baffler, I can’t wait.

The Babadook follows young widow Amelia and her troubled tot Sam as they discover a disturbing book during a nightly bedtime reading and unwittingly unleash its sinister central figure on their quiet lives. As it turns out, the key to the creature’s undoing is merely to recognize it and rebuke it—something that Amelia eventually discovers. But this revelation comes after a slow-burning, suspenseful battle of wills, prolonged by a centrally important fact about Amelia that critics have largely overlooked: she is working class. […]

All the dramatic action among the film’s adult humans proceeds to flow from this core disjuncture of class. The school administrators condescend to her in icy-precise professional language, telling her, in so many words, that she has failed to correctly parent her son. And in the next scene, Amelia sits next to her sister, a smooth-haired woman in black nylons and a blazer, and barely listens as her upwardly mobile sibling natters on about installation art pieces. Miffed by this indifference to her class ascent, Amelia’s sister abruptly calls off the joint birthday party they had planned for their children. This leads to a round of pointedly class-based recriminations, all upbraiding Amelia for not “properly” celebrating her son’s birthday.

I’m all for fulfilling the vision of a classless society—as long as it is entirely lower-class. Jesus promised relief to such folks, but not by exalting them to a higher rank. He also issued dire warnings to those in the higher ranks, and did not indicate they could redeem themselves by welcoming those under them into their fold.

Unfortunately, American Christianity has chosen a different path to the classless society, eliminating distinctions by ignoring and occasionally denying them, akin to the law in the Anatole France aphorism:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

I don’t go along with the reviewer’s suggested remedies:

Beyond the claustral terrors of a classic horror-fantasy, The Babadook leaves us with a surprisingly far-reaching epilogue: the film leads us to imagine the kind of programs that could make life as a working-class parent more leisurely and secure, like child allowances, paid maternity leave, and all the sundry baby benefits that are commonplace in European social democracies. Ladies who lunch seem capable of providing only bitter censure, and good politics, with concrete material assistance, will have to be in place before the rest of us can gather the few pearls of wisdom their parenting fashions offer. This is the real horror story of The Babadook: our culture is at a loss to make the hopeful epilogue to Amelia’s story match up with the kind of social isolation that spurred on her brief descent into madness and terror.

But I do agree with the reviewer’s observation that “our culture is at a loss” to deal with Amelia’s difficulties. And I’d go further in saying that our culture—Christian culture in particular—is at a loss to speak of them at all. So I’m all in favor of films and film reviewers who do what they can to raise the question.

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