Horror films have the potential to be both transgressive and subversive. The very nature of horror films and the act of viewing horror films itself can be transgressive – the graphic violence often characteristic of the genre pushes and, in some cases, erases the boundaries around social norms. Horror film researcher Brigid Cherry (2009), has argued that the “paradoxical pleasures of horror film viewing [thus] arise from our attitudes toward social norms” (p. 109). In his book Subversive Horror Cinema, John Towlson (2014) provides an interesting analysis of the subversive potential of the horror genre to challenge normative expectations and the status quo. Robin Wood (1986) has similarly argued that, at its heart, the horror genre is characterized by “normality threatened by the monster” (p. 107).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the family has frequently been a source of horror in the genre. Films like Poltergeist and Halloween wherein suburban homes and family are under siege from unspeakable entities exploit fears and insecurities around our expectations of safety afforded by the family not unlike political ‘law-and-order’ fear campaigns. Yet it’s the role of the family as a social institution and mechanism of social control and regulation that make it an ideal source of horror for more transgressive and subversive horror films (Cherry, 2009; Towlson, 2014). Family breakdown is a narrative theme in some horror films which, according to Towlson (2014), in part reflects a commentary on the role of the family in “in the socialization process, of turning out docile members of society” (p. 15). Horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left, where the traditional nuclear family are mirrored by “darker” versions of family, challenge the family as a social control mechanism that has traditionally required “bourgeois, heterosexual, monogamous, capitalist individuals to sustain both it and the society it exists within” (Cherry, 2009, p. 110).
The Babadook, a critically-acclaimed Australian-Canadian horror film released in 2014, offers a good illustration of what Cherry (2009) has described as the “transgressive and paradoxical pleasures” of watching horror. The directorial debut of Jennifer Kent, The Babadook introduces the audience to single mother, Amelia, and her troubled son, Samuel. Amelia’s husband, Oskar, died in a car accident driving her to the hospital to deliver Samuel. Now six-years old, Samuel is an aggressive, hyperactive, clingy daydreamer prone to violent fantasies about magic and monsters. When a book entitled The Babadook inexplicably shows up in his bedroom, Samuel begins having nightmares about a monster in his room. Initially dismissive of her son’s claims, Amelia begins seeing things, too, before she is possessed by the entity from the book.
While critics have largely analyzed The Babadook as an exploration of the effects of grief and trauma, it also lends itself to analysis of what some horror scholars have previously described as the “repressive qualities” of the family. Specifically, The Babadook may also be viewed as an allegory for the isolation and struggle of raising a child with behavioural difficulties alone. Idealized expectations of parenting and the family unit often dictates that ‘good parenting’ is defined by sacrificing all core aspects of ourselves and raising ‘perfect’ children. Parenting involves sacrifices but there is often an unrealistic expectation that as a parent one should give up everything for their child, even basic needs, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame when one can’t meet these expectations. Single parents, like Amelia in The Babadook, often face unyielding pressure to live up to these idealized standards of parenting, which are further exacerbated when caring for a child with behavioural problems.
Across the film, we watch and identify with Amelia as she alternates between feelings of social isolation, frustration and an unspoken resentment of the burden her son sometimes presents to feelings of devotion, love, and protectiveness. In one early scene, for instance, Samuel crawls into bed with his mother, his arms cloaked around her neck almost choking her, and she pushes him away. A camera shot from above the bed shows a gap between mother and son. In a later scene, Amelia, finally having a moment to herself, begins to masturbate in bed but is abruptly interrupted by Samuel who jumps into her bed after having a nightmare. As she retreats under the covers to sleep, Kent speeds up the camera frame creating a rapid, disjointed effect giving the viewer the shared experience of Amelia’s sleep deprivation.
Kent also emphasizes the weight of normative parenting expectations on Amelia as she struggles with Samuel’s behavioural problems. Parents and school officials are weary of Samuel, while Amelia is protective and defensive of her son. Early in the film she fights to keep Samuel integrated with his peers after the school principal proposes separating him from his class for one-to-one contact with a support worker. At a children’s birthday party, another parent tells Amelia that she “can’t stand being around your son”; Amelia’s attempts to defend Samuel are immediately undermined when he pushes a girl out of a treehouse at the same party. On the car ride home from the party, Amelia finally snaps at Samuel screaming, “Just be normal”.
This marks an interesting turn in the film and the point at which its more transgressive and subversive elements begin to emerge. Growing more sleep deprived and inpatient with Samuel’s obsession with The Babadook, Amelia burns the book only to find it later on her porch, patched up, and with new pages depicting a mother strangling her son to death and cutting her own throat. Amelia is eventually then possessed by “The Babadook” and tries to kill him. Few crimes are more appalling than a parent taking their own child’s life and in this regard The “Babadook” becomes a dark, subversive projection of the need to break free of the often-unrealistic expectations of parenting and family. Other horror films set in the family have explored similar themes. The Stepfather literally casts 1950s patriarchal family values as an oppressive source of horror. In You’re Next, the happy nuclear family quickly disintegrates into jealousy, greed, and murder. In The Babadook, the pressures of parenting, raising a “perfect child”, and the fear of failure manifests in the monsterous. Yet at its conclusion , Samuel’s love for his mother and her devotion to him that ultimately frees her.
One of the better horror films released over the last several years, The Babadook, is an excellent illustration of the family as source of horror. While most critical analyses have focused on it as an allegorical tale of grief The Babadook, it also serves to some extent as an exploration of the pressures of parenting and raising children that conform to often unrealistic expectations.
Cherry, B. (2009). Horror: Routledge film guidebooks. Routledge.
Towlson, J. (2014). Subversive horror cinema: Countercultrual messages of films from Frankenstein to the present. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Williams, T. (2014). Hearths of darkness: The family in the American horror film. University of Mississippi Press.
Wood, R. (2012). Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan … and beyond (Revised Edition). Columbia University Press.