Egoism and Exhaustion in “The Babadook”

Egoism and Exhaustion in “The Babadook”

Why can’t you just be normal!?

This contains spoilers for the 2014 film The Babadook. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it. It’s only 90 mins and very entertaining. Then come back to read this. I’ve only seen the film twice and it’s left a major impression on me. It’s about a troubled six year old boy, Samuel, and his widowed mother Amelia. Frustration grows between the two as Samuel’s behavior leads to problems with work and family. As Samuel’s birthday approaches it reminds Amelia of the anniversary of her husband’s death who died in a violent car accident on the way to the hospital when she was giving birth. The pain and exhaustion grows to monstrous proportions until it is manifests as a demonic spirit possessing their house.

Samuel is a great character. He represents everything that is typical of an energetic autistic male. He scares his cousin with gory monster stories, builds homemade weapons that launch projectiles around the house, has a collection of giant insects, buys firecrackers on the internet, does magic tricks, doesn’t like socializing in big groups, repeatedly screams for his mother’s attention, and he constantly gets in trouble for saying whatever is on his mind. He is a form of pure male egoism.

Amelia tries to calmly correct Samuel as he gets more destructive. What’s remarkable about this film is that during the first hour the audience is tricked into thinking that Samuel represents the typical demonic little boy character that you often see in horror movies like The Omen and The Shining. We see Samuel as a sinister and even abusive figure. Amelia loves Samuel and is bothered by the way his school and relatives try to dehumanize him and see him only as a problem. She fiercely stands up for him when he gets in trouble for bringing one of his weapons to class. In today’s world a boy like that would be seen as a potential school shooter that needs a “monitor”.

Samuel has no filter. He says things that at first seem creepy and sinister to the audience, but he just honestly expresses what’s on his mind. He brings up the death of his father to strangers and draws attention to an old lady’s Parkinson’s symptoms, to the pain and embarrassment of Amelia.

Amelia often appears like a slave to Samuel, constantly exhausted and absorbed in his issues. She’s a very unegoistic person. When her unsympathetic sister screws her over she says “I don’t want you to feel awful.” After a day of hard work she throws the trash for her elderly neighbor. You feel how alone she is as the two quietly sit and eat dinner together- the father noticeably absent. She goes through a tedious process of comforting Samuel by checking under his bed and in his closet with him every night.

Her dreams are haunted by the brutal death of her husband. Samuel’s nightmares leave her with no sleep during her exhausting and boring work week. She feels alone, sexually dissatisfied, and looked down on by people in her life. She also has a toothache that gives her a sharp pain at inconvenient moments. We see her become frustrated by Samuel’s constant hugs and tight grip. The situation leads to insanity manifesting as The Babadook. “Don’t let it in”.

“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look- you can’t get rid of the Babadook

..see him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink

and once you see what’s underneath… you’re going to wish you were dead”

The Babadook represents the growing anger and frustration within Amelia. Despite all of her love for her son and her attempts to be a good person, something evil grows just beneath the surface. The Babadook will often appear wearing a distinct coat and hat. Samuel discovers his father’s clothes and pins them on the wall, pretending it’s him. Amelia doesn’t want him to even go in the same room with his father’s old belongings. Samuel’s desire for a father becomes a constant reminder of the memory that she wants to forget. When given a few moments to herself she sits down and eats an ice cream cone like a child. His childish egoistic needs are coming into conflict with her childish egoistic needs. At a family party Amelia’s snobby sister blurts out “I can’t stand being around your son… you can’t stand being around him yourself”.

The pain of her past, her relentless exhaustion, and the constant physical pain of her life causes Amelia to become abusive toward Samuel- lashing out at him, giving him dangerous sleeping pills, and not feeding him properly. You see this pattern in many people who abuse their children. Samuel wants to love her but his love has always been a source of pain for her. She starts to hallucinate bugs crawling out of the walls and obsessively cleans the whole house. At one point she finally manages to get the sleep she needs but then the “Mister Babadook” book returns to her doorstep.

“I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get.

You start to change when I get in. The Babadook growing right under your skin.

Oh come. Come see what’s underneath.”

Amelia starts to image herself killing her dog, her son, and herself. She is noticing something murderous growing inside her- right beneath her skin. She starts lashing out at her neighbor, seeing her kindness also as a source of pain. Her paranoia, sleep deprivation, violent hallucinations, and toothache continues to grow. She transitions back and forth from her regular loving self to an angry abuser.

Samuel begins to recognize that there is something very wrong with his mother. He’s no longer fearful and erratic but rather concerned. He sees that she’s losing herself and is becoming a danger to herself and others. One night Amelia becomes completely consumed by the memory of her dead husband and convinces herself that she must kill Samuel and herself to join him. This is also similar to the mentality of mothers who end up killing their children. In her possessed stupor she kills her dog and violently rips out the tooth causing her pain. This is metaphorical for how she now sees Samuel- a constant source of pain that must be violently removed.

Before he went to sleep, Samuel used a slight-of-hand magician trick on the sleeping pill his mom gave him, knowing something bad was going to happen that night. He wets himself with fear as his vicious mother approaches to murder him, curling back her fingers like the Babadook (common body language of abusive women). She tells him that she wished he was the one who died all those years ago. At this moment it seems like Samuel should break down in sadness and internalize the hatred that he suspected everyone felt toward him, but instead something switches in his mind. He gets angry and defense. “You’re not my mother!” he shouts scornfully. He tosses some firecrackers at her feet and escapes, shoots her with his little homemade crossbow and catapult, and managers to tie her up in the basement. “I know you don’t love me. The Babadook won’t let you. But I love you mum. And I always will.” The demon begins convulsing insider of her. Her hand gets loose and she grabs Samuel but he caresses her face, causing her to push him away from the pain of his affection. She vomits black sludge all over the floor. In a moment of convalescence her old self returns. But the Babadook is still there. It still haunts her. She resolves to defeat it. She confronts the pain of her past again. “If you touch my son again I’ll fucking kill you!” She unleashes a mighty primal scream and the Babadook crawls back into the basement forever.

The movie ends with them celebrating Samuel’s birthday for the first time on the day. His birth can finally be fully affirmed and celebrated. When Samuel once again brings up his Dad’s death to strangers, Amelia is at peace with it, full accepting her sons eccentricity. “Sam is just like his dad was. Always speaks his mind.” Mysteriously, the Babadook remains. Amelia goes to feed it a bowl of dirt and worms and is almost attacked by it again, but she’s able to withstand it.

In the final scene Samuel does a magic trick, making a white dove appear. Amelia is genuinely impressed and hugs him tight.

This is a very beautiful Nietzschean film. Amelia feels guilty for the pain and murderous feelings she generates towards her son. But we see how the film doesn’t moralize about Amelia. It’s not her fault that the birth of her son was associated with crippling trauma. We see how a perfectly loving mother can succumb to emotional and physiological forces outside of her control. The fear, the boredom, the loneliness, and something as simple as lack of sleep can pile up the irritation and let in the Babadook. Letting him in means letting in the lie that others were telling her about her son. She rejected their moralizing- the kind of moralizing that could’ve justified her in killing her son. Amelia is disgusted when the school administrators refer to him as “the boy”. Perhaps this could be applied to situations involving abortion. We have a society that has so much hatred for male egoism to a murderous degree. When doing this, Amelia doesn’t need to deny her own egoistic needs. “The more you deny, the stronger I get”. By denying the pain, she made it worse. Guilt prevented her from acknowleing the pain that Samuel gave her. But by doing that, the frustration only mounts and the Babadook within becomes stronger.

“What is there that destroys a man more speedily than to work, think, feel, as an automaton of “duty,” without internal promptings, without a profound personal predilection, without joy?” – Twilight of the Idols


“Never yet has a man done anything solely for others and entirely without reference to a personal motive; indeed how could he possibly do anything that had no reference to himself, that is without inward compulsion (which must always have its basis in a personal need)? How could the ego act without ego?…whence one is reminded of a reflection of Lichtenberg’s which is, in truth, taken from a lower sphere: “We cannot possibly feel for others, as the expression goes; we feel only for ourselves. The assertion sounds hard, but it is not, if rightly understood. A man loves neither his father nor his mother nor his wife nor his child, but simply the feelings which they inspire.” Or, as La Rochefoucauld says: “If you think you love your mistress for the mere love of her, you are very much mistaken.”- Human All Too Human

Nietzsche correctly points out that nobody can live as a purely self sacrificial automaton. You have to be egoistic and self interested in order to have any kind of health or power to help others.

Amelia confronts her pain she sees the Babadook for what it is. “You are nothing.” The Babadook was a problem she created for herself. A pain associated with a memory that was trying to parasitically destroy other good things in her life. The pain only exists because she once had something so good. It’s absurd to let something that was good take away other good things. The version of herself that wallowed in pain was robbing the version of herself that loved and affirmed her son. She taps into primitive survival instincts and forces her love to cancel out the pain. “I’ll fucking kill you.”

Samuel affirms his own instincts throughout the film. He doesn’t let the school administrators, or social workers, or any of his relative brow beat him into submission. Even though he’s six years old he takes on a large degree of masculine responsibility. He grabs his weapons and defends his mother with force when the time is needed.

It’s nice to see film like this and the Dune franchise that depict these remarkably affirmative mother-son relationships. This film could be symbolic of the general fear that women have of losing their sexual potential and their egoistic interests and becoming exhausted after child birth. A lot of the social anxiety and subsequent mental issues and criminality can be traced to these questions of egoism and exhaustion. How we deal with those things can seem counter intuitive. Ultimately the problem came down to the weakness of everyone else in the world and their inability to withstand Samuel’s energy. Amelia demonstrates true strength as a woman and mother by choosing to affirm him.


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