The horror films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) both have varying representations of gender and sexuality that fit their own unique narrative style. The concepts of psychoanalysis and the Oedipus complex are deeply embedded in the characterization and interrelationships within The Babadook.
Chris Dumas describes the onset of one’s sexual awakening with the “infants feelings of satisfaction and need at the mother’s breast”. In The Babadook, this is integral in the approach of understanding Samuel’s developing sexuality, and is exemplified through several of his actions. For instance, in a discomforting scene, he is seen clinging tightly to his mother’s chest before she pushes him away, and in another he jumps right into her bed after a nightmare, interrupting her in the process of masturbation. However, Samuel’s behavior is not evil in motive; it is in fact innocent and even well intentioned, and could be justified using the Oedipus complex.
Dumas explains this with the idea that “the very young child has no understanding of sexual difference, of what makes men and women themselves and not each other; they do not understand their own bodies or the bodies of their parents or caregivers”.
Moreover, it is often hinted throughout the film that Amelia feels a void due to her husband’s absence and subconsciously even blames Samuel’s birth with his coincidental death. Perhaps Samuel is able to perceive this emptiness, and he strives to fill it, to become her protector, and in ways that are unbeknownst to him sexual in nature and repulsive to Amelia. This is where the Oedipus complex strikes as most relevant — according to Freud’s notions, there is something that must tear the child away from the mother, and that something — usually the father — therefore becomes a kind of primitive rival. Eventually, not only does Amelia admit her feelings of repugnance towards her son, it also confirms that his premature but misunderstood sexuality is largely due to the emergence of the Oedipus complex.
The perception of gender, especially Amelia’s womanhood, is complex and involves several levels of explanations. In his writing, Chris Dumas approaches Amelia’s character with the theories of several researchers — Williams’ view of women as the “object of the camera’s gaze” as well as Creed and Clover’s views of the woman as the dynamic between “victim” and “monster”. Certain scenes, especially the one that shows Amelia masturbating can heavily be attributed to the “object of the camera’s gaze” view because it focuses on Amelia’s sexuality in a graphic, observatory manner.
However, Amelia is far more than simply an object, because she is portrayed both as “victim” and as perpetrator or “monster”, two prototypes that are common depictions of women in the horror genre. She is a victim of her circumstances because she suffers an onslaught of misfortunes — her husband’s accident and death, her son’s abnormality, her loneliness and lack of strong social or familial relationships. However, through the progression of the plot, she also becomes the monster of the story, all caused by the outbreak of years’ worth of the build up of repressed trauma.
Creed describes this manifestation as the “ways in which woman becomes monstrous and disgusting, that is, the barely-human (or too-human) object that produces horror”.
Amelia exemplifies this in her physical transformation as well as the times that she attacks Samuel. Hence, the depiction of gender in Babadook is multidimensional and complex because it portrays Amelia as the entire “object of the camera’s gaze”, the “victim” and as the “monster”. Barbara Creed’s theory of the “Monstrous Feminine” could also in fact be applied to The Exorcist.
In detailed terms, according to Creed, “The Monstrous-Feminine analyzes a wide variety of female-centered horror films in terms of how on-screen women are connected to “biological bodily functions” in excess or distress”.
Several of the bodily afflictions Regan suffers during her possession are primarily either biological bodily reactions, especially those relating to the female puberty. She is usually covered in vomit, which induces sensations of repugnance and disgust in the audience. However, in one scene she is also smeared with blood, which happens to be the result of the self-mutilation of her genitals, something that is visually representative of the female menstrual cycle.
The Exorcist also uses more than one representation of femininity in the horror genre — that of the “Final Girl” combined with that of the “Monstrous Feminine”, for one enforces the other. The “monstrous feminine” is one that challenges the patriarchal order, in this case it being Regan’s possessed body challenging a series of priests. However, it is the “final girl” who triumphs as “hero”, or who defeats or at least survives the attack of the male monster, just as Regan eventually survives the attack of the demon which presumably happens to be male in nature.
Explained by Creed, in this film the “world of the symbolic, represented by the priest-as-father, and the world of the pre-symbolic, represented by woman aligned with the devil, clashes head on in scenes where the foulness of woman is signified by her putrid, filthy body covered in blood, urine, excrement and bile.” (Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” p.52).
Hence, by adopting both the roles of the “Final Girl” as well as the “Monstrous Feminine”, Regan portrays the dynamism that female characters are capable of showing in a horror film.
In conclusion, both The Exorcist and Babadook portray women as multidimensional, evolving characters that often either reflect views of a patriarchal society or topple it altogether. Sexuality in Babadook relies on the theory of the Oedipus complex, which is embedded in the plot and characterization of the film.