The Babadook (2014) is a horror/thriller film directed by Jennifer Kent. Upon a breakdown of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and the Oedipus Complex, one would find that these ideas align consistently with The Babadook’s characterization and particularly in the behavior of Amelia and her son Samuel. Through an in-depth analysis of the role of women in horror and of the ways in which a woman could be seen as the object of the camera’s gaze, a victim or a monster, one notices that all these characteristics could manifest in unison to provide Amelia with a far more complex character or narrative.
Before we begin with this (psycho)analysis, here are some key points to note about the background of Freud’s theories in relation to the horror genre:
- Here is a list of clichéd but recurring themes in horror films: “parents and children, sex and blood, secrets from the past, loss, repetition, trauma [and] death (Dumas, 21)”, all of which are evidently present in Babadook.
- To set the base for Sigmund Freud’s “psychoanalysis”, it must be stated that horror is driven by irrationality, something that finds its roots in a combination of sexuality, childhood memories and repressed impulses.
- There is criticism for Freud’s psychoanalytical theories and they are often considered “cultural myths” by many.
- There is particular discussion on the Oedipus Complex and a child’s attachment to his mother’s breast, a lack of understanding of the distinction between his body and his birthgiver’s, as well as the father being perceived as the symbolic primitive rival in the relationship.
- Based on this understanding and by way of this explanation, parents could be seen as objects of fear/love, hatred/desire — and of extreme emotions such as those, something Babadook achieves thematically through its depiction of familial relationships.
- One must also touch upon the concept of “castration”, both in the genre of horror as well as in society, and consider how ubiquitous phallic symbols have been in our culture for decades.
- One must flesh out key differences between the “conscious” and the “unconscious”, Freud’s concept of “repression” as well as the “id”, “ego” and “superego”.
- Freud had important but disputed theories centred around dreams such as “condensation”, “displacement or substitution” and “overdetermination”, pointing out that symbols in dreams stand as metaphors for desires in waking life. Similarly, in horror films, fear of something as overt as zombies or monsters is actually representative of an inherent, more abstract fear of something of a more rational nature.
- “Normality” is often depicted as a form of repression in horror.
The Oedipus Complex — Father as antagonist in mother-son attachment
It is crucial to incorporate the “Oedipus Complex” in psychoanalytic approaches to horror because it aligns thematically with several instances from The Babadook.
The beginning of one’s sexual awakening is usually with the “infant’s feelings of satisfaction and need at the mother’s breast” (Dumas, 24).
This is something that is immediately evident in Babadook in numerous initial scenes. For instance, Samuel clinging tightly to his mother’s breast in one scene or jumping instantly into her bed, consequently interrupting her act of masturbation incites a feeling of vexation in her, for societally it is unacceptable for a boy of Samuel’s age to maintain that sense of intimacy with his mother. One could justify Samuel’s behavior by considering that it is indicative of only innocent intentions, and that he has no comprehension of sexual difference, of what differentiates men and women, as well as his own body as opposed to the body of his caregiver. Samuel’s constant literal attaching of himself to his mother’s body is also given a simple explanation: that in the early instances of one’s childhood, the infant cannot distinguish between itself and the mother’s body.
However, Amelia, or the mother’s irritation at her child’s behaviour is not limited to this physical attachment; it connects with another theme prevalent in the horror genre — “loss”, it is her husband, or sexual partner’s absence, caused by his involvement in an accident during her son’s birth that constantly keeps Amelia at odds with Samuel’s existence in an unconscious sense, much like Freud would suggest. Accordingly, as per 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. Over the course of the film, this repressed feeling in the unconscious resurfaces to the conscious as Amelia openly blames Samuel for her husband’s death, indicating an unspoken barrier between the two and thus mirroring what is suggested by the Oedipus Complex. Despite the father being dead and not present physically in this case, he is still a driving factor in Samuel’s metaphorical separation from his mother’s bosom. Hence, one could potentially tie in aspects of Freud’s theories on the Oedipus Complex through their relevance to character relationships and behaviors in The Babadook.
Tropes of female characters in horror film — and how Amelia defies these by embodying all of them at once
There are often three separate and limited interpretations of women in horror film, but in The Babadook it is actually a complex combination of all three that characterize Amelia’s circumstances.
The three depictions of women in horror are as such: as “object of the camera’s gaze”, as “monster” and as “victim”, but each are supported by distinct studies (Williams; Creed and Clover) so as to show that they can only be considered in alienation from, not in relation to each other.
While Williams’ argument leans on portraying the woman as the object of the gaze, hence simplifying her role in the film’s narrative, Creed and Clover provide oppositional views wherein they view the victim/monster binary for women in seclusion: Clover discusses the figure of the “final girl” in the slasher film, who survives the attack of the (male) monster by becoming male in some way, while Creed observes the ways in which woman becomes monstrous and disgusting, that is, the barely-human (or too-human) object that produces horror.
However, one could argue that in The Babadook, Amelia embodies all three of these, implying that her dynamic character and circumstances are far more complex than merely being attributed to flat characteristics. In defence of Williams’ argument, she is objectified for the camera’s gaze in the scene where she indulges in masturbation. She cannot enjoy privacy because not only is she interrupted immediately by her son, she is also subject to the observation and judgment of the passive audience.
However, this is a scene where she expresses her sexual urges, thereby shedding more light on her situation and desperate state of mind, giving the scene a quality of more than simply an objectification of the woman. Whilst this seems applicable for Amelia, she is also portrayed as a victim because she is suffering a barrage of unfortunate events: her husband’s death, her son’s abnormality, a lack of meaningful relationships and psychological trauma. Meanwhile, she can simultaneously be perceived as a monster, seeing her horrific transformation built over years of repressed resentment for her son. Hence, all three tropes can definitely manifest within one character in the same narrative as they do in Amelia.
Conclusion — Is psychoanalysis a viable mode of discussion in horror film?
While one may discuss the prevalence of psychoanalysis in horror successfully in its reference to Freudian theories, it is often limited and one-dimensional in its analysis of the role of women. This is evident because while an explanation of the Oedipus Complex strongly correlates with the dynamic between Amelia and her son Samuel, and how their physicality is indicative of a less tangible, more abstract force distancing the two, on the other hand, even though Amelia is representative of a combination of sexual object, victim and monster, limited citations of Williams, Creed and Clover force one to typify Amelia into either one category, ignoring her multidimensionality.