What scared you most growing up? Was it something right outside your bedroom window? Was it something you thought hid in your closet or under your bed? Or perhaps was it something that appeared in a reoccurring nightmare unique to you? The latter was certainly the case for me, as what haunted my nights was a giant bear. This bear stood on its hind legs, making itself seven to eight feet tall, and it was dressed in yellow and gold striped pajamas with a similarly colored sleeping cap.
It sounds silly, I know, but this nameless creature utterly terrified me as a child. It was the stereotypical bad guy who you can’t seem to run away from. I haven’t seen him in my nightmares for a while now, but sometimes I can feel him lurking in the shadows. I know he is around because I have memorized the conventions of these dreams. His presence is strong enough to make me close my eyes and wake myself up, as if he is close enough to breathe down my neck.
The point is twofold. First of all, when we were children, our imaginations were often at their strongest in the dark, seeing things that weren’t there. Even when our parents attempted to reassure us of reality, it never saved our minds from the anxiety. Secondly, the things that haunted us as children are just as liable to do so during our adult years. Of course, our fears may change or develop over time, but perhaps some remain constant. All of these ideas and more are explored in The Babadook (2014), which I can safely say is the scariest film I have ever seen.
From first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent, the Australian offering centers on a widow, Amelia (Essie Davis), who struggles to deal with her troubled, disruptive young son, Sam. Things get worse when she chooses a mysterious children’s book called “Mister Babadook” one night for bedtime storytelling. The story’s title character haunts children as they sleep, making the terror all too real for Sam. But the more Amelia denies its existence, the more it infests her life and her mind.
Not only do I personally claim this film to be the scariest that I have ever seen, I would venture to say that it is one of the best horror films of the decade so far, certainly one of the best to come in the last 15 years, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time. Of course, one has to carefully consider everything before making claims so bold, but I can safely say that Kent’s film has rightfully earned its place among the classics of the genre.
But why is that? What makes the horror in this film more effective than others? Perhaps the most important reason is that it utilizes true scares rather than cheap ones and builds genuine terror through effective storytelling. Too many modern examples of horror rely on jump scares for their scare factor, and the problem with such attempts to frighten is that they never linger. They suddenly flash across the screen for a brief moment, and then are gone as soon as they came.
In The Babadook, however, every frightening moment crawls under your skin and refuses to leave, and what’s remarkable is that they come from the simplest of things, whether it’s a loud knock at the door or the slow creaking of an opening door. Instead of every scene going straight for the jugular, every scare builds upon itself and intensifies, marinating in your own fears and anxieties with each successive minute. Such is the prowess of Kent’s script, which is aided by understatedly effective and still cinematography that offers an overwhelming sense of disquiet in a set whose color palette is so absolutely colorless.
This is an intensely psychological horror film, and the titular monster plays with the audience just as much as it plays with Amelia. But rarely do we see Mr. Babadook in full form, and this contributes to the film’s horror. Like I mentioned earlier, the imagination runs wildest in the dark, and the film proves that age is no barrier. There are two brief moments when the Babadook is seen clearly, otherwise it is presented mostly as shadows and Expressionist-esque outlines. Needless to say, the film proves that the unknown is most frightening.
But, of course, a film that is solely terrifying is never enough. At the film’s core is an equally heartwarming and heart-wrenching story. Amelia’s struggles to raise Sam on her own, given his erratic tendencies are perfectly evident, including her own personal struggles, as she has understandably yet to move on from her husband’s death. In many corners, she sees reminders of her own unhappiness, making her more vulnerable to the Babadook’s infestation. Even through all of the horror, the story remains touching without verging on anything too saccharine sweet.
The Babadook perfectly illustrates the fears of childhood, adulthood, parenthood, and reminds us all that the fears of all three are more similar than they may explicitly appear. The first lines of the “Mister Babadook” book are as follows: “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Hopefully this Mister Babadook is not gotten rid of, much less forgotten, for years to come. Kent has potentially made one of the decade’s defining horror films, and perhaps established herself as filmmaker to look out for.