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The Representation of Maternal Mental Health In The Babadook



There is something in life that many of us experience that is far more terrifying than any ghost, ghoul, or zombie in cinema - and that is bringing a child into this world. Having a baby can be an exciting time filled with a love like no other, but it can also bring to the surface feelings of intense anxiety, doom, and numbness for those suffering from maternal mental health issues.


In 2023 it is still a taboo subject to consider a parent struggling to bond with their child and feel the ‘rush of love’ associated with holding your baby for the first time, but one film tackled this and the subject of grief in motherhood with a tender touch that makes it one of the most heart-wrenching yet surprisingly uplifting and motivational musings on the subject. And that film is 2014 gothic supernatural horror The Babadook.


Based on director Jennifer Kent’s 2005 short film Monster, the film follows widowed single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s journey into motherhood began with tragedy when her husband Oskar was killed in a violent car crash while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Since then, Amelia has lived in a persistently exhausted and erratic state as she struggles to juggle the needs of her son, who is becoming increasingly violent and ostracised by his peers, as well as that of her family’s opinions of her parenting, her own isolation from friends in the wake of her loss, and the demands of work and keeping a roof over their heads. She discovers a hand-drawn pop-up book, Mister Babadook, which terrifies Amelia as she believes the monster within is haunting them both.





On the surface, The Babadook is a dark and brooding supernatural horror film with deeply unsettling visuals and a top hat-wearing antagonist that will haunt your nightmares. However, beneath the surface, dark musings on grief and maternal mental health are in gestation from the opening scenes before being birthed in a violent, cathartic final act.


Amelia finds herself widowed under tragic circumstances, at a time that she and her husband should have been embarking on a fresh, exciting new stage of their lives. The Babadook can be seen as a lamentation of the five stages of the Kubler-Ross grief cycle - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The film begins with Amelia refusing to celebrate Samuel’s birthday on the actual day of his birth, with it coinciding with the day she lost her husband, and we soon learn that she had hidden a box of his things in the basement of their family home. She does not speak about her loss openly at first, nor does she tackle the mounting load of motherhood she is shouldering. When their elderly neighbour Mrs Roach (Barbara West) asks to come in to comfort them as Amelia ignores the anniversary of her husband’s death, she turns down the kind offer and continues to ignore the loss she faces. 


As the Babadook takes hold, her building resentment toward her son begins to bubble over which leads to her hurling insults at him whilst clearly distressed. Her behaviour toward her son becomes increasingly violent before the dark forces take hold and she kills the family dog, and almost Samuel. Her anger and denial can be seen to be what fuels the Babadook, as the hold the entity has on her grows as her mental state deteriorates.


Bargaining is portrayed as Amelia tries to connect with fellow parents at her niece’s birthday party, letting hope enter her life as she attempts to socialise away from her grief. This aspect of the cycle is shadowed by the representation of depression through the rising power of the Babadook before she reached acceptance in the final act. The Babadook itself can be seen as a personification of depression as it grows more powerful as Amelia sinks deeper into its clutches. Some of the quotes within the book echo the feelings of those who suffer from depression, such as “'Cause if it's in a word, or if it's in a book. You can't get rid of the Babadook.” It suggests the notion that you cannot simply get rid of depression, rather that it lingers in the background and rears its ugly head throughout one's life. The idea of living and parenting within depression can also be seen in the large, grey house that Amelia and Samuel inhabit which is devoid of colour and swallows the characters in each scene.


The grief is compounded by Samuel, who has not only lost his father but his mother by proxy as she struggles to parent him effectively while carrying around the weight of the sadness she feels. He often falls into his passion for magic, a fantasy that makes his reality more bearable, and desperately attempts to reach out to Amelia to make her smile and fend off the grip of The Babadook.





Amelia’s life-altering loss came at a time when she became a mother, and The Babadook can be seen not only to tackle the subject of grief but also of maternal mental health and postnatal depression (PND). According to the NHS, PND is defined as a feeling of depression, anxiety, and general low mood that persists after the “baby blues” which can appear up to two weeks after birth. It is a common problem that affects one in 10 birthing people, though remains a taboo subject among parents at a time when parenthood is presented as a time you should feel joyous and blessed by your baby, leaving no room for any other emotion.


Difficulty bonding with your baby is a common sign of PND and is present within Amelia and Sam’s relationship whose distance from her son is noted not only by her sister but by her niece who is a child herself. It can be argued that this lack of connection is what could have led Samuel to grow up to have little emotional regulation, with Psych Central saying this lack of maternal bond can cause “frequent and intense changes in mood and reactivity are antecedents to anxiety among young children.”


Rage is another sign that a parent may be suffering from a postnatal mood disorder, something that the audience sees fester within Amelia. She begins by simply appearing irate with Samuel when he misbehaves, through to erratic, violent outbursts as The Babadook finally ‘possesses’ her. In one of the final verbal arguments on screen, before the confrontation becomes physical, Amelia rejects her son and vocalises her disdain towards him as her rage reaches its terrifying, full form where the Babadook has the most power over her.


Aside from this, we see other gruelling aspects of motherhood through Amelia such as neglect of self that is asked of many parents, as we see her regress from her neatly dressed and made-up self to a parent who struggles to get herself out of her pyjamas and brush her hair. Sleeplessness is a well-known side effect of bringing a baby into this world, and Amelia is seen hallucinating frequently as she gets less and less sleep, losing grip on reality and watching her worst nightmares manifest in front of her. Ultimately, we see how the effects of her deteriorating mental health and the stress of single parenthood lead to her forgetting to buy food and feed Samuel, through to crashing a car with him and physical abuse. The neglect caused at the hands of her mental health is the true, heart-wrenching terror at the centre of The Babadook as we watch a mother who is devoted to her son unable to care for him as her psyche crumbles with no one around them as means of support.


As the film reaches its terrifying climax and Amelia seems intent on killing Samuel, his touch brings her back to reality as she manages to fight off The Babadook, eventually trapping it in the basement alongside her husband’s things, symbolising her compartmentalising the grief she feels over his death and the life she believed she would lead. The closing scenes, we see Amelia and Samuel tenderly presenting food to The Babadook as if it were a family pet, in which she recognises that the creature will always be a part of her life and she must tend to it when the need arises. In a twist in the story, it is the monster that appears to be scared of Amelia as she puts on a united, loving front with her son and has regained control of her rage and anxieties, tackling them head-on rather than running away from them.


The Babadook is unique in that it makes the mother the villain of the film, while still humanising her in a way that she is identifiable rather than vilified in the narrative. The creature itself almost becomes inconsequential next to the danger of Amelia’s ailing mental health and increasingly violent tendencies toward her son which is rooted in something far, far deeper than a children’s storybook. It portrays grief and maternal mental health in a way that shines a light on its devastating effects without criticising the ability of a parent, rather showing a touching redemption story that is thought-provoking and hopeful in its final scenes.


If you have been affected by postpartum depression or the effects of maternal mental health, you can contact the Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support (PANDAS) helpline on 0808 196 1776 from 11am to 10pm every day, or email at info@pandasfoundation.org.uk in the UK.

In Ireland; you can contact Post Natal Depression Ireland on 021 4922083 or email at support@pnd.ie

 In the US, you can contact the Association for Post-Natal Illness (APNI) on 0207 386 0868 from Monday to Friday or email at info@apni.org.

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