September 6, 2016

Making a Pet of Your Monster

WARNING: Contains spoilers for The Babadook

The monster in the Australian horror movie The Babadook is a metaphor for grief. Essie, the main character, is overwhelmed by her grief for her husband, although it's been nearly seven years. He died in an accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son Sam.

In his entire life, Sam has never had a party on his birthday. His mother can't handle it. Instead, he shares birthday parties with his cousin, who was born only a week or so before. For their seventh, though, his cousin wants her own party, a princess party, and Essie must figure out how to cope with that.

More than that, though, she can barely stand to hear her husband mentioned, going brittle and changing the subject as fast as possible.

Sam, meanwhile, deals with the uncertainty, fear, and pervasive grief in his life by believing strongly in monsters... and believing that he must protect others from them. He's become quite ingenious about it, building shoulder-mounted catapults and dart-firing crossbows. Unfortunately, he takes these to school, where they consider him disturbed and want to take him out of classes, threatening to isolate him even further than his life already does. Rather than allow this, Essie takes Sam out of school entirely.

Then Sam finds a pop-up book in the house, called Mister Babadook, and wants her to read it to him at bedtime. It is deeply creepy, of course.

If it's in a word or it's in a look
You can't get rid of the Babadook

If you're a really clever one
And you know what it is to see
Then you can make friends With a special one,
A friend of you and me.

His name is Mister Babadook
And this is his book.

A rumbling sound then 3 sharp knocks
That's when you'll know that he's around
You'll see him if you look

This is what he wears on top
He's funny, don't you think?

See him in your room at night
And you won't sleep a wink.

I'll soon take off my funny disguise
(Take heed of what you've read...)

And once you see what's underneath...

You're going to wish you were

Much of the plot that follows is standard, although very well done, horror fare. The Babadook is haunting them. The boy believes, but the mother doesn't, giving the Babadook more power. The mother, somewhat unusually, goes to the police... but sees the shadow of the Babadook in the station as well. Her relationships crumble, isolating them both in the house with the monster. And then it takes her over.

And then the twist ending. They don't get rid of the Babadook. They can't, as per the book. Instead, they get him into the basement... and keep him there, as a pet, feeding him wriggling things from under the earth, as befits an essentially chthonic monster. Essie comes to terms with her great grief, and is no longer consumed by it, but finds a way to live with it.

As a witch, I feel like this metaphor monster has fantastic potential for certain kinds of work. A way to externalize and come to terms with, even befriend and make a pet of, whatever it is that's eating you up. I want to get a wooden doll's wardrobe and make a little place for my own Mister Babadook to hide, paint him inside it and staining the whole thing dark. Tease out the spirit of what haunts me, name it, trap it, feed it carefully, make an ally of it. Powerful work.

Maybe someday I'll even do it. For now, I'm not haunted strongly enough by something I can name. I have other ways of dealing with depression and mania, which are the biggest things that have dogged me. Fear holds me back sometimes, and maybe that's what I'll eventually do. Or maybe it will be grief that eats at me. We'll see. But it's a technique to have in my pocket if I need it.

Really, though, I'm so tempted to have a pet Babadook that I almost want to summon up some outside spirit that fits the bill and name that Babadook. That's not really my style, though. I don't want to bind spirits that way.