In 2014, Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut The Babadook stunned audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. The film would go on to delight critics and audiences around the world, hailed for its raw portrayal of mental illness and motherhood. Five years later, in 2019, IFC Midnight announced they would sell a Pride Month limited-edition cover for the film with a portion of the sales benefitting the Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Center. How did this horror film evolve so much over those five years? The answer is a culmination of both queer history and gay internet culture.
Where did the discussion of The Babadook’s sexuality start? Unsurprisingly, on Tumblr. Although the original posts have since been erased from the micro-blogging platform, Twitter user Ryan Broderick compiled some of the most popular posts in a Tweet shared in early 2017. Once this discourse hit Twitter in early 2017 it spiralled from there. While many have written this off as a product of gay reclamation – the community subverting a character for its own gain due to lack of representation –there is a deep, rich history connecting monsters and queerness. To understand how The Babadook fits into queer history, we must first look to the past.
In early folklore, tales of “others” were meant to frighten their audiences. Don’t go into the woods late at night, you might meet a werewolf, the stories said. Werewolves were half-man, half-monster; their legend not only taught the lesson of staying close to home at night, but also that the people around you may be monsters in hiding. Folklore was meant to teach not only caution, but also to impose social norms. People who fell outside those social norms, specifically queer people, were to be feared.
Continuing today, fear of LGBTQ+ people is used as a defence for the violence perpetrated against them. The gay panic defence, as defined by the LGBT Bar, is “a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder […] As recently as April 2018, an LGBT panic defence was used to mitigate a murder charge.”
When we see the historic connections between beings-to-be-feared and the queer community, it is easy to draw the connections between monsters and queer culture. Many media villains outside the realm of monsters have been queer-coded; famously Ursula, the villain in Disney’s The Little Mermaid was based on drag queen Divine. In his book Monsters in the Closet, Harry M. Benshoff writes, “Both movie monsters and homosexuals have existed chiefly in shadowy closets…monster is to “normality” as homosexual is to heterosexual.”
How does this knowledge of the historical representation of monsters fit into an interpretation of The Babadook’s titular monster as a gay icon? Kent’s film is, at its heart, the story of a family dealing with a monster that is fed by a mother’s refusal to address her grief, depression, anxiety, or guilt. Amelia (Essie Davis) struggles to maintain a false sense of normality as she suffers from the loss of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) and her son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) increasingly violent outbursts. Interpreting The Babadook through a queer lens manifests the titular character as queerness itself. As the Babadook himself says, “The more you deny, the stronger I get.” The self-destruction that takes place through the movie can be seen as the internal struggle when people try to deny their own identity.
The first reference to the Babadook is Samuel telling his mother, “I’ll kill the monster,” as we see his own fear about the Babadook increase. Just as Amelia refuses to allow anyone to say the name of her dead husband, to acknowledge her internal struggles, or to believe Samuel about the Babadook, the first step in many queer people’s journey toward acceptance is denial. Many within the LGBTQ+ community have internalised the hatred felt by those around them and used it as a weapon of self-destruction. The trope of the biggest homophobe secretly being gay himself, while extremely harmful in its inherent victim-blaming, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The denial eventually turns to anger, which is when the Babadook violently possesses Amelia. Arguably, this is the scariest moment in the film as we see her act horrifically toward her dog and son. This is her breaking point.
Many in the queer community can relate to this sense of anger: when you’re viewed as a monster for so long, why not become one? The turning point in this possession is love. Samuel, although afraid of the Babadook, does not abandon his mother and never stops telling her he loves her. It is love, in the end, that frees Amelia from the anger inside her and allows healing to begin. When examining the film with this interpretation, the ending can be seen as a step toward internal acceptance and healing as the Babadook is given a permanent place of dwelling within the home.
When discussing the reclamation of werewolves through slash fiction, Jaquelin Elliott writes, “[it] refuses to allow the foreclosure of queer monstrosity to occur, allowing queer fans to reclaim the symbolic and narrative trappings of the monsters so frequently trotted out as metaphors for queerness and carve out a place once more for themselves in the liminal spaces of monstrosity.” In this same vein, queer interpretation of The Babadook allows the LGBTQ+ community to claim a horror monster as a symbol of hope. The trauma and grief associated with the Babadook can be a place of healing for those hurt by the negative social reactions to their queerness. It can also be a fun, happy meme for a community who is underrepresented with happiness, especially within the horror genre. As Kent herself has said, “I love that story.”
by CJ Juntunen
CJ Juntunen (she/they) is a writer and graphic designer based in Michigan. When they’re not ranting about the patriarchal double-standards in horror movies to their partner, you can find her fostering kittens, baking bread, and hiking with her dog. Find her on Twitter @cobwebjr or on Instagram @cobweb.jr and admire her 3 cute cats.
Categories: Anything and Everything
I truly marvel at your imaginative writing and your voice of reason and representation. I haven’t seen the highly talked about THE BABADOOK but your interpretation truly gives it a new lease of life. Thank you for your insightful essay.