I had an uninvited guest once, and it was inside me. If you’ve ever seen a sonogram of a cancer tumor, a demon analogy isn’t too much hyperbole. Tumors look objectively wicked and wrong. The barbs of its flesh under my own skin pricked. And while it was there, I was never really alone. But this isn’t a story about that, even though it is breast cancer awareness month, and you should all make sure that you and your loved ones get breast exams. That is just context.
Medicine cast the demon out. A ton of medicine. That treatment had its price though, and it forestalled any notion of having a child for years. When I did conceive, it was a triumph. It was strange then to realize that again I was not alone in my own body. But this time was wonderful. This time was intentional. This time was also terrifying.
And while the cancer left me scarred and slightly bionic, from the moment I realized I was going to be a mother, I transformed in a way that outmatched simple cellular corruption. It started by overriding my own self-interest. It might as well have been that I had been bitten by vampire or a werewolf. My heart was getting larger. I was growing a new organ. The volume of fluid in my body was…possibly TMI. And the process is ongoing, so gnarly powers may yet be in the offing.
The association of horror with youth and sex is immediate, but that’s just our culture’s favorite of many transitions in life we explore this way. There’s no shortage of horror stories that go to the well of motherhood and find things there that are misbegotten and women that have become something Other. Even though pregnancy and motherhood are feminine matters, it’s a nightmare for a patriarchal society when men lose control of women’s bodies. How much more of a nightmare could it be for a woman losing control of her own body, never mind destiny?
Bad mothers are and have always been marquee monsters in and of themselves around the world for centuries. You don’t even have to think about it. A dozen fairy tale examples reflexively spring to mind. Greek myths. Horror movies. Witches. (That is, witches as fashioned in the fevered imaginations of monks, not Wiccans. Wiccans are generally quite conscientious parents of either sex, and they also tend to be real, which is also different.)
You can contrast the powers of bad mothers, usually exercised at the expense of the child to selfish ends, with the idea of mother’s intuition and the nearly preternatural abilities ascribed to mothers in defense of their children: the ability to heft a car off your child like so much daughter of Krypton or to divine instinctively the nature of an infant’s cry. It’s reminiscent of Dick Hallorann’s suggestion to Danny in The Shining that “all mothers shine.” All good mothers certainly, but what about bad ones? Or is that the difference?
Look at Rosemary’s Baby, specifically Roman Polanski’s film version from 1968. It’s hard to separate Rosemary Woodhouse from the era she’s living in, and her lack of agency can be teeth grinding from a modern perspective. Take her non-response to her husband Guy admitting to her that he had sex with her raped her while she was passed out drunk drugged. (It’s extra loaded when you think about Polanski behind the lens, or also consider that for some, even in our era, that’s arguably OK because he’s her husband and he “didn’t want to miss baby night.”) From the beginning scene where she and Guy are picking out the apartment to have their baby in, Rosemary is a woman who allows herself to walled in completely by her need for a child, forsaking her health, friends, and relative independence to that purpose.
If Rosemary does have a little bit of a shine though, it’s all for her baby’s sake. She senses something is wrong with her pregnancy, despite confident assurances from doctor, husband, and oddly clingy neighbors that it’s perfectly normal, but it never occurs to her that the pregnancy is threatening her life. After an unusual muster of will leads to her reconnect with old girlfriends at a party, they are appalled that she could have endured debilitating pain for months of her pregnancy. As they cluster around her, briefly forming their own kind of protection circle, they urge Rosemary to seek help, and her reaction is emphatic. “I won’t have an abortion.” Even once she begins to smell the tannis root, so to speak, and glimpse the conspiracy at its corners, her prevailing thought is protecting her child from the cult. “Don’t worry, little Andy or Jenny, I’ll kill them before I let them touch you,” she whispers. We have no reason to believe she ever thinks anything else.
The trope of the good mother does get subverted in the end, and that’s fun. Obedient angel of the house Rosemary gets wise and dangerous once her baby is taken from her. She is lied to by the coven, told the baby died after delivery, but she knows her own child’s cry when she hears it. She becomes sly enough to bide her time and hide the sedatives they feed her. And when she’s ready, she takes a butcher knife and confronts the coven. Those sharper, tougher qualities are no less essentially maternal, if less domestic, that take her to her baby’s side. The only thing about Rosemary that has not changed is her love for the baby and her instinctive commitment to him.
More recently, Jennifer Kent’s 2014 The Babadook won a lot of notice, but not enough awards because there are not enough awards for that movie. And I say that also confessing I didn’t find it at all scary. Like Rosemary’s Baby, for me at least, the horror is sick disquiet, not a jump scare (although there are jump scares), and the ideas and performances at work are so meaty and interesting, fearing a creepy croak or a drapey shadow afterward just didn’t occur to me.
The Babadook tells the story of Amelia, a widow with a troubled son who becomes obsessed with a character in a mysterious children’s book, the Babadook. The film begins well before the first appearance of either the book or monster, as the camera focuses on Amelia. Amelia’s exhalations take the familiar shape of Lamaze breathing techniques. A boy calls, as if from a long distance, “Mom!” You witness a car accident, just as the boy’s cries summon her to wakefulness. From the beginning, her son is twinned with tragedy for Amelia.
The film is light on details about the accident for a while, allowing us to dwell without distraction in the hectic, messy, annoying day to day of Amelia and her dangerously inventive 6-year-old Samuel. Essie Davis got deserved plaudits for her performance as Amelia, and again, there are simply not enough awards for what she accomplished here, but Noah Wiseman as Samuel was also very effective at being invasively cloying and shrill, yet brave and endlessly sympathetic. The way that his mouth would yawn open as he squealed, “Mooooooom!” though. It was a primal image.
Then one night, Samuel asks his weary mom to read him a story. Amelia doesn’t seem to recognize the book he passes her from among his possessions, but begins. The story starts out innocently, but takes an abrupt, threatening turn, and we get to see how terrible the pop-up images are pages after Amelia’s voice has faded with shock. This begins Samuel’s obsession with the Babadook, a demonic being that you have to invite in that eats you from the inside out, also kills your dog and your son. And from the beginning, Samuel knows the real threat from the Babadook is to his mother.
There is a more grounded hint as to the nature of this threat during a birthday party for Samuel’s cousin. Amelia is with the other mothers, most of whom we can assume are married or have partners. We’ve seen Amelia at work as a nurse in a retirement home, but now we learn that she used to write and publish, including children’s books. When one of the others makes a careless remark lumping Amelia in with “disadvantaged women,” she snaps and shows a side of her personality that up to this point she’s kept contained. She’s not just tired or exasperated. She’s angry. Actually, she’s pissed.
After Samuel’s anti-Babadook protection devices force Amelia to remove him from school and cause a rift with her sister, she loses her last moorings. She begins to miss work, staying home with Samuel, and the film dwells more and more in a liminal state that is interior, blue-grey, and low-lit. Amelia doesn’t always know whether she’s awake or dreaming and neither do we, and soon she begins to see the Babadook, too.
Maybe one of the reasons the movie never scared me is because it made me so tired. Even before the season of the Babadook commences, you see that Amelia’s life has deflated into unrelieved, sublimated sorrow and want, what serves for rest in-between moments of Samuel-related triage. There is a terribly poignant moment when she can’t even masturbate for the entreaties of her son. There’s no privacy, there’s no relief. The child has become an uninvited guest, and while the Babadook’s appearance mimics her husband’s clothes left hanging in the basement, it also resembles her son playing dress-up.
And now, for the first time, she acts selfish. She ignores Samuel’s pleas for food. She curses at him. She juxtaposes this with cooing pacification and ice cream for dinner. When she desperately appeals to a doctor for sleeping aids for Samuel, the doctor makes a point of letting her know that most mothers wouldn’t consider sedatives unless it was “really bad.” She assures him it is, and he hands the prescription over, but as though he were placing a gun in her palm. The ambiguity isn’t just dreaming or waking; it’s bad mother or good.
The Babadook doesn’t end with Amelia’s submission to its curse and a bloody finale, and it doesn’t end with the redeemed power of a mother’s love casting out the demon either. Mother and son each sacrifice to protect each other, and Amelia willfully renounces its influence, but it’s not enough. What happens at the end is more of a…negotiation. It’s unconventional, but also strangely true to life to me, the idea that you just can’t subsume parts of your personality in the service of your role, be it as a parent or anything else. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook” is a refrain, a threat, but also the solution. What is also interesting to me is that The Babadook underlines that while pregnancy is a transitional state, it’s shared by (at least) two people. The death of Amelia’s husband traumatizes Amelia and Samuel, and the effective pacification of the Babadook is somewhat cooperative. It’s not a subversion like you see with Rosemary, but it also portrays the mother-child bond as something more primal and perdurable than your worst demons, even Satan himself.
Both films describe mothers protecting their children from implacable, supernatural threats. Rosemary transcends natural passivity and another era’s notion of domesticity to kick ass and find her baby. The Babadook describes a complex, internal threat from within the mother herself. If the horror films we embrace reflect societal anxieties, and I’m going to take that as read, I feel like both films describe progress in our conception of women’s roles at home, as working mothers, and as three-dimensional human beings, if only in acknowledging that there are competing and sometimes irreconcilable demands on these women, despite physical and personal transformations that come with the job. And acknowledging that doesn’t make you a bad mother. It makes you ready to fight the monsters and save your baby.
Angela reviews movies at http://www.the-losthighway.com/ and is cohost of the Horrible Imaginings podcast, http://www.hifilmfest.com/. She is almost certainly not giving birth to a demon. But just in case, hail Satan.