Based On A True Story: THE BABADOOK and PTSD

Gigantic man-eating monsters, soul-devouring demonic spirits and blood-sucking vampires are all examples of what you would expect to find in a horror film. Many creatures, ghouls and goblins are overused in the horror genre, making watching movies or television shows seem like a form of déjà vu. However, the movie The Babadook takes horror to a new realm by creating a physical monster out of mental illness. At first take, what seems to be a demonic force taunting a widowed mother and her son is actually a physical representation of the PTSD and childhood mental illness the mother and son have felt since the violent death of the father.

PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - is a mental illness that can manifest after experiencing a traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD include depression, severe anxiety, emotional detachment, traumatic flashbacks, disturbing dreams about the trauma, social isolation, insomnia, and more. In The Babadook, Amelia, the mother, loses her husband in a violent car crash while they were on their way to the hospital for her to give birth. People suffering from PTSD often experience flashbacks of the trauma, whether in dreams or memories when conscious. In this movie, the memory of the car crash surfaces frequently and each time leaves Amelia depressed and emotionally distraught.

As for childhood mental illness, Samuel, Amelia’s son, experiences many violent outbursts, as well as night terrors. Not knowing what’s wrong with him or why he’s acting out, she takes him to a doctor, who prescribes sedatives to calm him down. Children with mental illness are often not diagnosed or diagnosed improperly due to their age. Although knowledge on mental illness has grown significantly, psychiatrists still find it difficult to diagnose young children with mental illnesses and attribute most behavior to simply being a kid. However, in the film it’s obvious that Samuel’s behavior is not that of a normal child’s behavior. He has outbursts where he screams and says violent things, has trouble sleeping, and is obsessed with murdering a creature that visits him at night. It’s also apparent that Amelia, despite trying her hardest to be a good single mother, is still suffering from the trauma of losing her husband, and it shows in the way she distances herself from Samuel. This distancing from a child due to depression or PTSD can also be destructive to the child’s growth and ability to cope, so while Samuel could have an undiagnosed mental disorder, it’s also possible that the lack of attention and affection he’s receiving could play a part in his behavioral issues.

The beginning of the movie is very descriptive of the relationship between Samuel and Amelia and shows their personalities well.  The first thing you see is Amelia dreaming of the car crash; she appears terrified in the dream, and while looking at her husband in the car, she braces herself for an oncoming collision, but wakes upon impact – and from the screams of her son, Samuel, who is having a night terror. The two proceed to check under the bed and in the closet for the monster Samuel saw in his night terror, and he states that he wants to smash the monster’s head in – a violent statement for a little kid to say. Shortly after, Samuel is seen using a contraption he’s made for murdering the creature seen in his nightmares, and he begins accidentally breaking things around the house while using it. Before leaving for school, Samuel tries to give his mom a hug, but Amelia yells at him to stop. People with PTSD often avoid physical contact and have a hard time showing affection in any way, so Amelia’s behavior is a clear sign that she’s struggling.

At school, Samuel gets in trouble for bringing the contraption he made, and his teachers are worried about his mental state. It’s made very clear by the actions of the school staff that they see Samuel as more of a problem than a human being who needs help and understanding, which is something that children with mental illness are often subjected to. Children with behavioral problems are seen as liabilities and are often ignored or separated from other students, making them feel more vulnerable and often causing them to become depressed or insecure, creating additional future problems for them mentally. Although Amelia does the right thing and decides to pull her son from school to find a new school that will accept and help Samuel, things don’t go as smoothly as planned.

One of the most iconic phrases from The Babadook is “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” This phrase is used throughout the movie, and when you break it down it relates a lot to PTSD. People with PTSD can experience flashbacks triggered by things that remind them of the trauma they’ve experienced, so the beginning of the quote “if it’s in a word, or it’s in a look,” is talking about the triggers of PTSD, whether it’s something you see or hear. The end of the quote, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” is stating that you cannot cure this mental illness and you can’t get rid of it.  Throughout the movie, Samuel is scared his mom will die, has anxiety about losing his mom as he lost his dad, and has a hard time accepting the fact that his dad is gone. The Babadook, portrayed as a demonic entity that wants to take over Amelia’s body and harm others, is a symbol of how easy it is for a mental illness to take over and control the way you live your life.

Living life with mental illness is very challenging, and it’s easy to want to give up and give into the illness, leading to isolation or even suicide. The Babadook represents that dark side of the reality of mental illness. It slowly begins taking over the mother, making her irritable and cold toward everyone and causing her to second-guess herself and her life, similar to symptoms of PTSD. As for Samuel, it’s clear he has anxiety and a constant fear of losing his mother just like he lost his father. He dreams of monsters attacking them, he misses his dad, and he has trouble making friends and fitting in. Samuel gets teased at school and feels alone, yet finds comfort in loving his mom, who he vows to protect from the things he fears.

In the end of the movie, the Babadook attacks Samuel and Amelia, eventually changing its appearance to look like Amelia’s husband, which is similar to experiencing a flashback. After that, Amelia commands it away, finding strength in herself to tell the Babadook to leave her and her son alone. She returns to Samuel, and they embrace lovingly, something Amelia was too afraid to do before. After their fight with the Babadook is over, Amelia seems to be back in good spirits and coping well, starts spending more time with Samuel, and even celebrates his birthday on the correct day – a difficult task, as her husband had died on that date. Samuel also appears happier now that his mom is back to being loving and caring, and is seen playing with her in the yard.

The end of the movie is a great example of how people can overcome mental illness and still live happy lives. Mental illness can ruin your life if you allow it to; it can ruin your friendships, your relationships, and you as a person. If the Babadook is the physical representation of the mental illness Amelia and Samuel were battling, they both seemed to have conquered it, and their mother-son relationship has blossomed. In the final scene of the movie, Amelia is shown putting a bowl of worms and dirt inside the basement and then closing and locking the door to it. Samuel asks if he’ll ever be allowed to see “it” - the Babadook - who they’ve managed to trap inside the basement and are feeding. This represents the fact that since you can’t get rid of the Babadook, or mental illness, it’ll always be with you, but you can learn to fight it and live a happy life despite it.