The Mother Figure of Female Gothic Horror in ‘The Babadook’ (2014)

NB: This post was originally submitted as an essay for my undergraduate program. No changes have been made to the content, however I have added additional paragraph breaks and links to clips from the film.

Australian cinema is dominated by a homogenous identity, most often seen in the ‘battler’ trope used to represent ‘mainstream’ Australians (Whitman, 2013). However, the Australian peoples transcend these hegemonic masculinities; including gender diversity (Messerschmidt, 2019). The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014) is an Australian film that foregrounds a different gender identity than the mainstream.

The Babadook utilises the female gothic horror subgenre to explore the screen minority ‘mother character’ that the character of Amelia (Essie Davis) embodies. This is done as Amelia, the mother, and her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), are trapped in a domestic nightmare setting – shown from Amelia’s point of view. This allows for the audience to engage with not only the common horror negative emotions of disgust and fear but also positive emotions and character interiority (Rikkie, 2018).

Amelia’s viewpoint is privileged in the film to show her “fractured subjectivity,” differing from ‘mainstream’ Australian representation (Quigley, 2016, p.66; Whitman, 2013).The audience is aligned with Amelia’s psyche as they witness her transition from what is considered a “good mother” to a “bad mother” as her mental state deteriorates and she grows more violent (Quigley, 2016, p.72; Quigley, 2016, p.60).

This is shown as viewers in the first scene enter Amelia’s nightmare where the shots are close-ups of her face, viewers listen to her hard breathing and discorded music, and there are irregular bright flashes of white lights behind her (Kent, 2014, 0:58-1:42; Quigley, 2016). This scene manages to be disorientating with its timing, space, and Amelia’s emotions to portray her struggling psyche (Quigley, 2019). Even as Samuel’s voice raises in volume and Amelia returns to her current environment, the audience learns that in reality she is lonely, widowed, and is caring for her son in a dark and unnerving house (Kent, 2014, Quigley, 2016).

This sense of unease continues for Amelia as soon after, close shots are shown of a sleeping Samuel with his legs over, Samuel kneading her back, and the abrasive sound of his grinding teeth is amplified to discomfort viewers (Kent, 2014, 2:49-2:52; Quigley, 2016). This setting departs Amelia from the standard white-centric working-class ‘bloke’ that is granted standard victim status in Australian films, as Amelia instead falls into the category of a female gothic horror victim due to her breaking mind (Whitman, 2013; Zhang, 2022).

Tensions rise further in the film as viewers continue to see actions from Amelia’s point of view (Zhang, 2022). Amelia is filmed with tight frames alternating with long shots that create a sense of her being lost in her surroundings (Zhang, 2022).

Even a ‘normal feminine life’ creates a sense of fear and anxiety for Amelia, setting her apart from the Australian ‘mainstream’ homogenous confident masculinity seen in films (Whitman, 2013; Zhang, 2022). For example, when at the shopping centre, instead of helping Samuel, Amelia sits alone on a couch eating ice cream as people pass by in front of her (Kent, 2014, 18:55-19:16; Quigley, 2016). The lack of ambient noise in this scene, replaced with non-diegetic music, increases the audience’s sense of Amelia’s isolation (Quigley, 2016; Zhang, 2022).

The film continues to use close-ups of Amelia’s face and makes use of regular time framings to continue this sense of unease (Quigley, 2016). Close-ups are used to show Amelia’s shock and fright in the car crash, panic and anxiety as the Babadook make its presence known in her home, and disgust in her transforming face as she strangles Samuel (Quigley, 2016).

It is a visual strategy used to show her psyche dissolving into madness (Quigley, 2016). Additionally, scenes rarely include establishing shots and often being with a de-contextualising close-up (Quigley, 2016). By breaking away from, “conventional spatial and temporal cues,” and replacing them with, “alarming” visual strategies such as these, viewers see that Amelia is psychologically breaking (Quigley, 2016, p.66).

Differing from the hegemony often expected of Australian film characters centralised on working-class masculinity, The Babadook explores the female gothic subgenre by having Amelia transform from a gothic victim to a ‘bad, monstrous mother’ as she descends into madness as Samuel is forced to defend himself against her (Whitman, 2013; Quigley, 2016; Zhang, 2022).

A ‘good mother’ is expected in the gothic female subgenre to put her child’s welfare above her own at her own risk (Zhang, 2022). This is portrayed by Amelia growing ambivalent and then violent towards Samuel, which turns her into a ‘monster,’ while Samuel takes a pivotal role in the family’s survival (Quigley, 2016).

The film explores this idea through the use of rituals that are conventionally assigned to a single mother to showcase the fragility of maternal authority rather than the working-class masculinity expected of Australian films (Whitman, 2013; Briefel, 2017).

By linking reassurance to Amelia’s identity, horror conventions are used to show the burdens of maternal responsibilities Amelia is faced with (Briefel, 2017). The Babadook uses this idea to urge viewers to reconceive how mothers take of their children, and for children to take care of their mothers (Briefel, 2017).

Initially, Amelia’s ambivalence toward Samuel grows as she becomes suspicious of his behaviour (Kent, 2014). However, tensions grow throughout the film as her suspicions shift from Samuel to the possibility of an unknown being stalking her family, and yet despite this Amelia’s ambivalence toward Samuel remains and even increases despite her now lacking suspicion of him. This attitude leads to Amelia initially acting irritated toward Samuel until she turns violent towards him (Quigley, 2016).

When Amelia was a worn-out, struggling mother suffering from grief, she acts in the interests of Samuel and therefore is a ‘good mother,’ including when despite her suspicion she defends him against her sister and the authorities (Quigley, 2016).

But after Amelia’s initial mask of self-sacrifice for her son falls and her ‘real’ feelings are shown as she becomes wild and violent (Zhang, 2022). She kills her family dog and wants to kill Samuel, who is forced to defend himself against her (Kent, 2014). Amelia takes on a different physique, gaining a deep voice and superhuman agility (shown when she climbs up the door to Samuel’s bedroom) that creates unease for viewers as her natural movements are sped up to appear awkward (Quigley, 2016; Zhang, 2022).

Amelia gains pale and fragile features with thin blond hair that twists into a horrifying mask as she becomes unrecognisable and becomes a ‘bad mother’ (Zhang, 2022). She has embraced the ‘bad mother’ figure and the ‘horror’ of maternal ambivalence – a far cry from the expected Australian ‘battler’ representation on-screen (Whitman, 2013; Quigley, 2016; Quigley, 2019).

As Amelia questions her feelings about her son, and as her mindset darkens, this is reflected within the household; a domestic, feminine setting (Whitman, 2013). This is expected of a household within the female gothic genre (Quigley, 2016). This space conforms to the traditional gothic dark and oppressive household trope that reflects negative emotions growing within characters as the house ‘darkens’ (Quigley, 2016).

The house palette is limited to cool and black colours and is fashioned to appear so that it is not bound to a sense of time, and the unease characters feel while in the household grows as Amelia’s psyche deteriorates (Quigley, 2016). This is done by designing the house so that it appears to be based upon reality, but is modern and doesn’t look “quite right” to a viewer’s eyes (Quigley, 2019, p.176).

How set-designs actual this sense of unease is by adding gothic elements to the household such as a cool palette and black colours, having a Victorian-Esque terrace, and stage lighting, objects, and characters so that visuals appear in ‘monstrous’ forms and this appears more frequently as Amelia’s psyche breaks (Quigley, 2016; Quigley, 2019; Zhang, 2022).

This is because Amelia’s relationship with the house exposes her fears and worries (Quigley, 2016). Her relationship with the house’s ‘forbidden’ spaces showcases to audiences how her fears in the house are hidden away physically, mirroring how she subconsciously hides these fears away (Quigley, 2016). This is because, in gothic films, forbidden spaces are used frequently as a metaphor for a “repressed experience,” such as the car accident in The Babadook (Quigley, 2016, 69).

For example, when Amelia sees cockroaches crawling out of a hole in the kitchen wall; the audience sees that in the next scene the whole is gone (Kent, 2014, 41:40-41:54). This suggests that the cockroaches are a physical manifestation of Amelia’s deteriorating mental state (Quigley, 2016). Therefore, Amelia’s relationship with her house correlates with her relations with herself.

This is further suggested as her most violent confrontations throughout the film are with Samuel, Oskar (Benjamin Windspear), and the Babadook (Quigley, 2016; Quigley, 2019). All of these take encounters place in the basement, and therefore the basement ultimately becomes ‘home’ to the manifestation of her fears that she must confront (Quigley, 2016).

A ‘female gothic’ lead such as Amelia is characterised by a woman feeling threatened by a vicious male figure (Quigley, 2016). This conflicts with the typical Australian representation of a ‘battler,’ who is someone the audience wants to root for and instead Amelia is placed in a position where a ‘male’ figure such as the Babadook is the monster and so she is becoming too (Whitman; Quigley, 2016).

Although this is most often a character’s husband or authority figure, The Babadook reinvents this aspect by having Amelia suspicious of her son, rather than her deceased husband – reorganising her mother’s relationship with her son (Quigley, 2016; Zhang, 2022). The Babadook showcases maternal horror by exploring “reassurance as a fraught motherly act, one that is imbricated with the trauma of having to believe in the child’s monsters” (Briefel, 2017, p.1).

As Amelia is exposed more to these ‘forbidden’ areas throughout the film; the audience witnesses her ‘mother character’ and identity being pulled apart as expected of this subgenre. It is not until (Amelia resists the Babadook and saves her son, that she regains her ‘good mother’ status as expected in the gothic female subgenre and maternal melodrama; putting her child’s welfare above her own at her own risk (Zhang, 2022).

Amelia does not represent the ‘mainstream’ Australian identity (Whitman, 2013). Instead, The Babadook utilises the female gothic subgenre to explore the ‘mother character’ that the character of A. Melia represents. This is done as Amelia, the mother, and her son, Samuel is stuck in a nightmare setting shown from Amelia’s point of view as Amelia transforms from a ‘good mother’ to a ‘bad mother (Quigley, 2016).

Works Cited

Briefel, A. (2017). Parenting through Horror: Reassurance in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Camera Obscura, 32(2), 1-27. 10.1215/0270534603924628

Kent, J. (Director). (2014). The Babadook [Film]. Madman Entertainment.

Mersserschmidt, J. (2019). The Salient of “Hegemonic Masculinity.” Men and Masculinities, 22(1), 85-91. 10.1177/1097184X18805555

Rikkie, S. (2018). Mastering Fear: Women, Emotions, and Contemporary Horror. Bloomsbury. 10.5040/9781501446744

Quigley, P. (2016). When Good Mothers Go Bad: Genre and Gender in The Babadook. The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, 15(1), 57-75.

Quigley, P. (2019). The Babadook (2014), maternal Gothic, and the ‘woman’s horror film. Routledge. 9781315200545

Whitman, K. (2013). The ‘Aussie Battler’ and the Hegemony of Centralising Working-Class Masculinity in Australia. Australian Feminist Studies, 28(75), 50-64.  10.1080/0816649.2012.788026

Zhang, Q. (2022). It’s All About Repetition: Maternal Time in Horror from Jeanne Dielman (1975)to The Babadook (2014). Monstrum, 5(1), 46-65.