Tuesday 25 November 2014

The Babadook: A Lesson in Mental Health

Last night I went to see a scary Australian film called “The Babadook”. Not exactly a normal topic for a history blog but I thought the deeper message of the film deserved to be put out there. On the surface it’s a standard scary film with a child that can see ‘monsters’ and is ignored by the adults in the film; the child in this case being Samuel, an unusual child who has never known his father and speaks his mind. Amelia, his mother, is racked with guilt about the circumstances of her son’s birth and is struggling to provide the adequate care required of a mother for her child. The father figure in this film is missing which provides a lot of tension throughout between the main characters of Amelia, Samuel and Claire, Amelia’s sister. Samuel’s father, Oscar, we learn was killed in a car crash bringing Amelia to the hospital while she was in labour. Despite his death taking place seven years earlier, Amelia still dreams of that night and still has his belongings, although they are kept in the basement.

The babadook, or creature, that the film is named after initially takes form in a book. No one knows how the book came into the home of Amelia and Sam but we can imagine supernatural forces had some part to play. The initial reading of the book spooks Amelia and takes hold in the imagination of Sam. The natural thing for Amelia to do is to hide the book but somehow ends up back in Sam’s room, thus playing to the scary film stereotype. The figure of the babadook is not really explained but the general idea is that he hides in the shadows and demands to be let in.

As with other films of this genre, the adult is understandably disturbed by their child’s behaviour and attempts to deny the existence of a supernatural presence in their home and surrounds. Any attempts to get rid of the babadook are rebuffed by the mysterious force including tearing up the book, only for it to turn up on the doorstep glued back together with additional threats against the reader. Ultimately the book is burnt by Amelia which only makes matters worse with the babadook’s presence becoming evident outside the home. Without giving away too much of the storyline, everything comes to a head including visions of Oscar, Samuel’s dead father and bulbs smashing. Standard scary film stuff, really.

To go back to my initial point about the deeper message of “The Babadook”, there is one. I didn’t actually understand the conclusion of the film until it was helpfully pointed out by my film companion because I was annoyed at the ‘happy ending’ aspect presented to me as a conclusion. Ultimately the film is about a young, widowed mother’s battle with depression. The babadook is the demon that she engages with when she thinks about her beloved Oscar and the life she has to lead without him. At certain points self-harm is considered, a suicide attempted and an overdose hinted at all through the intervention of the babadook or Amelia’s battle with the babadook. On knowing that the film is actually about mental illness, it is a completely different beast. Lack of sexual libido is addressed, rejection of potential suitors (and happiness) occurs along with cutting off ties with those who have offered help. In the case of the film, this is literally done by Amelia cutting up the telephone wires.

My main point here is that mental illness is a common ‘side-effect’ of postgraduate research and study. Long hours locked away by yourself, lack of a real sense of community and even less opportunities to meet people all affect postgrads. While there are medications and counselling available, sometimes it is difficult to diagnose yourself with mental illness. The beast of the babadook so easily creeps up on a person, often without any warning signs to those around them. For so long Samuel was the only one to see the babadook within the house and it was almost too late before Amelia acknowledged its existence.

This time of year is also quite a difficult period as many people suffer from SAD as well as highlighted tensions with family that other times of the year don’t usually rear their ugly head. Within the postgrad community as well, the deadlines are piling up and many friendship groups have been established. Personally, I don’t think I would have survived a PhD this long if it had not been for the friendships I have formed in Leicester. Sometimes I am asked about the ‘point’ of New History Lab by those who perhaps don’t understand the lab aspect of the name or general curiosity and my honest answer (depending on my mood) is that it makes me go and meet people at least twice a month and have conversations about anything from the establishment of the Irish Free State to why we plump up cushions (the patriarchy in case you’re wondering). It is very easy to fall into the trap of not bothering to leave the house because it gets dark too early and its cold outside. I am guilty of that and almost didn’t go see the film last night because of these excuses. But I am glad I did, as I often am. If not, I would have written this blog post on my first international conference in Rome which just depresses me if nothing else!