The Babadook’s Lo-Fi Effects Construct Image of Motherhood Interpreted as Authentic, Says Scholar’s Analysis

By Tom McLaughlin

Popular films often reflect the values and beliefs of the societies that produce them, says Meredith Bak. The horror genre in particular, explains the Rutgers University–Camden scholar, can tap into both surface-level and deeply rooted cultural fears.

For example, she notes, recurring motifs of evil children and murderous mothers in horror movies reveal an enduring preoccupation with the intensity of the mother-child relationship. They also suggest that there is a lot of anxiety around the expectations associated with being a mother – or a child.

“Critics’ responses to such films often hinge on if the movie strikes an emotional chord – even as the characters might be dealing with extreme or supernatural situations,” says the assistant professor of childhood studies.

Bak and Jason Middleton, an associate professor of English and director of the film and media studies program at the University of Rochester, examine critics’ responses to the film The Babadook as an authentic portrayal of motherhood – and explain how the film’s lo-fi special effects lend credence to this interpretation – in their recent article, “Struggling for Recognition: Intensive Mothering’s Practical Effects in The Babadook,” published in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

The film centers around Amelia, a widow who raises her six-year-old son Sam on her own. Sam displays erratic behavior and becomes obsessed with an imaginary monster, the Babadook, introduced in a pop-up book that Amelia and Sam read together. As Amelia tries to convince Sam that the monster isn’t real, she finds herself having increasingly disturbing thoughts of harming her son and difficulty separating fiction from reality.

Critics praised the film, notes Bak, as “brave and honest,” as though it captured mothers’ inherent frustrations bubbling to the surface.

“There was this assumption among critics that the film represented a sublimated desire shared by most mothers,” she says.

However, explains the Rutgers–Camden scholar, even as the film makes these feelings of maternal rage feel relatable to viewers, it also highlights the social and cultural factors that might lead mothers to feel unsupported and ultimately break down.

“It is a stereotyped version of motherhood,” says Bak, who is quick to note that she and Middleton are not critical of the film itself, but rather are interested in the film’s critical reception and distinct visual effects. “What we aim to accomplish with our analysis is to break down how that cultural construction of motherhood is made in the movie.”

“We argue that assertions like those implied in The Babadook give rare and brave voice to the fury that many, if not all, mothers sometimes feel for their kids must be understood as discursive effects of the film’s visual and narrative devices, rather than accepted as a priori truths whose articulation is made possible by the film,” suggest the co-authors.

The article argues that this perception of The Babadook as an authentic view of motherhood was due in part to the film’s use of handmade or “practical” special effects, rather than enhanced digital technology, as is more common today.

In one scene, notes Bak, Amelia is up late one night watching clips of Georges Méliès’ The Magician (1898), which employs the same lo-fi effects used by Kent. Another main aspect of the film, says Bak, is the effective uses of a pop-up book that gives life to the monster Babadook.

“We all know the experience of pulling tabs, turning pages, and watching stories unfold before us,” says Bak, who applied her prior research on pop-up and toy books that examine “what it means to read a book that is more interactive; a story that literally jumps off the page.” These visual effects seemed handmade, tactile. It gives them a sense of “realism,” which may have helped make the characters’ feelings also seem more real or relatable.

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, it is important to note the broader social context in which The Babadook was received, and realize that viewers bring their own assumptions of what constitutes a good mother to their interpretations of the film.

“We are pushing back on the narratives that say this is how motherhood is, and that children are the objects or producers of the frustrations that mothers feel,” says Bak. “Actually, the film says that it is much more complicated than that. It makes us worry about both mother and child, and invites us to consider how this relationship can be supported.”

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