Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Who's There?

I'd been itching to read Jack Graham's (spoilery) post on The Babadook ever since he put it up, but I managed to resist until after I'd seen the film myself, which I did - surprise! - on Halloween.  My discussion of Jack's opinion is no less spoilerising than Jack's piece itself, so consider yourself warned.

There is much in Jack's post that I agree with. In particular, whilst I might stop short of suggesting the hauntological is being disrespected here (I demur due to lack of understanding of the term, not out of disagreement), I think it's absolutely true that bolting an absurdly obvious metaphor for depression onto this makes the horror aspects of the film completely fall flat. To state the obvious, the principle engine of almost all supernatural horror is that the viewer should in large part not understand what is happening (this is why the number of glowing reviews of horror films include an admission that it all falls apart in the third act). Here it is obvious almost immediately that we are seeing a woman suffering appalling depression exacerbated by bereavement and the uncontrollable behaviour of her child (with those three elements feeding off each other in the most inaptly named positive feedback loop imaginable). The Babadook, clearly, is a hallucination. You can make people jump with that, but you can't really scare them.

So yes, as Jack says, this is too obvious to work as a horror film, and yet not interested enough in portraying how depression/bereavement/challenging children's behaviour to actually work on that level. Where I disagree with Jack, though, is in how the film might be greeted by actual sufferers of depression.

Jack is on the level about not counting himself as such a person, and so having to hypothesise on this issue. I, on the other hand, most definitely do count myself in that group, but - obviously - only one such person. I can't do much more than hypothesise either beyond my own personal experiences. I should also note that my depression is chronic, but it is not what I would call particularly serious. I've never been hospitalised over it, I've never attempted suicide or even self-harm, beyond the slow, quiet damage I've inflicted on myself over years of self-medication through alcohol. In a good year I miss not a single day's work due to being unable to get out of bed or leave the house without bursting into tears, in a bad year I might miss a few days here and there. These days my symptoms usually only manifest in a feeling of profound, teary malaise every day in the early afternoon. I suspect you would have to know me well (and/or have been around for the period before I was finally prescribed medication that worked for me) to even guess I have a problem.  Everything that follows should be read in that light.

With that extensive personal disclaimer out of the way, let me say I was much happier with the way this film treats depression than Jack was. To tackle his strongest point first, yes the film implies the ugly message that untreated depression will lead to the murdering of your pets and children (and he's right on the money about the cheapness of Bugsy's fate).  But I can forgive this at least to some extent because of the dual message the film carries (and, as noted, blares into our faces).  This is not just a story about how depression is awful and like a scary monster and you need to face up to it (and I'll talk in a bit how that message sits with me), but about how depression affects those around you.

One of the most pernicious effects depression can have on people - and I most certainly include myself - is that the resulting experience of suffering can make you tremendously empathic in theory, and tremendously narcissistic in practice. You feel terrible about the abstract suffering of millions of others, but you get so wrapped up in your own pain that you end up treating those closest to you very selfishly. Among other things, Samuel's role within the narrative is as a constant reminder that Amelia's depression is not something that only affects her. That only damages her.  This is why I disagree with Jack when he slams the film for an ultimate message of basically telling depressed people to suck it up and get on with it. Because yes, that's basically always a fucking outrageous thing to say, an utterly clueless approach to the condition that reveals how little interest the speaker has in helping as oppose to just not wanting to have to think about it any more.

And that is a message found in the film. Crucially, though, I don't think it's the message of the film, Instead, it's pretty much the exact message Amelia's cousin Claire seems to be broadcasting, more or less explicitly. And the film clearly is not remotely on her side. What I think the film wants to say is slightly different. Not "just buck your ideas up", but "remember that you are not the only one in pain here".  That, to me, is absolutely something I need reminding of every now and again. Perhaps I'm a particularly bad person - I don't want to dismiss that possibility - but I've known an awful lot of people suffering from depression over the years (sometimes it seems like we flock together even more so than do eldest children), and I've been on both sides of this. I've known people fall so deeply into their depressions that they became almost unbearable to be around.  That's something I tried my best to cope with, and to be a friend to them throughout, and to remind myself that I'd had times like that and I had needed support all the more during them (sometimes I think I've done well on this score, other times decidedly not). But that's me talking about how an adult should deal with another adult in such pain they're lashing out at you. The situation is obviously vastly different when the person you're hurting is your own child.

For me, this is the best, most harrowing part of the film, how completely emotionally and intellectually unprepared Samuel is for dealing with his mother. Jack sees Samuel's thought processes here as "a kind of cargo-cult-style attempt to comprehend the doings of adults", but I read it much more sympathetically. I saw a young child desperately trying to comfort his mother, but having no idea how to do it. His constant promises to "smash its head in" sound disturbing in such a young voice, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are the statements of a child who wants to kill the monster he sees eating at his mother. It's the only way he can process what's happening to her. He's totally out of his depth, and it's heartbreaking. Jack find the advice of "Don't let him in!" appalling in its patronising tone, but - ironically - it works much better when being yelled by your child.  I was speaking to the young son of one of my neighbours the other day about how we tend to get people driving along our road late at night at scary speeds, only for them to grind to a halt at the end of our road (we live on a cul de sac) and turn around. He was enquiring as to why anyone would want to do that, and his mother suggested perhaps they didn't realise it was a dead end and were trying to get somewhere else as quickly as possible.

"Huh", the kid snorted. "Why not just know where you are?"

Jack might not like how the thought processes of a child are presented here, but I'd call it an uphill struggle to argue there's no ring of truth to them. The thought processes of children are fascinating and complicated and endlessly wonderful. Their solutions to the problems adults have are nevertheles frequently, well, childish.

But of course (and perhaps this is part of Jack's point), Samuel may well simply be shouting this advice because Amelia is using it as her own mantra, as evidenced by the (surely self-penned) Babadook book. The point here, it seems absolutely clear to me, is not that "Don't let him in" is being offered as sincere advice. On the contrary, it's revealed as being the utterly useless suggestion that it is. Amelia's problem isn't that she's warned not to let the Babadook in and does so anyway (at what point in the film is it even implied she has done so; the kind of literal or metaphorical invitation that would usually feature in such a narrative is utterly absent here), it's that she's so deep in denial about what's happening to her that she thinks her problems are external ones she can just shut out and then go about her life. She's so convinced of this she's managed to persuade her son of the same thing, that there is some external force threatening her, as oppose to her own interiority having rebelled against her.

In fact, how much more clear can it be that "Don't let it in!" is advice the film thinks is ridiculous when the ultimate solution of Amelia's crisis of self is to let it in to the basement? Trying to deny the Babadook (which always sounded to me more like a someone stammering out words whilst crying than it did the sinister knocking of an external threat) is pointless, because he's already there.  What the film suggests as a strategy for dealing with depression isn't that you try to keep it out, but that you try to engage with it in measured bursts. That you metaphor you should reach for is not the locked door, but the release valve. That perhaps you can tend to your condition rather than ignore it.

Whether this is a helpful metaphor for all those who suffer from depression is obviously up for debate, but then there's no reason to believe Kent's script is intended to suggest a universal approach. I've had people I'm close to told by their counsellor that their mental health issues are bound up in their inability to release stress, that a metaphorical release valve is the exact thing they should be searching for. Certainly the idea that those who suffer from depression should feel free to let themselves be overcome from time to time, rather than constantly trying to deny what they're feeling, is one that strikes me as useful to me personally; see what I wrote above about how these days I have a daily crash for an hour or two in the early afternoon and then am generally fine.

So yes, The Babadook is a significantly overrated film, that doesn't quite accomplish what it sets out to do.  What it isn't, though, I don't think, is disrespectful of or condescending to those with depression (or at least, no more than it is to the rest of its audience, considering it clearly thinks we're idiots who need things spelling out). On that front, I actually like what it does a great deal.

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