I can't watch horror films alone anymore. I have ignored all the horror stuff that has been released over the last few years, deliberately. I gave it some brief self analysis and came to the conclusion that it's because I already have a very over active imagination. I live alone; there is no comforting word or hug, laugh and giggle over what was really scary in that movie 'we' just watched. What spooked 'us'. No, I would be sharing all those thoughts with the scrabblings and scratching noises of the squirrels in my attic at night. Squirrels taking delight in knowing I'm a few feet below them in bed looking up at the ceiling and thinking 'It's only the squirrels...it's only the squirrels...'
I did try once. I put The Exorcist on and got to the part where the exhausted mother, in broad daylight closes the front door to the comfort of the outside world and then the director cuts to a wide shot, as the daughter comes downstairs on her back like a crab. The point I switched off and thought 'That's it...Horror and I are done.'
I'm currently teaching at UCLan, on a screenwriting module and an adaptations module that I pretty much write myself. I have a great rapport with enthusiastic students and we spend a few minutes each week discussing what we have seen over the last week. One student mentioned the fact that reviews for the latest horror film released in time for Halloween are creating quite a stir among the critics.
The name alone gave me a bit of a chill. WTF is a Babadook? I googled. I discovered a plethora of 5 Star reviews, I didn't read them but the stars were at the top of the heading, and then I bravely (believe me it is brave for me) clicked on the trailer, and something about it struck home.
I'm not watching it.
Yesterday afternoon I abandoned all reason and took myself by the hand, telling myself it would be alright. I went down to the local multiplex, clutching my cinecard in my shaking hand and tried to say in a manly voice 'The Babadook', think I succeeded. I went into a cinema that had one old lady sat further up behind me, a little like a Wednesday afternoon cinema Babadook; I might turn around and find she's gone, only to look up and see her crawling across the ceiling...my imagination is a constant, over excitable and, at times like this, unwelcome companion. This was a big deal. Joe O'Byrne was watching a horror film.
The film took my by surprise, it was not what I expected at all. It was something far, far more.
Jennifer Kent, as writer and director, has produced an extraordinarily seminal work. A study in state of mind, the darker state of mind, the state of mind produced from the intolerable pain of grief, loneliness and despair. The story lends itself well to the 'ghost story' genre, a very creepy children's book that happens to be on the child's shelf, her son, eager for his nightly bedtime story, and a mother that starts to read to him from the 'pop up' book. And even as she reads those first few words she's wanting to put the book down...
The two central performances from mother and child (Essie Davies and Noah Wiseman) are riveting, extraordinary, you can't tear your eyes away. Noah Wiseman is a real find, a wonderfully rounded performance from a child playing a child who is trying to be a protector to his mother, filling the shoes of his father lost in a car accident the day he was born; his birthdays are never celebrated on the day he was born. He believes in magic and monsters and something in those first few words read by his mother sets something loose...shakes it loose...releases it. From that point on something truly horrifying has entered the house - his cries much later of 'Don't let it in! Don't let it in!' are already way too late.
'If it's in a word, or in a look...you can't get rid of the Babadook.'
It is in the house, and more horrifyingly it is in their minds. This is psychological horror. There are echoes of Jack Torrence in The Shining and Roman Polanski's Repulsion, but this is something above both of those classics.
The film for me, is a metaphor for a 'monster' of a kind that is all too prevalent in today's society. Mental illness is a term we don't like. We don't talk about it enough, the term is too broad and stigmatising. 'How are you?' Or 'Hi, how you doing?' Are phrases that must be met with 'Yeah, I'm fine'. Regardless of how you may be feeling inside. The person asking really doesn't want to know about something that might be tearing you to pieces beneath the surface, and it is deemed as weakness to mention that, either by the person asking or more prevalently, the person replying. This is touched on in one of the scenes in the film 'It's alright not to be alright...talk about it.'
There is a presence in this film, a terrifying supernatural entity. But it is an embodiment of something far more terrifying and present in our everyday lives. Many of us have Babadooks of our own, Babadooks that bring their own all consuming terrors. Loneliness. Grief. Stress. Depression. Insomnia. Fear of death alone. Fear of being unloved. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of losing the house. Fear of losing our partners. States of mind that can alienate us from those around us. The Black Dog of Depression is The Babadook. Even the rattle of the letterbox and the bills that land on the mat, many people to scared to even open the envelope or visit the cashpoint with their heart in their mouths, will the machine eat the card? But it's always at night that these fears haunt us the most, in those wee small hours where the Monster stalks the house and us, torturing both strong and fragile states of mind.
We need to look, we need to delve, sometimes we just need to be bloody nosey as long as it for the right reasons, just letting that person know '...I'm asking you if you are alright because I really want to know if you are alright, can I help anywhere? Do you want a brew and a chat? I'm asking these things and in turn I'd like you to ask me these things...'
'Don't Let It In...' There may be someone near you, close to you or on the fringes of your circle of friends that has 'let it in' - their personal Babadook. They may appear the picture of calm and happiness, but you'll have noticed the cracks and thought it 'best not to pry'; do them and yourself a favour and pry, you'll feel better for it. Or maybe you have let in your own Babadook and are struggling but putting on a fabulous act to the outside world. Do yourself a favour and talk, just talk to someone, anyone. If you're one of my friends let's go get a coffee. I won't take you to see The Babadook...
But I heartily recommend the film. I'm going to see it again with my daughters tonight. And I'll scare the squirrels with the Tale of The Babadook later...
Oh, and if there was ever an article I wanted to be 'shared' on social media? It's this one. Please share it far and wide - one in four of us (I personally think it's more) will suffer from mental problems at some point in our lives, it's all perfectly normal, love and understanding is part of the cure.