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What Does “The Babadook” Say About Society’s Perception of People with Mental Health Issues?

Mental health issues are very real. Every time the news tells us about a school shooting or a public rampage, it spurs public debates about gun control, education, and eventually, mental health. It’s something we all know exists and can be extremely dangerous if not treated. Yet, millions of people with some form of mental health issue ignore their problems, which is the most dangerous thing someone can do - especially since mental health issues are on the rise in modern society. But nobody wants to be labeled as “crazy,” or have to tell others they’re seeking mental care. It’s easy to put the issue aside and wait for things to get better.

On the other end of the spectrum, identifying mental health issues in others is a challenge. It’s impossible to know what is happening in someone else’s mind. After someone commits a mass shooting or an act of terrorism, we’re able to talk about their mental health issues. But why don’t we realize help is needed before it reaches that level? Mental health issues can emerge in people of any age. And when it becomes severe enough in adults, children often become the targets. Over 15% of cases where a parent murders their child involves an undiagnosed mental health issue, and the statistic crosses 25% for the reverse situation.

The Babadook (2014) follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed mother of a troublesome child who has a difficult time coping with the tragedies of her past. As the film progresses, she becomes increasingly depressed, anxious, violent, neurotic and unhinged. Her son Sam (Noah Wiseman) is a problem child who hides behind magic and monster stories to cope with his issues. He repeatedly resorts to violent behavior against classmates and family members. While neither of these characters take the route of wanton violence as an outlet for their mental health issues, they do each manifest behaviors that frighten others, and endanger themselves.

The Babadook attempts to depict how people push away individuals with mental illness, and how frequently mental illness goes undiagnosed. It’s easier to say “she’s crazy” than to take a look at the cause of someone’s problem and try to help. The Babadook is a representation of how society often doesn’t put enough emphasis on treating people with mental illness, but instead takes an “out of sight, out of mind” approach.

Early in the film, Sam is pushed out of his school by its administrators. They would rather send him elsewhere than try to continue working to diagnose and solve his issues. Amelia and Sam both drive away their only family member, Amelia’s sister, with their behaviors. It’s not clear for the bulk of the film that the terrors in Amelia and Sam’s life are products of their own minds, but the truth slowly starts to become apparent. Amelia’s mind created the Babadook as a projection of her own trauma and frustration.

A pivotal scene occurs when Amelia and Sam are at Amelia’s niece’s birthday party. The mothers of all the children gather around, discussing the “problems” in their lives, such as no longer having time to go to the gym. Amelia’s frustration at the superficiality of the conversation boils inside her, eventually provoking her outburst in which she criticizes the other mothers’ so-called “problems” as petty. The other mothers disregard Amelia and dismiss her actions as those of a “crazy” person.

Amelia’s own sister sides with the other guests, dismissing Amelia’s behavior as “insane.” She cuts Amelia and Sam out of her life to keep their erratic behavior away from her daughter. Amelia’s sister is the only person who has been there all her life, knows her history, and should be able to identify the issues at hand, try to sympathize with Amelia’s problems, and suggest help. Instead she does the opposite. The result is the manifestation of a demon within Amelia’s mind, the stress of which poured onto her son and fueled his own mental problems, and nearly cost both their sanity.