This thing had spent months inside of me, underneath my skin, parasitically living off me, and in a fit of guttural screams, blood and body parts it burst forth into this world. It may have left my body, but it won’t leave me, following me around wherever I go. It still clings to me, even years past that initial trauma. In the form of animalistic cries it keeps me awake at night as well as it’s unholy displays of rage and occasional projectile vomiting. No I’m not talking about a persistent poltergeist or a demonic entity wreaking havoc in a recent James Wan film: I’m talking about parenthood, specifically about being a new mother.
No-one ever tells you how much of a horror story motherhood can be. They tell you it’s all rainbows and unicorns, you’ll feel like you are floating on a cloud of glittery fairy farts, and sure, would you ever look at that precious baby angel! When in reality being a first time parent to a child makes a possessed Regan MacNeill from The Exorcist’ look like a walk in the park, especially when on top of all the expected sleepless nights, baby spit up, colic and leaky boobs you also happen to be one of the unlucky mothers who suffers from postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression, sometimes called postnatal depression, can occur once the normal ‘baby blues’ time period of about a week has come and gone, and the new parent is still feeling depressed. Symptoms include excessive crying, severe mood swings, difficulty bonding with baby, anxiety, insomnia as well as many others. There is no known single cause for postpartum depression: it may be the change of hormones in the birth giver’s body or any number of emotional issues that a new parent may be feeling. All I know is that it was hell for me.
I’ve always suffered from some form of depression and anxiety ever since I could remember as a child. My mother definitely had a form of postpartum depression after having me, and guess what? The fun thing about postpartum depression is it can be hereditary. So when I got pregnant with my son, myself and my partner prepared ourselves, not only for our new arrival, but also the possibility of impending depression doom. I was lucky enough to have such a well informed partner that he persuaded me to go to my GP and get help once I started displaying symptoms of postpartum depression, but it wasn’t just medication and therapy that helped me through that dark time of my life. I turned to horror, again, like I always have done in times of emotional turmoil: horror films that offered a safe and controlled release for my anxiety and depression, and one film in particular that made me feel – as a mother going through an extreme season of darkness and hopelessness – that I was not alone.
The Babadook (2014) is an Australian psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent. The movie centers on widowed Amelia as she navigates motherhood through exhaustion and grief with her six year old son Samuel. After reading a strange pop up book together, Amelia and her son are terrorised by a pale faced, top hat wearing spectre called ‘The Babadook’. As the creature begins to manifest itself within the walls of their home the lines between the monster and the mother begin to blur.
The first time I watched The Babadook was pre-parenthood. I appreciated it for its supernatural horror, the talent of actors Essie Davies and Noah Wiseman as the mother and son respectively, and the fact that The Babadook itself became an LGBTQIA icon. But other than those initial thoughts, it never really crossed my mind as a horror that I could empathically identify with: that was until I re-watched the movie again whilst in the pits of my postpartum depression. Psychologically speaking it is said that people who enjoy horror films do so because they are able to explore their darkest and more taboo emotions and fears in a controlled environment and whilst revisiting The Babadook with my three month old sleeping soundly beside me in his cot I was watching all of my guilt, anger and desperation being played out on the screen in front of me in the form of Amelia, the mother.
“Your mum’s very lucky to have you…”
I’m sure every new parent has heard this sentiment echoed as people interact with their new baby, but for someone suffering from postpartum mental illness hearing this is like someone sticking a hot poker in your gut. Said to Samuel and Amelia by a stranger, this line can be construed as a throwaway piece of dialogue, yet it’s one that rang in my ears like a siren. Just like Amelia, in theory I was very lucky to have my son. I’d previously lost a baby through miscarriage and so my new-born was what they call a “rainbow” child. Yet I didn’t feel lucky: maybe deep down I did, but it was being covered by the horrific feelings of guilt, paranoia and hopelessness. All I could think about was the fact that there must be something wrong with me if I wasn’t feeling elated and overcome with motherly emotions. There were of course times when looking at my baby I realised I loved him more than anything in this entire world, but just like Amelia in The Babadook I would snap and get freaked out by constantly having a small child attached to and dependent on me. I loved my child and I was very lucky to be able to carry and give birth to this precious baby, but I began to wonder if he was lucky to have me.
“Don’t let it in…”
‘The Babadook’ pop-up book that Samuel asks his mother to read is bright red, like a warning sign. The pages of the book show what happens if The Babadook is allowed in, and if an adult tries to deny the existence of this entity then it might cause them to do horrific things that they will regret, including hurting their child and ultimately hurting themselves. Every time I watch this scene I become that person shouting at the screen! This moment – and the book itself – represent the early warning signs of Amelia’s deteriorating mental health and, on a personal level, I find it symbolic of the signs of postpartum depression and if left unchecked what could happen.
The rates of suicide in postpartum mothers have almost tripled in the past decade and is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality. Post birth mental health screening is essential in recognising the early signs of postnatal depression and postpartum psychosis in new mothers, and just like what is written in the book of Mister Babadook it cannot be brushed over, denied or ignored for it will lead to a worsening of symptoms. In my personal experience I tried to deny what I was feeling and put it all down to “baby blues”, and -echoing Amelia’s sentiment – the phrase “I just need to sleep” became my everyday mantra. I desperately tried to not let the depression and suicidal ideation in, but just like Amelia, I was unable to recognise the person I was becoming under the shadow of my depression.
There’s a point in the movie in which Amelia’s personhood is taken over by The Babadook: she becomes erratic, her rage violent and she inflicts her anger on those she loves without any autonomy over her actions. I empathise with Amelia’s character progression at this point, and whilst my postpartum mental illness never spiralled into violence, it was like I wasn’t in control of how I reacted to situations. Out of nowhere I could fly into a rage, screaming and bubbling over with anger, but it felt like I was having an outer body experience and that something else had possessed my body, making it behave in this increasingly volatile fashion.
The final act of The Babadook rises to an aggressive crescendo as Amelia realises that the only way to protect her son and herself is to face the monster head on, eye to eye, and tell it that she no longer gives it permission to take over her life and household, thus causing The Babadook to retreat cowering to the basement of the house. This is exactly how I was able to force myself to look my depression dead in the eye, to stop the spiralling and take control of my life. It was only after I admitted to myself the truth of how I was feeling that I could defeat my depression, my babadook.
“If it’s in a word, or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”
The end scene of The Babadook shows how right the pop-up book was: Amelia and her son must now learn to live with the monster, feeding it as it hides – weakened – in their basement. Although much has been said about the conclusion of this film in regards to its symbolism of grieving, for me it is the perfect metaphor for how depression really cannot be magically cured. In fact, it’s a condition that one must learn to live with, using coping techniques, therapy or medication to quell the symptoms. My ongoing struggle with depression is my babadook. It’s always there, in my bodily basement. Some days it’s less subdued and much like Amelia, I have to feed it, face it, and soothe it.