“You know, honestly, I thought it would be scarier,” Gwen said, gripping an empty bowl of popcorn. “What did you think?”
Dania, meanwhile, gripped the arms of the couch, her nails just starting to break the fabric. “Did we have to watch it at night?” she whimpered.
Gwen brushed this off. “It’s creepy, sure. But it’s more unsettling than anything I’m actually going to be afraid of.”
“Don’t be a tool, Gwen,” Eleanor said, her hand on Dania’s shoulder. “Just because you’re all unfazed by horror movies…”
“It’s not that I’m unfazed,” Gwen said. “It’s just not the kind of scary that haunts you later. It’s more manageable. It’s about as scary as The Purge is.”
“That’s still scary,” Eleanor added. She turned to Dania – “you’ll be okay, right?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna be fi––”
Dania quickly turned to look out the darkened window. Arrested, she remained there for a few seconds as Eleanor talked.
“It is a pretty good horror movie, though,” she continued. “You’ve gotta admit it’s effective. The color palette is so sad the whole time.”
“Yeah, it threw me off for a little bit,” Gwen said. “Sussing out what the rules of the world are takes a while to do. Is everything grey because we’re looking at it through her eyes? Or is it an aesthetic world-building tool?”
“I think it’s actually grey,” Eleanor responded. “It seems genuine. The sister-in-law mentions that the house looks creepy inside.”
“That’s what I settled on,” Gwen said. “For a horror movie with really obvious symbolism, it’s surprising how much is actually supposed to happen in universe.”
Dania, who was back from the window, tossed a dead glance towards Gwen. “Please unpack that word salad.”
“I was all ready to chalk the Babadook itself being a figment of her imagination,” Gwen said. “As in, the twist is that she’s actually doing this stuff. Or the kid is the Babadook. If the whole thing is about dealing with grief, it figures it’s an internal villain.”
“Wasn’t it in her head?” Eleanor asked. “I definitely got that vibe.”
“Yeah, I thought so,” Dania agreed. “Are you telling me she actually had a late-night face-off with the Babadook and it literally cracked the walls of the house?”
“If that’s what the film is saying, I’ll buy it,” Gwen said. “How else do you interpret the final scene?”
“I don’t know, that it’s a metaphorical action?” Eleanor said. “You’re the one that’s all about metaphor.”
“I believe the metaphor is more – well, metatextual here. In the universe of the film, the Babadook is entirely real. It’s only the viewers, us, who see the story as an obvious parallel to living with trauma.”
“I’d hold off on the word obvious,” Dania said. “I mean, yeah, that makes sense. But you’re forgetting a couple of important things. First, it’s gotta work as a scary movie before you get into the real meaning of stuff, remember?”
“True,” Eleanor said. “Like, I picked up the whole, ‘the Babadook represents her grief over the dead dad’ angle. I got that. But as a horror movie, it still works fine.”
“Certainly,” Gwen said. “Although considering its roots in art house theatres, I think Jennifer Kent assumes that most audiences are going to pick up on the symbolism.”
Eleanor’s eyes drifted away from Gwen. “That might be true. Then again, I don’t know if she expected the film was going to get this cult success and become a household name.”
“Also fair,” Gwen said. “It’s sort of strange that such a small, niche, art-house film would get picked up like that.”
“Quality begets success,” Eleanor quoted. “If the world is just.”
“Let me finish the list of things Gwen is forgetting,” Dania jutted in.
Gwen smiled, guarded. “Continue.”
“Number one, it’s gotta work on the surface before you deal with ‘true meaning,'” Dania repeated. “Which I think it does. And secondarily, you’ve gotta now consider the babadiscourse around the movie.”
“What the hell is the babadiscourse,” Gwen asked flatly.
“It’s the Babadook being a gay icon,” Eleanor explained.
“Don’t tell me the Babadook isn’t openly gay, Gwen!” Sitting up, Dania gripped the couch again. “The Babadook is the queer icon we always needed but never deserved.”
“Did you hear about this last year?”
“This is…a year-old meme,” Gwen said. “What is going on?”
“The Babadiscourse isn’t a meme, Gwen,” Dania said. She leaned across the couch to get up in Gwen’s face. “It’s real.”
“The basic idea,” Eleanor explained, pushing Dania away, “is that the Babadook is a man with fabulous long nails, who isn’t accepted by a family and who represents repressed sexuality. The look of the Babadook is supposed to be, like, a drag performer. Thick, bright makeup and the top hat as a ‘statement piece.'”
“Like, it’s secretly a movie about a gay person not being accepted by their family,” Dania added. “The whole dead dad plot is a red herring.”
Gwen blinked, her eyes remaining shut a half-second longer than normal. “I don’t think you can rule out an entire part of the film as a red herring,” she added, finally. “What about the dead dad appearing again in the basement?”
“It’s still in the mom’s head, duh,” Dania said. “The dad pushed the Babadook down and told him not to life his truth. So the dad is the mom internalizing this and continuing the cycle of abuse.”
“This is more intricate than I thought,” Gwen said. “I thought it was just the idea that the character was gay, as a gag.”
“It’s a fluid interpretation,” Eleanor said. “Half serious and half not. Although, honestly, I haven’t watched the movie again since the babadiscourse started. And you know…” She considered the story again – running through her recent thoughts during the film. “…It’s not an entirely ridiculous interpretation.”
“If you alter it a little bit,” Eleanor explained. “I don’t think the Babadook is a gay character. But he – they, she, whatever – the Babadook can represent gay repression.”
Gwen’s eyes focused. “Explain.”
“It’s like, the movie wants the Babadook to be a symbol for repressed guilt, or trauma, or whatever,” Eleanor said. “But because – like you said, Gwen – that subtext is entirely within the viewer, rather than the film, the Babadook can be a stand-in for any repressed thought or urge. Discussions of sexuality can certainly get suppressed, especially in a nuclear family.”
“What, so the mother is secretly gay?” Gwen asked. “Why is the son acting out, then? Is everything a red herring?”
“Like I said, it’s a fluid interpretation,” Eleanor said. “And obviously, none of this was intended by Jennifer Kent.”
“The gay community knows a gay icon when they see one,” Dania added.
“Watching it again now, my read is that the kid is gay,” Eleanor continued. “Think about it: he keeps acting out, he refuses to act the same way as everyone else at school, he lashes out at people who confront him about his identity. That’s a thespian right there.”
“In the loosest interpretation,” Gwen said.
“So basically, the mom is like, ‘what’s wrong with this kid? Is he mentally unstable? Why does he act out like this?’ And the ‘Mister Babadook’ pop-up book ––”
“What’s gayer than coming out of the closet with a pop-up book?” Dania asked. “The drama!”
“The pop-up book showing up symbolizes the first time that the mother considers that her son could be gay. And she’s terrified of it.”
“So is the kid, though,” Gwen stopped her. “So if the kid is gay, why would he be scared of his mother –– well, when I phrase it like that…”
“He’s also seven,” Dania added. “That young, no one knows what they are. Maybe he’s just figuring it out, too. That can be frightening to a kid. But it would make total sense why he sees the Babadook first and makes peace with it more quickly. And then confronts his mother and asks her to see it too!”
Dania turned back to look at Eleanor. “I still think the Babadook is a proud gay man, though. He can be both gay and a symbol of gayness.”
“I mean, like you said,” Gwen added. “With an interpretive openness that broad, it can be any repressed consideration. Though, I wouldn’t hesitate to point out that grief is certainly the authorial intent here.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “But I don’t think the Gay Babadook theory takes anything away from the original.”
“I mean, yes, the thing started as a joke on Tumblr,” Dania said. “But, like, even if it’s random, it ended up working out. That’s sort of the thing with Tumblr, or the entire internet. If you threw any random interpretation onto anything, someone’s going to make a video essay breaking down why it’s the right interpretation. You could say Slenderman represents our anxiety about North Korea, or that the swamp man from The Shape Of Water is actually Reince Priebus, and someone will find a way for you to be right.”
“And I think that’s a positive thing,” Eleanor added. “Authorial intent is so nebulous anyway. If a different version gets picked up, the least we can do is embrace it.”
Gwen wasn’t so sure about this – wouldn’t a gay Babadook dress in brighter colors than the dark black shadows that enveloped both him and the entire film? But Eleanor was ultimately right bout death of the author – the people owned the film now, and their Babadook liked men.
“I suppose,” she finally said. “If it helps you to keep from being scared by him.”
Dania recollected the Babadook of the film – a far cry from the brash, prideful figure that had invaded Tumblr the previous year. Again, she glanced out the dark window. Whatever shadows she saw, she would imagine with a rainbow flag in their claws.
Image Credit: Toronto International Film Festival