In an oft-told anecdote, Stanley Kubrick calls Stephen King late at night, out of the blue, to gab about ghosts. At some point in the conversation, Kubrick wonders if ghost stories, scary though they can be, aren't essentially optimistic. To Kubrick, the reality of a ghost implies the reality of an afterlife. By extension, the way at looking at the supernatural gives a sort of comforting logic to the possibly-unnerving illogical.
In this passing observation, Kubrick sort of inadvertently puts his finger on and fiddles with the linchpin of horror: we're scared by what we don't fully understand or perceive, but when we tell stories about these things we risk improving understanding and perception, diluting the fear. The problem persists: how do we talk about and describe something mysterious without demystifying it? How do we talk about ghosts without talking about the afterlife?
The yarns of old had it figured out. Take, for instance, the story of Hansel and Gretal. When those squirts wander out into the woods, it's taken for granted that a witch lives out there. Never mind why the witch lives there, she just does. Narratively speaking, this puts a lot of faith in the audience – a faith that's dwindling more and more – that something horrible is just there and has always been there. In the storytelling landscape we live in now, however, an entire movie would be dedicated to that witch's backstory. How she became a witch, how she came to live in the woods, how she acquired a taste for children. You could even devote a movie to the history of the woods. This love of unraveling backstory has become the bane of horror and suspense movies because all the mystery, and therefore all the threat, inevitably gets wrung out.
As a horror or suspense movie The Babadook is good in a way that shines a light on why its contemporaries are so bad.
For this reason, The Babadook will be inevitably frustrating to fans of mainstream horror, but this is looking at it through the lens of the past thirty years of decreasingly scary scary movies. We're inoculated to movies where the source of fear has franchise in mind, and so inevitably becomes elaborate and awkward and thin, shining light on all the crannies where the legitimately frightening stuff hides. But Mister Babadook hovers in that ill-lit, classic spot between a literal and a psychological presence.
Coming out of Australia, The Babadook is an objectively slight movie with an objectively big feel. Amelia is the widowed mother of Sam, an odd seven-year-old with an interest in magic and homemade self-defense weapons. He has the devotion of a knight, charged with protecting his mother. From what exactly, we don't know. On the surface, it would seem Sam is adopting the Man of the House roll on his lost father's behalf. What he's protecting against, however, becomes a bit more specific after an ashen pop-up bedtime book, Mister Babadook, pops up out of nowhere.
After the book appears – and then re-appears – Amelia and Sam's reality takes a pounding. But what is Mister Babadook, and where did book – as an object, it seemingly lets him into this world – come from? The thing's origins and intentions are never clear and its the fact that its reality is both obvious and obscure that makes it a palpable threat. Is this an actual, sinister being, or the psycological manifestation of inchoate grief? There's no easy answer. And this lack of easy answers sets The Babadook apart. Monsters become less scary the more literal they become. The more they become included in reality, the more they have to adhere to a logic. And logic is rarely scary.
At least anecdotally, The Babadook shares some commonalities with Kubrick's The Shining. For what's supposed to be ghost story, there are not clear ghosts in Kubrick's film. Almost – stress that almost – nothing happens that can't be explained by Jack's delusions. So too in The Babadook, what is supernatural and what is psychological is never clear. Kubrick's question to King can be read as a sort of an insult. In King's novel, the supernatural is literal – as dark as it might be, it's finally optimistic in Kubrick's terms. But telling that story with no certainty of ghosts dials up the tension and the horror, making possible the much more troubling story of a father twisted enough by his own mind that he'd slay his family. With a similar vagueness, The Babadook manages a similar, rare horror.