I just watched THE BABADOOK, this Australian horror movie streaming on Netflix about a
creature that comes alive from the pages of a children’s book–one you’d never borrow from your library because it’s a creepy vintage popup book and also it’s fucking evil. It made me think a lot about stories and what makes them scary. Here are my thoughts.
1. Especially in the horror genre, creating atmosphere is so important. A romantic comedy can have some dramatic moments, a science fiction some comedic ones… but the atmosphere in a horror movie or novel should create a sense of the creepy throughout, even where there are no monsters. The family in THE BABADOOK has a tragic, bloody backstory, and their home is full of dim halls and shadowy corners.
2. Part of this atmosphere often includes a silence that permeates scenes. This makes those unnatural sights and startling noises that eventually come all the more unsettling.
3. When we hear noises out of nowhere, or see images grotesque and frightening, we’re scared because it’s unexpected. This element of shock also makes humor and romance work: the punchline we didn’t see coming, the kiss after a fight. And especially in horror, that shock makes our adrenaline run.
4. The best shocks are the ones that are the most unnatural and strange. In THE BABADOOK, this is the monster repeating the weird “Ba-ba-dook!” as his calling card. Our brain is further unnerved as we try to suss out its meaning.
5. Even with the strange and unnatural, we must recognize something human in a horror story. The mother in THE BABADOOK is someone I recognized: as the mother of a boy with social and emotional challenges, her simultaneous expression of exhaustion, love, frustration, and fear felt very real to me as a special needs parent. We must recognize and care about characters to care what happens to them.
5. Along with the shocks, there is often also a slow build in stories as we feel characters (and sometimes ourselves) descending into a sort of madness. It looks like a man in a tophat is at the foot of our stairs, but maybe it’s just clothing hanging from the coat rack. The horror outside reflects what’s happening inside ourselves.
6. In this way, the best horror movies are always about other things, internal things. It’s not monsters or ghosts but something else that it’s all about, that we really fear or need to work through. This is true in THE BABADOOK, where the mother must face her internal demons as she fights the creature who’s entered her home.
7. Maybe all horror stories are about other things. Demented clowns and dolls are scary because they represent the perversion of innocence. Zombies frighten us with the reminder of our own ugly mortality, Frankenstein with our monstrous and fallible ability to create. Fright is internal, after all, the monsters only emphasizing the fear within.