Mothers and Monsters: Possession and Parenting in Brightburn and The Babadook
Guest Blog Post by Jennifer from The Horror Virgin
My mother once tried to perform an exorcism on me. I’m not sure she realized that’s what she was doing, but she grabbed me and screamed for Jesus to come down and take the demon out of me. It was awful. What prompted this? A disagreement about politics, the details of which you can probably fill in for yourself. Granted, I had yelled at her. Years of built up rage finally spilled over and I couldn’t control myself. I’m sure the emotional charge behind what I was saying scared her as much as my actual words did, and it may have seemed as if a literal demon had taken over the body of her sweet little girl. But the reality was that her “sweet little girl” had ideas and thoughts that she found threatening, and she had to turn those thoughts into something evil in order to preserve her sense of right and wrong.
When I look at it with a cold eye, I can understand. She thought I had been possessed; that a malevolent force had taken over and I was no longer myself. I knew what I said would directly challenge the patriarchal system she had totally bought into and that, as my mother, she saw her job as teaching me how to survive in it. Anything I did to question that structure she would see as both a threat to her daughter and an indictment of her own choices.
I have two children of my own and as much as I love them, being a mother presents some of the most complex and overwhelming fears I’ve ever encountered. That either my children will become monsters, or I will. In Brightburn, we see the fear of raising children in a world outside of our control, of the child becoming the monster. The Babadook shows us the opposite fear, that of the monstrous parent. Our inability to live up to the awesome charge of creating and shaping new life, given the chance to play God, we will inadvertently walk down the path of the devil.
In The Babadook, we see Amelia dealing with depression and the trauma of losing her husband years ago along with the stress of raising a challenging child on her own. She accidentally invites a monster called the Babadook into her house. It soon possesses her and she becomes a danger to herself and to her young son Samuel. However, we see through the course of the film that her depression and grief are what are really possessing her and keeping her from truly caring for Samuel. On top of being a single parent, Amelia is battling a serious mental illness and it takes most of her physical and mental energy just to take care of herself. She wants to be a good mother to Samuel, but the depression and guilt of neglecting him are too much to bear. The dark thoughts, shown in the form of the Babadook, offer her a release from that pain and when she can no longer fight them off, they possess her.
I had a strong reaction to The Babadook because I too am dealing with a mental illness and the stress of raising young children. It’s really hard. Some days, it’s all I can do to hold myself together and keep the pain I’m feeling inside from showing. In these moments, I just cannot change another diaper or tie another shoe. I’ve screamed and spanked and let myself turn into someone I don’t recognize. And I’ve scared my children.
But Samuel does not give up on Amelia. He traps her in the basement to try to save her from herself and stays with her as she expels the demon. He can see that she truly loves him and gives her the space and the support she needs to begin to heal. She is able to let in the light of his love and recover.
Brightburn shows us the opposite fear, that of the child monster. An evil mirror of Superman, Brandon is a seemingly normal kid until a mysterious force radiating from the hidden spaceship he arrived in at birth awakens something inside him. When his mother, Tori, tells him the truth of his birth, he lets the demon in and begins to embrace the darkness. He initially reacts in rage and I imagine the desire to hurt others is a mask for the pain he is feeling as a result of being misled by his parents.
Tori loves her son and spends most of the film refusing to believe he is capable of the terrible acts we see him commit. And can we really blame her? She raised Brandon with love, and gave him everything he needed and it wasn’t enough. Such is the risk when we bring other humans into the world; eventually they become their own people.
Tori does not give Brandon the same support that Samuel gives Amelia. She and her husband Kyle use Brandon’s adoption as a way to distance themselves from him. Just like any adolescent, Brandon cycles between rage and defiance to fear, shame, and what seems like a genuine desire to please his parents. There are moments when he seems to be the same child Tori raised from an infant. When Brandon lets his guard down to be embraced by Tori, she literally tries to stab him in the back. I’m not saying Tori’s actions were wrong as she was clearly acting in self-defense, but what devastation could have been prevented with a genuine and sustained effort to try to connect with Brandon and help him process his pain?
When Tori finally accepts what Brandon has done, she is forced to confront the truth that her sweet little boy is not who she thought. He has let something dark in. Or worse, that the monster was inside him all along. I have always questioned whether I am a good person and I’m terrified that the faults I see in myself will begin to manifest in my children. Perhaps that I have passed on my monstrosity. Was my mother attempting to destroy the part of herself that she saw reflected in me? The part she was terrified to accept? Or was she trying to rid me of the part of myself that does not align with her understanding of who I should be? Who was she really trying to protect?
I’m sure when my mother looked at me, she saw someone she didn’t recognize. I had been hiding that part of myself from her for most of my life. It must have seemed like I had been taken over, but I was finally showing her who I truly was and it terrified her. I hope that we can learn to see each other honestly and she will see that who I am is not a threat to her. I hope that, like Samuel, we can give each other the support and understanding it will take to mend our relationship.
Parenting is hard. We are raising someone who will go on to leave his or her mark on the world. And good or bad, we bear at least some responsibility, just like our parents bear partial responsibility for the marks we leave. I don’t know if there is a moral here, but I see hope in Samuel’s courage that I do not in Tori’s.
Our children and parents will eventually see who we really are, just as we will see them. When we reveal to them our true selves, we take the risk that they will see monsters lurking beneath the surface and turn away. But we can’t let these fears take over because that’s how the monsters get in.