Several years ago I had a client who needed some legal work done. She was an educated and well-adjusted single mother of a young girl. She was normal in every way.
And then something terrible happened. Her daughter died suddenly from an unexpected illness. And this sent the mother on a downward psychological spiral from which she was unable to escape. The woman’s mother–a kindly but psychologically very strong woman in her 70s–was forced to care for her daughter, who went to pieces.
It was a terrible sight. A slide into madness can take different forms with different people. Sometimes they are functional, and can interact with others. And sometimes they are not. Sometimes they can’t even dress or wash themselves.
It is a terrible sight, to see a person go to pieces.
I don’t think I can ever forget going through that experience.
At her court hearings, I and her mother had to basically treat her as one would a 5 year-old child. And at other times she was hysterical, or raving, or catatonic. It all depended.
Well, you say, why can’t these people just get over their grief? Why can’t they just move on?
Well, some people cannot move on.
The demon has taken such possession of the soul that it has become fused to it, as if some thermite reaction has dripped molten iron onto its spiritual surface.
The Australian psychological horror film The Babadook (2014) explores this tortured mental territory. It is a masterpiece of sustained tension, repressed grief, and explosive self-destructive impulses. This is a dark film, but it is darkness with a moral purpose: to reveal the inner torment of those who are unable to get beyond the grief of severe trauma, and move on with their lives.
It is a warning, a cautionary tale of implacable intensity.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother raising her six-year old son Sam alone. We are informed that her husband, Oskar, has died years earlier in an auto crash. Even more tragic and ominous, he was killed while driving Amelia to the hospital to deliver her son.
So right away, we know that Amelia’s mind is going to be a frightful stew of conflicting emotions, guilt, and subliminal blame.
Sam has severe behavioral and discipline problems. Amelia is sexually frustrated, in denial, and withdrawn from family and co-workers. Sam believes that monsters inhabit the house, and he has built weapons to fight them.
One day Sam “finds” a children’s book called Mister Babadook. It is a disturbing collection of images about a demon that grows stronger the more one “denies” him. Amelia tries to get rid of the book, but the images of Mr. Babadook remain in her and Sam’s head.
Sam won’t stop talking about him, and Amelia can’t stop thinking about him. She begins to hallucinate, and sees the tall, gaunt, Nosferatu-like figure of Babadook everywhere she looks.
As Sam’s birthday, comes around, the visions intensify in frequency. She begins to see her lost husband. The son’s birthday reminds her of the loss of her husband, and this sets off a whole cycle of irrational behavior.
She locks herself and Sam into the house, and the stage is set for a descent into madness and possible redemption.
The Babadook is the debut film of director Jennifer Kent, and it is a very impressive debut. Horror films are very difficult to carry off correctly; one slip can ruin the mood and the tone. But Kent never slips once in this tour-de-force, which owes much (it must be said) to the incredible acting of Essie Davis as Amelia.
I can’t imagine how Davis would have prepared for a role like this. Like the characters in Edgar Allan Poe’s best horror tales, she alternates between apparent rationality and raging lunacy, to such an extent that the viewer is not quite sure who has won the battle for possession of her mind.
And it really is a battle. When I say battle, I mean just that. For we cannot purge ourselves of certain types of demonic possession without some cathartic violence.
Some purgative force is always necessary to expel some demons. Some people can muster up the strength to conduct this purgative exercise. And some cannot. It is no accident that Purgatory, by necessity, involves the very idea of purging.
And the purging is a nasty, violent process. It involves a form of rebirth. A destruction of an old identity, and a forging of a new one.
If one is lucky. Some cannot get past the pain, and the agony, of forging this new identity. And so they remain in Purgatory.
A Purgatory for souls that are in denial. And who refuse to get over their denial.
And that’s exactly as it should be. Because there is no crypt as disturbing, no haunted house so horrible, as the dark recesses of the human mind. Therein lies the real repository of woe. The greatest horror is always psychological horror. That is, what is in the mind. The mind and its contortions.
Always has been.
This psychological ground has been covered before, but never as dramatically. I admired Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2003 film Fear X very much. This was also study of grief and repressed rage.
In Fear X, the lead character, a mall security guard, is unable to get over the death of his wife. He spends hours, even days, poring over old surveillance videos in an attempt to find out the identity of her murderer.
And he thinks, one day, that he has found a lead that might tell him more. And this clue leads to more clues. Or does it? Has he found anything of substance, or is he just chasing phantoms? There are good arguments on both sides.
What is beyond doubt is that his grief has destroyed his life; it has eaten away at the connective tissues of his mental stability. It almost seems not to matter in the end whether he has found anything. It almost seems as if the final revelations mean nothing.
The lead character of Fear X is never forced to confront his own ghoulish psyche, and expel its contents, in the same way that Amelia of The Babadook does. The mall security guard never really undergoes this violent catharsis.
And maybe that is his problem.
Maybe in order to get past the inner demons, we need this violent sort of exorcism. Out with the old, and in with the new, is what I say.
And even then, there is always some residue, some smudge of chemical compound, that remains in the laboratory crucible. Something always is left behind of the old self. Of the old psyche. And that’s the discipline, you see. You have to learn to live with the pain, to live with the grief, while still knowing that it has been purged away.
Because if you can’t learn to live with it, you will destroy yourself. It really is that simple.
For there can be no birth, or rebirth, without the death of something.
Even our old selves.