When it premiered in 2014, The Babadook already seemed destined to become a quiet cult classic. Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature – a psychological horror story that is equal parts The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Amityville Horror – was a refreshing entry into the genre. It eschewed cheap jump scares and machete-wielding serial killers, instead unnerving audiences with a more realistic terror that hit much closer to home. The film tells the story of Amelia Vanek, a stressed-out widow trying to raise her temperamental young son Sam after the death of her husband, Oskar. Sam is troubled by an imaginary creature, the titular Babadook, who eventually enters the family’s home. From there, it stalks Amelia and Sam before finally possessing Amelia herself. The possession drives Amelia into a violent and horrific confrontation with the struggles of single motherhood and the death of her husband. Move forward a few years to June 2017, and Babadook is back – this time, quite unexpectedly, as the unofficial mascot of LGBT Pride month.
Perhaps a horror monster from a fairly humorless movie wouldn’t seem to be on the short list of meme-friendly queer icons, but with a little context the pairing isn’t all that strange. For people in the LGBTQ community, Pride creates a place to be their most authentic selves, to express themselves without fear. Similarly, the horror genre has become a safe haven for freaks and outcasts, a space to be weird, to aggressively defy mainstream expectations. Horror thrives on unnerving the viewer by preying on the inherent fear of the unknown, and homosexuality – really, anything or anyone that defies typical gender norms – has been historically misunderstood and maligned as a boogeyman.
Babadook didn’t have any strong ties to the LGBTQ community until 2016, thanks to some humorous discussion on Tumblr around a potentially edited image that shows the movie listed in the LGBT category on Netflix. Babadook’s look was already pretty campy – a pale, androgynous humanoid with a flamboyant top hat, black cloak, maniacal smile and splayed jazz hands – so it didn’t take long before playful images of the Babadook holding rainbow flags or decked out in colorful clothes spread across the Internet. The meme proved popular and caption-able enough on social media platforms to last June of 2017, and made history as part of this month’s Pride.
Babadook’s queerness begins with its gradual disruption – first pesky, then insufferable, then terrifying, then catastrophic – of Amelia’s domestic space and her family unit. Amelia learns early on in the film that Babadook cannot be destroyed or repelled. The Babadook is the uncanny embodiment of her grief and denial, and she is shown throughout the movie suppressing her own depression in front of friends and family. This denial makes her a prime vessel for the Babadook’s influence. Each time she tries to get rid of the Babadook, it comes back bigger, more grotesque and dangerous, until all she can do is banish it to a small corner of the basement of her home.
happy pride month from queer icon the babadook pic.twitter.com/f2JxwQbRDd
— jacob (@jacobbullards) June 3, 2017
In the meme, the Babadook represents queerness itself, an invisible threat made real through denial and oppression. Queerness is often cast away into small corners of society but never completely destroyed, often coming back bigger and stronger and more visible, more of a perceived threat to heteronormative society.
One of the many frightening characteristics of the Babadook is that it only appears when you learn of its existence. Amelia brings the creature into her domestic space when she discovers the strange pop-up book about Mister Babadook, out of nowhere, on her son’s shelf. The book contains horrifying images and foretells the monstrous acts that Amelia will later commit. Amelia tries to destroy the book, but the damage has already been done: the threat is in her home. Similarly, schools in the States have been reportedly prohibiting students from accessing LGBTQ literature or searching for resources on the Internet, as if simply viewing material will conjure the threat of homosexuality into reality when it already exists.
openly gay and with an affinity for hats and drama, the Babadook was the first time I saw myself represented in a film
— JuanPa (@jpbrammer) April 19, 2017
The Babadook can also be seen as a menace that thrives on disrupting the typical family unit, similar to the so-called “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. Like the looming threat of homosexuality, the Babadook terrorizes an already fractured family, one that is coded as otherwise innocent and ordinary.
Sure, the Babadook is an off-beat choice for a queer icon. But for this year’s Pride – in a time when queer communities are once again facing destructive homophobic and transphobic pushback after a period of relative stability – the Babadook has become a symbol of resilience for a group often pushed aside and discarded. In this year of rebuilding, it is the hope of all corners of the LGBT community to emerge from the dark, dank basement heteronormative society has pushed it into and become fully integrated, normalized, and no longer a monstrous threat lurking in the shadows. And if it takes a fun-loving, top-hat-wearing bogeyman waving a rainbow flag to do it, then so be it.