Both The Babadook and Midsommar explore the horrors of living with grief; but the films’ resolutions are as different as night and day.
In The Babadook, the protagonist Amelia struggles with grief in the form of a dark spectre that haunts her and her young son Sam. Whereas Amelia feels the loss of her husband as an absence in her dark and pallid house, her son sees it as an enemy he must defend against. Amelia’s despair is quiet and anxious; Sam reacts by hurting the children who bully him.
When a mysterious children’s book appears, Sam summons the horror of the Babadook into the house. Sam’s desire to know more about his lost father has fed a curiosity about the mysterious shape in the shadows that he has been crafting weapons to fight — and now it has taken solid form.
As the Babadook is strengthened by Amelia’s denial of the haunting, it eventually completely subsumes her. Amelia kills her dog and almost kills her son as she is possessed by the monster.
Ultimately Amelia successfully confronts the Babadook, with the help of her son’s grounding and loving touch — and uses an explosion of long-dormant fury to consign the creature to her basement.
The Babadook ends with mother and son living with their monster restrained in the basement. While Sam still keeps weapons to defend himself, and Amelia must work to continuously confront the Babadook’s aggression; they both nevertheless choose to keep it fed, alive and in sight.
The film’s repeated phrase “You can’t get rid of the Babadook” leaves us with the message that grief is more dangerous when it is ignored. Like the Jungian shadow, the Babadook must be confronted and cared for, or it festers and rises up to seize our entire identity.
Midsommar similarly approaches grief as a force for horror; yet its vehicle is less apparent than the literal monster we must confront in The Babadook.
The film opens with the sounds of a brutal panic attack. We’re shown the graphic and sudden loss of an entire family — leaving behind our protagonist, Dani, to cope with her grief practically alone in a dark and dreary American town.
Grief in Midsommar does not creep up like a spectre, as it does in The Babadook; rather it takes total ownership of the film from the start, sitting within our main character as a heavy weight, and we see everything through her lens of isolation.
Dani’s friends awkwardly and reluctantly invite her to join them on a trip to Sweden, to visit a unique and remote commune during their midsummer festival. Like our introduction to the film, Dani’s arrival in Sweden begins with paranoia and anxiety. An impulsive psychedelic trip in an oppressively bright green field leads Dani into a state of unease. She flees the bad trip, searching out the relative darkness of the trees, and is left alone and confused. She comes down shaken, and lonely.
Initially, Dani’s outsider status in the quaint calm of the foreign commune mirror her alienation at home. Dani’s inability to express her grief amongst her peers — who are unable to support her or understand her loss — is closely twinned with the polite alienation from their ostensibly pleasant hosts.
When things start to take a dark turn, Dani’s reaction is markedly different from that of her friends. We get the impression that Dani’s horror is more practiced. She had been, on some level, expecting this. Maybe she is simply desensitised to death.
Now Dani is stuck between two worlds. On one side, her friends, who react to the cultists with fear, disgust, and denial. On the other side, the horrifying pragmatism of their culty hosts, who are certainly more present to loss, yet dangerous and strange.
This balance starts to tip as Dani’s friends gradually disappear, and the cult entices her into a joyous psychedelic ritual that crowns her the May Queen. She stumbles from this unfamiliar and uneasily joyous high into the sight of her drugged boyfriend impregnating a young cult member — and Dani’s transition into the cult becomes irreversible. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Dani can fully express her fury and sadness, and her cries are seen and met by her new sisters as they collapse into a singularity of grief.
Dani is now, finally, empowered to release her suffering among people who can truly accept it. Her final act is to literally burn her past life away, and embrace her personal grief as a core part of her identity, rather than keeping it hidden from those who can’t face it.
Both The Babadook and Midsommar are about the need to develop a relationship with grief. While The Babadook suggests confrontation through connection — catalysed by the love between mother and son — Midsommar presents a deeply violent catharsis; a total rejection of a society that itself rejects loss. Midsommar’s Dani represents all those who are left behind by their communities — who are left with no choice but to undergo a deeper transformation to resolve their grief.
I don’t think either film necessarily endorses their presented methods of processing grief. Yet both are saying that a relationship with the trauma is essential, and ultimately unavoidable.
Sustain your grief in the safe darkness of a basement; or live in a never-ending dance within its bright flames.