As always, these breakdowns contain SPOILERS, and are only recommended if you've already seen the movie. You can check my introduction to these breakdowns, to get an overview of my process and philosophy.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Release Date: 2014
Runtime: 94 minutes
Download The Script
Movie Level Goals
External Goal: To defeat The Babadook
SUCCESS | FAILURE
Internal Goal: To learn to live with loss of her husband
SUCCESS | FAILURE
Observation #1: The Act I Shift
A quick glance at the above chart reveals an obvious point about The Babadook. While the Act 2 and 3 goals revolve very specifically around the Babadook, Act 1's goal is focused much more specifically on Samuel. This might seem unusual, but actually keeps with a common pattern, especially in horror films. While Act I sets up exposition, develops character, creates expectations, and disrupts the status quo, it is often only indirectly related to the larger movie-level goals. Likewise, in horror films, while the "horror" is often introduced in some fashion in Act 1, it often doesn't begin to interact with protagonist until the Act 1 climax, or even into Act 2 (because of the basic nature of horror film plots, many have somewhat shorter run times and only three acts).
In The Babadook, the discovery and reading of The Babadook book functions as the inciting incident around the 10-minute mark. The reading of the book is presumably what brings the Babadook creature to life and begins the haunting of Samuel and Amelia. In keeping with typical horror structure, Amelia isn't aware of the haunting. Instead, Samuel seems to be the one aware of his presence, though we as the audience never see him. This allows us to be aligned with Amelia, not really sure why Samuel is acting the way he is. So Amelia's goal is to deal with Samuel's unusual and violent behavior. Of course, if we assume that Samuel is acting this way because of the Babadook, then Amelia's goal is indirectly linked to the Babadook. At the Act 1 climax, Samuel's disturbing behavior results in a seizure and visit to the doctor, allowing Amelia to get sedatives to calm Samuel down. Amelia succeeds in calming Samuel down, but she has only addressed the symptom and not the cure. With Samuel sedated, Act 2 moves increasingly toward having the Babadook influence Amelia more directly.
Observation #2: Subtle Goals
The act goals and climaxes are not especially obvious to the casual viewer (except the Act 3 and movie climax). Because Amelia's external goals are not super-obvious, The Babadook feels somewhat like a mini-plot. There are subtle shifts, as noted in the chart, but the Act 2 and 3 goals are similar and even the Act 2 climax feels more like a natural progression than a significant turning point (though this is the first time we've seen Oskar's ghost, so in some ways it is a significant moment). One of the main reasons this works is because, to some extent, The Babadook is a mini-plot. As we'll explore in Observation #3, the Babadook is as much symbolic and internal as it is external and concrete.
Observation #3: Theme as Internal Goal
One the reason's for the high regard of The Babadook (98% on Rotten Tomatoes) is its status as one of the first contemporary "thematic horror" films that have become so influential over the past 5-7 years. These include It Follows (2014), Get Out (2017), Hereditary (2018), and Relic (2020). In all of these, the haunt or horror exists as a physical manifestation of some form of evil or malevolence, but it also exists metaphorically representing an internal or abstract fear of some kind. In The Babadook it's the combination of depression/grief. For the others it's sex/sexually transmitted disease (It Follows), racism (Get Out), family (Hereditary), and death/dying (The Relic). The metaphorical nature of the horror in The Babadook, and similar films, creates a depth that many horror films lack. Typically, most horror films are limited to external goals--even high quality horror films tend to lack character depth and internal goals. But movies like The Babadook, by making the horror symbolic of a deeper, abstract, often emotional issue create an internal component to the goal. It's not a separate goal as internal goals often are, but the internal dimension acts like the opposite side of the coin, meaning that characters must overcome the internal emotion or fear that the symbol represents in order to overcome the haunting. In The Babadook, Amelia must overcome her grief, depression, and anxiety (or at least learn to live with it) in order to overcome the Babadook and be there for Samuel.