Tag Archives: Jennifer Kent

The Monstrous Minds of ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ and ‘The Babadook’

Depictions of mental illness have existed since the dawn of the horror genre, with films like Psycho (1960) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) captivating ill-informed audiences as horrific windows into “madness.” Because the symptoms of mental disorders usually manifest as actions rather than visible deformities, characters with mental illness are often portrayed as inhuman villains. That’s changing as developments in the field of psychology and treatment have allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon that’s beginning to filter into cinema. Two recent examples are The Babadook (2014) and Daniel Isn’t Real (2019), films that shine in their compassionate illustrations of mental illness.

The Babadook follows widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) as she struggles to raise her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) while battling grief and depression. Daniel Isn’t Real is the story of Luke (Miles Robbins), a college student who fears the reemergence of his childhood imaginary friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is actually the onset of inherited schizophrenia. Both films personify mental illness as a monstrous character the protagonist must battle, providing key insight into the experiences of the mentally ill. Separating the disorder itself from the person suffering from it allows the audience to empathize with both Luke and Amelia, portraying them as relatable human beings rather than simply “crazy.” 

I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2018 and, though my recovery is going well, my mental illness often feels like a monster lurking just out of sight. To everyone else, my actions are choices stemming from either selfishness or a desire to cause pain, but the truth is much more complicated. They can’t see the monster whispering in my ear with manipulative lies and terrifying ideas. I feel a connection to Luke and Amelia as they try to resist their own monsters. By representing mental illnesses as external characters visible to the audience, both films allow us to understand the intent behind Luke and Amelia’s actions. We can empathize with them because we see that they are victims too. 

Luke’s mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) suffers from schizophrenia. As a child, Luke sneaks out of the house while his parents argue about Claire’s treatment and happens upon the aftermath of a massacre in a nearby restaurant. It’s in this crowd of onlookers that he first meets Daniel, a little boy he understands to be an imaginary friend. While Daniel is a positive influence at first, helping Luke process traumatic images from the crime scene, the relationship soon takes a sinister turn. Daniel convinces Luke to mix an excessive amount of medication into a smoothie for Claire, nearly killing her. Terrified, Claire helps Luke lock Daniel away in a doll house, mentally imprisoning him to avoid his dangerous influence. 

Years later, Daniel reemerges during Luke’s freshman year of college. A triggering visit home—combined with the stress of school—contribute to hallucinations Luke suspects are the onset of schizophrenia. Now Luke’s age, Daniel reappears while Claire is attempting suicide and calmy guides Luke through steps to disarm her. He sticks around for support after the incident and becomes an omnipresent force in Luke’s internal life again. 

At first Daniel seems to be a positive manifestation of the confidence and courage Luke struggles with as well as a way to dissociate during times of crisis and it’s easy to understand his appeal. Many mental illnesses provide some kind of relief in hallucinations or delusional thinking and this personification is crucial in explaining why someone would resist seeking treatment. Claire describes the onset of her illness as feeling both wonderful and terrible at the same time, until it only feels terrible. We see this trajectory play out as Daniel’s power over Luke grows.

Becoming more forceful in his suggestions, Daniel’s presence again grows increasingly sinister as Luke’s power to resist him fades. When Luke is hesitant to kiss his date, Daniel convinces him to give over control of his body. Acting as Luke, Daniel has rough sex with his date and attacks Luke’s roommate, sending him to the hospital and getting Luke kicked out of school. Luke tells his therapist what’s happening and begins medication to rid himself of Daniel, but it has no effect.  

Amelia’s monster emerges from a mysterious children’s book Samuel finds on his shelf one night before bed. The sinister story warns of an evil entity called the Babadook who enters with a knock and grows in power until those he torments wish for death. His malevolent presence in the house causes Samuel to act out in destructive ways, further adding to Amelia’s neverending emotional burden. 

Amelia does seek help, but it’s mostly to gain short-term relief in the form of sleeping pills for Samuel. She seems to want only to numb the pain rather than deal with the underlying cause of her depression. The Babadook eventually possesses Amelia’s body and, in the form of her late husband, persuades her to give in to her grief. She attempts to take Samuel to meet his father presumably by killing the boy then herself to reunite the family in death. 

While both films expertly personify the onset and persuasive quality of mental illness, it’s in their conclusions that the narratives drift apart. With the love and support of Samuel, Amelia is able to expel the Babadook and resist the inevitable temptation to let him in again. She traps the monster in the basement, visiting every day to feed him a bowl of dirt and earthworms. It’s a powerful depiction of therapy and recovery that has been essential to my own understanding of mental illness. My PTSD will never completely go away. It is part of who I am now and I must learn to live with its presence in my life. Amelia does this by acknowledging the Babadook but refusing to give it power over her actions. By feeding the monster to keep it at bay, she and Samuel begin to heal. 

Luke’s story takes a more troubling turn as we learn more about Daniel’s origins. Desperate for help, Luke reaches out to Percy Thigpen (Peter McRobbie), father of the young man responsible for the massacre at which Luke first met Daniel. Percy describes an ominous figure who haunted his son and may have contributed to his terrible crime. We learn that Daniel is this monster. He is not a manifestation of schizophrenia after all, but an ancient demon determined to consume the lives of those he torments. While this works narratively, the choice to characterize Daniel in this way cuts the heart out of the powerful mental health allegory. While schizophrenia can sometimes be passed down through generations, it is not a contagious disease transmittable by contact with mentally ill people. To suggest so feels like a disservice to those suffering from this very real condition.

Also problematic is the resolution of Luke’s story. He regains the strength to fight Daniel and ultimately defeats him by jumping off a roof to his death, depriving the monster of a body to control. The implication here is that the best way for Luke to combat his mental illness is by killing himself. Schizophrenia is a highly stigmatized disorder and many people diagnosed with it do attempt and complete suicide. Many view themselves as inherently dangerous and attempt self-harm because they see it as the best way to protect those around them. The conclusion of Daniel Isn’t Real unintentionally reinforces this false narrative. Luke’s suicide is portrayed as a heroic act, his death a sacrifice to save others rather than a tragic symptom of his illness. 

Mental Illness might feel like a monster, but it’s not. It’s a part of who we are. The ending of The Babadook is one of the most heartfelt and empowering things I’ve ever seen. Its resolution gave me my first real understanding of true recovery and showed me that healing is possible. I will never kill my monster. I will live with PTSD for the rest of my life. I’ve accepted this and now concentrate my efforts on managing the symptoms. I do this in large part because of The Babadook. Watching the film gave me hope at a time when I felt like my world was ending. I saw Amelia and Sam begin to heal and felt like maybe I could too. 

I imagine those diagnosed with schizophrenia might watch the ending of Daniel Isn’t Real and feel hopeless. The act of martyrdom the film seems to be celebrating is not doing the hard work of treatment and recovery, but ending Luke’s life. Both Amelia and Luke gain control by locking their monsters away, Amelia in the basement and Luke in the dollhouse. Though this temporarily relieves the symptoms, it does not make the monsters go away. Amelia accepts her monster and begins to live her life again. I wish Luke had been afforded that option.

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The Brutal History Behind Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Nightingale’

The Nightingale is a graphic, brutal film full of 19th century colonial rage. The follow up to director Jennifer Kent’s debut horror tale The Babadook, The Nightingale delves into a very different kind of horror, that of the British colonization of Tasmania. 

The Nightingale is a horror film not about a supernatural evil, like Kent’s The Babadook, but the horror and brutality people can enact on each other. Both for the indigenous Tasmanian Aboriginals and the convicts that were forcibly taken to the island, life was brutal and unforgiving. 

The most horrifying aspect of The Nightingale is the truths it’s based on—the genocide of Aboriginals, and the brutality of convict colonies, all played out in the harsh beauty of the Tasmanian landscape. With The Nightingale’s recent release on the horror streaming platform Shudder, now is a timely moment to explore the history behind this haunting film.

The Historical Accuracy of The Nightingale

Set in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania), the film follows the 21-year-old Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), as she and an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) seek their revenge against Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and his retinue of abusive, drunken soldiers. 

In a statement to the ABC, Kent said, “The Nightingale contains historically accurate depictions of colonial violence and racism towards our [Australian] Indigenous people.” 

The “historical accuracy” of the film is key. Kent’s characters are based upon the real people who lived out their lives in 19th century Tasmania. Kent, who’s Australian, did extensive research before writing, working with an Aboriginal adviser to ensure that the violence portrayed in the film was true to history. “Nothing that happens in this film is fictional,” Kent told Vox in an interview. “The story itself is fictional, but the events are all factual, and worse.”

Setting the Scene

At the time the film takes place, Van Diemen’s Land was a frontier. The indigenous Tasmanian Aboriginals had settled the island 35,000 years ago. The Nightingale, by comparison, is set in 1825, at which point the British had only been living on the island for several decades. 

Europe only became aware of the island’s existence in 1642 when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman spotted the landmass. By 1798, more than 150 years later, European sealers and whalers began to base themselves on the island. It wasn’t until 1803 when the British created the first formal settlement, a military outpost under Lieutenant John Bowen.

With Bowen came 49 settlers—three female and 21 male convicts, British soldiers, and free settlers.

The Genocide of Tasmanian Aboriginal People during the Black War

Violence between these early settlers and Tasmanian Aboriginal people began almost immediately. As more settlers and convicts were transported to Tasmania throughout the early 1800s, tensions escalated into a conflict known as the Black War. Bloodshed would last from the mid-1820s until 1832. That said, many historians – such as James Boyce, Robert Hughes, Tom Lawson, and Lyndall Ryan – all agree that it was more genocide than war.

Convicts who escaped into the bush, known as bushrangers, committed “many atrocious cruelties” against Tasmanian Aboriginal people. These cruelties were documented in an 1810 report by Surveyor John Oxley. According to an 1808 letter written by another Surveyor, George Prideaux Harris, several bushrangers murdered a group of male Aboriginals then abducted and raped the Aboriginal women of the group. The British settlers and militia were often just as cruel.

On May 3rd, 1804, only a few months after the British colony was established, a confrontation between a large group of Mairremmener people and settlers at Bowen’s Risdon colony occurred. The confrontation left “a great many natives slaughtered and wounded” as convict Edward White later testified. Historian Henry Reynolds suggests the May 3rd confrontation ended any hope of peace between the islanders and settlers.

By 1825, when The Nightingale takes place, the Black War was just beginning. Attacks between Aboriginal people and European settlers began to double every year. Scholar Ryan Lyndall has collected a “List of the Multiple Killings of Aborigines in Tasmania: 1804-1835” here, which echoes the indiscriminate violence towards Aboriginal people portrayed in the film.

By 1826, the notorious Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, George Arthur, declared settlers could lawfully kill Aboriginals when they attacked settlers or stole their property. A local newspaper, The Colonial Times, saw this as a declaration of war. In 1830, Arthur even paid out bounties for the successful capture of Aboriginals—£5 for adults and £2 for children. These bounties were later extended to dead Aboriginals as well.

Before Europeans arrived, the Tasmanian Aboriginal population is estimated to have been around 6,000 people. There were nine different indigenous nations divided into more than 60 different clans according to scholar Lyndall Ryan. Though the numbers vary, one source estimates that there were fewer than 100 Tasmanian Aboriginals left by 1835. Those who survived were forced into exile onto surrounding islands without provisions and had to dress and live like Europeans. 

Given the decades of brutality, it’s no wonder that Billy seeks revenge in The Nightingale. His people are gone—his family, his community—and only he is left. It’s a brutal and accurate retelling of the reality Tasmanian Aboriginals faced. Even his name, “Billy,” is filled with historical context, specifically the life of William Lanne, or “King Billy.” William Lanne’s death in 1869 was thought at the time to mark the “extinction” of all Tasmanian Aboriginal people. 

Land of Convicts 

From 1803 until 1853, the number of convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land would grow from Bowen’s initial 21 to over 75,000 people. Of that number, 12,500 were women, most of whom were convicted of petty theft.

During the time The Nightingale is set, most of those women had yet to arrive. Two-thirds of the female convicts transported to Tasmaiana arrived between 1842 and 1853. Clare’s world would have been overwhelmingly male.

When a convict arrived, they were interviewed before a prison board to determine any useful skills, like farming or shoemaking. Then, they were stripped naked and a detailed description of any markings was written down (in case an escaped convict ever needed to be identified). After a brief stint in the prison barracks, most convicts would be assigned as servants to free landholders. Those with the skills would work as blacksmiths, clerks, carpenters, or in other necessary trades.

Convicts that stepped out of line could be assigned to serve in chain gangs or, for repeat offenders, sent to Port Arthur prison. 

Well-behaved convicts were rewarded through tickets-of-leave (which allowed them to earn a wage), permission to marry, and even pardons. In The Nightingale, Lieutenant Hawkins allows Clare to marry her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby)—something he holds over Clare when he refuses to release her. The film also alludes to the “papers” (tickets-of-leave or pardons) that free convicts had to keep with them at all times.

Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land

In 1825, when Clare and Billy’s story begins, there were less than 4,000 female convicts in Van Diemen’s Land. According to historian Dianne Snowden’s research, for every 10 men on the island, there were three women. Among convicts, the numbers were even more skewed with one woman to every nine men. 

Most female convicts were assigned as domestic workers to free settlers or, as Clare does, for the British military. If, however, a woman committed further crimes—like drunkenness, lateness, or insolence—they’d be sent to a Female Factory. As the name suggests, the Female Factories were factories designed to keep incarcerated women working, often as laundresses. 

Through good conduct and hard work, some of the women sent to Van Diemen’s Land became an integral part of society as wives and servants. While there are some records of female sex workers, by and large, the female convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land lived many different kinds of lives beyond the stereotype of “damned whores.” Some married and went on as free women after receiving their papers. Others were sent to Female Factories. The Female Convicts Research Centre has archived many of their stories here.

The Female Arsonists Who Sought Out Transportation

There was even a small subset of women, 79 in total, who were known to have deliberately set fires to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land. Like Clare, these women were taking control of their lives by escaping starvation, poverty, and abuse. Many were joining loved ones that were sent ahead of them to the convict colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.

For instance, the female convict Catherine Smith persuaded her son and daughter-in-law to help set fire to her house so she could join her husband in Van Diemen’s Land.  

Conclusion

When Kent first visited Tasmania, she felt the dark history behind the island’s beauty. Years later, that history would prompt her to make The Nightingale. In Australia today, there remains a reluctance to discuss the legacy of British colonialism. Just like here in the States, where we remain reluctant to talk about our own history of slavery.

Perhaps films like The Nightingale can create an opening for us to face the darker truths of our histories—histories that continue to perpetuate inequality today. 


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