Fierce,” perhaps the greatest compliment that Twitter’s gay conglomerate could ever confer, is as apt an adjective as any for the Internet’s unlikely new queer icon. The Babadook is a snaggletoothed, black-hatted monster who first emerged as a villain in Jennifer Kent’s allegorical horror film of the same name, in which he haunted a single mother’s home as she struggled, after her husband’s sudden death, to raise a quirky, raucous son. The film, released in 2014, concluded with the Babadook’s confinement in the family’s basement, but, thanks to a rampant, original “Babadiscourse” on Tumblr, he has since risen to new renown, styled and celebrated by online visionaries eager to reinterpret his every feature as a sign of queer resistance. In recent weeks, and in time for Pride Month, more memes than one could imagine have Photoshopped the Babadook into scenes from gay culture: a scrapbooking class, a city still from “Looking,” a runway from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a Stonewall protest. Media critics have paused to opine on the monster’s “camp sensibility” and to aggregate fan art and tributes at pride parades across the country, where the Babadook has appeared on floats and even in the flesh, portrayed by twerking impersonators with enormous rainbow flags. That creepy pallor? A daring powder foundation. The talons are a manicure, the top hat a statement piece.
It was Netflix, at least allegedly, that helped to inspire the monster’s new identity. Late in 2016, a screen shot surfaced on social media showing “The Babadook” listed under the streaming service’s L.G.B.T. menu. (Though many claim that the image is doctored, Netflix, whose representatives seem to be in on the joke, may well choose to take credit for the provision of a new queer icon after its unpopular decision, earlier this month, to cancel the gay-friendly science-fiction series “Sense8.”) Part of this narrative’s fun is the possibility of an accidental queer transformation made deliberate—the thrill of foisting subversive meaning onto a character whose sexuality would surely seem irrelevant to his story’s plot. Seeing my first queer Babadook, I was reminded of J. K. Rowling’s controversial and perhaps unnecessary revelation, in 2007, that Albus Dumbledore was gay, despite the dearth of homosexual references in the Harry Potter series. That announcement, though heartening, felt somewhat like a marketing ploy.
But the Babadook’s new fabulousness seems to align, quite reasonably, with queer readings of better-known beasts such as Frankenstein and Freddy Krueger. Like those other misunderstood figures, he originated in anonymity, shunned by the traditional folks whom his presence threatened. The grieving widow of Kent’s film discovers him in a frightening, flamboyant pop-up book on her son’s shelf. Fearing the creature’s transgressive influence—his shameless oddity, his aggressive manner—she attempts to burn his manifesto, only to learn that attempting to get rid of the Babadook actually enlivens him. His book reappears on her doorstep, replete with the brash self-assertion of most coming-out anthems. “I’ll wager with you,” the monster writes, in what could be a Lady Gaga lyric. “I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get.” Some have pointed out that the fervent efforts to roust the Babadook from a traditional family unit recall homophobic campaigns like the McCarthy-era lavender scare. Others have observed that the film’s conclusion manages to capture the strained acceptance endured by L.G.B.T. children whose parents end up tolerating their sexuality out of necessity alone, if at all. And is it relevant, somehow, that Kent’s upcoming projects include a film adaptation of a lesbian gothic love story?
In November, not yet aware of the Babadook’s nascent coming out, I wrote about the solace that the film’s perspective on trauma and loss has provided me in the years since my father’s murder. That sentiment, however valid, struck me as oddly maudlin as I rewatched “The Babadook” this week, newly attuned to the suggestiveness of its script. “The closet doors were closed,” one character shouts when he first senses the monster, “and now they’re wide open!” But maybe my old reading and the new one are more compatible than they seem. The gay community, witness to so many horrors, is expert at mining spunk and solidarity from what might otherwise seem only tragic. Be gone, grief, the Babadiscourse demands. We’ll take the demon in drag.