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The Secret Gay History of the Babadook

Photo-Illustration: Select All; Photos: IFC Films; Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

When you picture queer icons, who comes to mind? Judy Garland? Donna Summer? k.d. lang? What about … the Babadook?

The Babadook, if you’re unaware, is the titular monster from the cult-favorite 2014 indie horror film The Babadook. The Babadook itself wears a long cloak and a top hat. It lives in the basement and torments a grief-stricken single mother trying to care for her child. And it has risen to the status of “icon” in the meme-happy, irony-fluent queer communities of the internet.

The epicenter of Gay Babadookdom is a thread on Tumblr that was started in late October of last year by a Tumblr user named Ian, who declared matter-of-factly that the Babadook is gay. Walking to an event that night, Ian recalled, “It just popped into my head, and I just fired it out and kind of didn’t assume it would get more than ten notes.”

But that’s not how Tumblr works. At the heart of Tumblr is a concept referred to as “The Discourse,” the overarching conversation that the site’s many communities — often focusing on social justice, pop-culture fandom, or ironic nonsense humor — participate in. Tumblr’s biggest communities are its many fandoms, equal parts earnest and ironic, all operating at exaggerated levels, engrossed in crafting noncanonical (i.e., unofficial) theories about their favorite movies, TV shows, and YouTube series. Tumblr’s ecosystem prizes users who consider and debate cultural objects elaborately and at length, and unlike the sharing tools of most social networks, Tumblr’s reblog feature encourages posts to grow and mutate and branch into intricate, raucous conversations, snowballing and collecting new thoughts along the way.

Tumblr users talked about the Babadook as though everyone in the world recognized him as a boundary-breaking gay hero; they made fan art of an out-and-proud Babadook, his menacing grin recontextualized. One user created a fake screenshot that placed The Babadook in Netflix’s “LGBT Movies” category. This is the Babadiscourse.

From Tumblr, gay Babadook expanded to Twitter. “The Babadook just looks funny, and it is a funny word to say. Babadook is a hilarious thing to say,” explained John Paul Brammer, an associate producer at NBC Out, who helped elevate the joke with tweets in February and November. (It’s true: Babadook is sort of inherently funny. A top-hat-wearing specter of loss placed in generic or rote contexts is an easy laugh, as comedy writer Katie Dippold discovered in 2015, when she went to a Halloween party in full Babadook getup.) Ian’s post had already been picked up in February by BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Broderick, but it was boosted in particular this week by whatever mysterious forces of virality were in effect online.

Of course, a running undercurrent in the growing Babadiscourse was that peculiar creature of the internet: the earnest, incensed fan. “It started picking up steam within a few weeks,” Ian believes, “because individuals who I presume are heterosexual kind of freaked out over the assertion that a horror-movie villain would identify as queer — which I think was the actual humor of the post, as opposed to just the outright statement that the Babadook is gay.”

Whether or not the Babadook is “actually” queer has almost nothing to do with the idea of the gay Babadook, but I nonetheless contacted Tim Purcell, who played the character in the 2014 film, to ask. “I had a big jacket and the hat, and I actually had to make this mouth prosthetic to have this huge open-mouth look, and you’ve got the contact lenses on, and crap all over your teeth — you do look fairly horrifying,” Purcell recalled. “You definitely feel scary. I didn’t feel like a gay icon at the time, I can tell you that much.”

Purcell, who worked in the film’s art department, landed the role after playing the creature in some camera tests, “and then they realized they could save some money, and have me just be the Babadook, and hence I became the Babadook.”

Most of the creature’s appearances in the film are through storybook illustrations, and the real-world manifestation, in accordance with horror tropes, often lurks just out of frame. Purcell doesn’t recall being given much direction about how to play the character. “In terms of direction, it was ‘be still a lot.’”

So on the one hand, Purcell wasn’t told to play the Babadook as a gay character. But on the other hand, neither was he told that the Babadook wasn’t gay. (Writer-director Jennifer Kent, busy shooting her next film, was unavailable to comment for this article.)

“I think it’s almost become a joke around, like, queer representation in media,” Ian observed, “which I think is a very deep reading on a mindless post I fired out one night. It’s been fascinating to watch.”

But people are running with it. Last month, before the whole thing blew up, Ian’s friend Aaron Griffin, who performs as drag queen Missy Steak, made an appearance as the Babadook at an event in Boston. “I just remember seeing Ian’s Tumblr a long time ago, talking about how the Babadook was gay,” Griffin said. “And I was watching the movie, and thinking about the use of the word mother a lot, and it reminded me of a song by RuPaul that I wanted to perform. And I just thought, Why not combine them?

“I love pretty drag queens, and I love being pretty sometimes, but I wanted to do something other than go up there and look pretty and sing a pretty song,” Griffin said. “I just thought the image of a sexy Babadook was really funny.” He was one of two performers dressed as the Babadook that evening.

The Babadook’s arbitrary queerness started out as a joke, but has since become a self-aware maybe-parody of the pop-culture discourse itself. “The assumption is always that a character is straight, unless proven otherwise,” Griffin observed. “Why can’t we assume a character is gay without needing evidence for it? I think the post started as a joke, but the more people tried to ridicule it, it made the point stronger almost.”

Brammer noted that discussion about the Babadook isn’t that far removed from how we talk about other fictional characters. “I think that everyone, low-key — no matter what side you’re on, and no matter what your opinions are — gets tired of the discourse,” he theorized. “I won’t call it outrage, because I think that that has a negative connotation to it — but there certainly is a really exhausting conversation. And I think maybe that is something that we can all agree on: that we’re exhausted.”

That is, in a nutshell, why the gay Babadook has resonated so strongly. The only absurd thing about calling the Babadook gay is the act of doing so. Everything else about it — the fan art, the posts of encouragement on social media, the overall discourse — is totally par for the course.

The Secret Gay History of the Babadook