*Spoilers ahead for Hereditary, The Babadook, Scream franchise, Us, Friday the 13th, The Woman in Black, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Mother’s Day*
Ask any Freudian and they will tell you how influential motherhood is. In popular culture, mother’s bear the weight of ensuring healthy development, affection, and security for their child. If anyone fails at anything, it’s not their fault, it’s the mother’s. The pressure of motherhood sounds horrifying and so it’s no wonder horror has developed its own sub-genre specifically for mother dearest: maternal horror.
Maternal horror is often conceived through the ‘failures’ of a mother. Mothers are regarded with such importance in society because, for many of us, they were our leading source of nourishment and guidance through a confusing and often scary world. They represent safety and comfort, meaning the absence of this in their presence is even more frightening.The grand implications of their failings can also be scrutinised as misogynistic as the woman is greatly chastised for her failings whereas the father seems absent from blame. The failings of a mother in the horror genre can fall into categories such as the Flawed Mother; the Sinful Mother; the Vengeful Mother; and the Mother of Monsters. The myriad of cinematic examples are far too large to explore fully in just one article, so instead we’ll focus on just a few.
The “flaws” of a mother can be as simple as personality defects any person can experience. Of course, mothers are not allowed to have flaws. In Hereditary, the threat this family encounters were passed down through generations from the mother’s side. Toni Collette’s character speaks about her troubled family history with mental illness, which the audience later discovers is not actually caused by mental illness but instead by a demon that the other maternal figure in the family — the grandmother — welcomed in through her cult. Every part of their life becomes orchestrated by the cult, meaning effectively their grandmother is controlling their lives as if they were figures in a dollhouse. The ultimate controlling mother. Here, not only is the horror created by the greed of the grandmother but also by the failings of the mother to keep her children away from the grandmother. Collette’s character lets her mother breastfeed her daughter, Charlie. This is suggested to have infected Charlie with the essence of King Paimon; she performed the fake seance that allowed Paimon to fully crossover, and she becomes possessed and chases her son through the house to his eventual demise. Blame can be placed on the mother for sacrificing her free will and also on the grandmother for stealing the free will.
The Babadook is another example of horror manifesting from a mother’s ‘faults’, which she arguably has no control over. In The Babadook, the monster represents the mother’s depression brought on by her husband’s death. In a more literal sense, the mother also triggered the invasion from the Babadook by reading her son a book, which unleashed the monster into their lives. In this film, the mother is again possessed by the demon and forced to attack her child, only this time the mother fights back against the Babadook and doesn’t succumb to its nature. In the end she cannot fully banishes the creature, however she can trap it in the basement and deal with it everyday, keeping it a safe distance from her son. This is an example of a mother succeeding over her faults and keeping her child safe from herself.
Arguably, both Hereditary and The Babadook are features that represent mental illness – one takes the stance that genetic mental illness will doom the family, whereas the other teaches that our illness does not need to be a monster that tears down our family. Interestingly – and problematically –both seem to frame mental illness as a ‘flaw’ of the maternal figure. The pattern between mothers and mental illness representation in horror could be related to the prevalence of postpartum depression. As mothers tend to be the ones who suffer from this, they may be the parent who appears most ‘sad’ or ’emotional’ to their children. Regardless, there is an uncomfortable component of this horror that suggests mothers must suffer in silence to protect their family, or else risk literally killing their children while possessed by their ‘faults.’
Sometimes the mother may not be the hand wielding the horror but, instead, horror is a consequence of her sins. In Scream, the murderous events were all triggered by Sydney’s mother’s (Maureen) adultery. In the first of the franchise, we discover Billy’s murderous rampage was triggered by Sydney’s mother sleeping with his father. In the third Scream it’s eventually revealed that Maureen had a son out of wedlock and he went on to orchestrate all the murders through the series as payback for his mother abandoning him. Between the first and third film there were 28 deaths, all because a mother embraced and expressed her sexuality. Another example of a mother’s sins creating horror could be Jordan Peele’s Us, as it was Adelaide’s actions as a child that triggered the revolution of the Tethered, with the mother’s double – Red – leading the murder spree. The consequences of a mother’s sins will always be far greater than that of others.
Related to Adelaide/Red in Us, a mother can also cause the horror by being the horror, often due to revenge. In this scenario, horror explores what happens to a mother when she loses the battle all other horror mothers have been fighting, and lose their child. In most cases, a lot more murder happens. In the first Friday the 13th film, the killer is Jason’s mum. Mrs Vorhees exacts her revenge on summer camp counselors for their negligence (and horniness) that allowed Jason to drown. More murderous mothers include Debbie Loomis, Billy’s mother in Scream 2, who is seeking revenge for what drove her son to murder in the first film. The Woman in Black is another example as she kills children in the nearby village as revenge for the death of her own child. These films seem to suggest a mother without a child is a monster and for some reason will exact her revenge by creating more childless mothers.
Often, a mother can be blamed not for being a monster but for simply being a mother of monsters. In The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, mothers are forced to give birth to and raise the spawn of the devil. As the children are extensions of themselves, mothers are often blamed for their child’s actions or deemed as poor mothers for raising such evil, even when the evil was out of their control. Of course there are also examples of mother’s nurturing evil, as was the case in Mother’s Day, where the mother took pleasure in her children’s cruel actions. Arguably, even the Xenomorph of the Alien franchise is a monster for simply being a mother, as her eggs must gestate in a living host and then live on to spread their genes in more hosts.
It would appear motherhood can’t help but birth decades of horror material. Society is pregnant with a fear of unstable mothers and the consequences of their failings. There is a blatant misogyny in this phobia as it reveals the intense and destructive pressure that is placed upon mothers, where they can be blamed for anything from having the same flaws as everyone else to simply becoming a mother in the first place. However, they also mirror a very real reaction from people, with the hatred of parents — especially mothers — harboured so casually in culture that it’s normal to dislike or even hate your mum. In the end, what this sub-genre tells us is that being a mother is bloody hard and you’re damned if you even try.
by Michaela Barton
Michaela is a freelance journalist living in Glasgow who watches far too much Netflix so might as well make a career out of it. Her one true love is procrastination but she’s also a fan of feminist and queer theory, ugly dad shirts, and abducting cats. You can find her on Twitter at @MichaelaBarton_
Categories: Feminist Criticism