Mummy Dearest: Mothers That Terrify
Is it me or are we all just a little bit terrified of our mothers? As newborns, we depend on them for our survival. From that point onwards, a complex rollercoaster of love, resentment and quid pro quo unfolds. Through the ages, white women (they do tend to be white) have been deified and demonised in horror films for their ability to reproduce – both a miracle and aberration under the male gaze.
In Hereditary (2018), Toni Collette’s character, Annie, as both mother and daughter, has the worst of both worlds. Squeezed from both sides by fear, duty and guilt, and traumatised by her own “monstrous” mother, she unwittingly drags her own children into Grandma’s complex web.
In honour of Hereditary, dubbed the ‘scariest film since The Exorcist’, here are some of the best and weirdest horror-mothers out there.
Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
#whereitallbegan. Fun fact: like his character, Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins had a deeply unhealthy relationship with his mother, which gave him a pathological fear of women for most of his adult life. Psycho was a game-changer. Loosely inspired by serial killer Ed Gein (a man with his own mother issues) it is arguably the first slasher movie, the greatest risk of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and one of the most iconic films of all time. Norman Bates’ mother isolated her son, clothed him as her pseudo lover, dominated his entire personality and split it in two, creating a twisted killer. Or did she? Who is the real “psycho” here anyway?
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) dir. Roman Polanski
It’s a different experience watching Rosemary’s Baby, in a post-#metoo world. For starters, it was directed by the now-disgraced Roman Polanski. It stars Mia Farrow, a decade before she got together with the now-disgraced Woody Allen. At the film’s surface are the anxieties of a pregnant woman being occupied by a malevolent force she doesn’t understand, which is sucking all her strength away. But, behind the camera, is a man making a film about a book written by a man, depicting the subjugation and abuse of a woman as she transitions into motherhood. The film’s ending divided and appalled. It so upset sci-fi writer, Ray Bradbury, that he penned his own alternative one. But hey – maternal love wins the day, kind of!
Carrie (1976), dir. Brian De Palma
Smeared with blood and engulfed in a pit of fire, the original Carrie is an echo chamber of rage, fear and religious guilt. As horror-mothers go, Margaret White is pretty freaking terrifying. She bullies and controls her daughter, Carrie, making her a social outcast. In one of the film’s most distressing scenes, she moves from tenderly stroking her daughter’s hair, to trying to stab her to death. At the heart of her monstrousness is her own guilt at the act of conception, which she has projected onto her daughter. But female fertility, itself, is made horrifying, in the spectacle of Carrie’s first period. The outpouring of blood that follows, hails menstruation, sex and childbirth into a holy trinity of women’s otherness and unnatural power. And guess what…. she’s also a witch!
Alien (1979), dir. Ridley Scott
The alien bursting out of Kane’s chest, in the original Alien film, has to be one of the most parodied horror scenes of all time. In Alien 3, Ripley is unwittingly impregnated by the monstrous alien species that has plagued her for the previous two films. It’s easy to see how a fear of mothers and motherhood ties into the horrifying imagery of the Alien franchise. Writer David McIntee has argued that, at its heart, Alien and its sequels, depicts underlying male fear and ignorance of both pregnancy and childbirth.
Friday the 13th (1980), dir. Sean S. Cunningham
Killer: Name the killer in Friday the 13th
Casey: Jason! Jason! Jason!
Killer: I’m sorry. That’s the wrong answer
Casey: No, it’s not. It was Jason.
Killer: Afraid not.
Casey: It was Jason! I saw that movie 20 goddamn times!
Killer: Then you should know Jason’s mother, Mrs Voorhees, was the original killer. Jason didn’t show up until the sequel.
Some people, like Casey, forget that Jason’s mother was the original killer. In fact, the original scriptwriter never intended Jason to rise up as an avenging zombie killer at all. Jason’s final emergence from the lake (and the birth of a franchise!) was an afterthought, inspired by the final scene of Carrie. Mrs Voorhees is the ultimate Tiger Mom. As boogie (wo)men go, she has the strength to wield an axe and take on patriarchal society. But she too is a victim. She stands as a binary of fearless avenger and monstrous maternal grief.
The Ring (2002) dir. Gore Verbinski
Based on Hideo Nakata’s seminal 1998 Japanese original, Verbinski’s American remake veers more decisively towards perturbed matriarchy. Samara is basically the scariest child since Village of the Damned. Even still, her mother’s response is horrifying. Meanwhile, journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) is so focussed on trying to unravel the mystery, she almost leads her own son to his death. Like the Japanese original, The Ring fixates on maternal anxiety and failings, but takes it a few steps further by making Samara’s own mother her killer. Can you protect your child against the monsters out there? But, is your child the monster? Are you?
Mama (2013) dir. Andrés Muschietti
There are many interesting things about Andy Muschietti’s Mama. One of them is that its original incantation was a three-minute Spanish-language film, Muschietti made five years earlier. Just like Mama herself, it was replaced by something more mainstream, with a bigger budget. The film’s monstrous apparition is the ultimate archaic mother of psychoanalytic theory – an all-powerful embodiment of a child’s early imaginings and nightmares. Propelled by vitriolic jealousy, she is hellbent on drawing her children back inside her and destroying anyone in her path. Visually, she is a nightmarish cartoon, seemingly rendered by a small child who cannot visually process the outside world. Plus, there are moths…. everywhere! One day, someone should just make a horror film about moths.
The Babadook (2014) dir. Jennifer Kent
Interestingly, this is the only mother-horror on our list, directed by a woman. The femaleness, the modernity and surprising realness of The Babadook make it a very different kind of horror film. In amidst the creepy imagery, this is a frank and straightforward tale of how being a single parent can drive you and your child a little bit crazy. The Babadook is a monster of the mind. It is sexual. It is alarming. It is a living breathing part of Amelia (Essie Davis), which she tries to suppress and hide from her son. The Babadook is less of a visceral, jump-out-your-skin experience and closer to a real psychological depiction of grief and isolation. Ultimately, you can’t escape Mr. Babadook. You just have to give him his own room and lay down some house rules.