Continuing the October horror series I'm taking a closer look at the mothers of the horror genre. Mums can often be found playing instrumental roles- albeit often as the villains of the story! One way or another, the mothers in the horror genre certainly make their presence known...
After researching for my last article on Psycho and Bates Motel, I found myself giving a lot of thought to the portrayal of Norman’s mother and how the TV adaptation gave her much more development and, crucially, a voice. In Psycho she is not given a voice of her own - she lives only through Norman and so we only ‘know’ her through the lens Norman creates. Mostly this is as a critical, possessive and overbearing nag. In Bates Motel we learn more about Norma’s own difficult childhood and past relationships with men and the lengths she has gone to to protect her family from harm. While this does not excuse much of her behaviour regarding her son, it certainly gives her more nuance than simply being painted as a one dimensional demon. With this in mind, I decided to take a closer look at some other mothers in the horror genre.
While in other film genres mother’s may be overtly passive- or notably in genres like animation - often wholly absent (Åström, 2015, 2017; Heatwole, 2016 ), the mothers of the horror genre make their presence well and truly known. From the neglectful or weak to the selfish, monstrous or even demonic… if you’re a mum in a horror film, you might just find yourself the villain of the piece.
Tropes of Femininity in Horror - Final Girls and the Monstrous Maternal
Over the years, the portrayal of girls and women in cinematic horror has been widely discussed and debated. Horror is widely accepted as often following a number of tropes, some of which intersect with the representation of gender. One such trope is 'The Final Girl'. The Final girl is exactly what it sounds like. She is the character who is the final survivor of the monstrous entity, either escaping or bringing him (it’s often a him) down. Generally her survival is only granted due to her virginal purity or obedience to her gendered expectations (as highlighted in parody format in Cabin in the Woods). However, using examples of some more recent horror films some now read 'the final girl' as an example of female empowerment and strength. This more recent interpretation is acknowledged by Carol Clover - who first originated the term 'the final girl'. However, she argues that instead of being viewed as triumphant feminist hero the final girl may more accurately be viewed as the ‘tortured survivor’ given the amount of running, terror, pain and suffering she will have had to endure in the majority of a horror film (Clover, 2015).
In horror, when the woman or the girl is not the victim, she is most likely the antagonist, and it is her femininity which is often depicted as being at the heart of her monstrousness. In Creed’s influential work ‘The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis' (1993:3) she concludes that ultimately ‘when a woman is represented as monstrous, it is almost always in relation to her mothering of reproductive functions’. This is clear in films like Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Brood (1979), or The Fly (1986) where pregnancy provides the crux of the horror. Or Teeth (2007) or Contracted (2013) where sex and female genitalia pose the threat. Or simply the plethora of films where mother character herself is not someone you want to tuck you in at night - Psycho (1960), Carrie (1976) Mommie Dearest (1981) Mother's Day (1980, 2010), The People Under the Stairs (1991), The Babadook (2014) Mom and Dad (2017) ... I could go on.
Sarah Arnold, author of Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood suggests a binary in horror films whereby a mother (or mother figure) will be painted as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This black and white depiction leaves no room for nuance or any allowance for human flaw. Also, what constitutes a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ mother relies heavily on the political and cultural standpoints of the audience at large. In this way, mothers in horror films act as a marker of how motherhood - and thus what constitutes ‘acceptable’ motherhood - is in the context of the time and place the films were made. However, broadly Arnold encapsulates the good mother as one which is entirely self sacrificing yet simultaneously overshadowed by a paternal figure while the ‘bad’ mother (which, offensively, is most often a single parent) is at best disconnected or careless and at worst monstrous and evil.
The bad mother will also usually either ‘manifest as a rejection of traditional roles and expectations’ or conversely display a ‘fanatical conformity to the institution of motherhood’ (Arnold, 2013:6). This fanatical conformity to motherhood is embodied by characters like Mrs Voorhees from Friday the 13th who wreaks vengeance on behalf of her child in unyielding murderous fashion. In some cases, this level of maternal fanaticism can lead to seemingly justifiable matricide as seen in the films Psycho (1960) and Carrie (1976)
On the flip side there are The ‘bad’ mothers who seemingly reject their traditional roles and expectations. Unfairly, these mothers are often depicted as single mothers with poor judgement. There is little or no credit given to the fact that they are performing their role single handedly while also maintaining careers. In The Ring (2002) it is mother Rachel's career which results in the dangerous videotape being seen by her son. She can be interpreted as not following conservative family values for blurring the lines between work and home, not putting her son before her career and therefore putting him at risk. In The Exorcist (1973) it is implied that divorcee Chris is to blame for her child's possession for focussing on her career. However, in the original novel this blame is made even more painfully explicit:
It is you who have done it! Yes you with your career before anything, your career before your husband... before her! - excerpt from The Exorcist (first published 1971)
In Child’s Play (1988) busy single mum Karen gives her son Andy a new toy without realising the danger it poses. While she subsequently makes several attempts to kill the doll (Chucky), she is also the one who brought the threatening monstrosity into the home (to be honest did she look at the thing? It’s terrifying). In this way the mother is not directly the monster in the film, but she 'invites the evil in'.
The Helpless Horror Mothers
Many horror mothers, when not monstrous, just appear helpless. Let’s take, for example, Lynn in the 1999 film The Sixth Sense. It is clear throughout the film that she is unsure how to help her son. She spends much of the film crying and disconnected from him. It is only through the intervention of Malcolm, that her son Cole is able to understand himself better. Lynn is little more than a bystander. Likewise, Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s (1980) cinematic adaptation of Stephen Kings ‘The Shining’ is just as helpless and afraid when trying to fend of her monstrous husband Jack. In fact, Stephen King, concludes that Shelley Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance is, "one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She's basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that's not the woman I wrote about." (King, 2013 to the BBC)
From Portraying Mothers to Portraying Motherhood - a Shift in Modern Horror?
The world of filmmaking is in constant flux and the common tropes of female characters and mothers in particular of the 80s and 90s horror films are increasingly being diversified. In recent years there has been a noticeable shift from depicting individual one dimensional monstrous mother characters to instead embodying the pressures and anxieties of motherhood itself. In this way the monstrous is given a justification, a purpose and a depth. Consequently, the mothers are portrayed as complex human beings. Examples like The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2015) and Hereditary (2018) can provide commentary on the expectations and challenges of motherhood - albeit in a much more dramatic and demonic way than the average family. Jennifer Kent , director of The Babadook, explained to Vice in 2014 that she wished to portray how difficult motherhood is, as this isn't generally spoken about. Mothers are expected to be limitlessly happy and grateful and flawless and the reality is that they sacrifice a lot in their love for their children and rarely get any recognition from society for doing so.
If you find yourself watching a horror film this spooky season and that horror film contains a prominent character that is a mother, perhaps look at how she is being portrayed. Is she the ‘good’ mother? And if so, is she so because there is a paternal figure there to save the day? Or is she a ‘bad’ mother? Neglectful, helpless or downright demon? Maybe she will be something altogether different. Not just ‘the final girl’ that survives, alive but broken - but instead with something more nuanced to offer in the reflection of motherhood and how, when horror comes knocking, the strength and sacrifice that mothers experience is, in one way or another, put to use.
Åström, B. (2015) The Symbolic Annihilation of Mothers in Popular Culture: Single Father and the death of the mother, Feminist Media Studies, 15:4,
Åström B. (eds.) (2017) The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Greven, D. (2014). The Death-Mother in Psycho: Hitchcock, Femininity, and Queer Desire. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 15(3), 167-181.
Heatwole, A. (2016). Disney girlhood: Princess generations and once upon a time. Studies in the Humanities, 43(1/2), 1-19.
Wood, R. (2003) Hollywood from Vietnam to Regan…. And Beyond. New York: Columbia Universoty Press