When my daughter was four weeks old, I was desperate to rejoin the world of the living. We also needed toilet paper. So I gathered up the duffel bag’s worth of stuff I might theoretically need in case an asteroid strike or zombie attack required us to survive in the wild indefinitely, and I strapped her tiny body into her car seat. Just before I twisted the key in the ignition, I remembered my wallet sitting on the kitchen counter. I dashed back inside to get it, leaving the car door open.
In the fifteen seconds it took me to snatch my wallet, the following scenarios played out in perfect 4K resolution:
I fall down and improbably die, leaving Eula stranded until Chris gets off work seven hours later.
Eula somehow wraps her car seat buckle around herself and strangles, like, really fast.
A wild animal runs into my garage (on a busy residential street), grabs Eula out of the car, and eats her.
I tell this story to bolster this argument: moms love horror, because moms recognize their own mom minds in it.
Obviously not all moms, and of course, not just moms, but hear me out. Horror at its best does one, some, or all of the following: it literalizes fears in a way that gives the reader methods with which to cope, reflects uncomfortable truths that are otherwise taboo to speak or even think about, and provides a controlled arena for confronting negative emotions. And boy howdy are these some useful tools for mothers.
Motherhood is complicated. We’re very culturally focused on the selfless, warm, gentle, and gauzily soft-focused side of its coin, but on the other side you may very well find blood, fear, and overwhelming uncertainty. The all-consuming love and wonder of new life are real! But so is the rest of the package.
For starters, the transformative process of delivering a baby, miraculous as it is, is positively lycanthropic. And that’s just the teaser opening (it’s also worth remembering that the vaginal canal is far from the only path to motherhood). From there, the challenge of finding your way as a new mother (a cultural role that doesn’t sit easily on plenty of women’s shoulders), possibly paired with round-the-clock breastfeeding, puts the brain-breaking potency of the most powerful psychedelics to shame.
There are face-meltingly wonderful things about newborns – the cuddles, the tiny toes, the overpowering love. But there may also be a moment where you find yourself in the bathroom at four A.M., leaking blood and milk and who knows what else, staring into the mirror at a monster who’s inexplicably wearing your skin.
That’s where horror fiction comes in. Horrorland can give oddball moms like me a safe, cathartic space to let all our irrational, unreasonable, and deeply, deeply anxious demons out for a romp, freeing up emotional energy for more productive purposes.
I’m not necessarily talking about the usual victims and monsters like Rosemary Woodhouse or Margaret White (both of whom admittedly hail from works I love). I’m talking about complicated, flawed characters with agency, inside of whom mothers can find fractured shards of themselves. For example, I desperately want to be best friends with Lois Cairns (Experimental Film by Gemma Files). Spiky, brilliant, difficult Lois struggles to balance her career as a film teacher and critic with the demands of parenting a special needs child. Lois loves her son, but it’s a realistic, gritty love from a realistic, gritty woman. Still, while her patience may have limits, she won’t hesitate to go head-to-head with a noonday demon for her kid’s sake. This is the book I want to shove into the hands of every working mom I know, incidentally.
Then there’s Victor Frankenstein, who I don’t think it’s a stretch to view as a sort of demented mother figure. Mary Shelley referred to the story itself as her “hideous progeny” in her introduction. She had also given birth to a premature baby girl who died shortly afterward, which casts a long shadow on Frankenstein’s deliberate scrambling of lines between life and death. Frankenstein (who, incidentally, is kind of obsessed with his mom) gives life to a creature he doesn’t understand and who he inadvertently psychologically destroys. Fellow parents, I dare you to tell me that doesn’t tap into some deep-seated anxieties of yours.
In short fiction, I can’t recommend Karen Russell’s hilarious “Orange World” highly enough, particularly for nursing moms. In this short story, the narrator accidentally embarks on a breastfeeding relationship with a (not the) devil. When it comes to long days of solo parenting and feelings of inadequacy, have a look at Tananarive Due’s “Summer”. As a bonus, that story will also make you feel much less guilty about handing your fussy child your phone in a desperate bid for a moment’s peace. If you’ve ever felt uneasy about the invasive nature of pregnancy, Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild is the body horror tale for you.
Beyond the physical realities and logistics of motherhood, creating a life can also involve an intense confrontation with life’s opposing force. A recent and wonderful article in The Paris Review called Mothers As Makers of Death candidly discusses the sudden appearance of death in a new mother’s mind. I can attest to this personally. Every new mom I’ve shyly broached the subject with has also been quick to chime in with her own unexpected reckoning with her mortality and that of her child. There are terrifying corollaries to new lives, especially given how full of sharp parts and ragged edges the world is.
And that’s what makes mothers – dazed, overwhelmed, ferocious, devoted, imperfect, human mothers – some of the best potential creators and consumers of horror. The miasma of powerful and conflicting emotions at the root of motherhood is incredibly fertile territory for literature of all stripes. Horror isn’t the only avenue for reflecting maternal experience, by any means, but it is easily my favorite.
So tell me – what horrifying fiction about motherhood has worked for you?
Anne Gresham is a writer and librarian living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her short story “Perfect Mother,” which explores the dark side of motherhood, appeared in Flame Tree’s anthology Lost Souls (2018). Her short story “SHTF” appeared in Unnerving’s I Don’t Want to Play This Game Anymore (2018). She is at work on her first novel.
When she isn’t writing, Anne enjoys running, playing the piano, and following internet rabbit holes. She is also extremely grateful to be part of the lives of her husband Chris, daughter Eula, dog Larry, and three cats who did not consent to be named in a public forum.