“The Mother is the Monster” — an Exploration of Monstrous Matriarchs in Modern Horror Fiction and Film
by Tabatha Wood
Women in horror frequently get a very bad deal. They are punished, constantly and consistently, for no other reason than their gender identity. Portrayed either as weak and fragile victims, or gratuitously over-sexualised, often their only purpose is to be assaulted, lusted over or both. Enter: the Monstrous Mother. She may be possessive, narcissistic, overbearing, jealous, abusive, homicidal or sexually-oppressed. The very worst kind of monstrous mother is all of these things at once. Horror has a special relationship with its audiences — it relies on emotions and must illicit a reaction. It awakens hidden fears and desires, and is frequently the most unsettling when it imagines danger in “safe” places such as the home. Because of this, monstrous mothers make ideal protagonists.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described motherhood in a highly controversial way. He believed that women’s lives were dominated by their reproductive functions, and a woman’s existence is only given real meaning when she becomes a mother. She serves as a container for her infants’ endogenous drives, and her influence is so powerful that should she fail to successfully realise these drives and desires — especially during their formative years — she may cause irreversible and catastrophic damage to her child’s psyche. Thus, mothers are supposed to be saviours and protectors. Their primary role is to nurture and care. When that is compromised, we are forced to confront a kind of horror which makes us feel vulnerable and confused. The Monstrous Mother trope taps keenly into our primal fears. It fosters distrust in the mother’s role as a worthy protector. The idea that all mothers should be sweet and caring homemakers is undermined by casting them as villains. It is a Freudian nightmare made real.
No other monstrous mother better highlights this Freudian fear than Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) in Peter Jackson’s Braindead. After being bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey, becoming a zombie, and subsequently turning the entire town into the undead, she then mutates into a gigantic and repulsive beast, complete with oversize breasts. That sequence of events could be quite terrifying enough for her nebbish son, Lionel, to cope with, but her warped maternal instincts urge her to go yet further and suck her unwilling offspring back into her womb, along with the line, “No-one will ever love you like your mother!” Lionel escapes by performing his own twisted caesarean and dispatches his creator, running into the waiting arms of his young, female lover. An Oedipal tale this is not, and yet it certainly toys with some of Freud’s controversial ideas on psychosexual development — where the mother is the first true love object of the child, all boys are drawn to and subconsciously desire their mothers until a suitable substitute is found. Lionel has to effectively be re-born and destroy his overbearing mother before he can begin a new sexual chapter in his life.
Women who turn their back on creating offspring are often seen as monstrous, simply for denying what Freud would argue is a woman’s sole purpose for existing. Yet some monstrous mothers most certainly should never have accepted such a role. In Stephen King’s Carrie, Carrie White’s mother Margaret (played by Piper Laurie in the 1976 cinematic release) is a fanatical, abusive zealot who brands her telekinetic daughter a witch, throws hot tea in her face and then tries to kill her. The fact that she has traumatised her daughter throughout her entire life, and has been the catalyst for awakening her powers, has apparently not occurred to her. Clearly Mrs. White is not mentally sound and is possibly suffering from a certain amount of unresolved guilt and past trauma, however her unhealthy obsession with Jesus and a fervent revulsion of sex, ensures that Carrie’s life, especially during her formative years, is a constant misery. Carrie has no knowledge of menstruation or what it means to her as a woman; her mother informs her that the onset of her period is due to her entertaining “sinful thoughts” and forces her into a cupboard to pray away the evil. Ultimately, after sustaining years of bullying and abuse from her mother and her peers, and then doused in pig blood as a prom night prank, Carrie herself takes up the mantle of monster and destroys her classmates, her mother, and herself with her telekinetic abilities. Her actions are seen primarily as an act of revenge, but also an act of liberation, as Carrie emancipates herself from a lifetime of matriarchal mistreatment.
Mother’s Day, a Troma Entertainment “exploitation film” from 1980 (and loosely remade in 2010) also takes the idea of an unsuitable mother and runs wild with it. The titular Mother has raised her two sons to be murderers, rapists and thieves and actively encourages their horrible exploits — indeed, they engage in such acts to impress her. Of course, the victims are invariably young and attractive women, and in another warped example of the Oedipal and Jocasta complexes, Mother ensures she eliminates any competition for her sons’ adoration and maintains total control over their lives. Mother’s background is never revealed, and we are left to assume that her proclivity towards derangement is simply due to some warped enjoyment. The character is eventually dispatched by her sons’ would-be victims wielding a sex-toy, serving to further highlight Mother’s fear that eventually all mothers are replaced by younger, more sexual women in their sons’ lives.
Horror mothers are often angry, and that rage fuels their homicidal urges. In David Cronenburg’s The Brood, Nola Carveth (Samatha Eggar) is abused by her alcoholic mother during childhood. Her unprocessed rage — coupled with a new type of experimental psychotherapy — is so powerful that she is able to parthenogenetically give birth to a brood of homicidal dwarves who physically enact her subconscious desires by murdering everyone who angers her. An obvious physical manifestation of her unresolved psychological pain, Nola’s ability to spawn these children of vengeance is somewhat ironic, given that her sole aim for undergoing therapy is to prove that she is emotionally stable. Thanks to the actions of her supernatural children, her desire to gain custody of her real, human child is a goal which is sadly never reached. Yet, just as alcoholic Monster Mother begat traumatised and unstable Monster Mother, we are shown in the conclusion that Nola’s daughter might also have inherited her mother’s vengeful talents.
One such child who definitely inherited his mother’s temperament was motel owner-manager Norman Bates, he of Psycho fame. The domineering and narcissistic Mrs Norma Bates is equal parts jealous, manipulative, needy and homicidal. She is a mean-tempered and puritanical old woman who raised the seemingly mild-mannered Norman with abject cruelty. She teaches him that all women — except her — are whores, and that any sexual contact is a sin. She controls his entire life and forbids him to leave her or the motel. It is hardly any wonder then that when his mother takes a lover, a confused and jealous Norman dispatches them both. Later, unable to bear the pain of being separated from her, he exhumes and mummifies his mother’s corpse, and keeps her in his fruit cellar. Eventually we discover that Norma’s influence on her son has had terrible consequences, to the point where he not only commits homicide in her name, but does so while wearing her clothes. We are led to believe that Norman is not merely pretending to be his mother, but has essentially become her: his personality has been split and overcome by the murderous “mother” persona. Norma may not have ever taken up a knife herself, but her terrible parenting certainly made her indirectly responsible for a multitude of deaths, by actively contributing to Norman’s psychological distress.
Horror films are all too happy to pervert the results of a personal tragedy into some form of biblical vengeance and perhaps the most well-known monstrous mother is she who only becomes a monster to avenge the demise of her child. Driven mad by bereavement, Pamela Vorhees (Betsy Palmer) in Friday the 13th, wreaks murderous vengeance on the teenage counsellors of Camp Crystal Lake, who she blames for the accidental drowning of her son, Jason. It is an extreme decision, but it shines a light on a mother’s primal instinct to protect their child, or to make sense of their death. Pamela’s actions are indeed monstrous, but we can also appreciate how the tragic circumstances have influenced her mental state, and driven her to pursue lethal reparations.
Other monstrous mothers seeking either homicidal justice include: Mrs Loomis in Scream 2 who wants revenge for the death of Billy, her murderous son; the ghostly Jennet Humfrye from The Woman in Black who seeks to avenge the accidental death of her child by taking the lives of any who dare approach Eel Marsh House; and even the Alien Queen from Aliens who as a six-legged, double-jawed beast with acid for blood becomes even more terrifying when she discovers that Ripley has incinerated her precious eggs. Going back as far back as the Anglo-Saxon era, when Beowulf kills Grendel, it is Grendel’s mother who arrives seeking murderous revenge. Such behaviour is clearly an extreme over-reaction, but these monstrous mothers see their deeds as completely reasonable. And as any real-life mother knows, when the “Momma Lion” has been unleashed in her, woe betide anyone who hurts her child.
Horror mothers don’t always start out as monsters, often they are simply struggling with the responsibilities and pressures of motherhood. Sleep deprivation, physical and mental exhaustion, behavioural difficulties in their offspring or financial worries all have a considerable impact on any new mother. In The Babadook Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) is an exhausted widow, struggling to raise her troubled and violent son without help. Mentally fragile and clearly gripped by a terrible depression, Amelia voices the unthinkable: she wishes her child were dead. She is subsequently possessed by the Babadook, which urges her to act on her desires, yet through a feat of great emotional strength, she is able to overcome the monster and drive it into the basement of her house. Amelia does not vanquish the beast, but instead she learns to tame and control it. The Babadook serves as a powerful metaphor for the destruction mental illness, and specifically maternal depression, can wreak on a family unit. Director, Jennifer Kent, stated in October 2014 that: “it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.” And yet it is one which many mothers, new and old, readily identify with. Caught in the grip of post-natal depression, for example, real life can feel like real Hell for many women.
Lionel Shriver captures this struggle uniquely in the character of Eva Khatchadourian in her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Some might argue Eva is included unfairly, as after all it is her son who is the real monster, but her indifference and coldness towards her own child and the distance she maintains between them, pushes him down a dark path. It is unclear if Eva herself is suffering from some form of PND, but her ambivalence to motherhood, borne from her struggle to adjust to life with a challenging infant, and perhaps compounded by the fact that having a family meant she had to give up her successful career, drives an already disturbed young child to commit atrocious acts. Why, we wonder, did Eva not seek professional help for her child, and also for herself? Perhaps, to some, a monstrous mother is not only one who commits evil, but one who also quietly distances herself from it and allows it a space to thrive in her own home.
In The Monster the mother herself is not necessarily the titular monster, but she is still a terrible mother, and as such, her behaviour is deemed to be monstrous. A raging alcoholic who is both incompetent and abusive, the relationship between failed mother and neglected daughter is hideously strained, and it is largely Mummy’s fault that they both find themselves in a perilous situation. Only after the introduction of the “real” monster — a stereotypical scary beast with sharp teeth and claws — is the monstrous mother thus able to redeem herself. She acknowledges and apologises for her previous bad mother behaviour, and offers herself up as a sacrifice to ensure her daughter can survive. Her selfless sacrifice cannot necessarily negate her prior monstrousness, but it does reassert her role as a protector and saviour, and suggests that even the worst mothers can change and rediscover their caring, maternal role.
Horror as a genre is frequently dominated by male writers and directors — out of all the books and films mentioned previously, only three: The Babadook, The Woman in Black, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, were penned by women. Playing heavily on the stereotype of the “hysterical” woman, most other male-written monstrous mothers become shrieking harpies, incapable of expressing themselves rationally or calmly. Perhaps locked in a permanent state of post-menstrual tension or driven mad by unstable hormones, they are seen to be devoid of logic or compassion. Male writers are only able to comment on their perception of motherhood — and one also has to seriously question the relationships they have with their own mothers when looking at their sources of inspiration! Their fictional mothers are frequently zealous, domineering, or seek to emasculate their offspring. They are usually post-menopausal, and if not outright unattractive, they are certainly not depicted as sexual, or sexually active — suggesting that a woman loses all her urges and sensuality once she has given birth. She does not need to be an actual beast, when her behaviour is beastly enough, (excluding Vera Cosgrove of course.) However, all faults aside, Monster Mothers are also frequently strong and formidable characters. It shows an interesting awareness that even when the female horror character has lost her physical allure or her sexual “purpose”, her role as a Mother can offer her a different kind of power as a woman.
In traditional horror literature, when the females are stronger than the males, they are frequently depicted as sexually depraved monsters who indulge in exhibitionism and sadism. Not true in monstrous motherhood. These women have no need for sex or procreation — their work is already done. When the female is able to transcend these predefined gender roles, she has the potential to be both feminine and masculine, and to be as nurturing and protective as she is dominant and aggressive. These females then become a threat by simply proving they can be stronger or more powerful than any male — a concept which Freudian theory claims a man is incapable of enduring — and the mother becomes a monster more frightening than any supernatural beast.
“The mother is the monster” is not a typically common horror trope, at least not when compared to the use of women as victims or sexual objects, but a number of modern horror writers and directors are becoming increasingly aware that it is a chillingly effective one. The bond between a mother and child forms one of the strongest emotional ties in human nature, and exploring those feelings through horrific narratives awakens a primal terror within us. An anxiety that suggests that if we cannot even trust our own mothers to nurture and protect us, nothing in our lives is truly safe.
About Tabatha Wood
Kia ora, I’m Tabatha, mostly known as Tabby.
I live in Wellington, the ‘Coolest Little Capital’ of New Zealand, with my husband and two boys. I spend most of my days educating my children at home, and in my free time I write short stories, online blog articles, and the occasional poem.
I have written and published three non-fiction books for education with Continuum International Publishing Group, (two of which have been translated into Portuguese and Malay, and sold internationally,) and I have worked as a secondary-level English teacher, a school Library Manager, and a technical editor for other authors with Wiley Publishing and Bloomsbury Academic.
My short stories are mostly horror, fantasy, and suspense; while my online blog focuses more on my life and experiences in New Zealand. My creative writing is often inspired a great deal by my family, my life experiences, and by the power of the land where I live. I enjoy writing pieces which may challenge the way people think, or that offer a fresh perspective on the world.
I write a lot about the benefits of writing for positive mental and emotional health, using words and art as tools to connect, inspire and heal. I created the online collective Well-Written in 2017 which works to promote this belief, and I help run a regular monthly writing group and workshop to support other female writers in Wellington.
Outside of writing, I have organised charity events to support and help raise awareness for equality and Women’s Rights, made and sold my own jewellery, and immersed myself in the world of cosplay – often dressing up to help fundraise for a good cause.
My debut fiction collection of original short horror stories, Dark Winds Over Wellington: Chilling Tales of the Weird & the Strange, was independently published by Wild Wood Books in March 2019 as an eBook and Print on Demand softcover with Amazon.