Motherhood and horror
By Gemma Amor
Let me get this out of the way in the first sentence. Ready? Okay.
There. I said it. Now that I have, that expression can sod off and climb into the bin and we can have a proper chat about Motherhood and horror without the spectre of maniacal, glamorous movie star Joan Crawford and her bloody coathangers looming above us.
Let’s get something else out of the way while we’re here. I’m both a writer of horror fiction AND a Mother. Does this make me more qualified to talk about it at length? Probably not. But it has changed how I consume and react to the brand of horror that centres itself around ‘Mother’ as not just a protagonist or antagonist, but a theme. And what I’ve realised, in the few years since I ungraciously pushed a giant baby out of my vagina and embarked upon my career as an author, is this: talking about Mothers as individuals in horror is one thing. Talking about Motherhood as a concept within horror is something else entirely- some would say it qualifies as a sub-genre within its own right. To Be a Mum, or Not To Be. Let’s be clear: horror can feature mothers, or be about motherhood. Unpicking this further so we can examine it properly can be both headache-inducing, and frustrating, and not least because ‘Motherhood’ the theme is rarely addressed, inside of horror and out, with rose-tinted spectacles.
On this note, being a mum in a horror movie is a bit like being a ‘final girl’- it either ends badly for you, or really badly, depending on the type of film. Either way, tropes abound, and very few of them are ever flattering. If you type ‘mothers in horror books’ into google, the first result (at least where I am) after the sponsored books ads is this: ‘The 16 Worst Mothers in Books’. When it comes to films, it is a frankly challenging task to find a mother that isn’t a raving lunatic or quivering victim (more on this later). What is it about Mothers that Hollywood finds so scary, exactly? Is it because of Freud? Is it because we actually love our mothers a great deal and find the idea of them behaving in any way that is threatening or dangerous so fundamentally scary we have to keep making movies about it? Or, worse, are there really that many lunatic, dangerous and downright dreadful mothers around in our society that we feel the need to make endless commentary on it seasoned liberally with with jumpscares and gallons of fake blood?
I don’t have the answers to this, but what I can do is breakdown different approaches to maternity in horror, based on my own observations:
Motherhood as a destructive force
Go on then, let’s talk about her: Norman Bates’ mother. The real, if somewhat anhydrous star of Pyscho (1960) wedged herself firmly into the minds of cinema-goers and filmmakers alike since she first reared her wizened head in 1960. Mrs. Bates is something of a muse for motherhood horror: inspiring possessive, crazed tributes in countless other movies many years down the line. And it’s not without impact. Here we see the true power of shitty parenting: a small boy, abused by his domineering and over-protective Mother, grows up so dysfunctionally that he eventually becomes her in his own mind, having been systematically stripped of any of his own personality or mental agency from a young age. Thus when the credits roll, we the audience feel a little sorry for the deadly, deranged Norman, because, after all- none of it was his fault, was it? Course not. All down to terrible mothering. And this, in and of itself, wrought destruction.
This idea evolves with Margaret White, the neurotic, hyper-religious Mother of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976). This book, as with Pyscho, also looks at motherhood as a catalyst for terrible behaviour- Carrie’s abuse, like Norman’s, is the spark that lights the murderous tinder. Margaret White, however, makes Mrs.Bates look like a girl-scout leader. She is a monstrous woman who is equal parts fantasist and control freak, scared beyond belief of the outside world, and abusive by default to her teenage daughter, denying her basic rights like sanitary products and body shaming her repeatedly as puberty threatens to broadens Carrie’s horizons. The end result is much the same as with Psycho- that failing on the motherhood front only results in death, and ruination. Move forward three years to 1979, and you have V.C Andrews’ utterly chilling and extremely difficult to swallow book (no pun intended) Flowers in the Attic. In this, motherhood and abuse are generational concerns, coloured by incest (yay). The story places the mother of four children, Corrine, as both the abuser, and the abused (Corrine is regularly whipped by her own cold, emotionless mama, because, themes). Throw in some poisoned doughnuts and dodgy things going on in the attic and the end message is one we are now familiar with: motherhood as a shattering, angry force.
The next rather retreatist (is that a word?) progression of this is the sensitive, fragile, watery mother (who is still overbearing, stifling and ultimately lethal) that we find in The Others, where Nicole Kidman spends a lot of time twitching curtains shut and dabbing tears from her porcelain skin and spouting pretty words about how much she loves her precious children until we realise, in fact, that she’s, yep- another dreadful mother who actually killed her own children and herself, and surprise, everyone is now a ghost, hurrah. Motherhood as a destructive force, huzzah!
And then to the modern day, to Hereditary (2018), because it wouldn’t be a decent discussion on mothers without mentioning Ari Aster’s incredibly violent, devastating portrait of familial breakdown and demonic possession. The destructive force throughout this film is not, as the red herring often suggests, Annie, played by the incomparable Toni Collette. Sure, she has some fairly obvious mental health issues, sure she once doused herself in a flammable substance and nearly set her children on fire, sure she seems closed down and unaffectionate towards her family, BUT. The real darkness emanates from Annie’s dead mother, Ellen, who we never once see alive but nonetheless manages to destroy an entire family and probably most of civilisation as we know it, eventually, with her tricky demon-summoning antics. The sheer force of her will sweeps through every scene, from her dead body in a coffin at the start to her dead body in a treehouse at the end. Ellen sends tidal waves of evil crashing through what was, to begin with, a typically dysfunctional but otherwise unremarkable all-american family. It’s the most brutal demonstration of motherhood as an adversarial power that I’ve ever seen, and stayed with me long after I’d viewed it.
Motherhood and Victimization
Next up: motherhood and victims. And again, we can turn to King for an easy example of this: Mrs. Torrance, in The Shining. Abused, mousy, timid, uninspiring, she is a ‘good’ mother to all intents and purposes, but oh, boy, does she have ‘victim’ written all over her, so much so that her son Danny is almost better off without her when trying to escape from his homicidal father. The book is definitely not about motherhood, but does exemplify what tends to happen to the concept – it gets polarised. I personally find films where mothers are victims in any sense of the word difficult to deal with, perhaps because it strikes too close to home, but conversely, I also find the idea of motherhood not as a destructive force but one that diminishes us somehow more terrifying.
Take Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – an innocent woman, in the first flushes of her married life, finds herself impregnated with a demon baby. We, the audience, watch as a beautiful and bright young thing slowly breaks down both mentally, and physically as a result. Pregnancy as a theme should also probably be in a subgenre all of its own, and for many of us is scary enough, but the hopelessness of this movie strikes at the heart of something not talked about often enough- that some women find motherhood unnatural. This is so against everything we learn from a young age that it can be difficult to get your head around, which is why the movie works so well.
Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin might seem like a strange book to place in this category, but bear with me. When I read this, it had such a profound and lasting effect that when I did eventually fall pregnant myself, I would have nightmares about giving birth to a blank-eyed boy that I couldn’t bond with. Whether or not the novel falls into the genre of horror, the narrative is horrifying from start to finish. A woman, a normal, every day woman, who tries her hardest to enjoy the gift of motherhood and fails, is punished in the most awful of ways – by the unthinkable atrocities her teenage son carries out. Tormented by her own failure, isolated and shunned by her son’s crimes, I can think of no clearer example of motherhood as a stifling, victimizing entity.
Motherhood as a Vengeful Influence
This is very closely linked to the destructive force category, but there are some examples that deserve mentioning in a specific way: The Woman in Black, from Susan Hill’s book of the same name, a vengeful ghost mother who lures small children to commit suicide in a bizarre act of retribution for the death of her own child. Prevenge (2016), in which a heavily pregnant widow goes ape-shit and embarks on a killing spree, slaughtering those who facilitated her husband’s death. And then, back to Joan Crawford, because all things comes full circle eventually, and we can talk about Strait Jacket (1964) in which axe-murdering Lucy Harbin exacts revenge upon her cheating dirtbag husband by chopping him up. Ultimately, Harbin’s behaviour ends up inspiring her daughter to pick up the axe, in a feminist take on Psycho that is somehow more satisfying to accept, if still hard to stomach.
Motherhood and Salvation
So, here’s a question- can we have more of this, please? This is the type of Motherhood I want to see. I want heroism, I want saviours, I want healing and salvation. You can still work scary shit in around that, and peril, and monsters and blood, but let’s have some discourse on how incubating a child and overseeing its development and safety and wellbeing does not automatically render you a foul, scary, pathetic or vengeful presence. Let’s have more Babadooks (2014), where a furious Amelia Vanek battles grief and insanity and saves her child, banishing the metaphorical Babadook to the cellar, where she keeps it tied up. Let’s have more Ripleys, scrapping limb for limb with xenomorphs to save the life of her surrogate daughter (yes I know it’s sci-fi, but let me have this). Let’s have more of Malorie in Birdbox by Josh Malerman, doing whatever the hell it takes to keep her kids alive in a terrifying, post-apocalyptic world, and succeeding.
Finally, let me have more Angela Carter, more The Bloody Chamber, more mothers who are “indomitable” and “eagle-featured” and who once shot a motherfucking man eating tiger, for heaven’s sake. Let’s have more galloping in on horseback to save the day, only to crash into the bad Bluebeard’s castle in the breathtaking finale to shoot the bastard marquis dead in his tracks. Let’s explore motherhood as a force for good, as well as all the other things. In a genre like horror, which is so malleable and so ripe for diversity, it is criminal to keep adhering to the same worn Bates pattern of addressing motherhood.
About Gemma Amor
I’m a horror fiction author, podcaster, artist and voice actor from Bristol, in the U.K.
I write for the wildly popular NoSleep Podcast and various other horror fiction audio dramas. I’m also writing, producing and acting in two shows, ‘Calling Darkness’, and ‘Whisper Ridge’, out in 2019. My first anthology of short stories, ‘Cruel Works of Nature’, was released in 2018, and my next book is the novella ‘Collection’.
I’m heavily influenced by classical literature, gothic romance and magic realism. I am most at home inside a dusty, rundown mansion or in front of a fire with a single malt and a dog-eared copy of anything by Angela Carter.
I’m open to collaborations in 2019- find me at @manylittlewords on Twitter and throw ideas at me.