Hereditary, the title of Ari Aster’s eagerly anticipated new film, has got horror fans sitting up and paying attention. Rumours of psychologically broken actors suffering from PTSD and promises of a film set to be this generation’s The Exorcist, Hereditary is already guaranteed to secure a place on the IMDB Top 100 list. Motherhood is as prevalent a theme in horror as death, sex and mental illness; indeed, the most monstrous incarnations manage to assimilate them all into one.
If you take a sweeping glance across the horror genre over the last decade, you’ll notice that mothers have had a pretty bad rap. Angry, over-bearing, sexually repressed, possessive; the devouring mothers depicted on-screen are Freudian nightmares. In the flesh, in spirit, male, metaphorical or metaphysical – the devouring mother archetype manifests in a wildly vast number of ways.
Freud reminds us that the devouring mother is the selfish lover to her children; shielding them from the terrors of the real world to the extent of infantalisation. She is loving to the extent with which her children are subservient and will become hateful, cruel, and often murderous when they rebel.
It goes without saying that the archetypal blueprint for all horror mothers is Mrs Bates. She ticks all the boxes: possessive, jealous, murderous and maniacal. The mother is the root of all evil; often inadvertently responsible for the bloodshed caused by her children, through her bad parenting.
Horror mothers aren’t necessarily born monsters; it’s motherhood that makes them that way. In the terrifically tense The Babadook (2014), Essie Davis’ weary-eyed and wired portrayal of a single mother dealing with the loss of her husband, who tragically died on the night she gave birth to her son. For seven years she exists in a profound state of mourning, unable to cope with her son’s frequent, and often violent, attacks of anxiety. The monster in The Babadook is a triple threat; a physical manifestation of grief, post-natal depression and motherhood.
For women, societal pressures dictate that motherhood should come easy, that the mother should be capable of super-human feats of altruism, putting aside her own grievances, doubts and worries for the sake of the child and all with a sunshine smile. In horror, any mothers who fail to live up to such expectations must be punished.
The mother doesn’t necessarily have to be possessed to be bad, merely neglectful. The workaholic parents in It Follows (2014), for example, are blissfully unaware of the woeful ordeals of their children. Well-meaning mothers who have their child’s best interests at heart are often their downfall, as their children fall prey to the monsters under the bed.
Even when the mother is given a chance to be the hero, they are never forgiven their past, or their flaws. In the classic horror Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) ,our final girl Nancy Thompson discovers that Freddie Kruger is after her partly because of the instrumental involvement her mother Marge had in Freddie’s death. Marge is perpetually boozed-up, fragile and haunted, wholly incapable of shielding her daughter from the consequences of her legacy. In Friday the 13th (1980) we see the genetic legacy Jason Voorhees inherits from his mother, Mrs Voorhees, who exercises her murderous predilection long before Jason is mysteriously revived from his early grave.
The bond between a mother and her child is one of the most primal, most enduring bonds in nature, which makes it no surprise that film-makers (mostly male) use and subvert this bond to provide explaination for the mother’s eventual descent into madness. Motherhood is a uniquely feminine experience, arguably a wildly different experience from that of the father. It is only the mother that must under-go physical, as well as psychological change. Even in today’s world of advocating for shared parental responsiblity, it is still usually the mother who must bear most of the burden. Horror movies simply amp up these pressures to a hundred and showcase the aftermath.
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) takes a biblical look into the concept of the mother in a delriously debauched allegory about humanity’s mistreatment of the almightiest mother of all: Mother Nature. Whilst there have been many comparisons comparing mother! with Rosemary’s Baby, the movie is a clear metaphor for the impending destruction of the natural world and humanity’s exploitation of Earth. Hidden beneath Aronofsky’s grandiose, in-yer-face metaphors lies a sinister observation into a mother’s compulsion to sacrifice everything to accomodate for her children, in this case her children being all of mankind.
Grief is so often a theme in horror; whether it be grief over the death of a child or the death of a parent. In Hereditary, it’s both. In her grief, the mother Annie (Toni Collette) is at the mercy to the deepest, darkest fears lurking in her subconsious; the gnawing, niggling fear that she is incapable of being a good mother. Even before her own mother’s death, Annie showcased signs that perhaps motherhood wasn’t her bag. In one nightmare sequence we discover that whilst sleepwalking, Annie had dowsed herself and her two children with paint thinner and struck a match.
There are a few outstanding examples of to be a good horror movie mother. Pregnant widow Sarah (Alysson Paradis), from the 2007 French home invasion horror Inside, goes to extreme lengths, however futile in the end, to save her unborn child from a maniachal scissor-whielding intruder. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) maintains her maternal instinct all the way to the end, even when she finds out that her baby is, in fact, the spawn of Satan. Perhaps, if there were to be a Rosemary’s Baby sequel, we would find that the genre had found a way to punish Rosemary, despite her motherly goodness. But for now all that we can hope is that maybe, with the right upbringing, she manages to raise her satanical baby to be halfway decent, although horror history tells us he’ll probably end up an evil, homicidal monster.