ANALYSIS: Mommy’s Little Monsters – Motherhood in Horror

This Mother’s Day, Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana unpacks the darker side of motherhood…

There is very little else in the entirety of a person’s life that is as frightening as reproducing, giving birth to and raising a tiny human whose survival instinct – unlike that of most animals – doesn’t kick in properly until their late teens. The overwhelming task of parenthood is itself the plot of a horror film: who needs a poltergeist when reality is full of wailing infants, incessant amounts of bodily fluid and a mother on the brink of insanity, sleep deprived due to strange beings making noises in the middle of the night?

Little wonder then that motherhood is thematically a common horror movie trope, whether it’s depicting the terror of parenting itself or characterising mothers as the root cause of evil, birth givers to monsters that commit horrendous acts towards the protagonists of such films. 

Millenia before motherhood was committed to celluloid, the very same themes were told through the mythologies of various cultures from all over the world. From Lilith in Judeo-Mesopotamian mythology, Angrboŏa from Norse legend, Echidna from Greece and Caoránach from Celtic Ireland, to murderers committing infanticide such as La Llorona in Hispanic beliefs, Medea from Ancient Greece and Putana in Hindu folklore, these fables were very much the foundation to what became horror tradition.

One of the most common horror movie tropes is that of the monstrous mother. In Barbara Creed’s book ‘The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis’ she states that ‘when a woman is represented as monstrous, it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions’ (1993: 27). This theory can easily be applied to infamous classics that have employed the monstrous mother through the depiction of overbearing and narcissistic female parents, such as Mrs Bates in Psycho (1960), Margaret White from Carrie (1974) and Pamela Voorhees in Friday The 13th (1980).

These three examples are possibly the most theorised and written about, whose murderous children become psychologically twisted by their trauma-inducing parenting. However, it’s also important to recognise the monstrous mothers who – through their negative experience of motherhood itself – become the sole antagonists of films that heroic characters must fight in order to bring peace to their own familial unit. These mothers often devolve into grotesque creatures through grieving the loss of their children, a bereavement having occurred due to them either having committed infanticide [Mama (2013); The Curse of La Llorona (2019)] or because of a horrific accident [The Woman In Black (2012)]. The tremendous grief and guilt caused these mothers to become vengeful spirits, seeking substitutes for their lost children and more often than not threatening the lives of the protagonist’s offspring. 

Related to the vengeful, bereft mother is those who have been overcome by an outside presence such as a demon or spirit. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) involve mother’s suffering with grief and depression becoming possessed, and in turn attacking their own children in horrendous ways. A representation of the effects of mental illness, these possessions symbolise the deterioration of the psychological wellbeing of mothers, going against the traditional order and becoming what – in reality – society deems most horrendous: a mother with no maternal instinct, potentially causing harm instead of protection.  

Another portrayal is mother as vessel. Typically depicted in possession and occult centred horror, the period of a person’s pregnancy is at the forefront of these plot developments and can be seen to symbolise wider society’s outdated – and yet unfortunately still common – view of women being defined by their ability to carry a child, thus reducing them to walking incubators; something with links to restrictive reproductive laws on subjects such as abortion and birth control. In movies such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Devil’s Doorway (2018) women are impregnated by a demonic entity and their pregnancies become a means to an end, and just like Milton’s description of the mouth of Hell being like a womb in his work Paradise Lost the role of the mother becomes that of a gateway through which demons are birthed.

A film that subverts the vessel trope – crossing into monstrous mother territory – is 2016 slasher-comedy Prevenge directed by Alice Lowe, in which an expectant mother believes her unborn child is compelling her to kill. Teetering on the line between demonic child and antenatal mental illness Prevenge – much like The Babadook – is a portrayal of a mother made monstrous by her psychosis whilst reproducing.

It’s not all butchery however, with the character trope of mother as protector still existent. Seen in films such as The Shining (1980) with Wendy Torrance, Poltergeist (1982) with Dianne Freeling and Annabel from Mama (2013), these women are the ideal paradigm of motherhood, the defender of their family units willing to confront evil and face off against monsters in order to protect their children, both biological and adopted.

In this situation the mother is almost an evolution of the Final Girl: not only must she protect herself, but she must ensure that her offspring survive as well, utilising her maternal instinct in a fight against her villainous parental counterpart. We see this in Wendy’s battle against ferocious father Jack Torrance, Annabel’s combat with Mama and – to some extent – Ripley fighting the Alien Queen in Aliens (1986). In all these instances the Final Girl becomes the Final Mother and is perhaps a representation of the journey of parenthood itself, with the progression from naïve potential victim to hardened – if slightly dishevelled – warrior.

Horror cinema is known for holding up a mirror to society, and its inclusion of different types of motherhood is a prime example of this: whether it’s the monstrous mother, subverting the perfect mother, mother as vessel, or the protector who is symbolic of motherhood itself. 

Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana

If you want to dive further into the world of female-centric genre cinema listen to Ygraine and Mary Wild on our recent podcast episode on Female New Wave Horror and The Babadook (2014).

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