ANALYSIS: Monster Mom and Deadly Dad – Parenthood and Mental Ill-Health in Horror

Trigger warning for suicide, domestic abuse and family annihilation

As part of our celebration of Andrzej Żuławski’s POSSESSION (1981) this month, Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana examines the relationship between parenthood and mental ill-health in horror cinema…

Battling your demons and haunted by ghosts: both expressions that can be used to describe those dealing mental health problems. As such it’s no wonder that the horror genre is the ideal medium in which to explore mental health in depth on a more psycho-analytic, metaphorical level.

One of the most utilised branches of mental health horror is that of mental illness in parents and its direct effect on their children. Through haunted houses, possession, demons and spectral beings, the mental health of parents has frequently been monstrosized, more often than not creating villains and turning their children into victims. With releases such as The Babadook (2014), Lights Out (2016) and more recently Smile (2022), You Are Not My Mother (2022) and Hypochondriac (2022), the genre seems to be primarily focused on maternal mental illness: but what about the representation of fathers who are struggling? Is it non-existent, or is the mental illness of dads a more heavily coded depiction, and what does the portrayal of either parent’s struggle say about society’s thoughts on mental health in general?

To begin, The Babadook and You Are Not My Mother centre around mothers with school-age children and the immediate difficulties that those children experience when their mothers suffer from some sort of mental illness.

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook follows widowed parent Amelia (Essie Davis) as she navigates single parenthood with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Finding a strange pop-up book, Amelia inadvertently unleashes the titular entity, a top hat wearing spirit that is intent on possessing her and hurting Samuel. A modern classic, the film is an almost perfect depiction of a mother suffering from grief and depression and her struggle to not let that darkness consume her – and her boy.

Kate Dolan’s Irish folk horror You Are Not My Mother also depicts a mother and child relationship that has been endangered. Here, mum Angela (Carolyn Bracken) is suffering from bipolar disorder, a pre-existing condition which her teenage daughter Char (Hazel Doupe) has been exposed to from a young age. Things take a turn for the fantastical however when Char begins to suspect her mum may – or may not – have been swapped with a changeling by the fairies. Seen through Char’s eyes audiences witness Angela’s transformation from mother to an uncanny, inhuman creature hellbent on dragging Char down to the underworld, mythic tropes deployed to express familial anxieties.

As such both The Babadook and You Are Not My Mother depict a mother’s mental illness from the perspective of their kids, with symptoms such as extreme mood swings, mania and a physical transformation creating confusing and frightening situations that their children seek to rationalise: whether it’s a scary monster from Samuel’s pop-up book or a figure from Irish folklore, the only way these kids can formulate an explanation for their mothers’ conditions is to turn them into creatures that they must fight in order to save their “real” mother.

Lights Out, Smile and Hypochondriac focus on the adult children of mothers with a mental illness and the effects this has had on them growing up. David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out depicts Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) as she attempts to save her younger brother from the inhuman entity named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) that has attached itself to their mum, Sophie (Maria Bello). It is revealed that both Diana and Sophie were previous patients at a psychiatric hospital as children, though Diana is now a creature whose existence depends on the darkness that surrounds both Sophie and her children, representing the conditions in which sufferers of mental illness find themselves.

The recently released Smile, written and directed by Parker Finn, stars Sosie Bacon as Rose, a mental health professional who is haunted: both by the guilt she feels over the death of her mentally ill mother and a smiling suicide demon. The fact that as an adult Rose has become a psychiatric doctor indicates the effect her mother’s illness has had on her, and how she attempts to help others after her perceived failure to save her mum. 

Similarly Addison Heimann’s Hypochondriac sees protagonist Will (Zach Villa) plagued by terrifying visions which threaten to derail his relationship with boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye). As Will gradually opens up it’s clear his mother experienced psychotic episodes, and so with Will suffering similar symptoms he must face his repressed trauma and the terrifying possibility that he may have inherited his mother’s illness.

Taken together Lights Out, Smile and Hypochondriac show the insidious way in which a mother’s battle with mental ill-health can manifest itself in their adult children, depicting mental illness as a hereditary curse passed down through the matriarchal lineage. Here, despite the children doing their utmost to avoid succumbing to the same affliction as their mothers, their fate is presented as inevitable.

Whilst the mental health of mothers is explored extensively in horror, the same cannot be said for that of fathers, with depictions apparently very rare or – if present at all – heavily coded as a murderous and possibly possessed patriarch.

Two such films that come to mind when discussing this type of portrayal are The Shining (1980) and The Amityville Horror (2005). In Stanley Kubrick’s seminal classic, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) relocates his family to the remote Overlook Hotel to take a job as the hotel’s caretaker during its closure for the winter months. With anger and violence already hinted at from the outset, the isolated and haunted hotel soon begins to possess Jack and he enacts terrifying abuse on his wife and young son. Much like Torrance, George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) in the 2005 remake of Amityville is also possessed by a haunted dwelling which in turn puts the rest of his family in danger as he becomes intent on murdering them.

Both these instances of attempted familial annihilation occur within a place of residence, the patriarchs here apparently raging at the lack of control they have over their own homesteads: as such these representations present paternal mental ill-health as violently abusive with an immediate, physical effect on their family, in contrast to the slow-burning psychological influence that a mother’s illness has on her children over a longer period of time. 

Whilst the aforementioned two films are obvious examples of fathers’ psychological turmoil, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) is a tactile and highly intelligent depiction of a loving father and his struggle with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Neil Maskell stars as Jay, an ex-British soldier who, after returning home, is struggling to assimilate back into civilian life with his wife and son. As money problems begin to pile up, Jay takes a job with best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) as a contract killer. Soon he spirals uncontrollably, and it becomes apparent to Jay that the people who have hired him are not all that they appear.

As ex-military Jay is used to an “alpha male” environment, and so when he returns to a domestic space he finds himself adrift. Despite at his core wanting to be a loving father and husband, he is prone to violent and aggressive outbursts, and – with hints of a trauma he has encountered in Kiev – Jay is a man haunted by his past. During one scene Jay cuts his hand: the wound never heals, constantly bleeding throughout the rest of the film – a signifier of his internal trauma and the fact that, due to his own actions, his psychological wounds simmer and rot.

At one point Jay visits a doctor who gaslights him as he opens up about his mental health, ignoring Jay’s wound as if it’s all a figment of his imagination. This poignant scene appears to represent society’s attitudes to men’s mental health in general: with suicide being the number of cause of death for men in the UK under 50, links could be made to the social expectations on men to hide their vulnerability and not disclose their feelings, eventually resulting in catastrophe for them and their families.

These disparities between the representation of maternal and paternal mental ill-health in horror films is indisputable: mothers are sufferers of depression, bipolar and mania, and are often portrayed in a wholly unsympathetic light, giving birth to physical manifestations of their illness and causing intergenerational trauma, as if connected to their children by a psychological umbilical cord; in contrast horror movie fathers externalise their mental ill-health through physical violence and aggression, with the effects on their spouses and offspring usually immediate and direct with murderous consequences.

These inequalities in representation are a stark indication of how wider society negatively views mums and dads who suffer from these kinds of illnesses. The fact that fathers in horror are barely represented as the depressed parent, save for grieving situations, shows how little they are afforded the chance for vulnerability when expressing their own experiences of mental ill-health. 

© Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana

Want to hear more on parenthood and mental health? Check out our pod episode on POSSESSION (1981) here, and look out for our upcoming episode on Motherhood in Horror on our Patreon channel.

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