Today, the internet is littered with articles that navigate and discuss the intricacies of a mother-child relationship. These articles, along with discussions on social media, have placed a significant spotlight on just how damaging or stimulating this relationship can be. Before the access to the internet, however, horror movies had been exploring this domain for decades.
Horror films have always taken tangible fears and placed them in despicable situations. A true feat of horror films is when they take a deep dive into a subconscious fear and bring it to light, making audiences more uncomfortable than any spider or vampire ever could. One of their most successful and re-used avenues is the fear of a toxic mother. Oh sure, there are scary movies about evil stepfathers and nasty nurses, but the fear of a “bad mom” has brought some of the best, most iconic horror films into fruition. It’s a fear that parents and their children are both wary of. Horror films have grasped the very core of parental psychologies and merged them with their genre, continuously exploring different ideas and evolving through each decade.
To take you back through the history of horror mums, there is no better place to start than in 1960. Psycho (1960) contains one of the most iconic mothers of all film history, and she’s not even alive during the film. You all know the story, even without a proper viewing. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the proprietor to the Bates Motel, and his murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) gave birth to the slasher genre. The story was much more complex than a bloody shower scene, however. It was the final scene that brings the whole film full circle, giving it more depth than one would have imagined. When the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) gives an analysis of Norman’s suffocating relationship with his mother, the audience is given their first chance to hyper analyze a horror film and a motive like never before – choosing to empathize, understand, or rebuke the mangled nature of Norman and even assert blame on the ghost of his dead mother.
1960’s horror films said that mums will make you crazy, because again in 1964, the influence of a mother pushed her child to murder. The film was Strait Jacket (1964), and it stars a mesmerizing performance from Joan Crawford. Lucy Harbin (Crawford) catches her husband cheating on her and retaliates by hacking him with an ax. As if that’s not scary enough, her young daughter has witnessed the entire act. Directed by William Castle, Strait Jacket includes brilliant imagery that intertwines the fates of mother and daughter right before your eyes. As Lucy is being released from the asylum, her daughter – Carol (Diane Baker) – is now an adult, and the two presumably want to mend the broken bond and lost time. The film convinces you that Lucy is still unhinged, but by the end it has a much more terrifying story to tell. Strait Jacket pushes the narrative that we are no better than our parents. No, in fact, we are on the same path, and it was Carol’s preconstructed path that led her to the same bloodlust and asylum as her mother.
Horror films have also long explored the exaggerated extremities of the dominating, inappropriate mother-son relationship. The 1973 film The Baby, starring Ruth Roman as Mrs. Wadsworth and Anjanette Comer as Ann Gentry, is about a social worker who takes on the case of the eccentric Wadsworth family, whose 20-something year old son, “Baby,” still acts like an infant. The Wadsworth’s have convinced everyone that Baby (David Mooney) cannot develop past his infant state. The audience later learns, however, that it is because of the abusive actions of his mother and older sisters that Baby hasn’t developed. Although rightfully criticized for the film’s tasteless nature, it perpetuates a satirized narrative about a mother infantilizing her son through adulthood.
In 1980, United Films released an utterly brutal and bleak Mother’s Day film. Named after the holiday that praises the beauty of a mother’s love, the film Mother’s Day (1980) makes a sick mockery of it all. Beatrice Pons is Mother, a satirized character who makes a “swipe at American motherhood.” Mother’s sons, Ike (Frederick Coffin) and Addley (Michael McCleery), commit heinous acts of rape and murder to make their mother proud, and Mother watches on in jubilus approval.
While horror films love to delve into “momma’s boy” tropes and so on, they also explore the mother’s pressure of a “perfect daughter.” In 1976, Brian De Palma directed and released his version of Stephen King’s novel, Carrie. Margaret White (Piper Laurie) is another one of horror’s immortalized mothers. Her constant berating and attempted erasure of Carrie’s womanhood sexuality contextualizes not only the views of Margaret as a mother but also the views of society. On multiple occasions, Margaret refers to baring a daughter as a punishment. She is burdened with Carrie because of sin, and Carrie is burdened with womanhood because of sin.
In 1991, horror mastermind Wes Craven wrote and directed The People Under the Stairs – a twisted story that emphasizes numerous social and psychological politics. The “mother” of the film doesn’t even have a name, stripping her of humanity and making her a caricature of toxic motherhood. Mommy (Wendy Robie) only wants purity from her daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer.) Alice “sees no evil, speaks no evil, and hears no evil,” so she is allowed to be a prisoner in Mommy’s home. The perpetuated perfect daughter rings fear throughout the films that try to portray it. Both Margaret and Mommy are willing to kill their daughters rather than lose an ounce of flawlessness. The constant repression and abuse are enough to make any woman squirm while watching.
The most covert, spine-tingling horror mother is the loveless, selfish one. One of the greatest actresses of classic Hollywood came under fire when her daughter, Christina Crawford, released a tell-all memoir later turned into a film – Mommie Dearest (1981.) The horrors of watching a selfish mother control and mistreat her young, adopted daughter is an image that doesn’t dare leave your mind. The film contains one of the most dedicated performances by Faye Dunaway, who plays Joan Crawford herself. Her strangled attitude towards her daughter manifests itself emotionally and even physically. The film is also one of the very few mentioned that carries such a powerful, erratic portrayal of motherhood. It is one of the only ones mentioned that sheds light on the mother’s mental health, addiction, and loneliness. The moving shades of the film allows the audience to view the perspective of multiple victims.
Even more chilling than Mommie Dearest is the 1987 film Flowers in the Attic. Derived from the eponymous novel, Flowers in the Attic removes some of the controversy of the novel and solely focuses on the horror of a truly selfish mother. This film isn’t as colorful as Mommie Dearest, but it is powerful, nonetheless. Once again, the role of the mom is left without a name – giving only focus to the lack of the character’s connection to the word ‘mother’ herself. Mother (played by Victoria Tennant) moves back into her parents’ home with her own children after the death of her husband. She is determined to win back the love of her father and be reinstated in his will. To do so, she must pretend her children don’t exist and force them to live in the attic, allowing her mother to constantly assault them on every occasion. The children slowly become malnourished and depressed as their grandmother visits them almost every day and refers to them as biblical abominations. It wasn’t just their mother’s neglect and passive nature that failed them, it was also her selfish need for her father’s money. Once she is in the will, she goes as far as attempting to murder her own children to ensure her lifetime wealth.
“Don’t you swear at me, you little shit! Don’t you ever raise your voice at me! I am your mother! Do you understand? All I do is worry and slave and defend you. And all I get back is that fucking face on your face.”
Those lines are probably some of the most recognizable of any recent horror film. It was just two years ago when Ari Aster’s film, Hereditary (2018), hit theaters and rocked the Indie-horror genre. Critics and horror fans everywhere praised how the film so intricately blurs the lines of real-life and imagination. The image of a family in turmoil and the dive into a mother’s trauma and her affected relationships was just as bone-chilling as the summoning of demons. However, it wasn’t just Aster’s writing that sold audiences on his film, it was also the actors who delivered on their roles like their lives depended on it – most notably, Toni Collette (who plays the mother, Annie.) Annie’s “I am your mother” monologue has been immortalized, along with the many horror films mentioned above, purely because of Collette’s delivery. She plays a traumatized mother who is losing her already hair-thin grip on reality and family.
Mothers in modern horror continue to portray and perpetuate stigmas from horror films and psychology theories before them. However, modern horror has managed to slowly perfect the art of nuance and realism rather than satirization and exaggeration. The film Black Swan (2014) can be connected to the film Carrie that came before it. Bong Joon Ho’s Mother (2018) is a much more technical and thoughtful illustration of a mother-son relationship than films like The Baby. Horror films will always explore these avenues because they bring the emotions of drama and fear out of audiences. The expansion of creativity in horror has allowed some of the best investigations of motherhood on screen. It has also allowed for some truly killer, enjoyable horror movies. Motherhood is such a beautiful, terrifying, hilarious, and nuanced experience in life and for whatever reason, the horror genre seems to be the perfect domain to explore it.