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Horror and Motherhood: Two Perspectives

Happy belated Mother’s Day from Madness Heart Press! We hope you enjoyed a beautiful spring day of socially distant bonding or (at the very least) a nice, patient phone call. While I hope that the phenomenon doesn’t apply to you personally, mothers have always been a frequent theme in horror – understandable, given the important role they play in our lives and psychological development.

The mother-figure is such a titanic force in fiction, mythology, and psychology, in fact, that I hesitate to even delve into the subject in the limited space I have here. However, it is worth noting (at the very least) that there seem to be two main categories – or approaches, if you prefer – when one examines motherhood in horror. In one camp, there are stories about mothers told from an outside perspective: mothers as either monsters or protectors. In the other camp are stories about mothers told from their point of view: mothers as warriors, or doomed caregivers, or any number of other roles – but told from the inside.

One could make a good argument that the most famous mother in horror cinema is something of a paradox; while “she” is a tremendous presence in the story, “she” is also long-dead and mummified, and incapable of much in the way of real volition. I speak, of course, of Mother Bates, the taxidermy-project-cum-alter-ego of one Norman Bates, the titular character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mrs. Bates is interesting in that her presence in the film is ultimately revealed to be entirely in Norman’s head; yet she is a character distinct from him with her own demented motivations and (quite lethal) agenda. In Mrs. Bates, we also see an example of the thinking in psychoanalysis at the time regarding the importance of maternal influences on mental illness. While the science has come a long way since the days of Psycho on this question, the relationship between Norman and his mother remains one of the most iconic – and troubling – in film.

Likewise, before there was Jason Vorhees, the hulking, machete-wielding killer from beyond the grave, there was his mother. Folks often forget (although self-referential horror such as Scream has pointed it out) that in the first Friday the 13th film, the killer was actually Jason’s mother, Pamela, and not Jason at all. The larger, more hulking Vorhees would not make his appearance until 1981’s Friday the 13th Part 2. As is the case with Psycho, Friday the 13th is less a story from the mother’s perspective than one that looks at the phenomenon of motherhood from the perspective of forensic psychology. There are countless other examples of this, ranging from the delightfully campy (1994’s Serial Mom or 1992’s Dead Alive, for example) to the genuinely grotesque (such as Stephen King’s Carrie).

Then there are stories told from the point of view of the mother. To me, these are even more psychologically interesting stories than those in which mothers figure as simple protectors or monsters. Examples in this category range widely, from body horror concerning motherhood and pregnancy (the upsetting and unforgettable Grace) to the terror of having a child with behavioral problems that may be natural – or unnatural (The Babadook, The Exorcist, and many others). In these stories, we are treated to a variety of mothers in a variety of roles. One of the most complex and fascinating of these is 2018’s Hereditary, in which – from the inside, mind you – we see three generations of very troubled women relate to each other as daughters and mothers (and, perhaps, members of something greater and more malign). It’s a wild ride, and only on repeated viewings does one realize the emotional complexity of the relationships it portrays.

If mothers figure prominently in horror it should come as no surprise. All of us experience some form of either mothering or motherhood (or both), and the universality of the experience makes it fertile ground for horror. Even so, offered a choice of two categories, one of which involves the simple portrayal of mothers as monsters and the other of which shows us life from inside the perspective of mothers, I will always choose the latter. While simple villainy is compelling enough on its own, adding empathy and perspective to the mix only richens and deepens the horror (and the story).

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