Mother knows best: Working through horror films’ mummy issues

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Ari Aster’s new horror film starring Joaquin Phoenix, Beau Is Afraid, follows a man through a series of chaotic and unnerving events as he attempts to return to his mother. The fifth instalment in Sam Raimi’s long-reigning Evil Dead franchise, Evil Dead Rise, pits a woman against her estranged sister who happens to be possessed by a demon intent on destroying the home.

What do these horror films have in common? They share one insidious undercurrent: monstrous mothers.

Monstrous mothers feature in horror films like ‘Psycho’, ‘Evil Dead Rise’, ‘Carrie’ and ‘Beau is Afraid’.

The horror genre has for decades twisted maternal characters into obsessive, neurotic, and often violent creatures – entities that would rather consume the child than support it.

In pseudo-slasher Mother’s Day (1980), the mother raises her two sons to follow in her footsteps as tortuous killers; mothers in the low-budget horror Flesh-Eating Mothers (1988) contract a sexually transmitted disease that turns them into cannibalistic monsters; and the mother in black comedy Dead Alive (1992) is so domineering her son spends his life trying to protect her even after she becomes a rotting zombie.

With two films currently in cinema featuring different iterations of devilish mothers, it seems the trend is far from fizzling out.

But what drives this trope? If mothers are often nurturing pillars of support in real life, why are they so frequently used as the pinnacle of terror in horror? Film theorist Barbara Creed, author of the book The Monstrous-Feminine, which examines the role of women in horror films, says much of it is rooted in who is behind the camera.

“The representation of the mother as monstrous takes on a lot of sexist undertones that patriarchal ideology wants to perpetuate – I think to keep women within their roles,” Creed says.

Most early horror films were created within an industry almost exclusively controlled by men, Creed says. These films therefore subscribed to a masculine worldview and the fears and anxieties associated with it.

One of these fears included a mother’s tendency to cling to a child, thus starving them of independence. “To hasten the process of the mother letting go [of the child], society tended to demonise the mother as clingy, obsessive, cannibalistic,” Creed says.

The mother in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for example, convinces her son that any sexual desire is sinful and forces him to remain by her side through life. In Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the mother locks her daughter in a closet as a form of irrational punishment, forcing Carrie to repent for all of humanity’s sins.

Though much more contemporary, Aster’s films often depict similar patriarchal anxieties around the mother.

The mother/grandmother in Hereditary (2018), Ellen Leigh, is exposed as an evil cult leader who uses her grandson as a sacrificial lamb. More recently, the mother in Beau Is Afraid is the epitome of the suffocating mother. Through deceit, threats and conditional love, she robs her son of his independence and creates a reality where nothing feels safe beyond the metaphorical “womb” (with his mother).

“The boy will give her power and agency if she succeeds in turning him into a mummy’s boy,” Creed says.

Associate professor in film studies at The University of Sydney, Bruce Isaacs, says dangerous mothers became more common on-screen during a time when Freudian theories, which generally revolve around repressed sexual desire, were bleeding into the mainstream.

“Mothers were seen as this place of incredible repression for the male,” Isaacs says. “The male projects some kind of irrationality onto the mother. The mother is always a barrier or threat of some kind.”

This is certainly the case in Austrian horror Goodnight Mummy (2010). The mother, whose face remains obscured by bandages and is never referred to by name throughout the film, is incredibly hostile to her sons, leading them to suspect she is an imposter sent to kill them.

Isaacs adds that many of these women tend to be single mothers. “The mother is seen as dysfunctional because there isn’t a man in her life. She goes crazy because she can’t handle the world around her alone.”

Though we still see monstrous mothers in horror today, including in Beau Is Afraid and Evil Dead Rise, they are beginning to evolve. A number of contemporary films still depict terrifying mothers, Creed says, but they reflect the personal pressures weighing on mothers rather than the fears of a patriarchal society.

Alyssa Sutherland as the abject mother Ellie in ‘Evil Dead Rise’.Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

“In the last two decades, there’s been an astonishing number of films directed by women, the majority of whom are favouring the horror genre,” Creed says.

Monstrous mothers have therefore not disappeared from screens, she says, they have in some cases been re-written from the female perspective.

“In these films, the heroine journeys into the abject where she has to confront her loss of identity and the need to create a new identity,” Creed says. In Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), for example, the mother must overcome her own grief to take control of a monster and protect her son.

Essie Davis (left) and Noah Wiseman (right) in ‘The Babadook’. Credit: Causeway Films

Isaacs adds that much of what we see in the monstrous mother today is an honest confrontation with how traumatic motherhood can be, an admission considered taboo in the past. “Parenthood has been seen as this golden, kind of heavenly, moment in life. But now, we’re stripping away this idea and exploring the difficulties – what it actually means to go through it.”

The 2013 supernatural horror Mama, which was co-written by Barbara Muschietti, depicts what initially appears to be a malevolent paranormal creature threatening two lost children. As the story progresses, however, it’s revealed the creature, known only as “Mama”, lost her own child years ago and her connection with the two children is merely a means of subduing the grief she feels over the death of her baby.

And male filmmakers are incorporating these shifting perceptions too. Ellie, the mother in Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise is possessed by a demon. Though this seems like a classic monstrous mother, it’s the interaction between Ellie and her sister, Beth, that sets it apart from more traditional mother tropes. Beth (who is newly pregnant) must fight the evil that has consumed Ellie to protect her nieces. This in turn teaches her to tap into her protective maternal side.

“Horror reflects these changing values,” Creed says, adding that instead of stripping horror of patriarchal concepts, some female directors are adapting them to reveal how simultaneously challenging and rewarding motherhood can be.

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