This article contains spoilers for mother!
This week sees Darren Aronofsky’s mother! hit cinemas. A dizzying, panic-stricken horror story, Jennifer Lawrence is at the centre of the piece as an unnamed wife trying to cope with the growing chaos in her house. A key theme in the story is (as the title would suggest) motherhood – at first the absence of it in Lawrence’s character’s life, and then how she protects her future offspring from the invading madness. It’s an evocative subject to bring into any story, but Aronofsky is not alone in turning the normally joyous role of motherhood into something terrifying. Mothers have been at the heart of horror for years, prodding at the most innocent and sacred of bonds to get to our innermost fears.
You don’t have to look very far to find maternal themes in horror movies; in fact they play a part in some of the most famous examples of the genre. Films about demonic possession often play on the helplessness of the mother to protect their offspring from the darkest of forces. In The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn’s character Chris is helpless to prevent the Devil from taking over the body of her daughter. In 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow is equally powerless as her concerns about her unborn child are dismissed by those around her. Themes of inadequacy haunt these characters – Chris feels guilt surrounding her recent divorce, while much of Rosemary’s fear stems from her belief that she’s not doing the best for her child. It’s a device that influences films to this day, as mother! plays on Lawrence’s own insecurities about not yet having children.
Mothers aren’t simply portrayed as victims, however – they have been the heroes of the story many times. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining saw Shelley Duvall fight for her son’s life in the face of a demented Jack Nicholson. Also, Sigourney Weaver’s return as Ellen Ripley in Aliens was given extra significance due to a parental arc. Having outlived her own child due to travelling in suspended animation, she gets a second chance through Newt, the young girl she finds on a mission and the inspiration behind the film’s most famous line: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
Then there’s another side. The horror genre has made much of the role of the mother, and what happens when this normally protective figure has dark intentions. The ‘possession’ of young widowed mother Amelia in recent hit The Babadook tears at a particularly crucial bond, as her son Samuel is forced to fend for himself against a mother unravelling due to the stresses of parenthood. The mother-daughter bond is a particular stressor for both interpretations of Stephen King’s Carrie. A deeply troubled and religious woman, her abusive relationship with her daughter contributes greatly to the carnage that is to come. Of course, Hitchcock created the most terrifying ‘mother’ in cinema history, in the iconic Psycho. While we don’t see much of her in the 1960 film, her presence is felt everywhere as the murderous Norman Bates is revealed to have taken on her personality after years of abuse. She is very much the cause of her son’s behaviour and a nightmarish vision of the maternal relationship gone awry.
It’s clear that motherhood has been a near-constant resource for filmmakers looking to unsettle audiences, but why is it such an enduring topic?
Put simply, horror is about dancing with our most primal fears, and there’s nothing more precious in our minds than the bond between mother and child. Quite often, society puts pressure on women with an abstract idea of “good” and “bad” mothers. It’s quite common for parents to worry whether they are doing enough for their offspring, or if the decisions they make will affect their children in the future.
Talking to Vice during the release of The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent was very focused on having her film be a representation of parental pressure. “I feel it's really important to face our darkness, our shadow side if you like … Horror is a very visceral way to do that,” she explains. “Motherhood is very hard, and I do see women lose themselves. It's the big lie that we're told – that motherhood is just great and fulfilling and rewarding. Of course, it is all those things for people, but… it's also a great difficulty for a lot of women, and it's not spoken about.”
Either by being unable to protect or being the danger themselves, mothers in horror prod at those worries, just as other stories can prod at fears surrounding disease, technology or even politics. But while those subjects become more or less relevant depending on the era, motherhood has always been a crucial part of the way we live, and a prime target for filmmakers looking to give us chills.