After pumpkin carving last night, we were in the mood for some Halloween-appropriate viewing. We decided on the original 1976 Carrie, and watching it got me thinking about the role of mothers in horror movies overall. [Uh, warning: spoilers for various movies ranging from 1960 to 2013 ensue.]
It’s been remarked elsewhere (and bloody hell, of course I can’t find the specific posts/articles) that there’s a shortage of depictions of motherhood, pregnancy, and even women over 30 in speculative fiction, and generally positive portrayals are even scarcer. When it comes to horror movies, things get worse. Let’s take a look.
Carrie’s mother actively harms her through physical and mental abuse; she inactively harms her by withholding information and through her choice of an extreme religious lifestyle. If she hadn’t been so repressed and felt the need to rebel, would Carrie have turned out the way she did? On the other end of the religious spectrum, Regan’s mother in The Exorcist is offered up in multiple ways as a possible cause for her daughter’s condition. Living an atheist lifestyle and failing to provide her daughter with a religious education and moral guidance has either left Regan open as a vessel for a literal devil, caused her to crave religion so badly she acts as though she’s possessed, or caused her severe delusions that manifest as a demonic possession. Either way, her mother harmed her through her choice of lifestyle, and in the end, only the church can save the day.
So, mothers, whether they mean to or not, are detrimental to their children. Moving on, we have mothers who have absorbed cultural values and actively pursue their children’s downfall.
Black Swan presents the stereotypical mother living her dreams through her child, causing the problems that ultimately lead to her daughter’s death. This motif harkens back to fairy tales such as Snow White, where the jealous mother or stepmother hates and fears her daughter’s youth and beauty with its unspoken implication that now that her childbearing years are behind her, the mother is obsolete and all value will be transferred to the next generation. Norman Bates’ mother doesn’t even get a break, and she’s dead. While it’s clear in Psycho that Norman has problems of his own, its strongly implied that most of said problems are rooted in his mother’s controlling nature, which persists beyond the grave. He is subsumed, adopting her persona to commit his murders, allowing her to continue into life after death through her son, and in the process, erasing him.
Those are only a few examples.
So where can we go for a positive portrayal of mothers in horror movies? Mama. Bear with me. I’ll present a semi-convincing argument, I promise. Perhaps it’s because the movie’s dirty little secret is that it isn’t a horror movie at all. Regardless, it puts not one but two positive (if unconventional) mother-figures on the screen.
On one hand, we have the entity referred to as Mama. Over the course of the movie we see she wasn’t the best of mothers while alive. When they tried to take her baby away, she chose suicide, taking her child with her. In a twisted way, her choice shows a fierce kind of protectiveness, an extreme love leading her to believe that even death would be better than letting her child be raised by someone else. It’s the same logic that informs her protectiveness of the two abandoned girls she adopts after her death. Sure, to the outside eye the girls aren’t being raised in a healthy environment: They’re at least half-feral, and anyone who thinks they can do a better job raising them tends to die or be threatened with death at Mama’s hand, but still – Mama’s heart is in the right place. She loves the girls; she saves their lives initially, and continues to keep them alive against all odds. She protects them, and beyond that, she’s an engaged parent. She plays with the girls, she spends time with them and takes an interest in their lives – something many living parents neglect on a regular basis. Certainly Carrie, Regan, Nina, and Norman’s mothers never really took an interest in their lives beyond trying to impose their desires and values.
On the other side of things, we have Annabel, a woman thrust into motherhood when her boyfriend finally finds his long-lost nieces after years of searching. Annabel actively hates the idea of motherhood, but she does her best, and in the end she comes to love the girls in her own way. Despite her own fears, she chooses to make them her family and in the end, her love is what saves Victoria. By the same token, it’s Mama’s love, as twisted as it is, that saves Lily. (Yes, I choose to see the scene where Lily is taken away as positive, so there.)
At it’s heart, Mama is a rather sweet movie about the power of the family you choose, all dressed up in horror’s clothing. Sure the jump scares are there, along with the moody lighting, the unsettled atmosphere, and the sense of creeping dread. It works as a horror movie, but it also works as a movie about love, and in its own weird way, it shows motherhood in a positive light – a rare thing for horror movies from any age.