Demented Mothers (Day)

9 May 2010 at 18:35 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Mothers play such an important role in the modern horror film that it would be remiss not to do a little post on Mother’s Day about all of the crazy moms in the genre. We have Freud to thank for this demonization of motherhood–it was he, after all, who suggested that our attachments to our parents drive our psycho-sexual development for better and for worse–it’s the “worse” that the horror film relishes to the point of cliche.

The Mother's Day poster. Image taken from

Of course, modern serial killers also seemed to confirm Freud’s theories, particularly Ed Gein, whose hyper-religious mother resembles the mother of Carrie. Like Gein’s mother, Carrie’s mother asserts that women are the source of all evil and associates Carrie’s menarche with sinful behavior. In other words, Carrie’s mom doesn’t take the news of her daughter’s first period well:

Of course, a film that drew heavily from the Gein playbook would have to be Psycho since the film’s killer, Norman Bates, seems abnormally attached to his mother as was Gein. Gein also expressed a desire for a sex change, an idea which Psycho plays upon due to Norman Bates’ assumption of his mother’s personality. In the end scene, it becomes clear that Norm has been fully subsumed by the “mother half” of his self:

While you might be able to argue that the mother of Bates’ mind is merely a projection, the sadistic matriarch in Mother’s Day is flesh and blood, provoking her sons to acts of rape and murder. I’ve yet to see the film, but the trailer suggests a fairly standard rape-revenge plot with the added bonus of the crazy mother for camp value:

Other mothers in the genre set out to take revenge for the past wrongs committed against their children. Most memorable of these would have to be Pamela Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series. Her reign of terror kicked off the series before Jason became its iconic killer. Below, final girl Alice fights Mrs. Voorhees.

Just as with Psycho, a kind of telepathic connection occurs between child and mother, this time with the mother taking on the child’s persona. In such cases, the close (too close?) bonds between parent and progeny come under scrutiny.

Of course, some mothers get a bad wrap in horror for the opposite reason: Nancy’s mom in A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, is presented as a neglectful alcoholic whose desire to protect her daughter from the truth of Freddy’s existence may have caused more harm than good (to be fair, fathers also behave in misguided ways throughout the series).

Nancy's mother explains her motivations in the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

Perhaps the most terrifying kind of mother in horror is the one who uses her reproductive power for evil. Such a mother embodies the montrous-feminine, which I have discussed at length in previous posts. While there are many of these types, the mother from The Brood stands out as a prime example. In that film, Nola undergoes psychiatric treatment called “psychoplasmics” in which patients manifest psychological symptoms physically. For Nola, who fights over custody of her daughter Candice, the therapy results in her ability to give birth to deformed children and through telepathy (once again!) send them out to do harm to various people who have wronged her in some way. Here’s one such scene:

You’ll never look at kids in snow suits the same way again! The climactic scene shows Nola giving birth to these creatures (described as “the children of her rage”) in quite a grotesque fashion. Below is a clip from Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movies, describing the film’s affect:

In the end, Nola is vanquished, but the concluding shot implies the Candace has inherited her powers.

It goes without saying that such portrayals present a problematic image of motherhood. In the process, mothers get blamed for the horror that takes place on screen because they have mothered excessively. Fatherly equivalents do exist especially in more mainstream genres, but such paternal figures seem far fewer in the horror genre than their maternal counterparts. The reason: horror’s interest in notions of the body makes motherhood particularly–dare I say it?–pregnant with possibilities.



  1. actyourage09 said,

    Great post C! I waited to leave a comment because I finally watched The Brood last night for the first time ever. Blonde little kids in snow suits ganging up on and murdering adults is certainly terrifying, but I think the grotesque elements are at their peak when Frank confronts Nola and she births – and then licks – another one of her brood. Even in that mini clip above, the exaggerated sound of her licking the “rage baby” is enough to make my skin crawl!!

    Also watching the film I couldn’t help but think of your post on Anti-Christ, as both films represent male psychologists who over-step doctor/patient boundaries, all in the name of curing the patient. Though Nola’s relationship to Raglan takes precedence in the film, I found Raglan’s relationship with Mike (another patient) to be equally disturbing.

    • c8ic8 said,

      Yes–the final confrontation is definitely the height of nastiness. There’s been a lot of discussion amongst scholars about this moment and what it signifies in terms of gender. The birthing sack, for instance, has been described as phallic by some, while Barbara Creed insists it is more vaginal. No matter–either way, it’s a disgusting moment in which the power to reproduce inspires terror more than awe.

      I hadn’t considered the parallels between Anti-Christ and The Brood, but you are absolutely right to connect the two. In both cases, the male psychologist pushes the female patient over the edge and she responds violently. Both films also seem invested in critiquing motherhood and womanhood as well. In both cases, though, there is a sense that the psychologist has instigated the situation, so that can complicate readings somewhat.

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