Monstrous & Missing Mothers: Horror Prefers Its Women Villainous, Dead Or Exceptional

Mother’s Day: a time to celebrate the brilliant, hardworking women who raised us into the film fans we are today. The holiday falls on Sunday 10th May in the United States this year, and it may be a hard year to celebrate in person. Between the Skype calls, Instagram memories, and posted flowers and chocolates, it is a fantastic day to turn to cinema to celebrate our favourite material figures on film. If looking into the horror genre, however, a glaring trend becomes apparent: what is going on with the mothers?

The Monstrous

In horror cinema, some of the most memorable and iconic monsters are the mothers themselves. There is an innate terror and monstrosity inspired when a cultural signifier of warmth, nurturing, and maternity is instead twisted into a source of fear and harm; in this light, it makes sense that this trope is a go-to of the genre.

In her book “The Monstrous-feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis”, Barbara Creed states that the mother’s ‘perversity is almost always grounded in possessive, dominant behaviour towards her offspring’ – certainly evident in Carrie’s Margaret White, equally terrifying in both adaptations; Friday the 13th’s Pamela Voorhees, with expectations of the killer’s identity expertly manipulated until the final reveal; and The Other’s Grace Stewart, whose villainous role fills in the plot’s ghostly gaps at its climax.

Monstrous & Missing Mothers: Horror Prefers Villainous, Dead Or Exceptional Women
Carrie (1976) – source: United Artists

This possession and domination feeds on the uncanny idea that the mother may be symbolically – or literally – feeding on, rather than feeding, their offspring: Mom and Dad may be incredibly campy and built around the thinnest device, but the thriller plays on these fears as Kendall Ryan and her fellow parents burst into to a murderous frenzy against their children.

There are several cases of monstrous mothers who do not quite fit this mould. In Hereditary, Annie Graham transforms from a mother holding a family together after two unspeakable tragedies into a vessel for primal forces, with her children caught up in collateral damage rather than being her initial targets. Taking things a step further, Prevenge sees Ruth convinced her unborn child is driving her to murder before realising that the urge has been in her – and not towards or related to the child – the entire time. The nightmare-inducing quality, however, is not dampened: when mothers more from caregivers to killers, the primordial chills are real.

Mothers Are Not Allowed to Live

In many other horror classics, however, the Final Girls’ mothers are entirely removed from the picture. Scream’s Sidney Prescott is mourning the death of her mother, violently murdered by her boyfriend/faceless stalker a year ago. Anna and the Apocalypse’s titular heroine dreams of following her deceased mother’s travels before a zombie apocalypse puts a stop to those plans. The critically panned Final Girl and the well-received The Final Girls both make their protagonists’ motherless / orphan states clear in the opening minutes, either through on-screen depiction or narration. Halloween’s Laurie Strode does not immediately know she is an adopted daughter, but the reveal of her parentage places her as a symbolic foil to Michael Myers. A Nightmare on Elm Street might wait until the end to kill Marge Thompson, Nancy’s mother, but her murder marks Nancy as yet another motherless Final Girl heading into the climactic showdown. Midsommar goes a step further, killing Dani’s entire mother, father, and sister in the first few minutes, rendering this Final Girl entirely alone as she moves towards madness or salvation.

Monstrous & Missing Mothers: Horror Prefers Villainous, Dead Or Exceptional Women
Scream (1996) – source: Dimension Films

Here, it may be worth spending some time with the Final Girls themselves. One of modern horror’s most well-known tropes follows an exceptional, or lucky, female protagonist who is immediately distinguished from her peers above and beyond her narrative centrality. She is intelligent but often introverted, resourceful but not as socially savvy as her friends, often virginal, and ultimately the only one who can defeat the slashing, stabbing baddie. In some cases, this victory is accidental, caused by a luckily placed window or instinctual dodge.

Recent years have thankfully played fast and loose with the Final Girl’s more formulaic aspects outside of Scream’s purposeful parody – Happy Death Day’s Tree Gelbman and Ready or Not’s Grace are coded as outgoing, confident, worldly young women, but the type remains connected by their absence of mothers. Happy Death Day sees Tree mending a relationship with her father while coming to terms with her mother’s death three years prior. In Ready or Not, Grace is a foster child looking forward to finally having a family of her own – though that faith turns out to be incredibly misplaced. Their mothers are absent, and they remain the only women fighting for their survival.

Carol J. Clover coined the term “Final Girl” in her book “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film”. That said, she prefers to call these heroines “accidental survivors” or “victim-heroes” and dives into these sometimes unusual, boyish, names and other feminine, yet distinctly unfeminine, features. The trope is mired in female exceptionalism masked as normalcy: to be allowed to survive, or at least to fight another day, Final Girls have to be everything every other woman in the film is not. The exception to the rule is not necessarily a bad or damaging construct – the ultimate survivor is expected to be somewhat different to make it past the dangers that others have not – but its prevalence points to an unexamined standard horror’s women must live up to, if they want to live and retain their humanity. Mothers seem to be the most disposable.

The Exceptions are Few

Monstrous & Missing Mothers: Horror Prefers Villainous, Dead Or Exceptional Women
Halloween (2018) – sourse: Universal Pictures

One of the most refreshing exceptions to this rule – perhaps the only mainstream release that did not prove the rule – was 2018’s Halloween. The original franchise set up Laurie Strode as an adopted daughter, the long-lost sister of iconic villain Michael Myers who had lost both parents in an automobile accident at the age of five. The 1978 film also established Laurie as a bookish introvert who jokes with her outgoing friends that her studious habits accounted for a sparse dating history. So far, so stereotypical of a Final Girl.

When the franchise re-emerged forty years after the original, Laurie is reintroduced as an alcoholic survivor whose PTSD has caused her to lose custody of her daughter Karen when the latter was twelve years old. The plot follows Laurie and Karen’s fraught relationship and their growing understanding of each other as they, alongside Karen’s daughter Allyson, fight off Michael Myers yet again. This intergenerational team-up, with the franchise’s original Final Girl as the grandmother alongside two other well-rounded women who survive the final conflict, explores new possibilities for the genre. Perhaps other mothers will be flawed without becoming monstrous – or monster food – in future narratives.

This is far from an exhaustive list and examination of horror cinema’s mothers – the genre is as old as cinema, and the monsters and men portrayed therein continue to evolve. There is an entirely separate investigation to be had into childless mothers in the genre, such as The Descent’s Sarah Carter and Gravity’s Ryan Stone. However, it is notable how pervasive the monstrous and dead mothers are in the horror genre – Ari Aster’s two horror films each fit a Horror Mothers trope and are barely questioned for it. When contrasted against the special designation conferred upon Final Girls – the most iconic lone survivors – it seems apparent that the genre permits its mothers limited options. But just as the Final Girl’s description has widened, there is hope that new categorisations and characterisations will redefine the mother in horror cinema.

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