Since Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published in 1946, thousands of other parenting books have been written explaining everything from basic baby bathing techniques to how to be your child’s best friend. The target audience for these books is usually frazzled mothers, terrified of doing a bad job. Motherhood in itself can be scary, but add in the element of horror, and a new kind of terror occurs. Mothers have always played a big role in horror stories. But starting with the 1970s, horror films in particular have taken up the monstrous mother figure in a strident way. With the release of Carrie (1976), the portrayal of motherhood in horror films began to change, and writers learned that mothers and motherhood could be the epitome of horror. This trend is still apparent today, with current films reflecting on the modern period’s fears associated with motherhood and parenting. In 1976, Brian De Palma brought Stephen King’s horror masterpiece to life, telling the story of a reserved teenage girl, Carrie White, becoming a woman and discovering her supernatural powers.
This film explores the overarching tension between youth culture and parenting during the 1970s. Carrie’s mother, Margaret White, is portrayed as a religious conservative who leads an authoritarian parenting lifestyle. Ms. White’s misguided and resentful views towards sex, stemming from her husband leaving her, lead her to religion and result in extreme parenting decisions, including refusing to explain menstruation to her own daughter. The movie begins with Carrie getting her period at school and when she goes home to find comfort and explanations, her mother locks her in a tiny room with a crucifix. Her mother tells her, “If she would have remained sinless, the curse of blood would never have come on her.” Ms. White is specifically referencing the bible and screaming at her daughter as Carrie asks for an explanation. This point in the movie is a clear reflection of the parental inclination towards conservatism both politically and religiously, while the youth culture becomes more independent and liberal. The 1970s’ kickstarted the notion of self-autonomy in youth culture and teenagers began to detach themselves from their parents’ discipline, which prompted an authoritarian parental response. Popular culture, especially horror films, promoted this theme of rebellious youth culture to highlight the dichotomy between youth liberation and parental authority, as strict parenting tends to influence “corrupt” behavior in adolescents. The movie ends with Carrie realizing the strength of her supernatural powers, and she eventually kills her mother. This plays off parenting fears of whether conservative authoritarian parenting styles will result in an order-obeying child or a child motivated by rebellion.
While in the 1970s mothers were struggling with the rebellious youth culture, a shift in the 1980s, known today for its consumer culture, led to the difficulties of being a single parent. In 1988 a possessed doll became America’s new favorite horror movie villain in Child’s Play. However, Chucky is not the star of this movie; the protagonist is arguably Karen Barclay, a single working mom. On her son’s birthday, Karen goes out with a friend from work in hopes of finding him a present. Unfortunately, they stumble upon an opportunity that seems too good to be true when a homeless man offers up the sold-out doll that her son, Andy, has been asking for. Little does she know, the thing that she thought would make her a terrific mom turns out to be the source of evil. While it’s not entirely clear on what happened with her husband, it’s clear that Karen has had her fair share of troubles, but she has made her main priority raising her son and providing for him. In an American Prospect article, “The Consequences of Single Motherhood,” writer Sara McLanahan explains the issues that result from single parenting. She writes, “…the U.S. has the highest prevalence of single-parent families, and it has experienced the largest increase between 1970 and 1990.” These single-parent households were predominantly led by mothers, and this change couldn’t have come at a worse time for moms. More women were seeking a higher education at the time but they were nowhere close to making the salary that their male counterparts were earning. In Child’s Play, Karen is supposed to represent the struggles that most women in America were facing, either making less money, raising a child alone, or in most cases, both. In the end, Karen is the one that discovers the evil of Chucky and she defends her son from him. Child’s Play shows the dramatic lengths a single mother at the time would go to provide for her son.
Mothers and motherhood were represented in 1990s horror films too, even though the genre was sometimes ridiculed as a repetitive and somewhat corny genre. Wes Craven came out with his self-reflective and self-referential film Scream (1996). This film focuses on Sidney Prescott, a modern high school girl whose life was recently struck by tragedy. Her mother was brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances and now, a year later, it is all coming back to haunt her in unexpected ways. While we never see her mother in the first installment of these films, her mother plays a significant role in the franchise as a whole. Not only is her mother’s murder the inciting event that kicks off the entire murderous rampage of “Ghostface,” but it is also what gives Sydney more of an edge in the end of the first film.
In the climax of the film, it is revealed that the murderers of Woodsboro are really Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy, and his best friend. As they corner Sidney in the kitchen with a knife, they confess that they murdered and sexually assaulted her mother. The boys also claim to have no real motive for their actions. Horror films in the past have always killed off the “corrupt” teenage girls, but this trope has never been put upon a mother. The 90s was a decade comprised of sex-positive and liberated women. At the time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, showed that women could both embrace their bodies and still kick-ass. In Scream, Sidney is at first ashamed of her mother’s actions and Sidney herself abstains from sex. However, later in the film, Sidney does end up losing her virginity to her manipulative boyfriend. He then later claims that he actually helped Sidney by killing her mother because of her “promiscuous” behavior. Sydney’s fear of her actions being equated to those of her mother’s furthers the idea that women must limit their sexual expression to avoid societal contempt. This helped reintroduce a familiar concept that the mistakes of your mother are now subsequently somehow yours. But in the end, the film shifts it message. Sidney kills her misogynistic boyfriend and the viewer is led to believe that she forgives her mother. This aspect of the film could reflect how both older women who were moms and teenage girls were coming to terms with a female oriented sex positive media in the 1990s, and instead of tearing each other down for embracing their sexuality, they created a united front.
Now, in the present moment, we see representations of mothers transform again. As the decades progressed, horror began documenting an unpleasant reality for many viewers: the imperfections of conventional family-life stemming from detached married parents. Ari Aster’s film Hereditary became the surprise hit of the summer of 2018 for its innovative and unconventional way of framing horror storytelling in a family setting. The film focuses on the mother, Annie, her husband, and her two children living a seemingly normal life and grieving the death of Annie’s recently deceased mother. In an early scene involving Annie at an emotional support group, she expresses a concern for her family’s mental health after recognizing a pattern in their family tree. After a horrific accident involving her son, Peter, and her daughter, Charlie, resulting in Charlie’s death, the family is launched headfirst into chaos. Annie’s unwavering grief for her daughter leads her to participate in a seance with a woman from her support group in order to talk to Charlie, resulting in her digging up strange secrets from her mother’s past involving satanic rituals. Her concern quickly focuses on the remaining family she has left and how to help them survive what now seems inevitable.
This brings to light a familiar and all too terrifying concept in horror that despite the dramatic lengths a mother will go to protect her children, there are things that are beyond her control. In Richard Mills’ Perspective of Childhood, he explains how the perceptions of childhood have changed throughout the years. He says, “What is significant, however, is that the experience and hence the preservation of childhood, is perceived as worthy of the greatest attention by parents.” Mills’ sentiments are relevant to the mother’s efforts because most of the film revolves around her trying to preserve their childhoods from a dangerous reality that is hereditary. Annie wanted to raise her children in a normal American family while Annie’s mother wanted her children to carry on her satanic endeavors; as a result, the generational differences of motherhood between Annie and her mother sets the premise for conflict in film when it comes to their ideas of childhood preservation. When a mother has a limited capacity in protecting her children, she is often brushed off as delirious and irrational by the husband, worsening family matters. Despite a mother trying to preserve her family, her efforts become dismissed and chaos eventually unfolds, which may reflect current fears of motherhood in contemporary society.
Representations of mothers and mothering in horror have gone from religious authoritarian control freaks, to the single working mom protagonist, to modern day parents who make mistakes. From Ms. White to Ms. Barclay, there has been a dramatic shift from mothers being depicted as the source of problem to a child’s hero. Also, from Ms. Barclay to Annie, mothers who had everything, including a nice house, a husband, and the perfect kids, still crumble under the pressures of motherhood.
References: McLanahan, Sara. “The Consequences of Single Motherhood.” The American Prospect, Metro,
19 Dec. 2001, prospect.org/health/consequences-single-motherhood/.
Mills, Jean, and Richard Mills. Childhood Studies A Reader in Perspectives of Childhood. Taylor
and Francis, 2002.
Katherine Dolan-Bennett is a graduating senior at Indiana University studying the complexity of psychology and biology. She works in the Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience Center as a research assistant studying the neuronal correlates of facial affect recognition in populations with differing personalities. Katherine originates from a small yet thriving town known as Valparaiso, Indiana. The scariest movie Katherine has ever seen is Sinister, but contends that her favorite thriller is Jurassic Park. Katherine likes the genre of thriller because she enjoys being on the edge of her seat and having revelations about the underlying imperfections of society.