Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children
— William Makepeace Thackery
In recent years, we have seen a trend shift in horror films concerning the role of the mother. In the classics such as Psycho and Carrie, mothers are a symbol of meddlesome influence, but in more modern horror, they seem to have now become victims for one reason alone. Maternal instinct. They feel for (in most cases) their own young but as in the case of recent films such as The Boy, primal instinct kicks in when confronted with any child in need – even if that child is less than angelic.
I recall a discussion in a psychology lesson where our professor informed us of Darwin’s inability to explain the sense behind a mother sacrificing herself for a child who, without her would be unable to survive. More recent discussions have thrown up the simple explanation of mothers protecting the next generation however I remained unsatisfied and in awe of the reality that is strangers risking their lives for children they do not know. This instinct to protect appears carved into the very fibre of our being whether you are female or not, and it is this that the world of horror has found worthy of exploitation.
What follows are what I believe to be three of the most impressive uses of ‘maternal manipulation’ to hit the horror scene — films where women are at risk purely because of their instinctive duty of care.
Starring Annabelle Wallis (creepy coincidence?) and Alfre Woodard, Annabelle is a follow up to The Conjuring but a distant relative of the film at that. It follows the life of a family haunted by a doll, a family whose mother suffers the most but remains unwilling to give up and offer her child to the dark forces that wish to take her away.
This was the first film where I noticed this trope, where a mother was not only unable to protect her child but unable to protect herself too.
Because of this deviation from the idea of a mother’s omnipotence and ability to keep her child safe, I was touched far deeper by this film than its predecessor. It reached into my heart and shook my beliefs of what motherhood would offer and blinded me with the grim reality of life. Mothers cannot always be there to help, and they are no safer with their capacity to create life than anyone else.
Mothers can be haunted and hurt and broken too and often they suffer for the sake of their love.
The Babadook (2014)
Starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, The Babadook follows the story of a mother and her son who become hounded by a creature from a book, and turns the woman’s love for her son into something dangerous. This inverting of something so sacred was, in my belief, aimed at those in the audience with children.
The twist I found amusing, and a grand salute to the capacity of a mother’s ability to care for those no other could care for. Think in terms of ‘a face only a mother could love’ — exposing the vulnerability women face by not only having children but by giving so much of their hearts to something as fragile as a child.
The Babadook exploits the mother’s (played by Essie) maternal instincts in this film just as successfully as the evil force in Annabelle. However it is the ending of this film which grants it such success in my eyes for not only exposing the weaknesses in a woman’s heart, but also depicting the often unyielding strength there too.
The Boy (2016)
Starring Lauren Cohan and Rupert Evans, The Boy follows a nanny hired to care for a doll who appears to have taken the place of a deceased child. As strange things begin to happen in the house, the mind drifts to ghosts but it is the ending (which I shall not spoil) that shoves the film’s sick methodology in our faces.
Our lead is hired for her ability to care and she does so with increasing strength as the film goes on, unknowingly leaving herself exposed to disturbing manipulations as if merely a pawn on a chess board.
As a feminist, a woman and someone who has faced the nastier side of masculinity I found myself covered in goosebumps as the credits began to roll, my comfort invaded by the truth of what dangers seemingly lie in wait for those eager help others.
With the parents of the boy leaving Cohan alone with the doll, we are then taken through the awkward steps of disbelief, faith and bonding. Our trust is then cruelly torn apart alongside our heroines who, similarly to The Babadook, acquires strength in the integrity of her care for others.
The growing empowerment of women in modern horror
Once again I find myself talking about films with female leads, and cannot help but smile as women gain further ground on the battlefield of modern horror. No longer just victims, these films show that our capacity to love and how, although it may leave us open to harm, it gives us an unrelenting ability to persevere.
There is power in a mother’s love, in the ability to care for something unable to care for itself, and these films offer up that truth in a variety of ways which I find utterly satisfying. No longer are mothers simply sitting by the phone waiting for the police to give them bad news. Instead they are at the heart of our struggles, wielding ferocity.
Like evil, mothers too are hooked up to the primal urges of our past and in this they find power. Perhaps they are not omnipotent as we believed as children, but they remain resolute behind us ready to step into the fray on our behalf.
By Lola Newman
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