Monstrous Mothers: The Brood

Believe it or not, I haven’t always been a fan of horror. When I did my undergraduate degree, I had a final year module called ‘American Nightmares’ that explored American horror films. I took it because it sounded better than the other option, and thank god I did because I owe every ounce of passion I have for horror to that module and the wonderfully enthusiastic lecturer that ran it.

One of the films we screened was David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) in a week exploring body horror. It was everything 20 year old me hated – and everything 23 year old me adores. Long before the likes of Videodrome, The Fly, and Scanners, The Brood set a precedent for the kind of repulsive but deliciously wicked body horror Cronenberg has become synonymous with. So, without further ado, my next ‘monstrous mother’ is none other than Mrs Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggers).

Dr Raglan during a therapy session in The Brood

Opening with an intimately intense scene in which Dr Raglan (Oliver Reed) assumes the role of a patient’s father in order to conduct his controversial methods for therapy, The Brood wastes little time in conveying what kind of film you’re about to watch. We’re introduced to Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) and his young daughter Candice Carveth (Cindy Hinds), and it’s revealed Frank’s wife Nola is a residential patient of Raglan’s.

For the sake of the therapy working effectively, Raglan insists that only Candice is allowed to visit Nola. But when Frank discovers strange bruises on Candice, he begins to suspect Nola has been abusing their daughter. Through her therapy with Raglan, we discover Nola was abused by her own mother, Juliana Kelly (Nuala Fitzgerald) and abandoned by her father, Barton Kelly (Henry Beckman). Frank tells Raglan he intends to stop Candice from visiting Nola, but Raglan is adamant this will be detrimental to Nola’s therapy.

Children walking down a snowy road in The Brood.

Frank leaves Candice in Juliana’s care, and Juliana shows Candice young photographs of Nola. Juliana tells Candice about unexplained marks that used to appear on Nola’s skin as a child, resulting in multiple hospital trips. During Candice’s time at her grandmother’s, small human-like creatures brutally kill Juliana, leaving Candice to find the corpse.

While the humanoid creatures continue to terrorise, Raglan intensifies Nola’s treatment. As the film progresses, we slowly discover, via other patients of Raglan, that he’s been practicing ‘psychoplasmics’ – a method of therapy that causes the suppressed emotions of a patient’s trauma to manifest in a physical form. And Nola has been particularly susceptible to the treatment: the humanoid creatures are being birthed by Nola via an external sac.

The creatures aren’t killing aimlessly – they’re connected to Nola’s feelings. When she feels angry or distressed, they’re angry and distressed, too. Raglan informs Frank they were the ones who hurt Candice during one of Nola’s particularly bad days. After spending the majority of the film antagonising each other, Frank and Raglan unite to try and save Candice from the creatures. Raglan warns Frank to keep Nola calm while he retrieves Candice from the dorm, but when Nola senses Frank’s intention to leave with Candice, the creatures launch a fatal attack on Raglan.

Dr Raglan carrying Candice in The Brood.

With Raglan gone, Frank is forced to overcome Nola by himself, and he ultimately suffocates her. As a result, the creatures die. Frank escapes with Candice, and everything’s fine. They lived out the rest of their days happy, both overcoming their trauma and- just kidding. Frank does escape with Candice, but the final shot of the film closes in on a wart-like mark on Candice’s skin, much like the ones Juliana describes Nola as having as a child. Poor Candice is fated to the same future as Nola.

At the film’s core are the relationships between mother and daughter: Juliana & Nola, and Nola & Candice. The Brood expresses the way in which trauma is so often generational, passed down through parent to child until eventually something breaks the cycle. Juliana traumatised Nola, and Candice is suffering – and will continue to suffer – because of that.

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It’s remarkable that Cronenberg has managed to encapsulate the way in which traumatic events can manifest both physically and mentally in The Brood, albeit in an exaggerated way (if you happen to have any friends who sprout inhuman offspring from an external sac, check up on them. They’re definitely not okay). The creatures serve as a physical representation of the way in which people with PTSD (and co-existing conditions) can affect other people – usually those closest to us – with our erratic, often extreme and aggressive mood swings.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember Nola is a victim who’s been carrying trauma with her from childhood. You can’t blame her for her state of being. Interestingly, there are parallels to be drawn between Nola and our previous monstrous mother, Anna (Possession). Both are monstrous mothers and mother’s of monsters: where Anna was creating an idealised version of her husband, Nola is creating children (who strikingly resemble Candice) to exact revenge.

With characters like Anna and Nola, motherhood is an intrinsic part of their identities, whether that’s with their actual children or their disturbing offspring. Even when they embrace their aggressive, volatile sides, this aspect of motherhood is a huge part of who they are. The characters have no way of hiding from their maternal duties. In a sense, it’s a reflection of the way in which mothers are expected to subdue their own feelings in order to prioritise their children.

Mrs Nola Carveth with her arms outstretched in The Brood.

With a film like Inside, we’re given two visual and definitive forces of maternal conflict: one expectant mother defends herself against a vengeful, would-have-been mother. Both characters are on the ‘motherhood spectrum’ – the would be versus should be. With Possession and The Brood, we’re shown what is: the stark reality that parenting and motherhood are exhausting, debilitating, rewarding but isolating. These mothers experience their feelings alone, and it’s nearly impossible for other characters to relate to them.

La Femme (Inside), Anna and Nola are monstrous because of their roles as mothers, not in spite of. They’re complete transgressions of the standards society has set for women and mothers, and it makes them an absolute joy to watch.

By: Helena Holmes

The Brood is streaming now on Amazon Prime and BFI Player