Monday, May 27, 2019

Guest Post: The Mother is the Monster by Tabatha Wood

“The Mother is the Monster” — an Exploration of Monstrous Matriarchs in Modern Horror Fiction and Film

by Tabatha Wood

Women in horror frequently get a very bad deal. They arepunished, constantly and consistently, for no other reason than their genderidentity. Portrayed either as weak and fragile victims, or gratuitouslyover-sexualised, often their only purpose is to be assaulted, lusted over orboth. Enter: the Monstrous Mother. She may be possessive, narcissistic,overbearing, jealous, abusive, homicidal or sexually-oppressed. The very worstkind of monstrous mother is all of these things at once. Horror has a specialrelationship with its audiences — it relies on emotions and must illicit areaction. It awakens hidden fears and desires, and is frequently the mostunsettling when it imagines danger in “safe” places  such as the home. Because of this, monstrousmothers make ideal protagonists.

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described motherhood in a highlycontroversial way. He believed that women’s lives were dominated by theirreproductive functions, and a woman’s existence is only given real meaning when she becomes a mother. Sheserves as a container for her infants’ endogenous drives, and her influence isso powerful that should she fail to successfully realise these drives anddesires — especially during their formative years — she may cause irreversibleand catastrophic damage to her child’s psyche. Thus, mothers are supposed to besaviours and protectors. Their primary role is to nurture and care. When thatis compromised, we are forced to confront a kind of horror which makes us feelvulnerable and confused. The Monstrous Mother trope taps keenly into our primalfears. It fosters distrust in the mother’s role as a worthy protector. The ideathat all mothers should be sweet and caring homemakers is undermined by castingthem as villains. It is a Freudian nightmare made real.

No other monstrous mother better highlights this Freudian fearthan Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) in Peter Jackson’s Braindead. Afterbeing bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey, becoming a zombie, and subsequentlyturning the entire town into the undead, she then mutates into a gigantic andrepulsive beast, complete with oversize breasts. That sequence of events couldbe quite terrifying enough for her nebbish son, Lionel, to cope with, but herwarped maternal instincts urge her to go yet further and suck her unwillingoffspring back into her womb, along with the line, “No-one will ever love youlike your mother!” Lionel escapes by performing his own twisted caesarean anddispatches his creator, running into the waiting arms of his young, femalelover. An Oedipal tale this is not, and yet it certainly toys with some ofFreud’s controversial ideas on psychosexual development — where the mother isthe first true love object of the child, all boys are drawn to andsubconsciously desire their mothers until a suitable substitute is found.Lionel has to effectively be re-born and destroy his overbearing mother beforehe can begin a new sexual chapter in his life.

Women who turn their back on creating offspring are often seen asmonstrous, simply for denying what Freud would argue is a woman’s sole purposefor existing. Yet some monstrous mothers most certainly should never haveaccepted such a role. In Stephen King’s Carrie, Carrie White’s motherMargaret (played by Piper Laurie in the 1976 cinematic release) is a fanatical,abusive zealot who brands her telekinetic daughter a witch, throws hot tea inher face and then tries to kill her. The fact that she has traumatised herdaughter throughout her entire life, and has been the catalyst for awakeningher powers, has apparently not occurred to her. Clearly Mrs. White is notmentally sound and is possibly suffering from a certain amount of unresolvedguilt and past trauma, however her unhealthy obsession with Jesus and a ferventrevulsion of sex, ensures that Carrie’s life, especially during her formativeyears, is a constant misery. Carrie has no knowledge of menstruation or what itmeans to her as a woman; her mother informs her that the onset of her period isdue to her entertaining “sinful thoughts” and forces her into a cupboard topray away the evil. Ultimately, after sustaining years of bullying and abusefrom her mother and her peers, and then doused in pig blood as a prom nightprank, Carrie herself takes up the mantle of monster and destroys herclassmates, her mother, and herself with her telekinetic abilities. Her actionsare seen primarily as an act of revenge, but also an act of liberation, asCarrie emancipates herself from a lifetime of matriarchal mistreatment.

Mother’s Day, a Troma Entertainment “exploitation film” from 1980 (and looselyremade in 2010) also takes the idea of an unsuitable mother and runs wild withit. The titular Mother has raised her two sons to be murderers, rapists andthieves and actively encourages their horrible exploits — indeed, they engagein such acts to impress her. Of course, the victims are invariably young andattractive women, and in another warped example of the Oedipal and Jocastacomplexes, Mother ensures she eliminates any competition for her sons’adoration and maintains total control over their lives. Mother’s background isnever revealed, and we are left to assume that her proclivity towardsderangement is simply due to some warped enjoyment. The character is eventuallydispatched by her sons’ would-be victims wielding a sex-toy, serving to furtherhighlight Mother’s fear that eventually all mothers are replaced by younger,more sexual women in their sons’ lives.  

Horror mothers are often angry, and that rage fuels theirhomicidal urges. In David Cronenburg’s The Brood, Nola Carveth (SamathaEggar) is abused by her alcoholic mother during childhood. Her unprocessed rage— coupled with a new type of experimental psychotherapy — is so powerful thatshe is able to parthenogenetically give birth to a brood of homicidal dwarveswho physically enact her subconscious desires by murdering everyone who angersher. An obvious physical manifestation of her unresolved psychological pain,Nola’s ability to spawn these children of vengeance is somewhat ironic, giventhat her sole aim for undergoing therapy is to prove that she is emotionallystable. Thanks to the actions of her supernatural children, her desire to gaincustody of her real, human child is a goal which is sadly never reached. Yet,just as alcoholic Monster Mother begat traumatised and unstable Monster Mother,we are shown in the conclusion that Nola’s daughter might also have inheritedher mother’s vengeful talents.

One such child who definitely inherited his mother’s temperamentwas motel owner-manager Norman Bates, he of Psycho fame. The domineeringand narcissistic Mrs Norma Bates is equal parts jealous, manipulative, needyand homicidal. She is a mean-tempered and puritanical old woman who raised theseemingly mild-mannered Norman with abject cruelty. She teaches him that allwomen — except her — are whores, and that any sexual contact is a sin. Shecontrols his entire life and forbids him to leave her or the motel. It ishardly any wonder then that when his mother takes a lover, a confused andjealous Norman dispatches them both. Later, unable to bear the pain of beingseparated from her, he exhumes and mummifies his mother’s corpse, and keeps herin his fruit cellar. Eventually we discover that Norma’s influence on her sonhas had terrible consequences, to the point where he not only commits homicidein her name, but does so while wearing her clothes. We are led to believe thatNorman is not merely pretending to be his mother, but has essentially becomeher: his personality has been split and overcome by the murderous “mother”persona. Norma may not have ever taken up a knife herself, but her terribleparenting certainly made her indirectly responsible for a multitude of deaths,by actively contributing to Norman’s psychological distress.

Horror films are all too happy to pervert the results of apersonal tragedy into some form of biblical vengeance and perhaps the mostwell-known monstrous mother is she who only becomes a monster to avenge thedemise of her child. Driven mad by bereavement, Pamela Vorhees (Betsy Palmer)in Friday the 13th, wreaks murderous vengeance on the teenagecounsellors of Camp Crystal Lake, who she blames for the accidental drowning ofher son, Jason. It is an extreme decision, but it shines a light on a mother’sprimal instinct to protect their child, or to make sense of their death.Pamela’s actions are indeed monstrous, but we can also appreciate how thetragic circumstances have influenced her mental state, and driven her to pursuelethal reparations.

Other monstrous mothers seeking either homicidal justice include:Mrs Loomis in Scream 2 who wants revenge for the death of Billy, hermurderous son; the ghostly Jennet Humfrye from The Woman in Black whoseeks to avenge the accidental death of her child by taking the lives of anywho dare approach Eel Marsh House; and even the Alien Queen from Alienswho as a six-legged, double-jawed beast with acid for blood becomes even moreterrifying when she discovers that Ripley has incinerated her precious eggs.Going back as far back as the Anglo-Saxon era, when Beowulf kills Grendel, itis Grendel’s mother who arrives seeking murderous revenge. Such behaviour isclearly an extreme over-reaction, but these monstrous mothers see their deedsas completely reasonable. And as any real-life mother knows, when the “MommaLion” has been unleashed in her, woe betide anyone who hurts her child.

Horror mothers don’t always start out as monsters, often they aresimply struggling with the responsibilities and pressures of motherhood. Sleepdeprivation, physical and mental exhaustion, behavioural difficulties in theiroffspring or financial worries all have a considerable impact on any newmother. In The Babadook Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) is an exhaustedwidow, struggling to raise her troubled and violent son without help. Mentallyfragile and clearly gripped by a terrible depression, Amelia voices theunthinkable: she wishes her child were dead. She is subsequently possessed bythe Babadook, which urges her to act on her desires, yet through a feat ofgreat emotional strength, she is able to overcome the monster and drive it intothe basement of her house. Amelia does not vanquish the beast, but instead shelearns to tame and control it. The Babadook serves as a powerful metaphor forthe destruction mental illness, and specifically maternal depression, can wreak on a familyunit. Director, Jennifer Kent,stated in October 2014 that: “it is a very taboo subject, to say thatmotherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.” And yet it is onewhich many mothers, new and old, readily identify with. Caught in the grip ofpost-natal depression, for example, real life can feel like real Hell for manywomen.

Lionel Shriver captures this struggle uniquely in the characterof Eva Khatchadourian in her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Somemight argue Eva is included unfairly, as after all it is her son who is thereal monster, but her indifference and coldness towards her own child and thedistance she maintains between them, pushes him down a dark path. It is unclearif Eva herself is suffering from some form of PND, but her ambivalence to motherhood,borne from her struggle to adjust to life with a challenging infant, andperhaps compounded by the fact that having a family meant she had to give upher successful career, drives an already disturbed young child to commitatrocious acts. Why, we wonder, did Eva not seek professional help for herchild, and also for herself? Perhaps, to some, a monstrous mother is not onlyone who commits evil, but one who also quietly distances herself from it andallows it a space to thrive in her own home.

In The Monster the mother herself is not necessarily thetitular monster, but she is still a terrible mother, and as such, her behaviouris deemed to be monstrous. A raging alcoholic who is both incompetent andabusive, the relationship between failed mother and neglected daughter ishideously strained, and it is largely Mummy’s fault that they both findthemselves in a perilous situation. Only after the introduction of the “real”monster — a stereotypical scary beast with sharp teeth and claws — is the monstrousmother thus able to redeem herself. She acknowledges and apologises for herprevious bad mother behaviour, and offers herself up as a sacrifice to ensureher daughter can survive. Her selfless sacrifice cannot necessarily negate herprior monstrousness, but it does reassert her role as a protector and saviour,and suggests that even the worst mothers can change and rediscover theircaring, maternal role.

Horror as a genre is frequently dominated by male writers anddirectors — out of all the books and films mentioned previously, only three: TheBabadook, The Woman in Black, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, werepenned by women. Playing heavily on the stereotype of the “hysterical” woman,most other male-written monstrous mothers become shrieking harpies, incapableof expressing themselves rationally or calmly. Perhaps locked in a permanentstate of post-menstrual tension or driven mad by unstable hormones, they areseen to be devoid of logic or compassion. Male writers are only able to commenton their perception of motherhood — and one also has to seriously question therelationships they have with their own mothers when looking at their sources ofinspiration! Their fictional mothers are frequently zealous, domineering, orseek to emasculate their offspring. They are usually post-menopausal, and ifnot outright unattractive, they are certainly not depicted as sexual, orsexually active — suggesting that a woman loses all her urges and sensualityonce she has given birth. She does not need to be an actual beast, when herbehaviour is beastly enough, (excluding Vera Cosgrove of course.) However, allfaults aside, Monster Mothers are also frequently strong and formidablecharacters. It shows an interesting awareness that even when the female horrorcharacter has lost her physical allure or her sexual “purpose”, her role as aMother can offer her a different kind of power as a woman.

In traditional horror literature, when the females are strongerthan the males, they are frequently depicted as sexually depraved monsters whoindulge in exhibitionism and sadism. Not true in monstrous motherhood. Thesewomen have no need for sex or procreation — their work is already done. Whenthe female is able to transcend these predefined gender roles, she has thepotential to be both feminine and masculine, and to be as nurturing andprotective as she is dominant and aggressive. These females then become athreat by simply proving they can be stronger or more powerful than any male —a concept which Freudian theory claims a man is incapable of enduring — and themother becomes a monster more frightening than any supernatural beast.

“The mother is the monster” is not a typically common horrortrope, at least not when compared to the use of women as victims or sexualobjects, but a number of modern horror writers and directors are becomingincreasingly aware that it is a chillingly effective one. The bond between amother and child forms one of the strongest emotional ties in human nature, andexploring those feelings through horrific narratives awakens a primal terrorwithin us. An anxiety that suggests that if we cannot even trust our ownmothers to nurture and protect us, nothing in our lives is truly safe.  

About Tabatha Wood

Kia ora, I’m Tabatha, mostly known as Tabby.

I live in Wellington, the ‘Coolest Little Capital’ of New Zealand, with my husband and two boys. I spend most of my days educating my children at home, and in my free time I write short stories, online blog articles, and the occasional poem.

I have written and published three non-fiction books for education with Continuum International Publishing Group, (two of which have been translated into Portuguese and Malay, and sold internationally,) and I have worked as a secondary-level English teacher, a school Library Manager, and a technical editor for other authors with Wiley Publishing and Bloomsbury Academic.

My short stories are mostly horror, fantasy, and suspense; while my online blog focuses more on my life and experiences in New Zealand. My creative writing is often inspired a great deal by my family, my life experiences, and by the power of the land where I live. I enjoy writing pieces which may challenge the way people think, or that offer a fresh perspective on the world.

I write a lot about the benefits of writing for positive mental and emotional health, using words and art as tools to connect, inspire and heal. I created the online collective Well-Written in 2017 which works to promote this belief, and I help run a regular monthly writing group and workshop to support other female writers in Wellington.

Outside of writing, I have organised charity events to support and help raise awareness for equality and Women’s Rights, made and sold my own jewellery, and immersed myself in the world of cosplay – often dressing up to help fundraise for a good cause.

My debut fiction collection of original short horror stories, Dark Winds Over Wellington: Chilling Tales of the Weird & the Strange, was independently published by Wild Wood Books in March 2019 as an eBook and Print on Demand softcover with Amazon.

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