Villains, Victims, Venerable Matriarchs: Mamas in Horror

This was originally posted on my Tumblr 10 months ago, Jan 25th, 2013. Mama has been airing on HBO recently, and when it’s playing, I can’t seem to look away even though it continues to irk me. In the absence of my regular recap (next week will be a double-header), have this instead!

"A mother's love is forever." Harrumph.

“A mother’s love is forever.” Harrumph.

Mama, the newest film presented by Guillermo del Toro, took the box office by storm last weekend, probably partly as a result of lead actress Jessica Chastain’s brilliant turn in Zero Dark Thirty. Del Toro’s previous horror-oriented producer credits include The OrphanageSplice, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – interestingly, all centered around variations on the family and the missing or “false” mother. Mama falls into line with the rest, presenting us with two orphaned little girls haunted and fiercely protected by an evil matriarch even as a benevolent (though flawed) mother figure strives to safeguard them.

Perhaps del Toro has a few mommy issues he’d like to work through? If so, he’s not alone; although the horror genre has been both criticized and praised for its ability to subvert societal mores, sometimes it stagnates in one characterization or another. Often enough, horror film flounders around aimlessly, unsure what to do with portrayals of women. Seeing as how, even in 2013, society at large seems to be conflicted about the role of woman and matriarch, this is wholly unsurprising.

Although I enjoyed it, Mama is not without flaws. It punctuates clunky dialogue (“A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, doomed to repeat itself” intones an employee at the Clifton Forge, Virginia Hall of Records to a psychiatric doctor – really?) with some genuine, goosebump-inducing scares. We may see a bit too much monster; there is a delicate balance, and though the ghost is well done, the explicitness takes away some of the creepy mystique. Truly spooky imagery (the girls’ animalistic behavior, a sobbing infant moments before its impending death) brings it up to par. Both Annabel (Chastain), a “punk” rocker inspired by Alice Glass, and “Mama,” also known as Mad Edith Brennan, are flawed figures, selfish/selfless women saddled with the daunting task of motherhood.

Mama pitted against mama.

Mama pitted against mama.

In her first scene, Annabel crows happily about a negative pregnancy test – neither she nor her boyfriend Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) wants a baby. But when after five years of searching, Luke’s nieces are located, starved and wild, in the dark center of the George Washington National Forest, Annabel reluctantly agrees to take on the role of stepmother. When one of the girls calls her “Mama,” Annabel’s strained expression gives away her discomfort: “Don’t call me that, I’m not your mother,” she exhales before screwing on a smile. When little Lilly, who’s crawled out the window into the cold Virginia night, shows Annabel with a glance how she came to be outside, Annabel mutters a totally convincing oath: “Seriously? You’ve got to be shitting me.” She’s not the ideal mom, but she’s a helluva lot better than the other choice.

The titular Mama, also known as the ghost of Edith Brennan, is a woman who escaped from “a hospital for sad people” in the late 1800s after stealing her baby. In one of the movie’s most disturbing scenes, Annabel experiences Edith’s fate in a dream. The mad woman breaks free from her straightjacket, takes her child, stabs a nun repeatedly, and runs into the woods. When she finds herself on a cliff with a line of good old Virginia gentlemen closing in on her, she leaps, babe in arms, hundreds of feet into a lake. Anything to “save” the child. When little Victoria and Lilly (along with their late father, a madman in his own right) stumble upon Edith’s ghost, it becomes clear Edith will, as ever, do anything to protect the child. Little does she know, she has a venerable enemy in Annabel.

When I was in college I wrote an essay about rape-revenge films (I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, etc), and included a short-list of other movies I considered to edge into that category, though not simply. Among these were An American Haunting (very bad) and Silent Hill (not very good). In the last fifteen years or so, I posited, the rape-revenge genre was slinking away from the overt, the graphic, away from bloody castration and painful scenes of gang rape, into ghost stories and subversive jabs at the metaphorical patriarchy.

Unfortunately, it seems that although rape-revenge movies are moving away from graphic rape scenes and into the realm of ghost stories (with the exception of a few, i.e. the remakes of Last House and I Spit on Your Grave), tales of matriarchs in horror are toiling in the standard tropes: desperate, selfish; devoted, overprotective; driven mad with love or by the inability to protect a child; giving up self in favor of family.

Neil Marshall's The Descent: bad mama/good mama.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent: bad mama/good mama.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a brilliantly filmed, claustrophobic journey into a nightmare underworld, is a horror movie where women play villain, victim, and everything in between. (There are more layers under which to examine this movie – for instance, a few have critiqued its misogynistic message that women who get uppity and do stereotypically “masculine” things like go off into the woods by themselves pay for it dearly, as in I Spit on Your Grave.) The Descent quickly rids our protagonist Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) of her husband and daughter in a jarring opening sequence, and shortly pairs her with a group of strong, capable women who must battle demons and each other to survive. In a scene that could draw comparison to Aliens, Sarah must fight a demonic female creature to gain her freedom. It is part of her mourning process that brought her here, partly her grief and impotent rage at the death of her daughter, that drives her to survive at any cost.

Go to the end of the earth and beyond for your child: Silent Hill.

Go to the end of the earth and beyond for your child: Silent Hill.

Roger Avary initially wrote a script for Silent Hill that included not a single man. When the studio dictated he should include some dude action, he wrote in Sean Bean and Kim Coates, some of the most impotent male characters to happen to horror in years. While the two men are wandering around aimlessly in the real world, Radha Mitchell and Laurie Holden (“The Walking Dead”‘s Andrea) are kicking ass and taking names in purgatory, going up against delusional religious freak Christabella (Alice Krige). As it turns out, mama Rose will literally walk through hell to protect her daughter. (Let’s forget the second movie ever happened, shall we?)

As in these predecessors, Mama quickly disposes of one father figure and incapacitates the other, leaving only the matriarchs to do battle. And as in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Pan’s Labyrinth, young girls (and in The Orphanage, a little boy) are left to navigate the difficulty of the real world with alternate help and hindrance from the beyond. As in Splice, a mad mother figure will go to the depths of hell to protect “her” child.

"It's not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing." (Psycho.)

“It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing.” (Psycho.)

The archetype of the mother in horror, both in literature and film, provides a looking-glass, a way to examine our fears and anxieties regarding the traditional family model. Robin Wood, my favorite gay Marxist film scholar, has written extensively about horror’s ability to subvert conventions due to its reviled and contemptible position in American media. Some of the most popular horror movies ever made, like Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Hills Have Eyes, and Last House on the Left (as an aside, count how many of these have been remade in the last decade) have tackled the role of the American family. Particularly, the mad and/or desperate mother is a common trope.

I talked to my own mother over the holidays (and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon) about how completely bizarre attachment parenting is to me, the idea of the idealized 1950s housewife that seems to be so prominent in the south, and the seemingly poisonous environment surrounding motherhood in 2013. If you don’t breastfeed, you’re evil. If you do breastfeed, you’re sanctimonious. If you co-sleep, you’re twisted. If you let your child cry for more than two seconds, you’re a horrible person. If you don’t teach your child sign language, you’re a worthless parent. The internet is a veritable treasure trove of advice, (mis)information, and holier-than-thou mommy bloggers criticizing each other and examining celebrities (see the backlash to I am Adam Lanza’s Mother, or Night Nurses are a Sign of Flawed Motherhood, or this sanctimonious craziness and a sane response). My mother was positively stunned by the idea of attachment parenting, by some of the blogs I showed her, by the idea of Elimination Communication (“That’s sick!”). While there’s always been a culture of one-upping and gossip among a subset of new mothers, the internet has driven this judgmental attitude to new heights. I’m fairly certain that, prior to attachment parenting, lactation consultants, elimination communication, and the internet, my mom raised two strong, independent, intelligent daughters.

I can't even look at this cover without fuming.

I can’t even look at this cover without fuming.

In a purely Freudian sense, it’s no wonder horror film has homed in on the mother figure as both benevolent and malevolent, selfish and selfless. But in the 21st century, in the age of constant media barrage, is horror treating mothers any differently? The answer, in short, is no, not really.

In Mama, Annabel changes her tune; she gives up her former life of freedom and Heineken and punk shows and art prints (sounds awfully familiar, except I’m too snobby for Heineken) in order to become the benevolent Mama. In The Descent, Sarah appears to escape the underground hell due to her fierce resilience and rage about her daughter’s untimely demise (and her husband’s mistress, but that’s for another article) – but I haven’t seen the second film yet. In the final scenes of Silent Hill, the benevolent mother is trapped in purgatory for eternity. In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the false mother dies, and in Pan’s Labyrinth, the real one does.  In Splice, the mother figure ends up pregnant with a potentially demonic baby.

Perhaps, of all of these, Mama offers the best possible out: mold yourself to fit the status quo, and you will survive the wilds of motherhood. For a genre that’s so often able to subvert the status quo, the horror movies of the last few years reveal a disappointing inertia when it comes to the role of the matriarch.

(Please keep in mind this is by no means a comprehensive study, but an anecdotal one…and that despite horror’s treatment of women in general and mothers in particular, I love it lots. I was totally invested in American Horror Story this season, and of course, who’s excited for Carrie? This lady.) ETA, 11/22/13: Carrie was not terrible, but disappointing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *