Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Gothic Girls Gone Wild: Riverdale’s Recrafting of Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge

Abstract...for work in progress. 

Doing research at Bowling Green State University's Ray & Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies.

For decades, the Archie comics have depicted the fictional world of Riverdale and while doing so explicitly and implicitly addressed era-relevant social issues. Two characters have consistently been at the forefront of transgressive interests since their first appearances in 1941 and 1942: Betty Cooper, sweet girl-next-door, and Veronica Lodge, privileged debutante. These characters have been reinvented and freshly envisioned in the CW’s series, Riverdale. The world surrounding Archie Andrews, already dynamic as it has been developed over an extended period of time via multiplatform storytelling, has been updated, intensified, and othered. This multilayered amplification of setting provides an effective backdrop for the revitalized Archie characters but also complicates the understanding of the degree to which Betty and Veronica have been recrafted in a way that makes them currently relevant when situated in the conversations and politics of this #metoo era.

Intergenerational family dysfunction, secret societies, predatory men, marginalized women—all are Riverdale. Deconstructing the strategic and central role of setting in Riverdale provides a fuller opportunity to evaluate the influence of these tropes on the characterizations of Betty and Veronica. Have the characters truly been recrafted in ways that acknowledge the changing roles of heroines in present popular culture? Or has their potential been undervalued and are used as tropes themselves? Once the impact of the gothic setting is identified and disconnected from the overall narrative, an isolated assessment of the depictions of Betty and Veronica is accomplished.
classic elements of gothic fiction and all are present in CW’s.

Throughout the decades, Betty and Veronica have been central characters and social activists involved in gender politics. Their new depiction honors that tradition. Despite, or perhaps because of, being a broadcast television show, Riverdale intersects with mainstream popular culture. As part of that culture, the series represents the interests and concerns of its audience. Are the CW’s modernized versions of Betty and Veronica fully actualized meaningfully transgressive characters? Or are they foils to showcase the boundary-crossing actions and attitudes of others? This chapter provides an analysis of the translations of Betty and Veronica and examines the ways in which they have and have not been recrafted to reflect and inform on present attitudes of gender politics, such as commodification of sexuality and gender performativity, as well as considers to what degree these heroines have been fully respected as individuals with unique voices. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Author’s Quick Guide to Decoding Social Media ‘Silence’

Authors dream of social media pages filled with comments and interaction. Likes are lovely, but writers long to stir up the chatter with their clever posts. They want noise, but often experience virtual silence. Interpreting that silence for audience disinterest is a mistake. Fiction readers who consistently comment are more rare than might be expected.

Social media is about you—it isn’t actually you.

As an author, you want your social media to promote a representation of you and your work. This fragmented version isn’t your true self, but an intentional, crafted version of yourself. You aren’t self-promoting, you’re presenting and interacting in a public space in a consistent and participatory way.

You’re providing people with an understanding of who you are, what you do, and what you stand for, but you are also bringing others together. Its your party; you’re the host, so the event is bigger than you and again, its not about you. It’s about the common interests of those present. Just like a party it’s your task to bring people together and if its been a good time, they will talk about you and your work behind your back. 

That’s a good thing. Talking to you and talking about you (and your work) are different things.

Look Whose (not) Talking

Characteristics of non-commenters:
  • Roughly 40% of all online users fall into the silent category.
  • Are more likely to be introverts.
  •  Are more likely to be women.
Characteristics of commenters:
  • Roughly 60% of social media users fall into this category.
  • 24 % of commenters prefer to debate issues. 
  •  21% prefer chatting.
  • Spend on average 1 hour a day commenting.
  • Are more likely to express ‘dark’ personality traits.
  • Are more likely to be a troll than non-commenters.
Commenting is a slower, reflective, more cognitive process than liking, which is intuitive and reflexive. Additionally, commenting patterns will be influenced by the presence of other comments as well as the types of other comments. Therefore, commenting requires a decoding of the post but also a decoding of the contextual (other) comments. If your followers are too busy to read the comments of others, they are less likely to comment themselves.

Silence (can be) Golden

Characteristics of all social media users:
  • Extraversion and openness to new situations are the most common of the personality traits among users.
  • People who are emotionally stable use social media less frequently.
It’s significant to note that visible online interactions are performed by a specific group of people who express a specific set of personality traits. Thus, much of what occurs visibly is limited to and dominated by a specific group. For example, emotionally stable, introverted women are less likely to comment than extroverted men. And so, many of the people who are out there, reading and engaging with your brand, you won’t hear from and many of those you do hear from come from a probably smaller, specific group.

Keep in mind, your social media isn’t about you personally. It’s about the community you are creating. Your approach should be fun, sustainable and incorporate all your work or areas of interest. Do what you like, what seems right, not what people tell you. In fact, I’d say if someone tells you not to do it—do it. And if your virtual ‘people’ are on the quiet side, it probably means you’re being followed by hard-working, introverted women who are interested in what you’re about but don’t feel the need to debate things—probably because they’re busy reading a book.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Battling Trolls and Cyberbullies as an Author

There are times when being ‘out there’ isn’t so great. Recently, I’ve been talking with fellow writers about their online experiences and repeatedly heard tales of two online creatures that are at minimum annoying and at worst traumatizing. What are these virtual animals? Trolls and cyberbullies. 

These invisible beasts aren’t the same. They’re motivated by different goals and appear in the writer’s virtual life for different reasons. Unchecked, virtual attacks can do more than soak up chunks of time and patience. They can damage an author’s reputation, spirit, and creativity.

Troll attacks aren’t personal. The troll seeks to disrupt an online community or ongoing conversation. The more positive or meaningful the troll perceives the online environment to be; the more motivated they are to damage it. Ironically, it’s for this reason that the presence of a troll in an author’s online community is an indicator that the author has created a cohesive, vital online community.
Most everyone agrees that trolls exist. Authors I spoke with were comfortable discussing trolls and the consequence of trolling behavior. Even the self-proclaimed trolls were willing to discuss their behavior. “I love to make people dance,” said one, laughing, when describing the enjoyment she got out of tormenting strangers online. “It’s hilarious how upset they get.” 

When I asked another what she got out of disrupting people’s conversations, she told me about her fake profile, giggling as said she didn’t really know. “They don’t have to stay there (in the online community),” she reasoned. “Whatever I do to them is their own fault.”
Arguing with a troll is not likely to be successful. The committed troll operates under a cloak of deception and truth is irrelevant. In fact, truth and openness are contrary to the troll’s persona and goals. Arguing with a troll gives them additional satisfaction because the argument is proof of their success. What to do? Delete their comments and move on. Followers in your online community will recognize the troll for what they are and generally, the troll’s long-term effect is minimal.
For authors, trolls are a hassle, but not as harmful as cyberbullies. Cyberbully attacks are personal. The cyberbully engages in intentional, targeted harassment and seeks to cause direct psychological pain. Authors who’ve been cyberbullied don’t need to be told the emotional pain caused by virtual harassment is equal to ‘real life’ bullying. For the working writer, who must be online 24/7, it may be an even greater source of distress. The cyberbully can attack any time and through multiple channels.

Authors I spoke with told me about being anxious in the morning because they were afraid to see what chaos had been created overnight. Those with day jobs spoke about day-long anxiety as they worried about what they’d find when they logged in at lunch or during breaks.  Knowing that this constant damage was being done by someone they knew, a so-called friend or relative, complicated things. If they rebuffed them, asked for support from others who also knew the bully or blocked the disrupter, other so-called friends and relatives connected to the bully would minimize the victim’s pain and professional damage and step in to ‘resolve’ the ‘misunderstanding.’ 

Cyberbullying is one of those things that happens but nobody wants to talk about. Writers I spoke with were hesitant to admit it’d happened to them, and those who did share their experiences were reluctant to talk about the details. It became clear to me that the harm done to the writer’s reputation is easier to deal than the personal pain caused by toxic shame. 
Toxic Shame
‘Toxic’ shame isn’t the same as guilt that comes from choosing to do something later regretted. Toxic shame occurs when a person has been exposed in a way they weren’t prepared for or in a way that’s too intimate. In this case, the so-called friend or relative has invaded an author’s public space in a way that intentionally humiliates and crosses boundaries. This isn’t the same as basic stress. Toxic shames creates feelings of inadequacy and lack of emotional and intellectual safety. This combination of mental wounds not only weakness confidence but also stunts creativity. 

My sense, if it feels like bullying it probably is. Trust yourself. Don’t try to reason with the bully. They know they’re causing harm. Don’t waste time trying to figure why the person is doing it. Why they’re doing it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they’re intentionally hurting you. Talk about how the situation with one or two close friends and silently block the bully on all social media. Be patient with yourself and understand healing from the attack may take time.

These virtual beasts aren’t going to do anyone the favor of staying in their invisible liars. Acknowledging what these creatures are, understanding what they want, and having a plan of action for when battling with them can be a useful tool in an author’s kit.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

What’s in a Font?

...a guest post from Roberta M Gubbins.

You’ve spent time researching and writing your latest blog post but have you given thought to the font you use for display? Visual elements are just as important to the success of your blog as the words you selected so carefully. The font you use helps transmit the message you want to impart to your readers.

What is a font?

Font is design term for a set of characters which include lower and uppercase letters, numbers, punctuation marks and symbols. A font is the combination of typeface and other qualities, such as size, pitch, and spacing. For example, Times New Roman is the name of a typeface that defines the shape of each character. (Webopedia)

Originally the term “font” referred to a size and style of typeface. In recent years, however, the terms have been used interchangeably with companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google using the term font to describe a typeface. Thus, it’s acceptable to refer to a typeface as a font.

Serif fonts are fonts that have small extensions on the edges of the letters such as a horizontal line at the end of a t. Examples of fonts in the serif font include this font, Times New Roman, or Georgia.

Sans-Serif fonts don’t have the little lines. Examples include Arial or Helvetica.

Script fonts are meant to mimic human handwriting. Lucinda Calligraphi or Comic Sans are examples of script fonts.

Do fonts convey emotion and personality?

In 2006, Wichita State University’s Software Usability Research Lab conducted a study of fonts to determine if they had different emotions and personalities. Based on a survey of more than 500 participants it was found:

·         Serif fonts were rated as “stable, practical and mature,”
·         San-serif fonts didn’t have a particular personality, and
·         Script fonts were perceived as “feminine, funny and casual.”

Other studies show that certain fonts cause specific emotions. For example, a study in 2014, medical patients received care instructions in different fonts; where the fonts were difficult to read, the patients perceived the tasks as harder to accomplish.

The semantic memory associated with fonts is said to influence how readers feel about the content they’re reading. The IRS uses Helvetica on its forms which influences how we feel about the font depending on our experiences with taxes.

What should you consider when choosing a font?

Is it serif or san-serif?

Serifs are considered better for large bodies of text because they tie words and sentences together for an easier reading experience. Serifs also have character dating back to their historical beginnings which give them authority and a certain gravitas.

San-serif first emerged in the 19th century for use in advertisements. It conveys a clean modernity that could appeal to a certain audience and to those reading digitally.

Regardless of what you decide to use, make sure your call to action and contact information are in fonts that are bold, clear and motivate site visitors to act.

The display of your content is as important as the message you’re sending so try different fonts to find the one that sends the right message; make sure it’s a font the elicits the emotions you’re seeking from your readers.

After years practicing law, Roberta Gubbins served as editor of the Ingham County Legal News. Since leaving the paper, she provides legal content writing for lawyers. She is editor of The Mentor, the SBM Master Lawyers newsletter. Writing as Alexandra Hawthorne, she published a cozy mystery, Murder One in Midvale Corners.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

‘Guilty Mom’ Horror Film -- Watch List

A partial list of films watched before, during, and after the creation of my paper, Scary Vulnerability: Considering the ‘Guilty Mom’ Horror Film Through the Lens of Lacan’s the Real, presented Popular Culture Association 2019 National Conference.

The Exorcist ‘73
Babadoook ‘14
Hereditary ‘18

Mama ‘13
We Need to Talk About Kevin ‘11
Child’s Play ‘88
Candyman ‘92
Repulsion ‘65
The Tenant ‘76
Black Sabbath ‘63
Carrie ‘76
Night of the Hunter ‘55
The Other ‘72
Rosemary’s Baby ‘68
Psycho ‘60
Friday the 13th ‘80
The Tin Drum ‘79
The Omen ‘76
The Others ‘01
Goodnight Mommy ‘14
Dark Water ‘02
Society ‘89
Mother ‘17

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Guilty Mom Horror Part 4: Examples? Compare and contrast, see it in action.

A viewing of horror films featuring mothers with distressed children, The Exorcist, Babadook, and Hereditary, offers the opportunity to examine ways in which uncanny situations and Lacan’s conflicting imaginary and symbolic order create the frightening impossibility of absolute comprehension.

The Exorcist, released in the end of 1973, is one of the early horror films featuring a mother whose child is being terrorized. While it’s true that the mother character, Chris MacNeil, is a career-minded single mother, she is not a ‘guilty’ mom. She doesn’t feel conflicted about her own behavior as a mother. Additionally, she is not being punished by society nor is she resentful of her child’s, distress and apparent need for help. Her child needs help and, with the support of her community and society, she does everything she can to get it. Her situation is not uncanny; it is understandable and customary, and, as a result, the mother character is not a source of tension. Instead, she reacts to the story tension.

Furthermore, the mother has access to the symbolic order and all its resources. She demands and receives assistance. When initial medical treatments are not successful, she becomes insistent and continues to access resources, seeking additional help for her child. While she does take steps to hide her identity after traditional medicine fails, she is not fearful of judgment or rejection. She doesn’t smother or silence her daughter. Her daughter’s torment continues, but not as a result of her own mother becoming a threat. The mother is not forced to battle evil in the unknowable Real. The daughter arguably does do battle in the Real but not due to the mother’s actions or attitude. It is for these reasons that the plotline of The Exorcist does not fall into the ‘guilty’ mom subgenre.

By comparison, last year’s Hereditary does fall into the ‘guilty’ mom subgenre. Annie, the mother, experiences maternal guilt due to her inability to fulfill the emotional needs of her two children. It appears, due to the repression by her own mother, she never really became part of a community or society. The entire story, peopled by characters who have no surnames, takes place outside of ordinary, knowable society. The mother’s immaturity, resulting from her thwarted ascension into the symbolic order, causes her to be resentful and incapable of meeting her children’s emotional needs. Her situation is uncanny.

Because she herself never moved into the symbolic, she is unable to guide her children into the symbolic. Charlie, the younger of the two children, expresses herself through pictures and semi-human looking creatures she builds with odds and ends. After her sudden death, caused by her brother Peter, the mother begins to stifle and control him. He is eventually silenced completely, forced into the Real, and given to the evil force.
The ‘guilty’ mom horror film Babadook, out in 2014, features all aspects of the subgenre and quickly became a widely studied classic. Amelia, the mother character, is at the center of three tensions: society’s expectation that she provide for her child’s emotional and physical safety, the child’s needs, and her own needs. Her desire to be accepted by society is seriously hampered by her son’s odd and destructive behavior. She resents her child for behaving in such an unacceptable way and feels guilty as a result. Both her character and situation are uncanny.

When the mother character’s husband was alive, she had access to community and society. As the story opens, she no longer does and the prospect of regaining it is becoming increasingly unlikely. As her son’s distress escalates, her own need for assistance becomes increasingly apparent; however, instead of helping, the community which she is part of—a group of moms and the administrators at school, shame and punish her. This, in turn, causes her resentment to rise, and her treatment of her son diminishes, all resulting in an increase of her guilt. This pattern continues until she is no longer guilty; she is completely emotionally estranged from her son, leaving him with neither the emotional safety of the imaginary or the rational thought of the symbolic. The child battles the evil force in the Real.

In this subgenre of horror, the guilty mother and the tormented child face both the uncanny and the Real. The idea that a mother would be ambivalent to her responsibilities as a parent or antagonistic to the safety of her own child is frightening and uncanny. The guilty mom knows this, and it is her self-awareness that fuels her guilt. She and the child are fighting parallel yet competing battles. Her ascension into the symbolic would enable her to gain access to the resources of the larger group, and the child’s ascension would enable them to express the need for help. However, they are both trapped in the Real. The pivotal point in the film will be when the mother finally chooses, either consciously, as in Hereditary, or subconsciously, as in Babadook, between her own needs and desires or her child’s need for physical and emotional safety. Dark ending or light, this subgenre of film is likely to be one writers will continue to explore.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Guilty Mom Horror Part 3: “the Real” issue in the guilty mom horror film? Keep looking, you won’t locate it.

Within the context of a horror film, this three-pronged tensional dynamic highlights the unique vulnerabilities and conflicts of the ‘guilty’ mom and creates an avenue through which viewers experience Jacques Lacan’s Real. Lacan’s Real is the uncanny location between the conflicting imaginary order and symbolic order. The Real creates the impossibility of absolute comprehension. Not being able to understand something when one’s life is at stake is frightening.
The imaginary order is the part of human consciousness that exists without language and expression. In the imaginary order, the self is connected to others, objects, and the world. This order is without boundary or definition; it is the fantasy image of self. It is narcissistic, fueled by unsatisfiable demands. It is the order of the maternal. The mother, in her traditional role, exists in the imaginary order with the child. She protects the emotions of the child and creates emotional safety. For these reasons, the traditional maternal role is associated with the imaginary order.

The imaginary order is separate from the symbolic order. The symbolic order is the place of self that is expressed through language, the place ruled by societal demands, norms, rules and expectations. It is composed of a narrative, concrete and defined by the absence or presence of objects and ideas. It is this aspect of self that affords the ability to deal with others and to be part of a community. It is characterized by desire, by want.  The father, in his traditional role, protects the worldly safety of the child and guides the child into that place where norms dictate behavior and rational thoughts are expressed through language. Thus, the traditional paternal role is associated with the symbolic order.

The Real is the place between the imaginary and symbolic orders. It is the incomprehensible, undefinable space beyond rational thought, although it does contain knowledge. It cannot be expressed in spoken or written language and so is not fully comprehensible or communicable. That is not to say it is inherently irrational or inherently anxiety producing. There are pleasant ways to experience the Real. Being curious or intrigued, for example. Wondering about something while still feeling in control of one’s thoughts, while knowing there are no harsh consequences to not know—these are safe, if not productive and pleasant ways to experience the Real. However, the Real is undefinable and thus uncanny by its very nature. Additionally, it is unique to each person and so not uniformly shared. It is undefinable, yet familiar. It exists, and must exist, but is not explainable nor controllable. The ‘guilty’ mom situation drives the mother, the child, and the viewer into the Real. It is in this incomprehensible abyss that the battle against evil takes place.

The mother figure is vulnerable because of her inability to become fully incorporated within the paternal symbolic order. Without this empowerment, she does not have access to the resources necessary to negotiate the story terror. She may be denied access altogether or she may be forced to back channel her way in, managing a delicate balancing act of pretending the situation isn’t present while also attempting to get help. As a result, she silences the child and forces the child back into the imaginary order, although not intentionally, insofar as this limitation happens via her own inability to gain access into the symbolic order. She has a sense or knowledge that she shouldn’t cling to or smother her child, yet her guilt may cause her to over-nurture the child, keeping the child ‘trapped’ in the imaginary order and without access to the language and rational thought of the symbolic. She, herself, is disoriented, drifting in the Real, a place with no understanding or solutions.

Children are by their nature vulnerable; however, the horror film child faces challenges that amplify that vulnerability. In the situation of a guilty mom horror film, the child is dealing with two threats. One, the evil force that terrorizes, and two, the mother who either suppresses and smothers or silences and rejects. The threat created by the guilty mom is uniquely terrifying. Barbara Creed, in The Monstrous-Feminine, notes that “monsters frighten, in large part, because they recall our previous stage of development when we were not separated from the body of the mother.” A child who is forced into that place of development where they are part of the mother, especially when the mother herself is a threat, is struggling within the incomprehensible Real. The child’s location within the Real is complicated by this cyclical conflict. Intuitively, the child knows there is a problem. Using language, they seek help from their mother and in the lack of assistance or rejection are forced back into the imaginary, emotionally-based, pre-Oedipal stage. This regression is uncanny, distressing, and denies the child agency. The mother, wanting to control the situation of the child and keep the child’s needs from usurping her own, continues to smother or silence the child. Without the ability to express the need for help or the ability to understand their situation and thus protect themself from the terror, the child is even more exposed and vulnerable. This vulnerability is reinforced by the mother’s response to her guilt, the silencing or over nurturing. Due to the distress that the child experiences and causes, both mother and child are rejected by the community or society. The child experiences that rejection and begins to fear or reject society in turn. They are shut out of the symbolic order by both the larger group and by the actions of the mother and now must fight the terror on their own.
Stefan Gullatz, in his work analyzing contemporary horror through Lacanian theory, discusses the impact of films like Hellraiser, in which the lines of reality are blurred. He asserts that the true terror stems from the viewers inability to determine the location of the action.

The ‘enjoyment’ at stake…appears to be the horrific, excess enjoyment of a desire that has come too close to its object. The fact that such films, despite their traumatic impact, may nonetheless be mesmerizing may be in part linked to their existential dimension, their ‘revelation’ of the real of our desire underlying the fiction of symbolic reality. One is reminded of the unbearable but nonetheless revelatory encounter with the real at the ‘navel’ of a dream or nightmare, which causes the subject to wake up in order to enable him to ‘continue dreaming’... to preserve the comforting illusion of a stable social self. Such films can therefore only enjoyed retroactively, from the perspective of a more distanced reflection that facilitates a symbolic re-inscription of the traumatic experience.
Adding this additional layer of mental and emotional confusion to the uncanny situation of a guilty mom is an effective strategy for horror writers.

Guilty Mom Horror Part 4.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Guilty Mom Horror Part 2: Uncanny? Yes, of course. The mom’s tension and the situation. Two overlapping tensional circles. But how, why, and why does it matter?

For one reason, this triangle of tension is uncanny. Obviously, horror film writers are working intentionally to craft situations and circumstances that are eerie, disturbing and frightening, so making things uncanny is good craft. Ernst Jentsch, in his essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” defines the state as a person’s “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” He was quick to note that awareness and understanding of such a state is important to the writer. He says:

In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.

Uncanniness is created when the distinction between real and unreal, human and inhuman, vanishes. This blurry boundary makes a person intellectually and emotionally vulnerable.  In horror some, but not all, of the inhuman creatures are readily apparent. The creature that rises from the sea, a demon that lives in the woods, or a spirit that pulls you to the underworld while you are sleeping—these are obviously not human. Those beings which are ambiguous add tension in ways the former do not. A ‘monster’ who lives in the home, serves breakfast and drives the car, is more uncannily disturbing than the monster that dwells in the swamp. A mother who is teetering on ambivalence or who has transitioned to hostility is uncanny to both the viewer and the child. The viewer is alarmed because such a mother is unimaginable; they can relate to the child who is frightened because such a mother represents a threat as well as the inability to access safety.

Sigmund Freud, in his essay, “The Uncanny” expanded Jentsch’s theory. Freud examined concepts of human development to include maturation as having a significant impact on a person’s perception of what is uncanny. He stated that a person experiences something as uncanny insofar as it reminds the individual of their repressed desires, desires which the individual presumably struggles to control, and feared punishment for deviating from societal norms. The ‘guilty mom’ is at the center of these three tensions:  First, her own repressed desires, including that she be accepted by society or community and consequently fully actualized in the form of an entire human rather than only as ‘a mom.’ Second, desires which she presumably struggles to control, in this instance the behavior and interactions of the child. Third, feared punishment for deviating from societal norms, which in this instance would occur as a result of the child acting out in ways that threaten the group or are non-conforming. The punishment can come in a variety of forms: rejection, mocking, or taking away objects or resources are possibilities. The ‘guilty’ mom realizes her struggle with these three conflicting issues, and it is the combination of that recognition and her own desires which create her guilt. She may or may not be aware of her guilt, but it is present and activates her behaviors and emotions. Thus, the guilty mom’s situation is in itself uncanny.

Guilty Mom Horror 3.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Guilty Mom Horror Part 1: Dysfunctional? Yes, or she wouldn’t matter as character. But bad or guilty? That’s what matters.

Mama, Rosemary’s Baby, The Others—the maternal plotlines of these films make them stand out. Well-crafted horror film mothers are more than characters; they are women who drive the plot. Jeanine Basinger’s definition of the woman’s film as “a movie that places at the center of its universe a female who is trying to deal with emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman.” (59) applies to the consistently popular horror films featuring monstrous moms.  Mothers in these films are often given the generic label of dysfunctional, but this broad term is not sufficient. We can assume if a mother is a main character, she is flawed and conflicted. If her role of mother is highlighted by the storyline, it is necessary that the conflict be connected to that aspect of her character. A mother character who is not conflicted by her parenting responsibilities would not be conflict worthy. This is to say, if she were fully functioning, her impact on the story’s narrative tension would be quite different. She herself would not be a source of conflict and tension, she would be a reactant to conflict and tension. Wendy Torrance from The Shining, is an example of a ‘good’ horror movie mom. In her role as mother, Wendy Torrance is not inept or conflicted. She accepts the responsibility of protecting her son and takes steps to do so. She doesn’t reject the child’s needs for help or attempt to silence the child. As a character, she reacts to story tension rather than creating it.

The dysfunctional mom is one who is unable or unwilling to function in her normative social role. She may or may not be trying to function, and it is precisely here where our attention should be fixed. For simplicity sake, and discussion purposes, the so-called dysfunctional horror movie mom can be divided into two categories: bad, unable or callously unwilling to fulfill her role, and guilty, inconsistently able or begrudgingly willing.

The ‘bad’ mother is either uninterested in performing her role as mother or so flawed in her approach that she is toxic. She may be reacting to toxic shame, unresolved trauma from her own childhood, or may be inherently ‘evil’, but in all cases her own needs, explicit or repressed, are her primary motivators. Within the context of the story, she misjudges or disregards the needs of her child and either feels little or no judgment by society or she doesn’t care about the judgement. Typically, this mother is not a sympathetic character; viewers don’t identify with her and thus experience her as a source of external tension. She creates tension that an alternate character, typically her child, is responding to and attempting to resolve. Margaret White, Carrie’s mother in the film Carrie is an example of a ‘bad’ horror movie mom.

By comparison, the guilty mom is for the most part reasonably attuned to the needs of her child and does want to meet them. Or at least she understands that she should want to meet them. Her guilt comes from her understanding that she is not sufficiently assisting the child, from the resentment she feels toward the child whose behavior or existence is a source of judgment, or a combination of both factors. Her guilt is a response to the self-awareness that acts she has or hasn’t done have negatively impacted her child. She also understands and cares about the judgments of her community or society in general. This exclusion from belonging or judgment by the larger group is an additional source of guilt and contributes to the story tension.

As the child’s needs escalate, and the mother is excluded, judged, rejected or punished by the larger group, her sense of guilt escalates as she begins to resent the child or the child’s needs. Her inability to access the needed resources of the larger group confound her guilt, recrafting it into resentment. This in turn forces her to repress her own needs and struggle with the community’s rejection and society’s judgment. As the situation of horror intensifies, she doesn’t accept that the child’s needs are genuine or that the child is truly in danger, thus resenting the responsibility for resolving the issue. All this occurs while she is continually isolated, shunned, mocked or punished. The larger group pressures her to keep her troubled kid quiet and away from them, and she in turn wishes the troubled kid would be quiet. It is her wish to silence her own child that escalates her guilt. The viewer experiences the mother’s isolation and guilt and the child’s isolation and silencing, but why is any of this scary? 

Guilty Mom Horror Part 2