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