This month, we all celebrate the wonderful moms in our life. So our writers thought it was a great time to explore themes of motherhood in horror.
Each month, our staff picks a cinematic theme and recommends our favorite horror films related to that theme. Last month, we celebrated the season of change by bringing you our 13 favorite transformative horror films. This month, we continue celebrating the undeniable impact and influence of the moms in our life — and the joys and challenges of being a mom — by exploring the complex themes of motherhood in some of our favorite horror films.
Important Note: We dive deep to explore the rich and multi-layered themes of our favorite genre films. As a result, spoilers abound. Please proceed with caution. We suggest watching each of these films, if you haven’t already, before diving into these reviews, unless you are unbothered by potential plot spoilers.
1. GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2014)
Recommended by Megan Hopkin
It wouldn’t be fair to delve into a list discussing the morbid world of motherhood without mentioning a jewel in the crown of 2014 international horror releases; Goodnight Mommy. Heralding from Austria, directed lovingly by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the deceptively titled Goodnight Mommy steers far from being a tender celebration of motherhood. In fact, the metaphorical veering from the street of Benign Mother Loving would be so great, that you launch directly off the cliff of Moderate Momma Liking – into the sea of Fuck You Mom. In case my metaphorical mother geography is too difficult to follow – Goodnight Mommy does not end with a relaxing bubble bath for Mommy painstakingly drawn by her children (sorry for the spoiler).
To summarize: a pair of twins, Elias and Lukas, becomes increasingly suspicious of their mother following her return from cosmetic surgery. Heavily bandaged, her face is completely obscured, which sparks initial discomfort for the children – yet the real worries derive from the mother’s treatment of Elias. Refusing to interact with Lukas at all, she focuses her attention entirely upon Elias – oftentimes lashing out at him for his behavior.
Alongside this, Mommy’s apparent aversion to sunlight within the home and her insistence on the boys staying within the house to play despite the warm weather inspire Elias and Lukas to question their mother’s identity. Has she been replaced with an imposter? Or is it much more sinister than that?
The film ripples with paranoia, with every shot of ‘Mommy’ painfully laden with a sinister sense of otherness. Oh, and on the note of pain – this film’s use of practical effects offers up several teeth-gritting scenes which look excruciating. Not to ruin anything, but I now involuntarily wince at the super glue tube at the bottom of the messy drawer.
Where Goodnight Mommy thrives is through cinematography. Each scene is painstakingly shot in a way that captures youthful joy and excitement, as well as childhood fear.
The palpable sense of fear deriving from questioning just what lays beneath Mommy’s bandages encourages the viewer’s mind to contort frightening images as it might have in their youth.
Although the aforementioned practical effects utilized within this flick are done well and offer up scares in themselves, the true root of the uncomfortable viewing in Goodnight Mommy comes from Elias and Lukas. The boys’ inability to fully communicate their grievances to their mother, and thereby relying on their wondering imaginations for answers, infect the viewer alike. Mommy is transformed into a monster through fancy alone.
Indeed, the gap between parent and child is heightened through an inability to actively communicate difficult emotions. Using a small set to stage the events of the film, relying heavily upon the grounds of the house and the inside of the family house itself, the concept of emotional distance can be more effectively explored. Despite the characters being boxed in together, the emotional disconnect between mother and child is made all the more palpable.
Goodnight Mommy sparks an interesting debate as to what makes ‘Mommy’, mommy. The young boys’ suspicions surrounding their mother’s authenticity are sparked largely through her surgical bandages – the result of cosmetic surgery. This is highly symbolic, as the physical change in Mommy links to the emotional change in her. I also suggest that there is significance in the surgery being cosmetic – this was a surgery that was not ‘necessary’. Instead, it is an act of individuality that grants the mother pleasure that extends outside of those given from family life.
This act of individuality ultimately changes her in the eyes of her sons, who only see her as ‘Mommy’. The onslaught of tension that occurs between the sons and Mommy may be symbolic of the tumultuous inner struggle of mothers, struggling to meld their new maternal identity with their original, independent identity.
The film also offers an insight into the self-destructive role that grief may play within motherhood. Mothers are often seen as the head of the household, offering emotional stability for the rest of the familial unit. The emotional sacrifice that comes with this is rarely seen. Yet is viscerally explored within this film, as sorrow is thoroughly weaponized by the climax of the flick. Grief becomes the basis of which motherhood is irreversibly tainted.
In conclusion, Goodnight Mommy ponders what makes a mother in a way that is gritty, painful, and unsettling in equal measures. One has no choice but to ponder as the credits sluggishly roll – was Mommy really the true antagonist of the movie? Or was it the boys, with their conceptions of motherhood, who were the wrongdoers all along?
2. PSYCHO (1960)
Recommended by Todd Reed
Domineering mothers in movies is a classic trope. Over the years and across genres, we’ve seen it over and over again. But it has probably never been done quite as well as Alfred Hitchcock did it in the 1960 classic Psycho.
For the sake of this article, I’m only going to focus on the original. Norman Bates’