One of the most popular horror movie tropes is the Bad, Scary Mother. It’s not just horror movies that love to trot out a fearsome mother figure. Norma Bates wasn’t the first controlling, abusive mother to terrify her children, and she won’t be the last. Medea, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Cersai Lannister—human culture and literature has countless examples of maternal figures that are selfish, manipulative, and downright evil. These figures are powerful because they fly in the face of our ideal image of what a mother should be.
And what should a mother be? This Mother’s Day, like all others, we will celebrate our mothers for their nurturing natures, for how loving and supportive and selfless and kind they’ve been to us. We will post cute vintage pictures of our mothers, young and bright-eyed, holding colorful little bundles of joy on their laps. We will send them flowers, buy them lovely gifts, bring them chocolates, and wait on them hand and foot. They have given so much to us, we will say. They’ve sacrificed so much for us. They’ve been good mothers.
Does a bad mother fail to do all of that? Is that how easy it is to tell who is a good mommy and who is a bad mommy?
But what about reality, which tells us that motherhood isn’t all flowers and cards and gifts? That it’s not all adorable snapshots with cuddly babies? Any mother will tell you it’s not glamorous or easy to be a mother, that motherhood is filled with anger and frustration and exhaustion and self-doubt. And yet, the social pressure to be perfect, to attain that revered mother image is overwhelming. Why? What is so compelling about the bad, scary mommy?
I think it’s because a mother is a powerful person, and given her power, it’s terrifying to admit that a mother may not be a selfless, altruistic fertility goddess. It’s more difficult to admit that the person we are dependent on is flawed, like anyone else. She is subject to pain and weakness and fear, like anyone else. It’s not a wise idea to pretend otherwise.
These horror films all address motherhood and many of the anxieties and fears associated with it, like the loss of identity, or being overwhelmed by a tiny screaming infant, or being a poor single mother, or having to juggle all her inner demons while caring for someone else. Horror loves the Bad Mommy, but a lot of horror films are unafraid to delve deeply into the challenging nuances of motherhood. These films don’t shy away from some of the most taboo questions on an uncomfortable topic.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Perhaps the classic horror movie about motherhood, Rosemary’s Baby endures for a few reasons. Not least of which is an old, eternal fear that every mother has about the potential life of her unborn baby—what kind of person will it be? Will it be a good person with a happy and prosperous life? Or will it be a sad person and face trouble and pain? Or worse still, will the child be an evil person and cause harm to others? It doesn’t get much worse than giving birth to the Antichrist and, having no children myself, I could not even begin to imagine the horror of realizing I gave birth to Satan’s child.
Furthermore, Rosemary’s motherhood happens to occur without her consent or autonomy. She is impregnated via rape, which her husband facilitated. She has an extremely difficult pregnancy but isn’t allowed to make her own informed medical choices. And perhaps worst of all, everyone around her gaslights her, ignores her concerns and infantilizes her, treating her as a mere vessel. Rosemary is a means to an end. Which, given the current political climate and the debate around reproductive rights, takes on renewed significance.
The real horror comes when Rosemary, aghast at the truth, realizes she is powerless to refuse the maternal bond to her child.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)
Alright, so this may be more of a thriller than a straight horror movie, but The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a terrifying tale that will make any mother clutch her children tightly. I mean, watch this movie, especially the scene with Rebecca de Mornay is in the ER, or when the movie goes full slasher at the end, and tell me it doesn’t freak you out.
I included this movie because of De Mornay’s character, Mrs. Motts. After losing her husband and child and being robbed of her physical ability to be a mother (she has an emergency hysterectomy), she decides to take revenge against the woman “responsible” for ruining her perfect life, worming her way into Claire Bartell’s family as Peyton, their unassuming nanny.
Not only is this movie about Claire’s fear of failing as a mother, its way worse because Peyton is actively sabotaging her, taking advantage of all her new-mom insecurities and anxieties. The film also makes some compelling points about the danger of a woman who becomes so wrapped up in her status as a wife and mother. We never actually learn Peyton/Mrs. Motts’ real name because she literally doesn’t have her own identity. I also found it interesting that Peyton/Mrs. Motts represents a more conservative expression of motherhood, while Claire pursues her own projects and relishes her independence.
The Others (2001)
This gothic horror film made stunning use of Nicole Kidman’s icy demeanor. At first, her character Grace seems like a stereotypical horror movie bad mommy—cold, harsh, and religiously zealous. Grace is, obviously, a woman on edge, about to fall apart but keeping it together by exerting her control in unhealthy ways. Like so many women on this list, her zealotry and cruel treatment of her children mask her grief, isolation, and hopelessness.
Due to circumstances beyond her control and given her fragile psychological state before “The Day Mommy Went Mad,” Grace was unable to live up to her own standards for motherhood. Her protectiveness morphed into controlling behavior, her terror turned into denial, and her loss turned into stubbornness. Even after she realizes the truth about what she did, she doesn’t seem to have learned how to let go, which raises chilling questions about the fate of her and her children.
The Orphanage (2007)
Oh man, this movie.
The Orphanage is the heartbreaking story of a woman who wants so badly to love the most vulnerable of children. Laura was an orphan, but now is grown and has plans to open up her own orphanage. She’s already adopted a child, Simon, who she adores. But tragedy strikes and Simon goes missing after a harrowing and eerie encounter in the orphanage. Everyone fears he’s dead, but Laura refuses to accept that story. Overwhelmed by her grief and guilt, Laura is determined to find him, falling deeper and deeper into her obsession. It’s clear that she feels like she failed him as his mother, like she’s failed at the one thing she wanted to do the most. But does Laura really want to know what happened to him and why?
A poignant gut-punch of a horror movie, The Orphanage demonstrates that even the most devoted, committed mothers cannot always protect their children from harm. This devastating reveal pushes her into hopelessness. And while Laura finally got what she wanted, it’s cold comfort given what she endured.
The Woman in Black (2012)
I always liked this movie for how frightening it was, since it was unafraid to show gruesome child deaths. I also appreciate how the Woman in Black is portrayed with a depressing and sympathetic backstory even while the film makes clear that she’s a selfish, vengeful monster. Yeah, it was awful that she was deemed an “unfit” mother and had her child taken away from her, and it her son’s death may have been preventable, but what part of watching your son die tragically makes it ok to kill a bunch of innocent kids? Nothing! It’s an interesting example of “a mother’s love” that isn’t excused or normalized.
Juxtaposed with Daniel Radcliffe’s character, an example of a character experiencing profound grief yet avoids homicide, the Woman in Black is an example of a person who reveled in her pain and lost sight of the point. It’s one thing to haunt her sister until her death in revenge for taking her son away from her (that’s actually pretty understandable), but it’s another to be so hard and cruel that you feel like no one should get to be a parent. It makes you wonder if maybe her sister and brother-in-law were correct in labeling her an unfit mother.
Alright, so this version of Carrie is not as good as the original regarding filmmaking quality and scares. However, the remake does a lot to flesh out and add nuance to Carrie’s mother, Margaret White. It casts the entire story in a much different light. In fact, Margaret White is a much more tragic character in this version, though she still has extreme issues and is horrifically abusive towards Carrie.
Carrie makes a very compelling and uncomfortable point about identity and motherhood. The opening scene, absent from the novel and the 1976 film adaptation, frames motherhood as something that threatened Margaret’s religious practice. In her eyes, conceiving Carrie only proved her status as a sinner, and her reluctance to kill her newborn daughter cemented her failure.
Such a moment calls to mind the story of Abraham and Isaac, which is explicitly referenced in the film and raises a whole new conflict. Rarely is spirituality and motherhood at odds, but not here. Despite the moments of real tenderness between them, Margaret views Carrie as a threat to her own spiritual identity (it’s crazy, for sure. The point is that she believes it.). Which should she choose—motherhood or being close to God?
I included this one because I’ve always thought of it as a version of the La Llorona legend, one of my favorite ghost stories. The story of La Llorona still haunts me, mainly since her guilt over killing her children binds her to the world, and she accidentally kills young children even though she thinks she’s saving her own.
This movie isn’t the best ever, but I was touched by how desperately the ghost wanted to care for the children and how the tragic events of her life devastated her. Mama was a challenging depiction of a loving, caring maternal figure that is overcome with grief and rage so intense she can’t see straight. The pull of motherhood is so strong it can cross between life and death, but it’s also dangerous. As a childless woman who values her independence, I can’t imagine loving something so much I can’t be anything else.
The Babadook (2014)
Heartbreaking, raw, violent, and horrifying, The Babadook captured many of the fears and terrors of motherhood. Being a mother is fraught with difficulties—a stubborn child with behavioral issues, parenting while working full time, and a loss of identity. But for Amelia, who is a widow and single mother, motherhood is profoundly exhausting and consuming. She’s sad and angry and resentful, as anyone might be after enduring so much hardship. The fact that she desperately lacks a support system that would help her cope and recover makes things worse. She loves her son, but she can only handle so much. The grief from her husband’s untimely death, coupled with the pressure of raising her child leads Amelia down a dark path.
The Babadook is a disturbing and powerful reminder that mothers are not infallible or perfect. They are flawed human beings with breaking points, like anyone else.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Like many of the films on this list, Goodnight Mommy deals with the expectations we put on our mothers. They are their own people, despite how we cling to them. Elias and Lukas have extreme fears that their mother has been replaced by an imposter, since she’s been acting so strangely lately. First, there was the move, then their mother’s surgery, and then her withdrawn, eerie behavior. They begin to resent her for her cold treatment of Lukas and refusal to indulge in Elias’ delusions.
On the other hand, the movie presents every mother’s nightmare: the child she gives life to will be the end of her own. As the movie goes on, we learn the truth about the family’s situation and the extent of Elias’s delusion. After miscalculating the gravity of the situation, she quickly loses control. But honestly, what should she have done? Should she have refrained from specific behaviors because Elias didn’t like them? Was she supposed to abstain from getting plastic surgery because Elias wouldn’t like it? Was she supposed to foresee Elias’s the sadistic behavior?
Who is actually in charge in a mother-child relationship? Horror movies focus on the damage parents can inflict, but Goodnight Mommy points out that children can be just as cruel and damaging.
Under the Shadow (2016)
This Iranian ghost story was a chilling story of a woman haunted by more than the loss of her identity before her daughter came. Set after the 1979 Revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war, Under the Shadow follows Shideh as she struggles in the face of Iranian society transforming from liberal and secular into a fundamentalist oligarchy. Shideh resists her status as a wife and mother, but that’s all the new society allows her to be. She is no longer allowed to pursue her passion for medicine nor is she allowed to hold a job. The restrictive gender role isolates her in her Tehran apartment with her daughter, a sweet yet needy child. And while Shideh loves her daughter and husband, the lack of independence takes a toll on her relationships.
To make matters worse, the tensions between Shideh and her daughter make them a target for an evil spirit, a Djinn. It haunts them and exploits Shideh’s emotional state to drive them apart. Using tricks and scares, the evil being sows distrust between mother and child. And though Shideh can escape with her daughter in the end, they may never flee the Djinn or the cracks of resentment and pain that have formed in their relationship.