Maternal Horror Films: Understanding the ‘Dysfunctional’ Mother
We all assume that mothers are associated with nurture, care, love and protection. Yet why are we so fascinated with threatening mothers who do not fulfil those expectations? Those fantasies around the ‘Bad Mother’ are often present in the horror genre – the theme is so popular that it has become a sub-genre, the maternal horror film. Mothers in maternal horror question the status of motherhood as they become the source of danger in the film, and fail to protect the child.
In maternal horror films, mothers are represented as violent and threatening figures. They are depicted as potential dangers for their children and distinguish themselves from the traditional maternal model. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada, 2014), Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, Japan, 2002) and The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, Spain/US, 2001) are three very interesting films to explore in relation to their depictions of dysfunctional mothers. Those mothers are pushed to harm or abandon their children, and challenge classical representations of motherhood. The films flesh out the elements that push those mothers to turn into destructive and dysfunctional forces. These elements include the pressures and expectations that social structures place on motherhood; the absence of the father and the belief that the dysfunctional mother threatens patriarchy; and the repression of the mother through the abjection of her body and her confinement within a domestic space, often haunted by a dark past.
I. Defining the ‘Dysfunctional’ Mother
The mother figure in maternal horror films defies the expectations around her role – she is either unable to protect the child’s safety or on the verge of destroying what she has brought to life. She switches from a life-giving to a death-giving entity, and becomes ‘other’, monstrous and ‘dysfunctional’. The term dysfunctional is defined as ‘not operating normally’ and ‘unable to deal adequately with normal social relations’. In maternal horror films, the mother is assumed dysfunctional because she does not ‘operate’ in a protective way and fails to build a ‘normal’ relation with the child. She also struggles to build social relations with other members of society due to her excessive mistrust of others. She turns paranoid, unreasonably or obsessively anxious, mistrustful and suspicious.
By mistrusting everyone, the mother socially alienates herself and her offspring and refuses support from other social circles. Her paranoid mind is flayed open on screen, and the films become psychological studies of the mother’s dysfunctional state. For Brenda Foley, the films ‘explore the tortured landscape of the mind’ 1, opening up a mother’s troubled soul and mental fragility for all to see. This is particularly appealing for viewers as they see a mother, symbol of stability, become unpredictable and distraught. As Jeffrey Bullins writes, ‘audiences have a fascination with mentally unstable characters’ 2. The pleasure of the film therefore comes from witnessing the mother’s descent into madness as she becomes the object of terror.
In The Babadook and The Others, the audience is presented with two dysfunctional mothers, Amelia (Essie Davis) and Grace (Nicole Kidman). They are dysfunctional as they kill or attempt to kill their children, controlled by their destructive impulses. They live alone with their children, with no friends or family – their social isolation entraps them within a damaging mother-child dynamic which pushes the mothers towards mental instability. In The Babadook, Amelia locks the door of the house and cuts off the phone to prevent Samuel (Noah Wiseman) from contacting anyone. She isolates both of them and makes sure ‘nothing gets in’, leaving Samuel at the mercy of his mother’s murderous impulses.
In The Others, Grace locks herself and her children in the house and becomes suspicious of any intruders, like her new servants. She even shuts the windows to prevent the intrusion of sunlight, confining her children to perpetual darkness. In both examples, the mothers’ fear of intrusion makes them unable to deal adequately with social relations. By isolating themselves with their children, Amelia and Grace feed their neurosis and their dangerous potential – they fail to protect their children and violate what society codifies mothers to be.
II. The Fear of not Meeting Expectations Around Motherhood
In maternal horror films, the fear of not fulfilling motherhood’s expectations is the first element that builds anxiety within a mother and increases her chances of becoming dysfunctional. Being a mother comes with societal pressures – as she takes upon herself the responsibility of child care, she also agrees to train the child to society’s rules. ‘Social groups demand the mother raises the child in an acceptable manner, [ensuring] preservation, growth and social acceptability’ 3 says Sarah Ruddick. The child depends on adults for his well-being, therefore the mother – his primary caretaker – has to protect him and prepare him for societal life.
The mother considers herself and is considered by others to be responsible for maintaining her child’s growth, and lives with the fear of generating a defective development. If her child does not thrive, society blames her, bombarding with guilt. By idealising the figure of the Good Mother, society creates a fear of the Bad Mother, a title a mother will place on herself if her child develops an abnormal behaviour. This constant pressure can lead a mother to become increasingly anxious and depressed, which increases her chances of failing at her role.
Children of depressed mothers tend to show more ‘behavioural disturbance, […] insecure attachment, more difficult temperament and greater risk for developing depression when older’, writes David Foreman 4. This is demonstrated in Samuel’s behaviour in The Babadook. He builds harmful weapons to protect himself from ‘monsters’, showing a tendency towards violence and a difficult temperament whenever Amelia tries to confiscate his weapons.
In social situations, Samuel is awkward, isolating himself or clutching his mother desperately. He even pushes his cousin from the top of a tree house and shouts hysterically in the car on the way back. Samuel’s behaviour shows disturbance, insecurity and an unhealthy attachment to the mother. His growth has potentially been impaired by the loss of his father, but most importantly by his relation with Amelia, who has to cope with the pressures of motherhood and raise a child with a difficult temper on her own. The Babadook therefore shows the impact of an overly-stressed mother on her child, predisposing Samuel to behavioural instability.
Society puts particular pressure on single mothers as they become the only caretaker for the child. In the three films, Amelia, Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) and Grace struggle to raise their children alone. Yoshimi and Amelia have to balance between work and home. By having to also provide financially for the family, the mother becomes totally engrossed in her caretaker role – the child becomes the exclusive reason behind all of the mother’s actions and this can become stifling for the mother. A working mother is also perceived negatively by society according to Kathleen Rowe: ‘To be a mother is not an easy task in a culture where mothers can be blamed […] for being too present or not present enough, for leaving their homes to work.’ 5. So if a mother needs to assume the breadwinner role, usually regarded as a male activity, she is judged for it and alienated from social circles, creating extra pressure on her.
This is shown in a particular scene of The Babadook, at Amelia’s niece’s birthday party. Amelia is estranged when she talks to other mothers, constantly reminded of the expectations that weigh over her head. She is singled out as a working, widowed mother. Samuel refuses to leave his mother and play with other children, demonstrating ‘behavioural disturbance’ and an insecure attachment to Amelia. The other mothers roll their eyes in exasperation when he leaves the room, as if they were judging Amelia’s mothering methods.
After discussing Amelia’s career situation, one woman talks about how hard it is for her to see ‘disadvantaged women’ who lost their husband deal with everyday life, labelling Amelia as a ‘disadvantaged’ mother, an outcast of social norms. This triggers Amelia’s anger – when the woman complains about the fact she has no more time to go to the gym, Amelia snaps at her, emphasising how insignificant her problem is compared to Amelia’s daily worries. The camera isolates Amelia throughout the conversation, juggling between a close-up of her tired face and a reverse shot of the mothers, sitting together in the frame, opposite Amelia. Amelia is therefore singled out and scrutinized by society, unable to fit the ‘standard’ image of motherhood.
The single mother is constantly evaluated by friends, neighbours but also by officials. Amelia is visited by social assistants that keep questioning her relationship with Samuel, and Yoshimi in Dark Water is regularly interrogated during her battle over Ikuko’s (Rio Kanno) custody. Constantly judged by the social world, the mother’s stress increases and impacts her mental health. After insensitive questions about her past consultations with a psychologist, and after her ex-husband exaggerated an incident about picking up Ikuko after school, Yoshimi attacks her ex-husband in front of officials, screaming hysterically. The pressure of being observed and judged by an oppressive patriarchal society, represented through the ex-husband and the male officials interrogating her, pushes Yoshimi to act irrationally. She lets her internal anger manifest through physical violence and hysterical behaviour. This shows that the expectations placed on the status of mothers can be too hard for women to handle and can drive them to become dysfunctional and impulsive.
These impulsive behaviours turn the mother against her children in classic maternal horror films. The mother becomes violent, inadequate and mentally unstable around her children, unable to cope with the pressures of motherhood. This is shown differently in The Babadook and The Others: while Amelia shows a lack of affection and tolerance towards Samuel in certain scenes, Grace over-performs her role of mother in an obsessive way. Amelia tells Samuel to ‘eat shit’, refuses to provide food for him and even tells him that many times she had wished Samuel had died instead of her husband, completely rejecting her mothering role. She rejects the idea that motherhood should be a ‘totalizing experience of consuming self-sacrifice’ 6 as put forward by Nina Martin. She is tired of being told that the child should be a mother’s entire world, creating a romanticised relationship around motherhood that Amelia does not fit.
In contrast, Grace performs her role to such an extreme that she does not allow her children to leave the house and protects them from the sunlight. She says she would rather die herself than let anyone harm her children, defining herself purely through her mothering role. Her obsession turns into delusions as she imagines Anne possessed by a monstrous figure. Unable to recognise her child, she attacks the monster screaming hysterically ‘you are not my daughter!’ until she finally realises it is actually Anne. Her dedication to her children and her fear of potential intruders (supernatural or human) drives her to hallucinate and physically harm her children (even kill them as we learn in the end). Hence her fear of becoming a Bad Mother turns her into a danger as she conforms fanatically to the mothering role. In both cases, the mother’s relationship to the children becomes strangulating. The totalising experience of motherhood praised by patriarchal society becomes the source of the mother’s violence. With the absence of the father, the mother is enslaved within her parental role and has to accept the totalizing experience of motherhood, which leads her to resent her child therefore become dysfunctional.
III. The Absence of the Father Figure
In maternal horror films, the mother often abandons or is abandoned by the father, another element that contributes to the mother becoming dysfunctional. Societal beliefs put more pressure on single mothers as they take the lead and the patriarchal figure is removed (whether by death or by divorce). By assuming both the paternal and maternal role, the mother’s presence becomes total, and the child only has the mother to learn from. This is perceived as a threat to masculine authority and emphasises the paranoia around motherhood. Patriarchal society believes that the dysfunctional mother endangers the child’s social development by clinging on to him and refusing to cut the mother-child bond.
Feeling abandoned by the father and by society, the dysfunctional mother starts to define herself solely through the child, refusing to let him go therefore resisting conformity and becoming a ‘transgressive figure’ 7. From a psychoanalytical viewpoint, the patriarchal imaginary believes that the dysfunctional mother prevents the child’s access to patriarchal society – she isolates herself with the child or chooses to kill him in order for him to remain with her eternally, therefore challenge the patriarchal order.
In psychoanalysis, it is believed that to become socialised and reach the ‘Symbolic order’, the child, especially the boy, has to break from the ‘primary identification with the mother’ 8 and eradicate his association with the feminine, writes Christine Glendhill. ‘The Symbolic Order’ is a term introduced by Jaques Lacan which stands for the social world of linguistic communication, inter-subjective relations, acceptance of the law and knowledge of ideological conventions. Once a child has entered language and understands societal laws, he is able evolve in the social world.
The Symbolic Order is believed to be the realm of the masculine, and the pre-Symbolic order the realm of the feminine. The pre-Symbolic is a temporary phase that the child needs to break from to become socialised, and the father figure stands as a model for the child/boy to follow. But if the father is absent, the child becomes attached to the feminine and resists the separation with the mother. In the absence of the father, the dysfunctional mother nurtures this attachment therefore prevents the passage to the Symbolic Order and threatens the stability of the patriarchal world.
These psychoanalytic readings can be applied to the films as they portray the children’s difficulties to become part of the social world, stifled by their relationship with the mothers. As we saw with Samuel, his over-attachment to Amelia prevents him from socialising with other children. He is afraid of social situations and keeps coming back to his mother’s arms, unable to detach himself from the realm of the maternal, from the umbilical cord. Even when Amelia is violent towards him, he keeps telling her he will not leave her. Without the presence of the father, and with Amelia assuming every role in the family sphere, Samuel attaches himself to Amelia in an unhealthy way and refuses to enter the social world.
Samuel is even scared of monsters and intrusions, physically protecting himself from strangers. Tammy Oler 9 points out that Samuel actually starts building weapons even before the Babadook appears in their home, as if he senses that the monster will soon creep in and that his isolated relationship with Amelia is unhealthy. Or are these weapons meant to protect Samuel from social relations in general? Are they a sign of his rejection of the Social Order, a result of his ‘disrupted’ and exclusively feminine growth?
Nicholas in The Others develops a similar behaviour. Although he does not build weapons like Samuel, he fears social relations and intruders. He is always in his mother’s arms, drawn to her whenever he is scared. Nicholas shows an extreme attachment to Grace, an attachment she has nurtured by preventing her children from going outside or socialising with other people. She is the only presence in their lives as the father has left for war. The maternal takes control and because Grace defines herself exclusively through her children, she never lets them go. This is something Anne abhors – as she is older than her brother, she enters a transition period where she wants to leave the realm of the mother to encounter the social world, but Grace prevents her from doing so. She even becomes aggressive towards Anne, pushing Anne to hate her mother. The children’s extreme behaviours are a product of the absence of the father and the mother’s over-attachment to the children in response – her possessiveness becomes a sign of her dysfunctional nature.
The idea of a mother’s potential to turn dysfunctional and possessive if the father disappears adds extra pressure on motherhood and feeds the paranoia around the Bad Mother. Luce Irigaray argues that the projection of male imaginary has made women suffer culturally as they were imagined as ‘devouring monsters threatening madness and death’ 10. The maternal horror film is an example of these projections – as Steffan Hantke argues, male anxieties about female empowerment and men’s declining social status have given rise to films where women are the avenging ‘demonic other’ 11. Representing women, and especially mothers, as demonic and monstrous nourishes the paranoia around femininity and socially alienates women. The masculine fear shifts as women start doubting themselves and believing the patriarchal discourses. Mothers have to live with the pressure of being constantly perceived as unpredictable, fearing their potential ‘monstrous’ nature, which affects their mental stability and the way they identify themselves.
This idea is explored in a lot of details in The Babadook. The figure of the Babadook can be understood as Amelia’s frustration at her life, her growing depression and her difficulty to get over the loss of her husband. The babadook appears at the moment Amelia shows doubts about her desire to be a mother – it is a projection of her tortured mind. Using Amelia’s weakness, the monster attempts to take control of the mother and her son. The fact that the monster has masculine traits, and that it even turns into Amelia’s dead husband at some point, shows that the source of Amelia’s distress is linked to the patriarchal order and the loss of the male authority within the family. The monster is there to put pressure on Amelia and turn her into a dysfunctional mother.
When the Babadook takes the shape of the deceased husband, he asks Amelia to ‘bring him the boy’, a way to recall the child into the masculine realm and terminate the engrossing relationship with the mother. Amelia’s frustration makes her vulnerable, and in some way she accepts the monster’s offer as she ‘lets it in’, believing that by killing her child, she can gain peace of mind and no longer be solely seen as a caretaker (through her duty as a mother and as a nurse). Gradually, she becomes the monster. Her transformation starts with a tooth pain, then a variation in her language which becomes more aggressive. She then takes on the low and terrifying voice of the monster and becomes more animalistic, climbing on the walls of Samuel’s room, about to catch her prey. By becoming the monster, she enacts the patriarchal fantasies surrounding motherhood and embodies the paranoia around the monstrous/dysfunctional mother.
When she transforms into the monster, Amelia gives way to her pain and resentment, and ceases to repress her feelings about her dead husband. She admits to Samuel that since the death of his father, she ‘hasn’t been good’, calling herself ‘sick’. She asks for help and says she wants Samuel to meet his father, in ‘that beautiful place there’. At this point, we do not know if it is the Babadook talking through Amelia or Amelia sharing her sincere feelings – either way, the pain of her husband abandoning her leads Amelia to have murderous feelings towards her son. But if she kills Samuel, she fails in her mission of preparing the child for the Symbolic World.
The Babadook is therefore a construct that encourages Amelia to become dysfunctional, a reflection of Amelia’s depression and exhaustion. It pushes her to act irrationally and kill her child, like Grace in The Others. Unable to cope with the absence of her husband and the constant confinement within the house, Grace killed her children and herself, letting her fear of remaining abandoned and becoming a ‘monstrous’ mother win over. Grace has let her own Babadook take control of her. The absent fathers in maternal horror films therefore generate fear within the mother as she apprehends taking care of the child alone and becoming dysfunctional. Male authority is therefore at the heart of the neurosis around bad motherhood.
It is interesting to take Dark Water as a different point of comparison. The patriarchal abandonment is of a different kind as this time it is wanted by the mother. She chooses to leave the husband and the masculine realm by divorcing, and throughout the film she is punished for it. Yoshimi suffers extreme stress because she is confronted to the practical demands placed on her as she chooses to slip out of male control. ‘Yoshimi’s problems appear ignited by the breakdown of her marriage and the lack of resources available to her in a male-oriented society’, writes Barbara Creed 12. Yoshimi lives under the pressure of finding a job, proving to social assistants that she can take care of her daughter while being a single mother, and fixing her collapsing apartment.
She is surrounded by male figures that fail to help her – when she talks about the strange events happening in her building, the male figures (her ex-husband, his lawyers, Ikuko’s teacher, the building’s concierge…) doubt her and believe she is mentally unstable. Her ex-husband depicts Yoshimi as mentally vulnerable in order to gain the daughter’s custody, using fragile moments from Yoshimi’s past as a wedge to pry away Ikuko from the mother’s grasp and engulf Yoshimi in self-doubt. The husband builds a paranoid image of Yoshimi to gain the child back and allow the passage to the Social Order, punishing Yoshimi for her transgressive behaviour. Yoshimi’s contribution to the family is only recognised when she gives up the daughter at the end of the film, leaving the child to the paternal function. The father must therefore repress the mother and construct her as a dangerous and delirious entity to maintain patriarchal rule. Repression becomes a tool to restrict the mother, but the oppression becomes too much and actually pushes the mother to become dysfunctional.
IV. The Paranoia around Maternal Sexuality: Repressing the Mother’s Body
Repression is another important element to consider when exploring the reasons for a mother to turn dysfunctional. By confining a woman to the mother role, patriarchal society does not perceive her beyond her reproductive function which suppresses the rest of her identity. Women cannot be working, or acknowledge their desires – their cravings and ambitions must be repressed. This is done through the abjection of the mother’s body and her confinement within the domestic space. By suppressing the mother’s desire and entrapping her within a closed space with the child, the male authority remains in control. But repression and confinement can push the mother towards mental instability as her freedom and sense of self are suppressed. She can therefore become dysfunctional and fall into hysteria, the ‘bodily expression of her unspeakable distress’ 13. The mother’s desire becomes a symptom and its repression leads to mental and physical illness, making the female body even more inaccessible to male control.
The mother’s body is at the heart of the paranoia around motherhood and dysfunctional mothers as it is perceived as mysterious and abject. Because the mother’s body is incomprehensible to the masculine, it becomes a source of terror. For Julia Kristeva, the image of the woman’s body, because of its maternal functions, is more likely to signify the abject 14. Images of menstrual blood, vomit and other ‘unclean’ elements are associated with the mother’s body and are also central to our culturally constructed notions of the horrific. Therefore the maternal body is associated with the horrific, revealing a real societal neurosis around motherhood and female sexuality.
The monstrous mother incarnates this neurosis – she embodies the phallic woman or symbolic castrator according to Freudian readings. She resists the masculine realm by obstructing the child’s access to the Symbolic World, thus suppressing the power patriarchy has over the child. With a dysfunctional mother and an absent father, the child remains within the primal bond, a phase called ‘abject’ because it precedes the Social Order and exclusively belongs to the maternal. If the child stays in this phase, he develops an insecure bond with the mother and is unable to break away from his incestuous desire for the mother, from the ‘bodily encounter’ 15, therefore access the social world. The dysfunctional mother therefore breaks free from the patriarchal hold by preserving the primal bond with the child and suppressing the masculine voice.
Each of the three films depicts the repression of the mother’s body and the consequent attachment with the child. In The Babadook, Amelia is presented as a sexual being constantly repressed because of her mothering duty. Each time she tries to experience pleasure, she is interrupted by Samuel. In a very intimate scene, Amelia masturbates in bed and Samuel creeps in her room. Later, Samuel interrupts a conversation between Amelia and the visiting Robbie (Daniel Henshall), foiling all of Amelia’s attempts at sexual satisfaction. These interruptions illustrate the daily repression imposed on the mother’s desire, and they add to Amelia’s frustration. Instead of finding pleasure, she has to deal with Samuel’s stifling presence, tying himself into a quasi-conjugal relationship with his mother, a sign of his own desire for her. In the absence of his father, Samuel becomes the repressor. Amelia’s sexuality is therefore constantly repressed since the death of her husband, and from this repression springs terror and violence that turns Amelia into a ‘monstrous’, dysfunctional mother.
In The Others, Grace’s madness can also be partly explained through the constant repression of her sexual desire. With the absent father, Grace has to repress her sexual needs and dedicate herself to the children. Grace is also depicted as a sexual being, especially with Nicole Kidman playing the role. Kidman carries with her a glamorous Hollywood image that the film uses to portray Grace’s attractiveness. This is especially conveyed in the sex scene with the husband, when Grace strips in front of the camera and reveals a light nightgown and some garters. Kidman’s body brings desirability to the character and presents Grace as a sensual being. When the husband tells Grace he is leaving, a sign that Grace will have to repress her desires again and dedicate herself to the children instead, she throws herself on the bed crying. The fragility of her body and her emotional state invites the father to kiss her and they end up having sex. When she wakes up, he is gone, leaving her confined within the house and having to deal with her repressed needs. The father therefore controls the mother’s sexuality and chooses when to repress and when to unleash it, driving Grace mad. Her repressed sexuality therefore leads her to become dysfunctional – we understand that she has killed her children because she could not stand the confinement and sexual repression she was subject to.
In Dark Water, the motif of flooding water relates to the notion of the ‘abject’ and acts as the repressor within the film. It invades Yoshimi’s apartment and prevents her from building a safe space for Ikuko, repressing the mother-daughter relationship. We learn that the leaks are provoked by Mitsuko (Mirei Oguchi), the ghost child. Through those leaks, Mitsuko tries to summon a mother figure to her side. Water recalls the primal phase, when the child is still in the mother’s womb – it is therefore a symbol for the return to the bodily encounter with the mother. Mitsuko wants to return to the safety of the primal phase, therefore attempts to kill Ikuko to win Yoshimi and turn her into Mitsuko’s surrogate mother.
Yoshimi fights the water, but she has to give up in the end, abandoning her daughter along the way. The inky blackness of the water slowly takes control of the mother and the house, bounding her to the domestic space and the primal encounter with the child. Yoshimi is therefore repressed and forced to abandon her own child in order to pay the consequences of Mitsuko’s dysfunctional mother – in a very paradoxical way, she has to become dysfunctional too to protect Ikuko. She has to accept the recall to the primal phase but with another child, which will imprison her within the house and an unforgettable past, and drive her away from her own daughter.
V. The Threatening and Repressive Domestic Space, Symbolic of a Haunting Past
Repression of the mother also occurs within the domestic space as the mother status is intrinsically linked to the home. Patriarchal society confines the mother within the house in order to contain her. The home is established as the ‘headquarters for a mother’s organizing and a child’s growing. Home is where the children are supposed to return when their world turns heartless’, says Sarah Ruddick 16. Yet in maternal horror films, it is the home that turns heartless and where the horror takes places – the domestic space becomes dysfunctional.
The confinement within the house pushes the mother towards dementia and as the child is confined with the dysfunctional mother, he is placed a dangerous position. According to Sarah Arnold, the child is trapped in the claustrophobic domestic sphere of the mother therefore forced to ‘re-embrace the maternal bond and return to the pre-Symbolic order’ 17. The house is therefore at the heart of the mother’s neurotic violence towards the child as she wants to keep him within the ‘abject’ phase’. It becomes a space of paranoia and challenges the classic representation of the familial sphere.
In the three films, the mothers become hysterical as they are swallowed up by the menacing home. The danger comes from the house slowly decaying and having a will of its own, out of the mothers’ control. In The Others, the curtains that protect the children disappear, and in The Babadook, a hole starts to form in the wall, letting insects crawl into the house. In the face of their failure to protect the domestic space, the mothers lose sanity and struggle to resist the oppression of their home. The houses are filmed in a very stifling way, the camera lingering on objects of the past and slowly panning across empty rooms which highlights their oppressiveness. Rooms are suffused in shadow, filled with dark corners that lock the characters within haunting memories of a past family unity, when the husband was still present. The house becomes a symbol of a past they cannot overcome. Stuck in grief and obliged to still perform the maternal duties, the mothers lose control and become as oppressive and dangerous as the house they live in.
In Dark Water, the building where Yoshimi and Ikuko live reflects a past that comes back to haunt the new tenants, asking for the repairmen of past mistakes. The building is presented as frightening, towering over the small figures of Yoshimi and her daughter in aerial shots. The two characters are isolated and dwarfed by the imposing structure, foreshadowing how the building will entrap and dominate Yoshimi and Ikuko. The grey walls and endless hallways mirror the bleakness of Yoshimi’s new life as she now has to find employment while fighting a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband. The deterioration of the flat parallels the deterioration of Yoshimi’s mental state as she struggles to cope with everything, acting hysterically as she tries to identify the source of the leaks in her ceiling. The broken elevators, cracking wallpaper and invading water suggest that the pressures placed on Yoshimi are about to swallow her, and the home becomes a dreading and unsafe place that cannot be escaped.
The invading water refers to Mitsuko’s incident and is controlled by the girl as she summons Yoshimi to become her replacement mother. The film suggests that Mitsuko’s mother’s inadequate care is to blame for the girl’s death, therefore Yoshimi has to repair the deed. She cannot resist Mitsuko’s intrusion in her life as the ghost is part of the building, the domestic space. To appease the ghost, Yoshimi has to abandon her daughter. By accepting to become part of the house and Mitsuko’s surrogate mother, Yoshimi bridges the tension between past and present families, returning to a more traditional mother role where she is confined within the domestic space and does not try to handle employment and divorce.
The past comes back vengeful and actively forces its way into modern life to demand a return to the traditional. The mother is punished for wanting to break away from the constraints of the house and of the maternal model constructed by patriarchal society. This suggests a cultural nostalgia for the past and a societal fear of moving forward – society struggles to construct a new motherhood model and to believe that a mother who is allowed an identity outside the maternal realm, and a sexuality of her own, is not necessarily dysfunctional.
Maternal horror films allow the audience to understand better the societal paranoia around motherhood. An essential entity, the mother represents stability, and her potential to become unstable is feared as it will damage the children, future members of society. The mother is therefore oppressed by societal expectations and suffers from the patriarchal representation of motherhood. The repression of her body, her status and her sexuality become elements of confinement that in the films, push her to become dysfunctional and horrific. But the maternal horror film also shows love among the terror and often ends with the formation of a more healthy relationship between the mother and the child – can dysfunctional mothers redeem? Or is this a way to present mothers in a more positive light and silence the paranoia?
- Brenda Foley, ‘The Maternal Madness of the Babadook’, Cinapse (8 December 2014) <http://cinapse.co/2014/12/08/the-maternal-madness-of-the-babadook/> ↩
- Jeffrey Bullins, Evil or Misunderstood: Depictions of Mental Illness in Horror Films, Academia.edu, <http://www.academia.edu/9388210/Evil_or_Misunderstood_Depictions_of_Mental_Illness_in_Horror_Films> ↩
- Sara Ruddick, Maternal thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p.17 ↩
- David Foreman, ‘Maternal mental illness and mother-child relations’, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 4 (1998), p. 136, http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/aptrcpsych/4/3/135.full.pdf ↩
- Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), p.111-2 ↩
- Nina K. Martin, ‘Dread of mothering: plumbing the depths of Dark Water’, Jump Cut, 50 (Spring 2008) <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/darkWater/index.html> ↩
- Sarah Arnold, ‘Bad Mother’, Maternal Horror Film (University College Falmouth: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), p.69 ↩
- Christine Glendhill, Home is Where the Heart Is (London: British Film Institute, 1987), p. 307 ↩
- Tammy Oler, ‘The Mommy Trap’, Slate (24th November 2014), <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/11/horror_movies_about_mothers_and_children_the_babadook_lyle_and_other_films.html> ↩
- Luce Irrigary and Margaret Whitford, The Irigaray Reader (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1991) ↩
- Hantke, Steffan, ‘Japanese Horror under Western Eyes: Social Class and Global Culture in Miike Takeshi’s Audition,’ Japanese Horror Cinema, quoted in Sarah Arnold, Maternal Horror Film, p. 124 ↩
- Barbara Creed, Phallic Panic (Carlton, Vic., Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2005) ↩
- Janisse Kier-La, House Of Psychotic Women (Godalming, UK: Fab Press, 2012), p. 149 ↩
- Referred to in Barbara Creed, Phallic Panic. ↩
- Luce Irrigary and Margaret Whitford, The Irigaray Reader ↩
- Sara Ruddick, Maternal thinking, p. 87 ↩
- Sarah Arnold, ‘Bad Mother’, Maternal Horror Film, p. 93 ↩
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