Symbolic Matricide Gone Awry: On Absent and—Maybe Even Worse—Present Mothers in Horror Movies
A Mother’s Love
Film monsters come in many forms and shapes but they usually all have one thing in common: they have been wronged, they have been humiliated and/or abused, and so there is an explanation for their bad deeds, especially if they are human beings.1 In this article the frequently reiterated trope of the not only bad but truly evil mother and her absence will be analyzed, in order to explore her role as both the ‘monster’ behind the monster and also a victim, as she is invariably killed by the sinister being that she herself created. It is the mother’s influence, even in her absence, that eventually leads to her own removal. In Maternal Horror Film, Sarah Arnold stated that the mother ‘is ultimately judged as good or bad depending on whether she will eventually give up’ that ‘intrinsic bond between mother and child’ (Arnold 2013, 181). What I will call the ‘evil mother’ throughout this article is not only a mother reluctant to give up her bond but also one who intentionally harms her child through humiliation, intimidation, and/or violence, with matricide being the eventual
E. Trager (*)
© The Author(s) 2017
B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_13
‘logical consequence’ of the abused offspring taking arms against his inhumane oppressor. Thus, the mother herself is responsible for the process of her removal.
The excessively evil mother, the one who often prompts matricide, occurs much less frequently than the ‘simply’ bad mother—who is portrayed in movies such as Homicidal (1961), The Brood (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), Mother’s Day (1980), Unhinged (1982), Hellraiser (1987), and many more—which is probably due to the vast influence of horror film’s first and most frequently reinterpreted evil mother: Norma Bates. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) delivered many formulas that have been frequently reiterated or slightly changed by its successors and since he chose not to show Norman (Anthony Perkins) kill his mother but only to have the psychiatrist tell it to the audience, matricide plays a minor role as opposed to bad mothers in general. These filmic depictions of matricide will be tackled from a psychoanalytic point of view, with special consideration given to the intertextuality that plays a decisive role in the horror genre,2 with the outcome hopefully being a multifaceted explanation for the prevalence of evil mothers and their absence forcefully brought about in this notoriously gory genre.
One characteristic that all these evil mothers have in common is that their so-called bad parenting serves as a justification for matricide, for their removal and eventual absence. They are portrayed as excessively evil, making the movie monster’s actions seem somewhat legitimate. Putatively ‘good’ or even ‘heroic’ mothers in horror movies, on the other hand, are usually linked with what Arnold has labeled ‘essential motherhood’ (Arnold 2013, 182ff.). Usually these mothers fulfill a protective function for a predominantly very young and dependent child (for example The Shining 1980), going so far as to commit self-sacrifice (for example Silent Hill 2006) and even taking the calculated risk of harming innocent people in order to protect their offspring (for example The Ring 2002). Such mothers’ agency is very much dependent on the child, sanctified by a cultural idealization of childhood and the myth of the child as perfectly innocent, dating back to the Romantic era,3 granting the mother’s courageous efforts a sense of martyrdom for an ‘uncorrupted’ cause. The evil mother trope is one possible filmic explanation for the corruption of the otherwise ‘naturally good’ child and since the vast majority of horror movie monsters are gendered male, it is usually a son that is tormented by his mother, leading to the violent removal of his tormentor. If the victimized and ultimately monstrous child is a daughter, the depiction of matricide in the dramatic climax of the movie differs drastically, implying clearly gendered emotions in the realm of horror movies that will be elaborated upon in the following.
The aforementioned link to the Romantic era denotes horror film’s starting point in Gothic fiction. Many a modern horror movie is still heavily indebted to this time and, accordingly, to its conservative gender roles and family structures. Gal Ventura describes how the concept of the family changed in the eighteenth century, observing a transformation of ‘the family beyond recognition’ restricting the mother to her function of child-rearing (Ventura 2015,10). The creation of the ‘concepts of privacy, intimacy, and comfortable domesticity’ also enabled the distortion and destruction of those concepts, as can be observed in the tales of the Grimm Brothers, Gothic literature, and ‘the recurrent visual representations of the dead mother’, according to Ventura (Ventura 2015, 9ff.). Similarly, conservative family structures informed another major influence on horror film as a genre. Horror movies abound in popular scientifically informed images of psychoanalysis. Oedipal complexes, uncanny occurrences, and repressed memories always find their way back to the surface of the characters’ troubled minds. From Freud to Kristeva, the mother has always played a very important role in psychoanalysis and therefore also in horror movies. In her seminal work ‘The Powers of Horror’ (1980), Julia Kristeva elaborated on the role of the mother in the process of psychic individuation with regards to her concept of the abject and abjection. She claims that ‘The abject confronts us [... ] with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language’ (Kristeva 1982, 13), and adds later that the mother is ‘the first pre-object (ab-ject) of need’ (Kristeva 1982, 118). Accordingly, the never-ending process ofabjection begins with an attempt to abject the mother, which is an impossible endeavor, for all abjection is bound to fail since the abject can never be fully excluded from an individual’s psychic reality.4 In other words, this idea indicates that the mother cannot be fully removed, which is an idea explored thoroughly in horror narratives. Clearly referring to Jacques Lacan and his theory of the symbolic order, language seems to be the precondition for existing outside of the dyadic mother/child relationship, according to Kristeva. This attempted abjection of the mother should be understood as a culturally required step in the process of psychic individuation, or as Sylvie Gambaudo phrased it: ‘The attainment of social membership rests on a symbolic matricide’ or absenting of the mother (Gambaudo 2007, 123).
Symbolic matricides gone awry are therefore the literal actualizations of a mental process required in the process of psychic individuation. The imagined outcome of such a literal actualization is portrayed in a number of horror movies, giving insight into Western culture’s understanding of motherhood that seems to be fully dependent upon a woman’s child or children. The independent identity she once had seems to be fully absorbed by her new function. This presumably intimate bond also becomes apparent from the following observation: ‘regardless of her absence or diminished status in the varying films, the mother has a specific role: that of a pathological effect in the child’ (Arnold 2013, 93). This, of course, applies whenever an audience is confronted with a bad or evil mother or the influence of an absent one. This idea heightens the sense of her maternal failure because this failure materializes in her monstrous offspring that in turn poses a threat to society at large. As a genre of excess, the horror mother is often portrayed as either ‘good in every way’ or ‘bad to the bone’. In the former case, she is celebrated as a martyr-like defender of angelic purity, whereas in the latter she is ‘rightfully’ punished for the corruption of an otherwise ideal being from which she fully derives her right to exist. The outrageous violence with which the sons of horror films usually ‘defy’ their evil mothers points towards the ‘privileged’ place that vast parts of society attribute to the mother in the process of psychic individuation, which stems from an assumed closeness of mother and child in the initially dyadic relationship and this closeness in turn ‘requires’ a particularly forceful separation of the two.