The Mommy Trap

Four recent horror movies by women explore the most troubling aspects of motherhood.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Still courtesy of Stewart Thorndike/IMDB. Photos by Cinetic Media/eOne Films International/IFC/IMDB and Sony Pictures/IMDB.
Gaby Hoffmann in Lyle, Essie Davis in The Babadook, and Julianne Moore in Carrie.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Still courtesy of Stewart Thorndike/IMDB. Photos by Cinetic Media/eOne Films International/IFC/IMDB and Sony Pictures/IMDB.

Would a good mother ever have the urge to kill her child? Even by the ghastly standards of horror films, which will gladly traffic in serial killers, monsters, and demons, a mother murdering her child is typically beyond the pale. But The Babadook, a frightening new film out this week from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, addresses the question head-on, imagining how trauma and the pressures of parenting can transform a mother into a terrible force, and exposing just how scary the unspoken feelings a mother can have toward her child can be.

The Babadook is one of several recent horror films by women that reimagine the terrors of motherhood. Mothers aren’t hard to find in horror. The genre has more than its share of murderous matriarchs and fierce mama bears, and it’s always been awash in the bloody spectacle of birth. But like The Babadook, this new crop of female-driven horror films—including Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie, Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle, and Marina de Van’s Dark Touch—are using genre to take a hard look at how we imagine motherhood at a time when the question of what makes a good mother is more fraught than ever.

In The Babadook, the mother in question is Amelia, a widow still grieving for her husband seven years after he died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son Sam. Birth and death are inextricably linked for Amelia and Sam. As Sam’s birthday approaches, a mysterious book called Mister Babadook appears in their home, and the nightmarish creature from its pages stalks and then possesses Amelia.

Amelia works as a nurse, but we learn that prior to her husband’s death she was a writer of magazine articles and “kid’s stuff.” Despite admonitions from her family to move on, Amelia is overwhelmed by grief and resentment—not just about the death of her husband, but also about the hopes for family and career that died with him. Added to this is the pressure Amelia feels being a single mother barely scraping by.  She doesn’t sense the dangers wrapped up in these feelings, but Sam does: He starts building traps and weapons to protect himself and his mother from monsters even before Mister Babadook appears in their home.

The Babadook is a scary creature, but he’s not nearly as scary as Essie Davis’ gripping portrayal of the unraveling Amelia. It’s not clear whether the Babadook is conjured by Amelia’s repressed feelings or comprised of them—the film plays in the boundary between supernatural and psychological horror—but once possessed by him, she becomes a grievous threat to her son. The Babadook forces Amelia to come face-to-face with her feelings; her struggle is deciding whether or not she’ll succumb to them.

For any mother, admitting that you have negative or complicated feelings about your children—or admitting that you don’t love being a mother—is a risky confession. Even Heather Havrilesky’s recent New York Times critique of the pressure on mothers to be “all-in” starts from the assumption that women love the experience of being a mother (“I don’t personally know a woman who doesn’t love it”). But motherhood is a hard and isolating experience for Amelia. What’s powerful about The Babadook is that it’s a story of genuine love between a mother and child, even as it concedes that she is at times possessed by terrible feelings about him. What Kent offers in The Babadook is a whole new vision of what a good mother can look like, bad feelings and all.

But if good mothers can have bad impulses, can the opposite be true for bad mothers? Last year, Kimberly Peirce reimagined one of horror’s most iconic mothers in her update of Stephen King’s Carrie, transforming her from a monster to a deeply troubled human being. In Brian de Palma’s 1976 adaptation, Carrie’s mother Margaret White is a domineering, cruel fundamentalist. Her attempt to kill Carrie at the film’s end is an act of religious ecstasy; dying in the attempt brings her rapturous pleasure. De Palma’s Margaret is a wild-eyed nightmare, played just this side of high camp by Piper Laurie.

By contrast, the Margaret of Peirce’s Carrie (out now on DVD and streaming) is far more complex and sympathetic. Working from a screenplay by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Pierce reimagines Margaret as a damaged, self-harming woman who feels genuine affection for her daughter even as she abuses her. The opening scene of Peirce’s Carrie is not the iconic locker room sequence that opens the earlier film, in which Carrie’s telekinetic power is born in a flurry of menstrual blood, taunting, and tampons. Instead, it’s the scene of Carrie’s actual birth: Margaret White, frightened and alone, believing that she’s dying. When Margaret attempts to kill her infant daughter as an act of repentance, she finds she can’t bring herself to do it because she already loves her daughter too much.

This moment is revisited when Margaret tries to kill Carrie after the prom. Unlike in De Palma’s film, there’s no pleasure in it for Peirce’s Margaret. It’s an act of mercy, a last resort for a woman trying to protect her daughter. After Carrie telekinetically impales her mother with a variety of household items in self-defense, she cradles a dying Margaret in her arms and comforts her. In that moment, Peirce invites us to feel compassion for Margaret, and insinuates that her behavior comes from her own very deep wounds.

No doubt about it: Margaret is a bad mother in both films. But this updated Margaret is not so much evil as terribly misguided. After all, she is correct about the cruelty the other children inflict on Carrie. In many ways, Margaret bears more resemblance to mothers on Bravo’s Extreme Guide to Parenting than she does to her predecessor, which raises a whole set of anxieties not even imagined by the first film: Can abuse be driven by love and fear as much as brutality and hate? Can we empathize with a mother who harms her child in the effort to protect her? 

Writer-director Stewart Thorndike draws inspiration from another classic maternity nightmare, Rosemary’s Baby, for her film Lyle, which streamed for free this summer and is now awaiting more traditional release. Gaby Hoffmann stars as Leah, a pregnant woman who moves into a dream Brooklyn apartment with her partner June and their young daughter. The parallels between the two films are apparent, but Lyle offers a cultural update: Rosemary and Guy are replaced by Leah and June; the apartment is in brownstone Brooklyn instead of the Upper West Side of Manhattan; and June is a record producer instead of a struggling actor. But more importantly, by reimagining the story with a lesbian couple, Thorndike tells an unprecedented story about female ambition.

Lyle taps into a real cultural unease about women who prioritize career over family. After the couple suffers the tragic loss of their daughter, Leah begins to suspect that it was no accident. At the same time, June seems more distant and career-focused than ever. This is Rosemary’s Baby meets Lean In: a horror film that takes the idea of sacrificing your children for your career to its logical yet horrible extreme.

Like Guy in Rosemary’s Baby, June sacrifices her family as a guaranteed shortcut to success. Both of them justify the action based on what that success can offer to their families in the future. But we know very little about what drives June’s decision. Thorndike does not concern herself with exploring larger cultural issues like workplace pressures or work/life balance. Instead, Lyle is an equal-opportunity look at cold, hard ambition. There’s nothing in the film to suggest that June’s actions are more monstrous because she’s a woman, but June elicits that response from the audience anyway. It’s simply harder for us to imagine a mother instead of a father making this choice, a context that makes the events in Lyle feel so shocking even though we know very early on where the film is heading.

French writer-director Marina de Van explores adoptive parenting in her 2013 film Dark Touch (streaming now), the story of 11-year-old abuse survivor Niamh and the psychokinetic suffering she unleashes on her small Irish town. After Niamh’s parents are mysteriously murdered, neighbors Nan and Lucas take her in. Nan is grieving the loss of her young daughter to cancer, and she’s driven by the desire to provide a normal life for Niamh even as the girl exhibits dangerous abilities.

When Niamh screams or cries, Nan feels a painful ringing in her ears. She’s the only adult who can “hear” the girl’s pain, which suggests that she and Niamh have formed some type of bond. The film sets us up to expect that Niamh can be rescued with the help of a strong maternal figure. But there’s no such triumph in Dark Touch. Nan’s unwavering belief that she can reach Niamh only ends up putting herself and her own children in jeopardy.

The abuse Niamh suffered at the hands of her parents is depicted only briefly, but is evoked throughout the film every time Nan reaches out to Niamh. Every caring hand extended Niamh’s way becomes sinister, and every maternal gesture inspires only fear. Dark Touch is a profoundly uncomfortable film because it imagines that a child can be too damaged to save; that maternal instincts can be wrong; and that abusive parents can be far, far more powerful than good ones.

There’s very little agreement about parenting these days except that other people are probably doing it wrong. And while we live in an age of parental scrutiny, mothers are still the ones who shoulder nearly all the parenting pressure. These films tap into just how terrifying and confusing it is to be a mother right now. But there’s also something very exhilarating in the way these filmmakers expose tensions that are deeply unsettling.

The powerful work of horror is that it gives voice to what frightens and disturbs us. Taken as a whole, these films surface a set of anxieties about motherhood that are too uncomfortable to admit, especially in this era of mom-shaming: that the line between good parenting and bad parenting isn’t as nearly as fixed as we’d like; that not having children is a path to more professional success; that for some, parenthood is neither a satisfying nor beneficial experience.

In The Babadook, Amelia never really vanquishes the monster. Instead, by acknowledging the feelings that scare her the most, she finds a way to live with them. It’s hard to think of a more compelling way to think about the power of these films. They don’t offer the traditional cathartic horror-movie release of terror vanquished. But they do let women face the unspoken fears of motherhood and womanhood in our pressure-cooker era, and that is a big relief.