by Amy Davis, October 2016
This is the third installment in Amy’s series on women in horror. Today, it’s the mother archetype.
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In horror films, the mother archetype is similar to a lioness protecting her cub. Her maternal instincts kick in when she must kill to protect her children (which usually means she acts alone) and she’s willing to sacrifice herself if necessary.
Though her actions are altruistic, she often has a shortcoming of her own she must assuage, usually an affair or past dalliance of some sort.
If she must die, she chooses her own end and, therefore, cannot be considered a victim in the horror genre.
Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978) and Jill from When a Stranger Calls (1979) are early examples of females who defend children not their own. In reality, they are teenaged babysitters who become mother surrogates by circumstance.
In Halloween, an escaped murderer stalks Laurie on that frightful night. She is watching the children, putting everyone in danger, and is forced to act urgently. She survives at the end, underlining once again one of horror’s favorite tropes; the final girl.
When a Stranger Calls is the old urban legend spin-off of the babysitter who receives bizarre phone calls asking if she has “checked the children lately?” The twist here is that the calls are coming from inside the house. Like Laurie, she is mostly on her own in protecting the children.
Though the films mentioned so far illustrate the baseline for the mother formula, a clarification is needed. Not all mothers in horror films fall under the archetype label.
For instance, Mary in The Purge (2013), a fantasy film about a society that legalizes an annual crime spree of killing and theft, is not in this category. Through most of the story she has help from her husband and the unnamed bloody stranger in defending her home, a deviation from the traditional mother who acts alone.
Donna in Cujo (1983) spends most of the film in a broken down car protecting her son from the repeated attacks of a rabid dog. Of course, her own safety is at stake because she also risks contracting the disease.
By the way, to keep the horror formula alive, Cujo is this film’s version of the stalker.
It can be argued that Donna’s struggles are also retribution for the affair she is having with another man, something that could potentially ruin her marriage and family. But it’s more than that.
While a mother in horror need not atone for her checkered past or ongoing dalliances, her actions do justify the ultimate sacrifice she’s willing to make. Remember, horror is often a morality play.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
The mother archetype is tinged with the ultimate sacrifice in a film like Candyman (1992). The protagonist Helen has no children and isn’t in a rush to change that. When her friend’s baby goes missing, she is blamed though she insists the mythical Candyman is the culprit.
The same concept applies the Nancy Thompson from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. She makes a return in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) this time as a mother and not a survivor girl. Now a therapist, she comes to a mental institution to help kids suffering from the same Freddy Kruger-induced sleep disorder she once dealt with. Like Helen, she ends up losing her life.
As mentioned earlier, it is important that the sacrificing mother choose her own end. Nancy’s death allows Kristen, the dreaming patient upon whom the story is centered, to become the new survivor girl.
À l’intérieur aka Inside (2007) is the most intense and straightforward depiction of the mother archetype and actually references three of them in the story line.
The protagonist Sarah is not only pregnant but also a recent widow, having lost her husband in a car crash. Stalked by a deranged woman who wants her fetus, Sarah defends herself in a ruthless fashion even accidentally murdering her own mother in a moment of confusion.
We discover that Sarah’s attacker miscarried her own child as a result of the trauma she suffered as the driver of the other car that killed Sarah’s husband.
Though it’s a vital component of the horror genre, the mother archetype can be a confusing character at times because it doesn’t always follow a clearly outlined path. Nevertheless, the very nature of horror is death and rebirth existing in a setting that is often surreal (think Freddy Kruger), so encouraging the mother concept seems to be a natural.