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The Mother

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.

The Surrogate

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.

220px-whenastrangercallsoriginalWhen 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. cujoOf 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.

candyman1In the end, Helen sacrifices her life to save the child’s, another example of a surrogate mother.

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.

Three Mothers

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.

insideThe 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.


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Survivor Girl

by Amy Davis, October 2016

With the next four posts, Amy takes a look at female archetypes in horror, specifically the modern slasher movie.

Not being a slasher fan, I must say I did learn quite a lot from reviewing her work and did a bit of investigating into the genre myself.


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The “survivor girl” (or “final girl”) kills to make it through her perils. She is also the one most willing to save others. When her efforts fail, she grieves her loss, which often exacts an emotional toll on her.

If the survivor girl is in a group of that outlasts the killer she will return throughout the franchise (the follow-up films). Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is an early popular example of this formula. Sally is the only one to escape Leatherface (he is masked) by flagging down a trucker. Leatherface flings his chainsaw around in frustration implying she is the first to escape him. Sally sets the tone for Leatherface’s defeats at the hands of women in the rest of the series.

the_texas_chain_saw_massacre_1974_theatrical_posterIt’s also worth mentioning that Chainsaw establishes another horror archetype, the psychological killer.

And while we are offering up side notes, Anthony Peraino’s Bryanston Films produced and distributed Chainsaw.

The Perainos were the mobsters who also financed Deep Throat (1972), the movie that initiated the modern era of adult film, and used Bryanston as a legitimate cover to distribute that film.

They jolted American culture with off-the-wall violence in one production and hardcore sex in another, forever changing how we regard free speech in film and slamming the door for good on the puritanical Hayes Code that dominated Hollywood from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s.

The Slumber Party Massacre films (1982, 1987, 1990) pits scantily clad girls against The Driller Killer. the_slumber_party_massacre_film_posterWhile this doesn’t sound like an improvement for the empowered female, the film series, written and directed by women incidentally, is actually meant to be a slasher parody though it was received as straightforward horror.

In that same vein, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) includes a survivor girl who faces her fears and destroys the evil disfigured Freddy Kruger.

The Virgin Question

In these early films, there was one unfaltering rule every horror filmmaker followed: the virgin lives. If she doesn’t have sex with anyone and tends to abstain from drinking and drugs, she becomes a model “survivor girl” ensuring that our culturally programmed moral ethos emerges victorious.

A shift in the survivor girl archetype begins with Scream (1996) when the character Randy so famously recites the rules for a horror film. “Number one, you can never have sex. BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay?” So our heroine, Sidney, remains virginal through most of the film before facing the mysterious killer known as Ghostface.  (He wears mask, of course. Freddy doesn’t need one, he’s burn victim.)

scream-1996In a twist in the tale, Ghostface turns out to be her boyfriend.

By the way, Sidney’s deceased mother is referred to as a whore and the sexual conquests of the other survivor girl, Gale Weathers, are suggested as the film progresses.

These references are intentional. By outlining the rules of horror and then smashing them, Director Wes Craven makes it clear that the virginal archetype needs to be called into question and does so when Sidney and Gale become familiar faces in the Scream franchise.

In the 2009 production Laid to Rest, the main character Princess, who has amnesia, sees a videotape of her former life as a prostitute. When the murderous Chromeskull (you guessed it, it’s a mask) abducts her, she defies the whore stereotype and makes it to the end.

In other words, a checkered sexual pass is not a deterrent to survival.

The Good Girl Revisited

Currently horror is taking a more subtle approach to the survivor girl as the stereotypical good girl.

In the Hatchet series (2006, 2010, 2013), Marybeth is called poor white trash, suggesting that she may not be virginal. However, her sexual status is irrelevant to the plot so it’s not addressed. She rebuffs any advances because they interfere with her vain attempts to eliminate the deformed swamp creature, Victor Crowley (back to disfigurement as a disguise). Protecting her virtue is given little thought. After all, she has a series of films ahead of her.poster-hatchet

As part of the slasher movie mystic, most survivor girls brush off unwanted advances due to lack of interest or wanting to stay a virgin. That’s fortunate because the narratives do stick to the old formula of anyone (male or female) being outwardly sexual dies.

But times are changing and perhaps the modern sexually active woman who sits in the audience is more accepting of the non-virgin heroine . . . and keep in mind that consumer dollars drive any industry.

The Purge (2013) deals with this in subtle fashion. The heroine Mary outlasts her tribulations. By the way, this film has a political message about the class system and how America treats its veterans. No one cares that Mary has had sex; they do care about her surviving Purge night because she has children to raise.

The survivor girl’s sexual history (or lack there of) is becoming more and more irrelevant. All we care about is her overcoming whatever obstacles are in her way.

Speaking of Mary, next we’ll look at another horror archetype, the “mother.”

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