Tag Archives: Urban Legend

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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Gender Equality in Horror

by Amy Davis, October 2016

I’m taking a break for the next few days and handing over to my social media person the treat, if you will, of posting her thoughts on feminism in film.

Amy’s been with me for awhile, initially as a research assistant and reader for my first book. She does some writing on her own and with the upcoming posts explores  female empowerment in the horror genre.

Yours truly added a bit of editing and will introduce each of the posts over the next few days.

So enjoy and learn something new!


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As Halloween approaches I’d like to talk about a film genre that is too often classified as misogynistic and anti-woman: horror.

At its core, the horror tradition holds puritanical values especially if the films have supernatural themes. For example, characters messing with black magic, Ouija boards, or other methods of contacting the dead will soon find themselves among them. Likewise, the mad scientists or magic makers reanimating corpses while ignoring local superstition will see the pitchfork crowd destroy their work.

And if that’s not enough, they often face death themselves as the film closes.

them-movie-poster-10202519211In other words, playing God does not work in horror because the message is clear: science is the downfall of those who use it. Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein is a prime example of this anti-science theme.

Not until the horror narrative blends with science fiction does the focus shift to science as savior, a trope that runs through much of horror cinema popularized in the 1940s and the atomic-age classics of the 1950s.

While these films use science for the horror element (aliens, giant bugs, etc.), the populace often runs to their local oddball scientist for help.

So science becomes good versus evil in an age of unthinkable annihilation. In other words, technology causes the crisis and can also solve it. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Them! (1954), and The Blob (1958) are famous offerings in this nuclear age subgenre.

By the 1970s and 80s, horror is modernized but still reflects the folktale themes popular in the pre-World War II days when Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and werewolves were standard fare.

This new wave of films means that the typical ghost story or evil powers tale like The Omen, The Blair Witch Project, and Rosemary’s Baby competes with a new element, the urban legend and the demented weirdo of the slasher film.rosemarys-baby

In the posts of this series, the slasher product is our central focus with a preference for the horror feminist and the archetypes that emerge around her.

The Dichotomy

Here’s how the slasher genre works using a frequently repeated theme. Young people, usually teens or college students, escape supervision so they can drink, do drugs, and have sex. Unfortunately, all this “partying” becomes an automatic death sentence, much to the delight of the audience. In other words, the puritanical values reinforced in Hollywood film from the 1930s through the 1960s are still around and deviant behavior that violates society’s conservative norms must be punished.

While at their core these anti-social activities conflict with society’s predominant religious values, over the years modern audiences have become younger and more progressive. To get a broader range of people into the theaters, things had to change. The emergence of the strong female character was a major update.

tumblr_m2wow5ka9m1qzr8nao1_1280We normally don’t view the perversities in horror as conduits for pro-woman empowerment but that is the dichotomy of the genre. Though films like Blood Feast (1963), Bloodsucking Freaks (1976), and Snuff (1976) were condemned for their treatment of women, they became more enticing for moviegoers because of their perverse eroticism.

Some critics claimed women were there to die a violent death, which wasn’t completely untrue. To be fair it’s a horror film and most characters, male or female, die anyway.


Most of the time when a horror film focuses on a group of young people it is evenly distributed between the sexes so that “hooking up” flavors the story line. The result is men are more likely to exit the scene early when the slaughtering wacko shows up. The boys will always go check out the strange noise alone, for example.

This plays into the stereotype of the male ego as a counterpoint to the frail female as can be seen in the old urban legend about the hook-handed killer. the-hook-01The girl would not leave the car or fornicate because she swore she heard something eventually causing her frustrated boyfriend to check it out. For her it’s safety first. In fact, most horror films have a female survivor that lasts until the closing credits.

As a result, the “survivor girl” emerges as a catchall for any woman who lives to the end. While she is a modern staple in horror, she is not alone.

Other females designed to fit the plot line are the mother, the revenge killer, and the female killer, with some of them taking on the characteristics of feminism.

We begin with the “survivor girl,” a shift that starts in the feminist-oriented 1970s when the female fighting to live becomes commonplace. However, despite being updated, the survivor girl remains an oversimplification in an often-oversimplified genre.

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