Sunday, May 8, 2011

Examining the Mother/Daughter Relationship in Horror Films

Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair are mother and daughter in The Exorcist.

Of all the possible combinations of parents and children, it is mothers and daughters whose relationships have made for some of the most fascinating horror films of all time. Sure, thanks to Psycho, we have lots of mother-son horror films with unhinged mama's boys going on homicidal sprees due to unresolved Oedipal trauma. But for the most part, this is just garden variety Freudian stuff, straight out of a Pysch 101 textbook. Meanwhile, the mother-daughter dichotomy is not so narrowly defined and can thus be explored in any number of ways, and horror films have done so more than movies of any other genre or category.

Cinderella's wicked stepmom.
I feel that horror movies are in many ways the modern-day descendants of fairy tales -- and by that I mean the old-school Grimm fairy tales, which were much darker and more violent than the modernized versions. (If you've got some time on your hands, try researching the history of the Cinderella myth. In one incarnation of the story, women actually cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. Ouch!) One key theme that runs through fairy tales is the often vicious rivalry between older women and young girls, with the former being bitterly jealous of the latter. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are all about girls who are relentlessly plagued by envious, aging women. Latter-day authors seeking to create new fairy tales borrowed this theme for their own stories. In The Little Mermaid (1837), for instance, Hans Christian Andersen has his guileless title character enter into a sinister pact with a Sea Witch (re-imagined as "Ursula" in the Disney film), while of course L. Frank Baum gives his Dorothy a rival in the Wicked Witch of the West and Lewis Carroll's Alice memorably incurs the wrath of the Queen of Hearts. ("Off with her head!") Even modern authors cannot escape this theme. Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, has stated that there is an undercurrent of "sexual jealousy" between the mother and daughter characters in her fairy-tale-like short story, "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?"

Horror movies take this theme one step further. Whereas in fairy tales, the older woman is usually some kind of mother surrogate (The Evil Stepmother, The Evil Queen, The Evil Witch, etc.), horror films cut right to the chase and explore the mother-daughter relationship directly. As I said before, though, these cinematic relationships are complex and multifaceted. It isn't always a case of the mother being jealous of the daughter, but I'd say that theme is always buried somewhere down deep in each of these films.

The Bad Seed (1956), directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Patty McCormack stares blankly at Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed.

Based on the hit stage play, The Bad Seed tells the marvelously overwrought story of a frantic mother (Nancy Kelly) who slowly comes to the horrifying realization that her "perfect" daughter (Patty McCormack) is a serial murderess who kills without remorse and seemingly possesses no moral compass whatsoever. What's a mother to do when the person she loves the most in the world is also a monster who must be destroyed? Filled with highly stylized acting and eminently quotable dialogue (South Park's Cartman has been known to quote Patty McCormack's infamous Rhoda Penmark character), The Bad Seed is a deliriously enjoyable camp fest thatf also tells a gut-wrenching story.

Straight-Jacket (1964), directed by William Castle

Berserk (1967), directed by Jim O'Connolly

Diane Baker and Joan Crawford have their problems in 1964's Straight-Jacket.

Of course, we couldn't get through the theme of "mother-daughter horror" without mentioning Ms. Joan Crawford, now could we? Luckily for us, Joan made a few films in the 1960s that deal with the theme very directly. In Straight-Jacket, Joan beheads her cheating husband with an ax in the presence of the couple's daughter. After a long stint in an asylum, a still-shaky Crawford tries to resume her former life and reconnect with her now-grown daughter. That age-old theme of "sexual jealousy" comes to the forefront almost immediately here, as Crawford tries vainly to recapture her youthful appearance and even makes a drunken play for her daughter's boyfriend! Berserk is in a similar vein, though set in a circus milieu and not nearly as good. It's still worth watching, though, for some classic Joan Crawford-style histrionics and several absurd murder scenarios. The mother-daughter relationship in Berserk is no healthier than the one in Straight-Jacket.

The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin

A rare peaceful mother-daughter moment in The Exorcist.

What really amazed me when I revisited The Exorcist in recent years is that, until the late-in-the-film exorcism itself, this is really a story about Ellen Burstyn's character, a mother watching in helpless horror as her daughter becomes possessed by Satan. In a lot of ways, Burstyn's dilemma is similar to what Nancy Kelly faced in The Bad Seed. She has a strong, overwhelming urge to help and protect her daughter even when that daughter is turning into a dangerous, homicidal monster. I said earlier that the theme of "sexual jealousy" may be buried down deep in the subtext of these films. Is it mere coincidence that the daughter is on the cusp of adolescence, perhaps on the verge of entering puberty, while the mother is an aging actress who is employed in the youth-and-beauty-obsessed world of Hollywood motion pictures and whose own marriage is failing? Perhaps the demonic possession is a physical manifestation of the anxiety Burstyn feels about her daughter's oncoming sexuality and her own fears about being "replaced" by a younger woman.

Carrie (1976), directed by Brian DePalma

Sissy Spacek is about to be ambushed by Piper Laurie in Carrie.

Brian DePalma, typically, has no time for subtlety or subtext and gets right to the heart of things. God bless him for that. The theme of "sexual jealousy" between mother and daughter is front and center here, and the onset of sexuality is unmistakably linked to a torrent of blood and violence. Adapted from the Stephen King novel, Carrie tells the story of an awkward teenage girl (Sissy Spacek) whose late-arriving menstruation and mysterious telekinetic powers spell doom for herself, her classmates, and her highly-religious mother (Piper Laurie), who cruelly seeks to repress any signs of her daughter's burgeoning womanhood. (She ruefully refers to her daughter's breasts as "dirty pillows.") The mother's deep seeded sexual repression is memorably revealed in this speech that Laurie delivers to Spacek near the end of the film:
I should've killed myself when he put it in me. After the first time, before we were married, Ralph promised never again. He promised, and I believed him. But sin never dies. Sin never dies. At first, it was all right. We lived sinlessly. We slept in the same bed, but we never did it. And then, that night, I saw him looking down at me that way. We got down on our knees to pray for strength. I smelled the whiskey on his breath. Then he took me. He took me, with the stink of filthy roadhouse whiskey on his breath, and I liked it. I liked it! With all that dirty touching of his hands all over me. I should've given you to God when you were born, but I was weak and backsliding, and now the devil has come home. We'll pray.

Mommie Dearest (1981), directed by Frank Perry

Mara Hobel and Faye Dunaway are the (false) picture of perfection in Mommie Dearest.

We close out the list with a little more Joan Crawford, albeit of the second-hand variety. I am including Mommie Dearest in this article because it is, at heart, a Gothic horror film, complete with a house that holds terrible secrets. Here, Faye Dunaway brilliantly portrays the great screen star Crawford in a biopic that may or may not have any connection to reality. The next time you watch it, I suggest you try to forget Mommie Dearest has any connection to real life and simply enjoy it for its operatic qualities. That's really what this is: an opera without singing. In fact, the actors, particularly Dunaway, are practically singing their dialogue anyway, especially during the movie's infamous "night raid" scene. In a lot of ways, this film feels like the mirror image of The Bad Seed. I've long felt that both of these cinematic mother-daughter pairs simply had the misfortune of being mismatched by the cruel hand of fate. Imagine how happy poor Nancy Kelly would have been with a daughter like Mara Hobel's Christina Crawford (or, later in the film, Diana Scarwid's Christina Crawford). And in a mother like Joan Crawford, bad seed Rhoda Penmark might have finally met her match! One wonders: would those two have battled each other to the death or would they have teamed up to prey on others?


  1. Love this, and every movie on here! Now you have me wondering about mother/daughter swaps from different movies. Really though, a Joan/Rhoda teamup would be more legendary than Gypsy and Mama Rose!

  2. And woe to anyone who gets in their way!

  3. And woe to any one who gets in their way.

    Speaking of Gypsy and Mama Rose, has it ever struck you how the song "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is a really upbeat, inspirational song when taken out of context, but as it's actually used in "Gypsy" is completely horrifying? Context is all.

  4. Goodness yes! One of those songs that when you hear it out of context, it means something COMPLETELY different than onstage. That happens with so many Sondheim songs (but none that I can think of right now of course).