With the release of Jennifer Garner’s vigilante action flick Peppermint, we’re reminded that mothers aren’t always the soft and nurturing type. In the horror genre especially, some of the best and most violent villains have been mothers. After all, horror delights in subversion – perhaps that’s why the genre has embraced the Mother from Hell figure so eagerly. After all, what’s more horrifying than the archetypal nurturer being transformed into a figment of terror and fright?
**Spoiler warning for all of the below**
Norma Bates, Psycho (1960)
“They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…”
Based on Augusta Gein, mother of serial killer and Psycho-inspiration Ed Gein, Norma Bates really is the Mother of all terrifying cinema mothers. Norma doesn’t appear in any physical form in Psycho – well, other than as a rotting corpse in the fruit cellar – but her presence is felt well enough throughout via her malevolent influence over troubled son, Norman. As Dr Basil Exposition helpfully explains at the end of the movie, Norma and her son had a pretty twisted relationship, rife with icky Oedipal undertones. After murdering his mother and her lover, Norman exhumes her corpse and adopts her persona to kill any young woman he feels a sexual attraction to – you know, normal mother and son stuff. Norma may be long dead, but her toxic influence lives on – most notably in the chilling final scene, where we understand that with Mother now fully in control, Norman is now completely gone (uh, except for the sequels).
Margaret White, Carrie (1976)
“He’s gonna laugh at you. They’re all gonna laugh at you!”
The fanatical bible-bashing mother of telekinetic teen Carrie, Margaret White really is the mother from hell. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) endures merciless bullying at school, only to come home to the dogmatic and unforgiving preaching of her mother (Piper Laurie). Even before things turn physically violent, Mrs White is still a figure of fear and oppression. Margaret instills in Carrie an almost-frenzied fear of her own body, isolating and infantilising the 17 year old to the point that, upon first getting her period, Carrie thinks she’s dying. Margaret’s other greatest hits include destroying Carrie’s self-confidence, projecting her own social and sexual anxieties onto her, locking Carrie in a “prayer closet”, and uh, literally stabbing her in the back when she believes Carrie’s powers to be the work of witchcraft. It’s hard not to feel just a bit pleased when Carrie eventually snaps, pinning her mother to the wall with kitchen utensils a la St Sebastian.
Pamela Voorhees, Friday the 13th (1980)
“Kill her, Mommy. Kill her!”
Twelve films in, it’s easy to forget that the teens of Camp Crystal Lake weren’t originally terrorised by a hulking 6′ 4″ Wrestlemania-type, but by a small lady in a cable knit jumper. As Drew Barrymore fatally learnt in Scream’s Scary Movie quiz, it was Mrs Voorhees (Betsey Palmer) and not her son Jason who was the original Friday the 13th killer. The film owes a huge debt to Psycho, not just in its shrieking strings score, but in its troubled (and unlikely) antagonists; in a neat flipside to the handsome and mild-mannered Norman Bates channeling his mother, the outwardly soft and cuddly Mrs Voorhees suffers auditory hallucinations of Jason, hearing his voice as he urges her to kill. And kill she does! Seeking revenge for the perceived negligence she blames for her son’s death, Pamela stabs, slashes, and occasionally axes her way through the young camp counsellors, racking up an impressive body count of nine people (compare that to Michael Meyer’s paltry five in the first Halloween…who’s the real horror icon here?)
Xenomorph Queen, Aliens (1986)
[Gross, rattling heavy breathing that haunts your dreams]
In James Cameron’s Aliens, we learn that there’s only thing scarier than a xenomorph, and that thing is a xenomorph’s Mum. Braving the depths of the hive to rescue surrogate daughter Newt, Ripley finally comes face-to-face with the Queen herself: 15 feet tall, with two sets of spidery limbs and endless rows of dripping fangs, she’s a repulsive contrast to her bipedal kids. Clutching Newt, Ripley stares in silence, no sound permeating the scene except for the Queen’s unsettling heavy breathing and the disgusting squelch of her enormous egg sac. It’s a terrifying and stomach-churning introduction to the literal source of Ridley Scott’s space-horrors, and one that’ll have you reaching for your biggest, sturdiest rolled-up newspaper. Based on designs by Cameron and special effects wizard Stan Winston, the Queen positively dwarfs all previously encountered xenomorphs, and reminds us that even in Cameron’s more action-orientated sequel, there’s still plenty left to horrify us in space.
Henrietta Knowby, Evil Dead II (1987)
“Someone’s in my fruit cellar! Someone with a fresh soooul!”
When played with guileless little-old-lady innocence by Lou Hancock, there’s nothing scary about Henrietta Knowby. The first to be possessed after Professor Raymond Knowby reads from the Necronomicon, Henrietta is summarily killed and buried in the cellar…for a while, at least. Peaking out of the cellar trapdoor and forlornly pleading with daughter Annie (Sarah Berry) to release her, there’s a certain twinge of pathos – until she reveals her true possessed form. Under layers of prosthetics, Ted Raimi portrays the grotesque Deadite Henrietta with cackling glee (at enormous personal discomfort – you can literally see the sweat pouring from his ear in one shot). Going head-to-head with Ash and his new chainsaw hand, Henrietta is hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, as Raimi’s frenetic performance is augmented with some truly gnarly (and truly delightful) prosthetics and stop-motion effects.
The Other Mother, Coraline (2009)
“Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! I’ll die without you!”
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline follows its eponymous heroine as she finds a door in her bedroom that leads to a colourful, idealised duplicate of her own home – complete with a devoted Other Father and Other Mother. Unlike her drab originals, these new parents have all the time in the world to play. It’s all a wonderful dream, until it becomes apparent that the button-eyed Other Mother has no intentions of ever letting Coraline go home – and that she isn’t the first child to discover this magical world. “She wants something to love, I think. Something that isn’t her,” Coraline’s cat companion explains. “Or, maybe she’d just love something to eat.” Through Laika’s remarkably creative and endlessly unsettling stop-motion efforts, we see the Other Mother gradually transform from an uncanny copy of Coraline’s mother to a terrifying, skeletal creature of needle and bone. Oh, and she’s hellbent on trapping Coraline in her nightmarish prison forever. Thanks for the nightmares, Neil!