Hereditary and Horror Movie Mothers You Can’t Run Home To

One of the most unnerving incidents in Hereditary, Ari Aster’s deeply unnerving new horror movie, doesn’t happen onscreen. It only comes close to happening at all.

The almost-cataclysm involves Toni Collette’s character, Annie, our main portal into Aster’s meticulously crafted nightmare world. In a scene about halfway through the movie, Annie discusses her sleepwalking — a nightmarish habit in and of itself — with a friend. Through Collette’s devastated, endlessly watchable features, Annie describes the night that forever changed her relationship with her daughter and son: she awoke standing over their bunk bed, having apparently sleepwalked into their room, drenched in paint thinner. The children were covered in it, too — and she was gripping a box of matches.

That she woke up — or woke herself up — just before committing a horrific act of unconscious violence might have been due to the strength of her waking motherly instinct, or it might have been a stroke of luck. While Annie usually acts with motherly protectiveness, and insists that what she did in sleep is unfathomable to her, we’re left guessing, uneasy, lacking clarity about her motivations. Annie’s mixed signals in this moment, and throughout the film, make her psychology and subjectivity central to Hereditary, a genre rarity. Horror has long leaned on mothers as oversimplified manifestations of good or evil, symbolic placeholders for grander concepts but not full human beings in their own right. By situating Annie’s nuanced experience at the center of its narrative, Hereditary is a horror movie not only plagued by a mother, but actually about one.

Motherhood is so regularly investigated in horror that it is often considered its own subgenre; because we perceive maternal responsibility as universally high-stakes, and because we understand maternal actions to engender far-reaching, intergenerational consequences, motherhood is a subject ripe for horror exploration and exploitation. An onscreen inversion of the typically maternal, destruction or dysfunction where we anticipate nurturance, is really scary. It taps into trepidation about where and with whom we can assume unconditional safety, which makes the “bad” mother an easy, effectively freaky horror trope. Women who mother poorly — negligently, excessively, selfishly, recklessly — are the stuff of collective cultural nightmares, so they recur onscreen incredibly often. Much of the precedent was set early on, with bad moms like Psycho’s Norma Bates and Carrie’s Margaret White. Their harmful mothering practices — overabundance and harsh restriction, respectively — had clear, violent aftereffects. Jason Vorhees’s mom — whose fault, admittedly, was loving him too much — followed, slashing her way through one film and inspiring the violence that drove a gratuitous number of Friday the 13th sequels.

The dysfunctional mother is a boring trope. A flat-line threat, a regular movie monster in Ann Taylor slacks. When horror mothers are “good,” they’re rarely more interesting: think of The Shining’s protective and terrified Wendy Torrance, flying across those sprawling hotel grounds to keep her child from Jack Nicholson’s determined axe. Good and bad horror moms alike largely suffer from existing in relation to more central characters: despite the genre’s infatuation with them, mothers rarely get the chance to do more than produce fears or alleviate them. In almost none of these classic cases do we see a mother as a fleshed-out psychological being, which is pretty unfathomable; the layered emotional lives and anxieties of mothers themselves should be fundamental to horror stories that orbit motherhood. Too long were mothers’ actions, rather than their interiorities, mulled over with dread.

An early exception is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which in 1968 comprehensively explored the mother as intricate horror subject. The film famously follows Mia Farrow’s Rosemary through a nightmare pregnancy: as she carries the baby to term, she grows sick, has terrifying visions, withers away. She loses total bodily integrity, and her insistence that something is deeply wrong with either the pregnancy or the fetus falls on deaf ears (a horror movie with feminist underpinnings if there ever was one, ironic as that is considering Polanski’s track record with girls and women). Although she remains committed throughout most of the film to resolving the discord, she never wants to sacrifice herself, Christ-like, for the baby’s sake either; her sense of present evil, her uncertainty of its origins or its antidote, infuses the film with a maternal ambiguity surprisingly ahead of its time. The horror at the center of Rosemary’s Baby is complicated — it concerns the compulsory maternal responsibility to never choose yourself over your child, and the prospect of losing your body and your independence as you become a mother. And because the film involves tension of unclear origin between this mother and her child, echoing from inside the walls of her pregnant body, questions about fault, hesitant fears about whether the baby would be better off not arriving, plague Rosemary and us, too. The script’s ambivalent layers all issue directly from the mother herself.

There wasn’t a mother as thoughtfully constructed as Rosemary for a very long time. Horror has gained significant critical traction in recent years (clever, artsy, and giddily bizarre signs of genre renaissance like It Follows and The Witch continue to creep into our box offices) and is expanding to include more female voices than ever before; Julia Ducournau and Alice Lowe, for example, both emerged as horror writer-directors to critical acclaim in 2017. Considering such a boom in seriousness and in femaleness, it makes sense that motherhood — a longtime genre staple — is beginning to be reimagined, renegotiated, and treated with more nuance. It’s refreshing, too, that mothers are beginning to be centered within their own horror narratives. But only just.

2014’s The Babadook, an Australian indie written and directed by first-timer Jennifer Kent, was my first inkling of a seismic shift in horror motherhood. Protagonist mom Amelia lost her husband on the night she gave birth to their child (he crashed the car on the way to the hospital, killing only himself). When we catch up with Amelia and her son a few years later, it is clear they are still suffocating under the weight of that evening. Sam is a difficult child, with erratic behavior that upsets and disturbs Amelia; he has inherited some of her sadness, and continues to serve as a too-painful reminder of what is gone. Perhaps she blames him, perhaps she wishes she could be discharged of her duty caring for him on her own, but she loves him, too — it’s complicated. Eventually their house becomes haunted by the titular storybook demon, as horror houses are wont to do. But by the time that action unfolds, it’s abundantly clear that the visitor is born of maternal anguish. Of mother-child friction, begrudging responsibility, turmoil where there should be domestic tranquility. There is welcome complexity in such an apparition; because the Babadook emerges from the darkest folds of Amelia’s psyche, she must protect her child from what is, ultimately, a slice of herself.

Toni Collette’s Annie really does pick up where Amelia left us, both because her emotionality is centralized in Hereditary and because she’s a nuanced, troubled mother who troubles in turn. Annie’s misfortunes come, as signposted, through her genealogy, through the maternal line. Hereditary thus explores the horror of maternal legacy — how, and by whose hand, we’re infecting the next generation  — in a concrete sense. The death of Annie’s own mother, Ellen, sets the plot in motion.

Although Ellen is never onscreen alive — when the film starts, it’s the day of her open-casket funeral, our only glimpse of her — she maintains an insistent presence through the whole grim sequence of events. “She was a private person, with private rituals,” Annie says in her opening scene eulogy, and admits that it feels strange to be talking about Ellen at all. We learn, later, that Ellen likely had dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities. And that there was familial tension for many years: enough so that Ellen was banned from seeing her eldest grandchild, Peter, after he was born. When Annie had Charlie, her daughter, Ellen worked her way back in. “She sunk her hooks in her,” Annie says, an eerie metaphor. Charlie certainly seems to be the family member most affected by Ellen’s death — they were close. In yet another scene, it is implied that they were very close — that Ellen undertook (perhaps successfully?) breastfeeding Charlie. Something is deeply unsettling about this sort of motherhood-by-proxy, particularly when we perceive dysfunction in the (grand)mother figure.

How this family is being plagued remains unclear for protracted stretches — there might be something supernatural going on, or perhaps something more psychological is at the center of their domestic strife. Mental health issues run deep in this film, DNA-deep: Ellen’s DID, Annie’s fixations — her subconscious running amok at night, while she sleepwalks the halls of her house. Charlie gives us strange vibes, too: she is isolated from people her age, seems not-so-well-adjusted, makes cut-and-paste art projects with household items and bits of dead animals. Aster has woven a thickly melodramatic film atmosphere, dreamy and dreary like the best horror is.

In one sense, a hereditary menace is totally beyond Annie’s control, like an inherited house ghost that can’t be exorcised. But in another, much more interesting sense, a threat that originates with Ellen also lives in Annie. She is its carrier, and holds part of the responsibility for its effects on her children. Annie’s inconsistency further complicates matters: she swears to protect the kids against their inheritance with persuasive sincerity, but with eerie recollections like that of the near-immolation, the boundary between Annie and the Ellen-instigated “true” threat sometimes feels thin. Or maybe Annie just wants to give up fighting genealogy. In another crucial scene — which is mercifully revealed to take place in Annie’s dream — she tells Peter she didn’t want to have him. “I tried to have a miscarriage,” she says, and then claps a hand over her mouth like she can’t believe what she just admitted. We’re left stewing in impenetrable questions about her motivations: was trying to miscarry preventive protection, getting the children out of the picture before they could experience ghastly harm? Or is Annie actually the kind of horror movie mother we fear most — one who doesn’t want to be a mother at all?

The answers in Hereditary are mixed, as they were in The Babadook. Because we are granted access to Annie’s complex interiority  — those thickly opaque dreamscapes, her rapidly shifting internal monologues and desires — we experience each tense, confused, and ambivalent contour of her emotional state as a narrative turn. When we see distress in her eyes, disturbed recognition of her own culpability, we feel it with her. Which isn’t to say we aren’t distrustful of her — it’s just more complicated than that. This new horror mother, when compared to the unambiguous monster mother of horror history (or, for that matter, the angelic martyr mother), is much more like a woman in peril we might recognize, terrifying sleepwalking habit aside: she’s distressed, equivocal, responding to discord with frantic imperfection. She is scary, and also afraid. To have such nuance permeate repeated tropes is a welcome addition, particularly for women characters, whose subjectivities in a heavily male-dominated genre have been glossed over and flattened again and again. Besides, as a horror fan who appreciates a good scare, I want a domestic situation that hasn’t been written and rewritten to death. Something creepy for its unpredictability. An uncharted script — the truly knotty, unforeseeable stuff — will keep you up at night.

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