Demonizing Mothers: Psychodramas, Horror Movies, and Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Lauren A. Mitchell//  Fair warning: this post contains some spoilers for Ari Aster’s Hereditary, but you should read it anyway. 

Early in Ari Aster’s 2018 Hereditary, family matriarch and film anti-heroine Annie Leigh attends a grief support meeting after the death of her mother. We learn that Annie and her mother, Ellen, had at best a conflicted relationship. The camera holds still on Annie’s face, distorted by anguish and tears, as she slowly says, in devastated broken phrases between breathy sobs, “I sometimes feel… like it’s all ruined. I feel like I am to blame… Or maybe, I’m not to blame…but, I am blamed.”

The irony of this line is that Annie is not describing her own shortcomings as a mother. Nor is she necessarily describing any overwhelming feeling of loss toward her mother as much as she is trying to be sympathetic to her mother’s difficult life, which was contextualized by mental illness: Ellen’s Dissociative Identity Disorder, and the suicides of Annie’s father and older brother. Annie’s affect is withheld—an emotional outburst lurking beneath the surface of her otherwise smooth and resistant demeanor—until she finally sputters this fear of blame and of her helplessness to change the things that are already “ruined.” Even the title, “Hereditary,” signifies something pre-destined, such that whatever is ruined was always going to be that way. In this, the film indicates that there is something about maternity—being a mother and also having a mother—that conjures these dynamics of helplessness and aimless blame, such that the “it” that is already “ruined” is not anything specific. “It” is, can be, anything, or everything.

I’m going to state something that may be obvious: society has a tendency to pathologize mothers in terms of their negative traits in a number of widespread, culturally diagnostic rituals in which everyone may judge a mother’s parenting abilities, even before a child has been born. This stems from a constant, anticipatory rhetoric of how at any time beginning from pregnancy mothers may fail, and how children must be protected from these failures by the overarching mediating narrative twistings of medicine and law. And, we’re at a vulnerable time: the American political landscape over the past several years has led to a number of restrictions in abortion laws, which invariably limits the procedures pregnant people can access if they have miscarriages and also impacts laws regarding birth. Such laws lead to a hermeneutics of suspicion that cohere around medical and legal rhetorics that frames children as needing protection from their mothers.

The person in the role of the “mother” is often at the center of blame, in therapists’ chairs, doctors’ offices and police precincts, in stories of mass shootings and other acts of violence, or when a child takes his or her own life. The ways in which mothers may fail are limitless, ranging from pregnancy and birth choices–including the choice to terminate a pregnancy for what may be an archive of personal reasons–to parenting decisions, to the behavior of their children (whether or not it is age-appropriate). A mother, in the role of supreme caregiver, may widely elicit certain sympathies if she lives up to an idealized portrait: nurturing, financially stable, partnered, and with a peaceful emotional landscape, able to constantly table her own needs in support of the new person for whom she has shared her identity. She must give without resentment what may be a large piece of herself, at least when her child is particularly young, vulnerable, and largely dependent on her for his or her emotional resources. If she does not do these things, she may be sharply criticized, even punished, for her missteps by other parents and professionals alike.

Hereditary walks the line between “ghost-story” and psychodrama, where it is not until a breathless twenty minutes at the end of the film that the audience gets a direct answer to the question of whether or not Annie’s house is filled with demons, or whether she is another version of the archetypal hysterical woman. Those who have seen may also attest that Hereditary is a recent and exceptionally disturbing example of this narrative. By this, I mean that the film gave me, a huge horror movie buff, nightmares for a month straight (and while we’re on the topic, Toni Collette, who plays Annie, was completely robbed of an Oscar nomination). But although Hereditary is particularly unique, it doesn’t stand alone. Interestingly, this tendency to question blame has been reappropriated by a number of stories, films, and plays featuring mothers and demonic possession.

My interest here is in how so much public rhetoric and so many representations of mothers everywhere from film to medicine hinge on a hermeneutics of suspicion that facilitates maternal-child conflict, and in so doing, demonize mothers. I use the word “demonic” strategically, for there is a significant archive of films, texts, and other representations that project narratives of maternal trauma into stories of ghosts and demonic possessions, hauntings that affect the mother and her family who must suffer the burden of her unadulterated, dangerous trauma, often related in some way to her maternity. The canon of “haunted mothers” reflects what may be an overarching anxiety: that the role of motherhood is fundamentally unsafe, and therefore mothers are unsafe to their children. Recent examples from this canon include Toni Morrison’s famous Beloved, the art-house horror film, The Babadook, the blockbuster The Conjuring, and classics like Rosemary’s Baby. The many pieces of this archive unify into a persistent, anxious narrative that turns the mother figure into something utterly terrifying by externalizing her trauma into a separate, supernatural being.

The character archetype of “demonic mothers” is part of paranoid systems of representation that point to a profoundly gut-wrenching fear: the fear that your mother–the person in whose body you lived and with whom you shared the pinnacle of embodied intimacy, to whom you still have physical and emotional ties whether you want them or not (perhaps especially if not), who was for a time you don’t remember your god–may be capable of a supreme destruction that will also inevitably alter you, had an entire life  and may have tolerated a suffering that you cannot touch, cannot see, but has shaped you. And, because there is the anxiety of the unknown when standing on the precipice of parenthood, that you may have entered into her life as a more fraught entity than you realized, and that you are inherently precarious to the person who created you.

Most mothers, of course, are glad to be mothers, and value it as a part of their identity—an identity that contains traits, which to some extent, you inherit through learned behaviors or perhaps genetic or biological dispositions.  And so, if a mother is unable to “keep her demons at bay,” there is an opening for temporal uncanniness, where a haunting past may carry on through future generations. These “demonic mothers” tell us the same thing: you are close enough to your mother that you will see her ghosts. I am certainly not invested in lambasting mothers, but I am curious, as someone who has supported pregnant people and new families and as someone who likes ghost stories featuring mothers, how this particular horror trope functions in cultural pathology. The stakes of the separation between mother and child tend to be framed in violent psychological as well as physical terms, whether in medicine, or in narratives of horror—a link that we are reminded we must unpack with every new law that attacks pregnant people for their decisions.

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