A viewing of horror films featuring mothers with distressed children, The Exorcist, Babadook, and Hereditary, offers the opportunity to examine ways in which uncanny situations and Lacan’s conflicting imaginary and symbolic order create the frightening impossibility of absolute comprehension.
The Exorcist, released in the end of 1973, is one of the early horror films featuring a mother whose child is being terrorized. While it’s true that the mother character, Chris MacNeil, is a career-minded single mother, she is not a ‘guilty’ mom. She doesn’t feel conflicted about her own behavior as a mother. Additionally, she is not being punished by society nor is she resentful of her child’s, distress and apparent need for help. Her child needs help and, with the support of her community and society, she does everything she can to get it. Her situation is not uncanny; it is understandable and customary, and, as a result, the mother character is not a source of tension. Instead, she reacts to the story tension.
Furthermore, the mother has access to the symbolic order and all its resources. She demands and receives assistance. When initial medical treatments are not successful, she becomes insistent and continues to access resources, seeking additional help for her child. While she does take steps to hide her identity after traditional medicine fails, she is not fearful of judgment or rejection. She doesn’t smother or silence her daughter. Her daughter’s torment continues, but not as a result of her own mother becoming a threat. The mother is not forced to battle evil in the unknowable Real. The daughter arguably does do battle in the Real but not due to the mother’s actions or attitude. It is for these reasons that the plotline of The Exorcist does not fall into the ‘guilty’ mom subgenre.
By comparison, last year’s Hereditarydoes fall into the ‘guilty’ mom subgenre. Annie, the mother, experiences maternal guilt due to her inability to fulfill the emotional needs of her two children. It appears, due to the repression by her own mother, she never really became part of a community or society. The entire story, peopled by characters who have no surnames, takes place outside of ordinary, knowable society. The mother’s immaturity, resulting from her thwarted ascension into the symbolic order, causes her to be resentful and incapable of meeting her children’s emotional needs. Her situation is uncanny.
Because she herself never moved into the symbolic, she is unable to guide her children into the symbolic. Charlie, the younger of the two children, expresses herself through pictures and semi-human looking creatures she builds with odds and ends. After her sudden death, caused by her brother Peter, the mother begins to stifle and control him. He is eventually silenced completely, forced into the Real, and given to the evil force.
The ‘guilty’ mom horror film Babadook, out in 2014, features all aspects of the subgenre and quickly became a widely studied classic. Amelia, the mother character, is at the center of three tensions: society’s expectation that she provide for her child’s emotional and physical safety, the child’s needs, and her own needs. Her desire to be accepted by society is seriously hampered by her son’s odd and destructive behavior. She resents her child for behaving in such an unacceptable way and feels guilty as a result. Both her character and situation are uncanny.
When the mother character’s husband was alive, she had access to community and society. As the story opens, she no longer does and the prospect of regaining it is becoming increasingly unlikely. As her son’s distress escalates, her own need for assistance becomes increasingly apparent; however, instead of helping, the community which she is part of—a group of moms and the administrators at school, shame and punish her. This, in turn, causes her resentment to rise, and her treatment of her son diminishes, all resulting in an increase of her guilt. This pattern continues until she is no longer guilty; she is completely emotionally estranged from her son, leaving him with neither the emotional safety of the imaginary or the rational thought of the symbolic. The child battles the evil force in the Real.
In this subgenre of horror, the guilty mother and the tormented child face both the uncanny and the Real. The idea that a mother would be ambivalent to her responsibilities as a parent or antagonistic to the safety of her own child is frightening and uncanny. The guilty mom knows this, and it is her self-awareness that fuels her guilt. She and the child are fighting parallel yet competing battles. Her ascension into the symbolic would enable her to gain access to the resources of the larger group, and the child’s ascension would enable them to express the need for help. However, they are both trapped in the Real. The pivotal point in the film will be when the mother finally chooses, either consciously, as in Hereditary, or subconsciously, as inBabadook, between her own needs and desires or her child’s need for physical and emotional safety. Dark ending or light, this subgenre of film is likely to be one writers will continue to explore.