In psychological horror cinema, both classic and modern, the concept of motherhood and fertility is a common trope, terrifying in its familiarity. Sometimes we fear the murderous matriarch, desperate to either protect her children, or destroy them. Other times, it’s the fragile mommy who needs protecting, from bad seeds to demonic possession. In honor of Mother’s Day, here are 10 spooky and sophisticated horror classics in which motherhood plays a vital role.
10Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Dir. Roman Polanski
This 1968 classic, based on the novel by Ira Levin and adapted for the screen by psychological horror maven Roman Polanski (his first U.S. feature), is the pinnacle film for motherhood gone wrong. Starring Mia Farrow as the suffering innocent, the story follows newly-weds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse into a lavish but empty (and ultimately insidious) apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When Rosemary becomes pregnant after a wild and eerily forgettable night, she begins to suspect that her husband has made a pact with the building’s religious cult residents. Nothing, though, prepares her for the ultimate truth: that her child’s father is actually The Devil.
If this plot sounds familiar to you, it should, and has been emulated dozens of times since its release 48 years ago. But Rosemary was the first, and is considered one of the greatest horror films ever made, having earned two Academy Award nominations. In 2014, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
9The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)
Dir. Curtis Hanson
Where Rosemary is fragile and unsure of motherhood, the psychopathic Mrs. Motts is desperate for children, even if they aren’t her own. This perversely fun film follows the scorned widow of disgraced obstetrician, Victor Motts, whose own miscarriage and loss of fortune drives her to seek revenge, destroying the life of the woman who ruined hers. Posing as a loving nanny, Mrs. Motts is welcomed into the home of Claire Bartel, and begins to manipulate the family she intends to steal. This film’s intent is to shock, and despite its age, audiences will be surprised at how far Mrs. Motts will go.
Not known as a cinematic achievement, the film opened to mixed reviews, but high box office, and still remains a fun selection when it comes to mothers who have truly gone mad.
8The Others (2001)
Dir. Alejandro Amenabar
This supernatural gothic film is written, directed, and scored by Spanish American filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, and its atmospheric beauty sets it apart. Reminiscent of the Henry James classic Turn of The Screw, the film stars Nicole Kidman as Grace, a lonely but disciplined mother who lives on a large English estate, kept dark to protect her two highly photosensitive children. With no word from her soldier husband who is fighting in the Second World War, and suffering a nasty case of cabin fever, Grace becomes convinced that her family home is haunted . . . eventually unable to trust her servants, her children, or even herself.
Full of heavy curtains and bump in the night scares, this selection comes with a well-crafted story, and a truly heart wrenching twist. Arguably Amenabar’s most commercial film, it’s been critically lauded, receiving eight Goya Awards, and nominated for one Golden Globe for Kidman, and two BAFTA awards.
7 Dark Water (2005)
Dir. Walter Salles
From the producers that brought you The Ring, and The Grudge, this film is also a remake of a 2002 Japanese horror film. The story is based on a short story by Koji Suzuki, who also wrote The Ring trilogy, and atmospherically, you’ll find much of the same here. A mother, Dahlia (played by Jennifer Connelly), battles for custody of her daughter while holed up in a run-down apartment building on Roosevelt Island. Inside, mother and daughter are haunted by spirits of the old tenants, and plagued by leaky faucets and black, sopping ceilings. As custody tensions rise, Dahlia discovers that the ghost in her apartment is a young girl, not unlike her daughter, and is forced to choose between her own child, and the spirit who desperately seeks a mother.
This film is a slow burn, and received mixed reviews from critics, but the motherly love played beautifully by Jennifer Connelly is undeniable. It’s also eerily similar to the mysterious death of Elisa Lam, whose body was found in a water tower atop LA’s Cecil Hotel in 2013, and whose last seen surveillance footage is among the most frightening on the internet (which, for the sake of chills can be seen above instead of the trailer for Dark Water.) For those keeping track, that’s 8 years after this film was made.
6The Orphanage (2007)
Dir. J.A. Bayona
This is the feature film debut of J.A. Bayona, and in keeping with the fairy-tale feel of Spanish horror cinema. In coastal Spain, Laura brings her family back to the orphanage she, herself, grew up in. With plans to reopen as a home for disabled children, Laura faces tensions with her own adopted son, Simon, who has found a new playmate in Tomas: an imaginary boy, who wears a sack over his head. When a social worker, Benigna, threatens Simon’s welfare, Laura banishes her from the property. But when Simon goes missing, she wonders if Benigna is responsible, or a force much more sinister, and is forced to confront the spirits of the orphanage to save her son.
The tale itself is heartbreaking, but the scares are superb, and you can see traces of Bayona’s gripping film Impossible, which would follow a few years later. Known as a Spanish classic for horror buffs, it’s lesser known than others on the list, and has been poised for an American remake, in different incarnations, for several years. Nothing, however, can compare to the performance of these two grieving women in the original.
Dir. Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
This film marks a sharp and shocking departure from the elegant selections above. Infamously gory and a leader in French new wave horror cinema (films like cult classic Martyrs), this one takes some psychological endurance. But if you can handle the brutal violence, it is well worth the genuine terror. The story follows a pregnant woman, still mourning the recent death of her husband, whose hardships only grow when her lonely home is invaded by a strange woman who wants her unborn child. Violently terrorized on the day before her scheduled delivery, the stranger makes clear that she wants what is “inside,” and she’ll do anything to get it.
Inside has been praised for its audacity, and gender-bending perceptions of what a villain can be. An English language remake is currently in production, helmed by Miguel Vivas, whose film Kidnapped shows he knows a thing or two about gruesome home invasion.
Dir. Andres Muschietti
This supernatural horror film by Andres Muschietti, based on his Argentine short film, lives up to its name. The story follows the rescue of two young, feral girls who were abandoned in a forest cabin, and thought to have miraculously survived on their own. Now in the care of their uncle and his girlfriend, Annabel, the girls have trouble adjusting to domestic life, often referring to “Mama,” a mysterious entity who took care of them in the woods. Annabel, initially ill equipped for motherhood, eventually takes a liking to the girls, but soon finds she has a fierce competitor in the aggrieved mother spirit, Mama.
The influence of Pan’s Labyrinth helmer Guillermo del Toro is apparent here, with fairy tale like settings and a witch of a ghost in Mama, herself. And with practical effects, and use of master contortionist Javier Botet, Mama’s jerky, haunting movements are truly terrifying.
3The Badadook (2014)
Dir. Jennifer Kent
From first time writer / director Jennifer Kent, this Australian psychological horror film took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in 2014, and has since received critical acclaim. A single mother, still reeling from the violent death of her husband, struggles with her son’s fears of a storybook monster, The Babadook, lurking in their home. Soon, she discovers the sinister presence all around her, unable to decipher what is real and what is not, what she can control, and what she cannot.
The film has a storybook quality to it, a childhood spook story turned on its head, with just the right amount of suspense, able to avoid cliché. It has also received attention for its portrayal of mental illness, and the difficulties of motherhood, and how that can personify as an actual, living, breathing monster. Jennifer Kent is positioned to be a strong female voice in the horror cinema world, and in honor of Mother’s Day, The Babadook is a must see.
2Goodnight, Mommy (2015)
Dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz
This Austrian thriller is just a few months old, and already poised to be a horror classic. A woman returns home to her twin boys in her isolated, modern house after undergoing invasive cosmetic surgery. The twins are happy to have her home, despite her unnerving appearance, her face covered in bandages. But when their mother starts exhibiting strange and cruel behavior, they wonder if it’s really their mother under all those bandages at all.
This film was Austria’s submission to the 88th Academy Awards, and by the cinematography, you can see why. Reminiscent of throwbacks like Bad Seed and The Other, the dread inducing horror imagery is unrelenting. After watching, you’ll never say goodnight to Mother the same way again.
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Finally, no Mother’s Day themed horror list would be complete without this Alfred Hitchcock classic. When a Phoenix secretary, played by Janet Leigh, steals a small fortune from her employer, she goes on the run and checks into a sinister motel, run by a young Norman Bates, under the influence of his dominating mother. In Norman’s case, Mother has a firm hold on him even from beyond the grave, as he takes on both personas . . . donning a wig and his mother’s clothes to carry out her bidding, including that infamous shower scene.
After watching and re-watching this masterpiece, you’ll think twice before talking back to Mother . . . and at the very least, remember to send a card.
Eleanor Smith is a writer, specializing in horror, sci-fi, and dark genre fare.