Horrors come bundled with parenthood. It’s a petrifying phase, one that’s doubtless well-known to mothers, who carry the unimaginable pressure of birthing someone into existence. In horror films, the trials of motherhood are fertile ground for auspicious stories of fright. On this article, we list some of the best films to have tilled that patch of land. Below are thirteen of the best horror movies about motherhood.
1968 / Roman Polanski / US
The poster film for parental anxieties, Roman Polanski’s momentous English-language debut, “Rosemary’s Baby”, tells the story of Rosemary Woodhouse, wife to a down-on-his-luck actor. Mia Farrow’s central performance is something to behold, her fraught mounted to an abyssal point of no return with strange obstetricians, stranger neighbors, and an even stranger husband (John Cassavetes). The result is a beguiling supernatural thriller, perhaps the best of our time.
1988 / Peque Gallaga, Lore Reyes / PH
Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ iconic shocker, “Tiyanak”, is no less fascinating as it was in 1988. In it, an infant borne out of sacrilege of the most sacrilegious order unearths to prowl on unsuspecting barren women. It’s about as cartoon-like as supernatural thrillers can get, but at the helm of creative duo (Gallaga and Reyes), the film is immersive, pushing to the fore intriguing insights about motherhood, and the lengths one—Janice De Belen, haunting as Julie, who grows an affinity for the film’s titular demonic creature—will take in order to have a connection as formidable as that of a mother and child.
2014 / Jennifer Kent / AU
Before it became the internet’s go-to icon for queerness, Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” is first an engrossing thriller about loss and bereavement. Its terrors take form in its titular entity, a top hat-donning anomaly that shares the gnomish grins of maternal failure—the very thing The Babadook represents. Kent’s story, much more than its deft genre machinations, is an inversion of the tale of the bogeyman. In “The Babadook”, his prey is not the kid trembling in fear, but the mother who decisively tries to mute it.
1976 / Brian De Palma / US
“Carrie” remains one of Brian De Palma’s best films. It’s adapted from the Stephen King novel, a lurid tale about a young girl pushed by a ruthless world and her unforgiving mother. The film’s unnerving matriarch, played by Piper Laurie, perpetually crones at her daughter’s womanhood, deeming it the work of Satan himself. Thus begins a mother-daughter relationship of the most wretched order, one that echoes so auspiciously in the film’s denouement.
1979 / Ridley Scott / US
Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction classic, “Alien”, is riddled with questions about motherhood—and lest you not be preoccupied, phallic and vulvic imagery. Its humanoid tormentor, whom fans fondly call a xenomorph, is the literal embodiment of maternal failures, forcing its offspring on hosts rather than its own womb. The ship in which the characters in “Alien” are terrorized, called the Nostromo, is a failed mother in itself, letting its children perish to corporate fiddling. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, the film’s only legitimate mother figure, is the film’s assertive heroine, determined to keep the tight-knit family of every Joe and Jane of her mission alive and well.
2001 / Alejandro Amenábar / US
The metaphor is not lost on Alejandro Amenábar’s chiller, “The Others”, a handsomely shot, beautifully restrained horror story about a mother (Nicole Kidman) doomed to a difficult existence in domesticity. The film has nary a’cheap thrills and plenty of existential dread; look past its ostensibly tacky narrative machinations—“I am your daughter!”—and emerges is a great horror film, doubtless one of the best in 2000s.
We Need To Talk About Kevin
2011 / Lynne Ramsay / US
Tilda Swinton delivers the performance of two lifetimes in Lynne Ramsay’s exquisite horror-drama, “We Need To Talk About Kevin”. She plays Eva Khatchadourian, the self-abasing matriarch center to the film. A storied post-feminist work, the film unpicks plenty on socially imposed abjections on motherhood and later upends them with the introduction of Eva’s difficult son, Kevin, played by Ezra Miller. This is my favorite Ramsay; forever will I be shifted by the unflinching maternal dynamic between Eva and Kevin.
2013 / Alice Lowe / UK
Alice Lowe writes, directs, and stars in “Prevenge”, a legitimately funny and spooky tale about maternal trepidations. She plays Ruth, a pregnant woman whose unborn baby drags her in a revenge plot against those involved in the fatal accident that took her husband’s life. Echoing classic horror tales about motherhood, such as Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th” and Roman Polasnki’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, the film is quite the trip, charged with little jolts of true terror and poignant disbelief.
1977 / David Lynch / US
Don’t fall for David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”. Everything is not fine. At least not for Henry (Jack Nance), the character center to Lynch’s nightmarish tale. Left to tend to his infant child—a fist-sized physiological anomaly that shrieks without resignation—Henry is confronted with the pains and perils of parenthood, especially after Mary, the mother of his child, flees her responsibility. The film, among many other things (this being a Lynch film, make it plenty), is clearly a film about anti-motherhood and how parental anxieties supplies enough fear for two lifetimes.
2004 / Erik Matti / PH
Erik Matti’s “Pa-siyam” holds a unique position on this list in that it’s less about the failures of a mother but those of her children. At least, that’s the conceit to which the film is ostensibly tethered, with a glorious ensemble, comprised of Roderick Paulate, Cherie Pie Picache, Maricar De Mesa, Yul Servo, and Aubrey Miles, summoned to their old home for their late mother’s nine-day novena. What follows is a beholding, genuinely terrifying altercation between a deceased mother and her children, spitting vapid accusations of betrayal and deep, gnawing grudges.
Ich seh ich seh (Eng: Goodnight Mommy)
2015 / Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala / DE
In this caustic tale by Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, maternal selfishness is personified. Wounded fresh from plastic surgery, the matriarch in “Goodnight Mommy” is rendered alien, at least to the eyes of her two young sons. That premise alone should keep Freudian scholars busy for weeks, but Franz and Fiala, both deft in their helm, pushes the fold into such extremes that turn both the mother and her children, from opposite perspectives, true monsters.
Honogurai Mizu no soko kara (Eng: Dark Water)
2002 / Hideo Nakata / JP
One of the strongest feminist works of horror, Hideo Nakata’s 2002 fever dream, “Dark Water”, voices the pains of single motherhood. In the film, a single mother is beset by her tormentors—interestingly, all men—who stretch her thin from all sides by inducing paranoia in her as she makes ends meet for her and her daughter. A spiffy lawyer? Check. A dickwad of a landlord? Check. A skeezy husband? Check, check, check. From the outset, the film is about the battle against patriarchy, but the film, more importantly, resounds as a story of a single parent’s resilience and resignation to the only end-game that matters—the safety of her child.
El Orfanato (Eng: The Orphanage)
2007 / J.A. Bayona / ES
“The Orphanage”, J.A. Bayona’s beguiling debut, folds in its skillful crafting of eerie atmosphere a deep sense of maternal longing. At its center is Laura (Belén Rueda), a distraught matriarch who returns to her childhood home—an orphanage—with her son, Simón (Roger Príncep), who, unbeknownst to him, is himself adopted. But something is amiss about the boy; often he brings imaginary friends, and Laura, out of fear that her adopted son might drift farther and farther away, indulges his imagination. The hook, of course, is we’re unsure whether or not Simón’s friends are imaginary at all.
Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slasher, “Psycho” (1960), Sean S. Cunningham’s genre phenom “Friday the 13th” (1980), and Curtis Hanson’s “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” (1992), all are worthy contenders to the list, but ultimately, I felt that they don’t truly capture the fears of parenthood as much as the above film does. Darren Arronofsky’s “mother!” (2017) is great, and I love it, but it’s about a lot of things, too, and its take on motherhood is much too maximalist to line well with the others. Finally, I’ve yet to grow soft on Julien Maury’s French New Extremity film, “À l’intérieur” (Eng. lit: “Inside”), whose use of violence on an unborn child, still, to me, is irredeemable.
L-R: “Psycho” / “Friday the 13th” / “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” / “mother!” / “Inside”