When Motherhood Is a Horror Show

For the onscreen moms in “The Baby,” “Umma” and “Lamb” — and for an ascendant class of sardonic mom influencers — the source of psychological torture is motherhood itself.

In the first episode of “The Baby,” a new comedic horror series on HBO Max, an infant falls into a childless woman’s arms, as if dropped there by a cosmic stork. But the special delivery is not a blessing — it’s a curse.

Natasha (Michelle de Swarte), the 38-year-old chef who catches the gurgling babe, does not want children. She has watched with disgust as her friends have vanished into motherhood; now they are always droning on about their babies, going on play dates with their babies, telling Natasha to stop smoking cigarettes around their babies. The baby-from-the-sky quickly reveals himself to be a supernatural manifestation of her own dying youth. Once he starts crawling after Natasha, everyone around her ends up dead or maimed.

The show is a not-quite-sendup of a genre that imbues the trials of motherhood with a paranormal charge. The mothers in several horror movies released this year are not straightforward villains (like the mother in “Carrie”) or innocent naïfs (as in “Rosemary’s Baby”), but sympathetic figures who become implicated in haunting family dysfunctions.

In “Umma,” a beekeeping single mom (Sandra Oh) is possessed by the ghost of her own mother. In “Lamb,” an Icelandic farmer (Noomi Rapace) adopts a hybrid lamb-human newborn she discovers in her barn, with monstrous results. Marvel’s flirtation with horror, in the director Sam Raimi’s zombified “Doctor Strange” sequel, finds its villain in a mother, a lurching Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is willing to wreak havoc across as many universes as it will take to reunite with her children.

Even “The Twin,” an original film from the horror streaming service Shudder, cycles through a mess of clichés (evil twin, Scandinavian occultism, Faustian bargain) before landing on mommy psychodrama. Though these mothers often carry past domestic traumas — abuse, neglect, infant loss — their stories signal that there is something psychologically harrowing about the role of motherhood itself.

In pregnancy, birth and young life, the horror tropes abound. Growing another human being inside your body is a natural human process that can nevertheless feel eerie, alien and supernatural. Also, gory. When the photographer Heji Shin began taking unsentimental photographs of babies at birth, “I looked at them and I was like, This is literally ‘The Exorcist,’” she told T Magazine. Bringing life into the world also brings death viscerally close. Thousands of infants die unexpectedly in the first year of their lives. Giving birth in the United States is more than 20 times as lethal as skydiving. Even the most desired and successful of pregnancies (let alone the kind that anti-abortion laws would require be carried to term) can conjure themes of shape-shifting, disfigurement, possession and torture.

The pandemic surfaced horrors of a more quotidian nature: the drudgeries of ceaseless child rearing. The veneration of motherly fortitude and sacrifice endemic to nature documentaries and Mother’s Day Instagram tributes has always disguised an American disinterest in functionally supporting mothers and other caretakers. But recently the image of the overworked American mother has assumed a darker valence, as new levels of isolation and stress have unleashed a maternal desperation that’s been described as “primal,” “Sisyphean,” and, as the writer Amil Niazi put it in The Cut last year, “like my brain is burning and so is my entire house and someone just stole the fire extinguisher.”

Often a mother’s own fixation on such darker themes is written off, trivialized as old news or pathologized as postpartum depression. So it makes sense for it all to get sublimated into horror. In fact, it makes so much sense that the outcome is often a little too on the nose. Psychological frights that jumped from the screen in earlier mother-focused films, like “The Babadook” (from 2014) and “Hereditary” (2018), now seem to drift wearily through pop culture, as stories of motherhood are retold again and again through the blunt instruments of horror.

When a woman notices bizarre behavior in her young son in “The Twin,” the twist is foreshadowed via the diagnosis of a shrink, who tells her that her child “is a mirror — he’s a reflection of your emotions and fears.” In “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” Wanda Maximoff fashions the tension into a tagline: “I’m not a monster, I’m a mother,” she says. And in “Umma,” as Oh’s character endures a tedious possession by her abusive mother’s ghost, a kindly neighbor (Dermot Mulroney) vocalizes the old saw that grinds through the whole movie: “Oh God, I can hear myself turning into my mother.”

Tania Franco Klein for The New York Times

“The Baby” is clever to convert this mode into comedy, though the mood soon darkens. At first, Natasha’s antipathy toward parenthood feels refreshingly specific, with its focus on the mundane degradations that can haunt the imaginations of the happily childless. A soiled diaper escalates into a scene of body horror; a struggle to collapse a stroller ends with a severed finger. But the murderous-baby metaphor assumes more and more of motherhood’s potential pitfalls with every episode. Soon the show is also about postpartum depression and forced birth and compulsory heterosexuality and intergenerational trauma.

There’s something frustrating about this relentless construction of motherhood as a horror show, and not just because mothers experience the full range of human emotions (some of which are more faithfully explored in a Hallmark movie). By breaking a taboo, the genre has created a new cliché: of the exhausted mother pushed to her psychological breaking point. Though the lack of support for mothers is a structural problem, it is reframed as a personal one, with a narrative resolution that resembles a postpartum therapy session or an invitation to collectively scream. Mothers are made to suffer, and then they are flattened into a long-suffering mother persona.

On the internet, there is a cutesy horror-inspired term for this kind of mother: the mombie. This lightly ironic version of the overwhelmed mom persona is ascendant on Instagram, TikTok and e-commerce novelty sites, where the lobotomized stereotype of the mommy influencer is countered with a version of motherhood defined by bedraggled debasement. In this exaggerated burlesque performance, motherhood is analogized to prison, or the feeling of a child’s scooter wheel repeatedly hitting you in the ankle bone for all eternity.

These jokes are often accompanied by sincere messages about how negative feelings about motherhood are valid, and that it’s important to speak out. But the persona can also seem curiously invested in feeling aggrieved, as if the conversion of suffering into content is itself a balm. A common joke format is to complain that men do not help, but that when they do help, they do not help correctly. If you can’t relate, perhaps it is because you are so smugly privileged that you can pay other women to perform the drudgery of motherhood for you. (A recent “Atlanta” episode actually mines great comedy-horror from this premise: When the Trinidadian nanny for a rich white boy dies suddenly, the parents are haunted by the dawning realization that she was more family to their son than they were.)

I found relief from this narrative trap in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which unchains its overworked mother character from the limits of the domestic horror genre by vaulting her into a multiverse of thrilling supernatural possibilities. The film begins with Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a laundromat owner pestered by her aging father, her bumbling husband, her depressed teenage daughter and the I.R.S. Her life has devolved, as she puts it, into the endless repetition of “laundry and taxes” — until she learns that a plethora of Evelyns exist in endless multiverses, that she happens to be living the most disappointing possible version of her life, and that now she must access her untapped potential in order to save the worlds. “Everything Everywhere” accesses familiar themes of fraught mother-daughter relationships and overburdened moms, but this time the film’s whole paranormal dimension is built around Evelyn’s powerful complexity.

After a numbing few weeks of watching mothers tortured onscreen, the absurdly funny “Everything Everywhere” is the one that actually made me cry. But even during this elevated viewing experience, I was reminded that I was still living in our universe. Before the previews began, the theater screened a KFC commercial where a family gathers around the table for a fried chicken dinner. We hear each of their internal monologues as they dig in: “Mmm, mac and cheese,” the son thinks. “Mmm, tenders,” thinks the father. Then we hear the mind of the mother, who is nourished only by a respite from her domestic burden: “Mmmm,” she thinks. “Silence.”

Source: Movies -


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