HORROR FILMS used to feature a “final girl”. The term, coined by Carol Glover in her book “Men, Women and Chainsaws” (1992), refers to a young woman, usually virginal, who is the last survivor of a violent psychopath and acts as the “investigating consciousness” of the film. She shrieked her way through the 1970s and 1980s in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, “Halloween” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”; “Scream” (1996), a slasher movie which mocked the worn tropes of the genre, more or less finished her off. So horror has shifted its emphasis onto another female figure: the mother.
Horror flicks, for all their sensationalist tendencies, have long interrogated expectations of motherhood. Pregnancy is shown not as a blessed state but as a dangerous, gory trauma. In “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), gestation is a violation of sorts, a sickness that eats away at the body and a woman’s agency. In “The Fly” (1986), a science-fiction body horror, Ronnie (Geena Davis) has a nightmare about giving birth to a maggot; she seeks an abortion but is abducted. In “Alien” (1979) the surrealism of having another living being growing inside you is experienced by Kane (John Hurt). When the foreign creature bursts bloodily from his body, it kills him. (In later films Ripley, the sole survivor of the first doomed mission, has similarly nightmarish experiences of pregnancy and parenthood.)
Childbirth is frightening, and the resulting offspring often even more so. The demonic, terrifyingly uncanny children of “The Exorcist” (1973) and “The Omen” (1976) exploit maternal fears of finding a child alien and unlikable, and test the concept of unconditional love. Meanwhile the assumption that women ought to become sweet, caring homemakers has been undermined by casting them as villains. Norman Bates’s domineering mother is the inspiration for his crimes in “Psycho” (1960); Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” (1976) is tormented by her fanatical parent. In “Friday the 13th” (1980) Jason’s mother is the murderous slasher.
In recent years film-makers have returned to these ideas and put several mothers at the centre of stories. A “Halloween” sequel (2018) showed Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)—the original “final girl”—as an adult, twice-divorced and estranged from her daughter. “The Babadook” (2014), “mother!” (2017), “Hereditary” (2018), “A Quiet Place” (2018), “Bird Box” (2018), “The Hole in the Ground” (2019, pictured) and “Us” (2019) all featured female protagonists grappling with family issues. Some of these characters are isolated, either through divorce or widowhood. Many are fighting their own demons as well as the villains that wish them harm.
The characters are often ambivalent about their responsibilities and the expectations placed on them. In “The Babadook” (2014) Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow whose grief makes caring for her troublesome son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) all the more difficult. The monster of the title comes from a magic pop-up book, but its true identity is a projection of Amelia’s desperation and anger. In “Hereditary”, Toni Collette’s Annie is a literal homemaker, an artist who specialises in making miniature dollhouses. She had a loveless relationship with her late mother, and plainly resents her own son and daughter. Both films include scenes in which the mother says the unsayable: they wish their children were dead, or had not been born. The sentiment has monstrous consequences.
Other films have cast women as formidable heroes. Evelyn (Emily Blunt), the survivalist mother in “A Quiet Place”, helps to protect her family against monsters that hunt using sound. She gives birth noiselessly and without help, and takes charge when her husband dies. In “Bird Box”, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) guides two children, blindfolded, through a post-apocalyptic landscape (some otherworldly force makes people see their worst fears, driving them to commit suicide). The women’s maternal instincts are helped by the fact that they are steely and quick-witted.
Horror is most unsettling when it invites audiences to imagine danger in safe places, particularly the home, and so mothers make ideal protagonists. At the same time, these figures allow film-makers to undermine assumptions that women are vulnerable (especially when pregnant), weak and fearful, as well as the idea that motherhood is always a rewarding experience. This makes for complex and nuanced characters. The “final girl” has grown up into the “final mother”.