Anger at a child. How shall I learn to absorb the violence and make explicit only the caring?
—Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born
When we meet Mommy she is wearing a mask. She has just returned home from facial reconstructive surgery, which we are led to believe was purely elective. She harbors new desires, inclinations and impulses that turn her opaque at the very moment her twin sons demand transparency. When they knock, she stills her footsteps and holds her breath, praying for their departure. When they peer in at her, she swiftly draws the blinds and scolds them for looking. When they call, she cannot hear them. Or worse, she does not care to hear them.
Horror films exact their most masterful scares by turning the familiar strange. Their generic strength resides in distortions and perversions of the people and places we call safe. An unfamiliar mother must be unsafe, right? The Austrian thriller Goodnight Mommy is the most recent addition to an emerging canon of “mommy horror,” a still-gestating subgenre that troubles the supposed infallibility of a mother’s love for her children.
Most mommy horror gives us a mother overrun with hatred and contempt for her offspring, which sprout like noxious weeds that gleefully choke out the organic, locally sourced love she is expected to nourish. Other films take pleasure in showing us the danger of maternal love that metastasizes, becoming violently overwrought. While the mommy horror subgenre is largely fixated on mothers who loathe their children or love them too much, a few recent additions paint a chilling portrait of mother-child relationships that are curdled by indifference. Goodnight Mommy is one of these films. But first, to best understand this apathetic mother, mommy horror’s newest subject, some genealogical maneuvering is required. We must find her next of kin.
Fetal horror, mommy horror’s embryonic extension, emerged first and shares many of its same conventions. Among them, anxieties about the female body and mind as mutually reinforcing sites of hysteria, disorder and condemnable vulnerability are most prominent. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Brood (1979) are both prime examples of fetal horror. In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse learns that her husband and her neighbors have conspired against her, aiding and abetting her impregnation with the spawn of Satan. While the devil is ultimately to blame for the fetal corruption, the mother’s body is culpable for being too open, too penetrable; it lets evil in and slow roasts the fetus in its company. While Rosemary’s Baby is the fetal nightmare flick that most famously exploits the monstrous-feminine as purely corporeal, The Brood plays on fears of a hysterical female mind that becomes “pregnant” with sinister possibility. Nola Carveth, the matriarch in question, is a mentally ill woman who parthenogenetically hatches a brood of monstrous children who feed on her bad feelings. They spring from fits of rage, rashes of mania and bouts of melancholy. Naturally, they love to kill people. This is a tidy example of the fetal nightmare at its finest: a woman is cinematically skewered for having too many feelings, which turn her children into mindless killers. And, of course, she is not remorseful. She is gleeful.
Mommy horror raises every fear that fetal horror gestates. In this small but substantial genre, the mother is often vengeful, fragile, depressed, scared, hungry, horny and/or bored. She is too much, and thus, not enough. She is simply too many things to be a mother. Mothers are one thing: mothers. Or at least this is the dream. Motherhood is mythically imagined as the goal, the promise, and the end game for women. Once a woman is a mother, she is no longer expected to dream herself beyond her scheduled vanishing point, that time and that place where “Mother” emerges and woman recedes. While this is not every woman’s dream, it is the dread that we harbor, that nagging feeling, the archetype we resist but still see.
In Goodnight Mommy, directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala concoct an anti-heroine, a woman known only as Mother. While she has much in common with her precursors Rosemary Woodhouse and Nola Carveth, what is most horrifying about her is not her pregnancy but her parenting. Susanne Wuest’s “Mother” is not quite the abusive mother from Carrie (1976) or the vengeful mother from Mommie Dearest (1981), who both engage in spiteful and competitive relationships with their daughters that spur their violent tendencies. Nor is she the morbidly giving mother from Grace (2009), whose undying love for her undead daughter justifies her serving her breasts (not just the milk, the entire breast) to her child as zombie baby food. Goodnight Mommy instead gives us a figure most like Essie Davis’s brilliant iteration of the unfit mother in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). Both films make a spectacle of the non-maternal mother, but they do so without fully condemning her—exploring motherhood as a largely unforgiving role with potentially harmful expectations and obligations.
Adrienne Rich was the first to characterize motherhood as an institution in her 1986 book Of Woman Born, a collection of personal and political reflections on motherhood as compulsory and constitutive features of womanhood. Her words gingerly expose the heart of most, if not all, mommy horror, while also anticipating the critical turn that the subgenre now takes with these two recent films at the helm. Rich does this most poignantly when describing those secret, sinful moments when her mind shifted and cycled away from her children and towards an elsewhere they may not inhabit. The cycle starts with pleasure and ends with panic:
It began when I had picked up a book or began trying to write a letter, or even found myself on the telephone with someone …The child (or children) might be absorbed in busyness, in his own dream world; but as soon as he felt me gliding into a world which did not include him, he would come to pull at my hand, ask for help, punch at the typewriter keys. And I would feel his wants at such a moment as fraudulent, as an attempt moreover to defraud me of living even for fifteen minutes as myself. My anger would rise; I would feel the futility of any attempt to salvage myself, and also the inequality between us: my needs always balanced against those of a child, and always losing. … It was as if an invisible thread would pull taut between us and break, to the child’s sense of inconsolable abandonment, if I moved—not even physically, but in spirit—into a realm beyond our tightly circumscribed life together.
Every iteration of mommy horror tugs at “the invisible thread” between mother and child. This is the thread of connection that supposedly exists and persists effortlessly, binding mothers to their children. This is the umbilical cord reimagined—that psychic something that tells a mother that her children need her before they even know they do. This invisible thread is what threatens to break when mothers do not “absorb the violence and make explicit only the caring.”
Twentieth-century mommy horror implicitly urged the audience to fault the mother for snipping the invisible thread that yoked them to their children. More recent films encourage us to take issue with motherhood, the institution, for making the thread so impossibly fragile in the first place. Both The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy depict mothers who are attempting to loose themselves from the cord when it begins to strangle them. In doing so, they chart new territory for mommy horror as a burgeoning and malleable genre that, despite its largely sexist roots, can be compassionate, critical and curiously feminist. Rather than inspiring reductive criticisms of the mothers themselves, these films urge us to turn motherhood around in our hands and see it anew. They illuminate motherhood as something that is not wholly innate, but imposed, as a prescriptive role that valorizes sleepless selflessness and bottomless love. This strain of mommy horror excels at illuminating the tyranny of the maternal as it is often imagined: as an effusive and everlasting force that flows from the mother with ease and grace, no matter the circumstances.
But it is where the two films differ that reveals the most about where mommy horror has been and where it is going. The mother that stalks the frames of The Babadook, like nearly all horrifying mommies before her, is “bad,” or at the very least imperfect, because she is excessively emotional. She is full of grief, rage, frustration and sadness that eclipse and compound her love. This fullness makes her monstrous.
In contrast, Goodnight Mommy’s Mother is vacuous. The feelings she carries are too light, not heavy or strong enough for the serious business of motherhood. She is an imposter, a changeling. She forgets things that “good” mothers should remember, and her rare gestures of fondness are hollowed by an affectless voice that lacks even a trace of warm maternal cadence. Before we are even introduced to her alabaster austerity, her house gives away her hollowness. It is chilled with clinical minimalism, all porcelain countertops and steel edges that architecturally scoff at the thought of childproofing. If the home is a reflection of the mother, this one is a well-polished mirror, foreshadowing Mommy’s cool detachment long before she arrives on the scene. Mothers that populated mommy horror before her have all intentionally severed the invisible thread, whether they were conflicted or resolved in their choice to do so. Mommy walks away and does not notice that the cord has been cut. She doesn’t feel it. She is empty.
What is surprising is that we are not quick to judge Mommy for her removal or even question her for it. The thread was too taut, the cord was too tight. Goodnight Mommy adds nuance to the cautionary tale of the negligent mother, the unfeeling and empty mother, by daring us to feel for her. It turns mommy horror away from pure condemnation and towards a cautious compassion.
Ultimately, Mommy is punished for changing, for becoming unrecognizably cold to those for whom she is morally obligated to remain constant. At first, we are compelled to see her through her children’s eyes, as a selfish woman who refused the core requirement of motherhood: that a woman should never grow beyond the reach of her children. Her plastic surgery is easily interpreted as a symptom of vanity and vapidity, sins that are unsavory in most and downright criminal in a mother who should be committing her life to the care and keeping of others. But the surgery, and the healing time it prescribes, threatens the maternal with interlocking perversions of mutability and selfishness. Mommy has the audacity to change while also nourishing and even admiring this change. Scenes of self-care, including clandestine masturbation and covert nail filing, are framed as snippets of stolen time that are always endangered by the insistent pull of the twins who love and miss her. While these actions, these self-directed stolen moments, might make her seem fuller to viewers, they do not fill her in for her sons.
To be fair, when the boys begin to poke and prod their mother for signs of familiar life, their actions do not at first appear unjustified. Franz and Fiala did not create a film that embraces an imperfect mother while minimizing the very real fears and disappointments of her children. But, unlike the mommy horror of yore, the mother is not simply the wolf to the child’s lamb. In Goodnight Mommy, children are capable of adult violence and are wholly responsible for the pain they inflict. The film, as a result, shows us a mother and her children, in all their twisted codependency, without wholly demonizing or forgiving either.
While the film takes an all-too predictable turn, repeating an old horror-flick twist that unfolds without notable nuance, the provocations of the first and second acts make Goodnight Mommy hauntingly memorable. In fact, the first hour foments a sense of creeping dread that follows viewers long after a conclusion that is unworthy of the film’s initial complexities. The dread deepens as hairline fractures in the mother-child relationship expose the volatile fragility of motherly love, not as the exception but as the rule. It is these revelations, about mommy and her children, which contribute most strikingly to the ongoing—if uncommonly articulated—dialogue about motherhood in terror, and terror in motherhood.
Mommy horror can unsettle calcified misogyny in the horror genre and in the concept of motherhood more broadly. More recent films are not concerned with condemning the pregnant body as grotesque or the maternal mind as hysterical. In exposing an institution that demands authenticity and consistency from both its neophytes and its seasoned veterans, these films make the invisible thread visible. They give us mothers who are dreaming themselves beyond the vanishing point of motherhood, allowing us to cut the cord—or to imagine a cord that provides nourishment for mothers as well as their children. Good mommy horror asks: What if a mother could transform without punishment? These films can help us rethink that first moment when a child notices their mother as a person who is and is more than their mother, and see it not as a cataclysm, but simply as a reintroduction.