What has motherhood taught me about horror? In the first pages of Helen Phillips’s novel The Need, the protagonist, Molly, confesses that she and her husband “had a running joke about how they both feared their kids at night the same way that, as children, they’d feared monsters under the bed. Beasts that would rise up from the side of your bed, seize you with sharp nails, and demand things of you.” Molly is a paleobotanist and the mother of two young children. She is attuned to the traumas of everyday parenting—even before the supernatural intervenes—in a way that profoundly resonated with me. As Phillips signals in the above quote, a central element of parenting is fearing what you love the most. And so, it is fitting that the supernatural monster that infiltrates Molly’s home life embodies the intensities of fear and love.
Reading The Need brought back memories of when I taught Jennifer Kent’s film The Babadook (2014) in my class on horror cinema. I was in for a plot twist that day. To me, the film was a spot-on take on the exhaustions, anxieties, and sacrifices of motherhood, mediated through the representational excesses of the horror genre.1 The narrative features an overworked single mother, Amelia, who is barely surviving the labor of raising her troubled six-year-old son and of working in an assisted living facility, where she takes care of people with yet another set of needs. And this is before the Babadook comes on the scene. When this monster pops out of her son’s pop-up book, Amelia is forced to confront a grotesque embodiment of the horrors of motherhood.
But my college students rejected my mother-centric reading. This film was not about Amelia’s suffering, they argued, but about the suffering of her son, a victim to a mother who did not properly take care of him. Not having experienced parenting themselves, the students gripped onto the subject position of the child.2 I found myself awkwardly (read: guiltily) mumbling something about how viewing motherhood as a sacrifice was not incompatible with loving one’s children.
While reading The Need, I kept wondering whether my Babadook students—or, indeed, any readers who had not experienced motherhood in the ways depicted by the novel—would share the uncomfortable pull of identification I felt with the novel’s main character, Molly. Would they connect, as I did, with the mother at the heart of this terrifying tale?
Like The Babadook, The Need first offers a baseline representation of the physical and psychological demands of parenting, only to later introduce horrific and supernatural elements. In both cases, the introduction of a monstrous figure amplifies preexisting anxieties, rather than generating fresh ones.
Consequently, these narratives of maternal horror oppose film critic Robin Wood’s oft-quoted formula for the horror film: “Normality is threatened by the monster.”3 Here, normality has already been ruptured, but by the conventionally “normal” act of becoming a parent.
Although The Need is not written in the first person—one of the revelations of the narrative is that motherhood challenges the very possibility of occupying this social and narrative position—it solidly anchors the reader in the urgency of Molly’s predicament. Her husband, David, is away on a long business trip. One night, while she is alone with her two children—a baby, Ben, and a preschooler, Viv—Molly hears unfamiliar footsteps in her house.
Phillips’s description of this scenario is terrifying in its immediacy:
Her desperation for her children’s silence manifested as a suffocating force, the desire for a pillow, a pair of thick socks, anything she could shove into them to perfect their muteness and save their lives.
Another step. Hesitant, but undeniable.
Or maybe not.
Ben was drowsy, tranquil, his thumb in his mouth.
Viv was looking at her with curious, cunning eyes.
David was on a plane somewhere over another continent.
The babysitter had marched off to get a Friday-night beer with her girls.
Could she squeeze the children under the bed and go out to confront the intruder on her own? Could she press them into the closet, keep them safe among her shoes?
This is the epitome of parental horror: a visceral manifestation of the deepest fears of not being able to protect your children. The scene also confirms the idea that motherhood is a “permanent state of mild panic,” until, that is, it becomes real, justified panic.
As when Molly compares children to monsters hiding under the bed, here, too, fear and love collapse into something undefinable and messy. The impulse to protect one’s children may entail hurting them in some way. Perhaps not physically, as Molly imagines here, but, instead, through less tangible suffocations and suppressions.
This early moment in The Need terrified me, as did multiple others that triggered anxiety through the depiction of familiar experiences—lived or imagined—in parenting. At times, the novel’s capacity to generate these deep feelings of panic felt exploitative. It is not that difficult, after all, to scare parents, who already do a good job of imagining worst-case scenarios on a daily basis.
But just as I would find myself becoming slightly skeptical (or self-protective), Phillips would introduce a startling observation or twist that pulled me right back into the narrative. I won’t reveal too much here, but one of its most unexpected revelations is that horror can sometimes have a reassuring, and even humane, face.
In a recent book review for the New York Times, aptly titled “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Evil,” Alexandra Alter discusses The Need, along with Vanessa Lillie’s Little Voices and Karen Russell’s Orange World, as part of “a growing body of surreal speculative fiction that uses horror tropes to capture the panic, self-doubt and pressures that new mothers face.”4 According to Alter, these works are groundbreaking in their ability to counter the “paucity of realistic, nuanced depictions of the internal lives of mothers in popular culture.”
This is indeed an important enterprise. And horror, with its ability to create visceral effects and strong identifications, may be the perfect genre to explore the complications of motherhood. To borrow film theorist Linda Williams’s formulation, horror—like pornography and melodrama (the “weepie”)—is a “body genre,” one that elicits strong physical sensations in its audience members, regardless of the subject positions they may occupy in the real world. “What seems to bracket these particular genres from others,” Williams writes, “is an apparent lack of proper esthetic distance, a sense of over-involvement in sensation and emotion.”5
But I can’t help thinking that my own subject position, as a white professional woman and mother, has a lot to do with how absorbed I was in The Need. Would my students, or readers who have not experienced “motherhood” as defined by the novel, have been as affected by it as I was? The types of fears presented in this narrative reflect the anxieties that befall women whose exposure to social precarity is limited. The fears the novel provokes, that is, are directed at those for whom imagining fearful situations, instead of experiencing real ones on a daily basis, bears its own mark of privilege.
Acts of Mothering
When Molly anticipates being left alone with her children while her husband is away, she runs through a list of scenarios that are unnervingly close to the ones I had imagined in similar situations: “So many meals, though, so many diapers, so many tantrums between now and next Saturday. The risk of someone throwing up; the risk of someone else crawling over and trying to touch the throw-up.” Yeah, I’ve been there—perhaps you have, too. Part of the effectiveness of the maternal horror genre, as demonstrated by Phillips’s novel, is how specific it is in recalling such small horrors.
But is it too specific? Is this new genre of maternal horror already becoming a niche genre? Merely an invitation for white, upper-middle-class mothers to dwell in their realizations of how hard motherhood, even in its most privileged forms, can be? Such that even the supernatural threats can’t distract from the vision of only one, very narrow kind of motherhood?
If so, that’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with niche genres, and I’m all for more women embracing horror. At the same time, I hope that the genre will proliferate and mutate and generate, opening itself up to other subject positions and modes of identification, just like any good monster.
- I wrote about the film in “Parenting through Horror: Reassurance in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook,” Camera Obscura, vol. 32, no. 2 (2017). ↩
- I stuck to my reading, trying to make connections to the film’s relationship to Hollywood maternal melodramas like Stella Dallas (1937) or Mildred Pierce (1945), in which we are inevitably and painfully sutured to the position of the mother. They didn’t buy it. ↩
- Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (Scarecrow, 2004), p. 117. ↩
- Alexandra Alter, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Evil,” New York Times, July 6, 2019. ↩
- Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, edited by Sue Thornham (NYU Press, 1999), p. 271. ↩