When we think of horror we don’t necessarily think of our mothers. If we do, it’s hopefully because they’re fans of the genre and if that’s the case: major high-fives to those mothers! Horror tends to present us with the darker, sinister side of everything around us and that typically does not correlate with the adoration we have for our loving female role models. Yet somehow, in the way only this genre can facilitate, there are major prime in-depth examples of excellent mothers in horror films, old and new.
Falling in line with the traditions of Mother’s Day, we must push aside the monsters, the slashers, the ghosts, and all the other horrifying things we seek out. Today we need to shine a light on the survivors, the fighters, the avengers, and the average women that have given us life and strive to keep us alive.
In the list of the 10 Best Mothers of Horror below we honor those characters crafted with the purpose of showing viewers that a mother’s love, endurance, instinct, and support will triumph over even the most evil of elements. Of course, if you’re more interested in manical, menacing matriarchs, we also put together a list of The 13 Worst Mothers in Horror.
Shideh in Under the Shadow (2016)
Babak Anvari’s Iranian film Under the Shadow is a breath of fresh air with a unique quality added to a very familiar story of a family suffering through the haunting of a unknown deity. Shideh and her young daughter, Dorsa, stand strong in their apartment home while Shideh’s military doctor husband is called away and a Tehran war wages on beyond the walls surrounding them. When some eerie events plague the building and its inhabitants, Shideh and Dorsa find themselves at each other’s throats over simple containment frustrations, natural mother-daughter tension, and the trickery of an evil Djinn. When it comes down to being the only two left and the hauntings intensifying around her, Shideh remains steadfast and brave. If not for her courage and ability to stay calm in the face of menace combined with the true love she has for Dorsa, they would not have made it out alive. In the end there is not telling whether or not they have rid their lives of the Djinn for good, but there is little doubt that this mother would be ready for round two.
Estelle/Emma Collingwood in The Last House on the Left (1972/2009)
What would you do if it was your child? is more than likely a question a lot of parents are faced with and probably host the debate subconsciously when it comes to an unspeakable act and taking revenge out on those who deserve it most. While vengeance is more generally associated with actions taken by men, revenge is usually female driven fuel. The matriarch of the Collingwood clan in both Wes Craven’s original The Last House on the Left and Dennis Illiadis’ remake are given the fleeting opportunity to serve the sweetest, coldest dish right up to the people that committed heinous acts on their daughter and her friend. Along with her husband, Mrs. Collingwood traps the gang of rapists and murderers on her home turf and physically maims each one of them. Is revenge to the point of murder a sin? When it comes to this mother’s case I think we can all quietly agree it’s totally justified. I mean, what would you do?
Diane Freeling in Poltergeist (1982)
If a pit into the dimension of the dead opened itself up in the middle of your child’s closet would you willingly go in it? Nope. What about if your daughter was trapped in there by the angry spirits of the dead that refuse to move on? Still nope.
I’m just kidding. Any parent would willingly make the leap into the pit of pure evil in order to save their children and one mother of horror that does it quite often in the length of one film is Diane Freeling in Poltergeist. The Freeling’s daughter, Carol Anne, is mysteriously sucked into the television, later to be clarified that she has been taken by spirits to a different dimensional plane, they are completely helpless and at the mercy of parapsychologists and psychic Tangina Barrons. In a daring rescue Diane volunteers to walk into the dead space hole they believe their daughter to be caught in surrounded by spirits that want to feed off of her life force. I especially love the small detail that before the parapsychologists, Tangina, and the Freelings conduct this suicide mission they send their other two children, Robbie and Dana away to stay safe and away from the poltergeists’ debauchery. Many families in horror films make the mistake of keeping all the kids together to brave out the danger alone, but Diane is a bit smarter than that and never has a doubt about what the dead are capable of. Luckily, Diane is able to retrieve Carol Anne and return to the realm of the living. All seems well in the Freeling household again? Wrong.
Diane endures a second attack that literally drives her up the walls, a face to face screaming match with a skeletal beast guarding the door to her children’s room while the shriek in fear on the inside, and a memorable corpse bath in the backyard swimming pool. Through this all, Diane is relentless and after a few experiences she begins coming at these terrifying entities head on. Her protective instincts are unmatched, especially being a typical suburban mom who barely has enough time to take one drag of a joint. They’re all obvious efforts any mother would do (would they?) in order to save their child and show the spooks that they aren’t afraid of no ghost. Some might have just kept Carol Anne at channel 7 with the volume up high and called it a day.
Karen in Super Dark Times (2017)
Kevin Phillip’s highly divisive sleeper hit Super Dark Times had a variety of very interesting, extremely real characters. The one that struck a cord with me the most was Zach’s mother. Zach and his friends make an innocent mistake resulting in one of their deaths. Rather than calling the police they cover it up and attempt at returning to their normal lives. The film is an interesting study in how guilt effects these teenage boys and how the truth behind some of their motives is, to put it frankly, dark. Zach is consumed by the guilt and it is obviously tormenting to him to keep it a secret. His mother, Karen, is not exactly a character that jumps off of the screen at you, but she is obviously a loving, concerned, and worthy single mother. She relaxes at the the end of her long work day by cracking open a cold one and actually communicating with her son. Have you every tried to communicate with a boy at that age? It’s extremely hard, especially being the mother and sole parent of the house. Instead of being a nag, too tired to function, or ruling the house with an iron fist, Karen plays the parent/friend angle very well building a noticeably positive relationship with her son. She can see the shame and guilt hidden within Zach and while powerless, as most parents are when their children transcend adolescents, she takes the time to let him know she is there for him, that she worries about him, and that she loves them. To me, Karen is a modern day woman trying to be there for her son when he is obviously not only going through the rough teenage years we hope to survive, but also to get him through this unspoken moral dilemma that seems to be troubling him. Hooray for modern day mothers!
Evelyn Abbott in A Quiet Place (2018)
When the world is left in a post-apocalyptic state shrouded with auditory sensitive, blood thirsty creatures, Evelyn Abbott in John Krazinski’s A Quiet Place, refuses to give up her children’s lives to the daily dangers the lurk outside and the burden of silence they impose on her family. She goes to great lengths to keep her children safe physically and mentally by ensuring the environment in which they live in operates as normal as possible. Evelyn teaches them, provides appropriate activities for them, and even maintains the family’s farm with her husband to create a space of warmth, familiarity, and one that is sound proof. This retention of normalcy is built around the shred of hope that somehow, someway the world they occupy might revert back to as it was before the creatures appeared. Hope is a powerful virtue and it is something good mothers possess for themselves and for their families in even the harshest of conditions. Evelyn’s adaptive skills only make her more dangerous and a force to be reckoned with when the creatures come to attack. Good mothers do not go down without a fight or a shotgun.
Wendy Torrance in The Shining (1980)
Upon first observation, Wendy Torrance is a weak, timid, dependent victim. Many critics of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, ridicule Wendy for having no agency, staying with her abusive husband, allowing her son to be abused, and consider her character to be completely stripped down from what she was in the novel. While her character is a bit stripped (she’s got way more fight in her than she does in the film) and she does whine and scream a good bit, I have to add Wendy to this list. Someone has to advocate for her. Her marriage to Jack has suffered at the hands of his inner demons and alcoholism, an abuse incident by Jack towards their son Danny is inferred, and she is alone in the middle of nowhere with him for months. The family takes up residence in an enormous hotel as caretakers for their off-season when a touch of cabin fever springs them forward into a psychological tailspin o f a nightmare. Jack slowly looses his mind and Wendy, naturally, acquiesces into pure fear. You can tell she is the type of mother that has tried desperately to keep her family together out of genuine love for her husband and her son. I don’t think that makes her such a terrible person, a lot of mothers do that on a daily basis, and it’s just not in her character to be “more dynamic” or “more strong and independent”. It’s not how she was written, so it’s obviously not what she’d be. If you were isolated for months with your spouse that has a history of problems, you sense there might be a menacing presence about the hotel you’re looking after, and the ‘novel’ he or she has been working on for hours everyday is nothing but the same sentence repeated for hundreds of pages and they’ve taken a liking to an axe, you’d be running and screaming and more than a little emotional too. Wendy may have made the mistake by staying with Jack for the sake of her family, but she is ultimately a good mother. Wendy does have the guts to confront Jack when she believes he’s abused their son while staying at the hotel, manages to escape his violent clutches, and makes it out of the hotel with her son alive. It’s Jack, the big, conducting, emotionless, mentally dark, and narcissistic man that winds up dead and alone.
Annabel in Mama (2013)
While adding to this list, I wanted to include a character that is not a birth mother as there are so many people out there who don’t necessarily consider their biological mothers to be the ones they call their ‘mothers’. As perfect as it could be, one of my favorite horror film heroines, Annabel in Andy Muschietti’s Mama, is best example of a non-mother being a mother figure. Annabel’s character is so different in that she’s an edgy rebel, her character development is steady and reassuring, and she is pretty indifferent to feminine expectations thrown onto her. She is honest and unapologetic when it comes to her refusal to have children of her own. However, she regretfully finds herself in the care of her boyfriend’s brother’s two daughters who were abandoned in the forest by their late father for years after he killed their real mother and then himself. The young girls were kept, cared for, and raised by the angry spirit of a scorned mother, Mama, before they were found. Annabel, though reluctant at first, straps on her Doc Martens and slowly works her way into the girls’ hearts. They do the same to her, whether she’d admit it or not. Mama herself is jealous of this bond between the non-mother Annabel and the two girls setting off a chain of chaos and supernatural occurrences, resulting in both tragedy and redemption. Motherhood is not reserved for just those that give birth. Annabel, and if you want to count her in for argument’s sake, Mama, prove that in some cases mothers are made over time and can provide just as much love and protection over a child as a biological mother would.
Karen Barclay in Child’s Play (1988)
Most parents are guilty of using gifts as tangible symbols of their love when it comes to their children and why shouldn’t they? Around Christmastime retailers see firsthand just how much parents love their children and the lengths they will go to in order to give them the perfect gift. Karen Barclay is a single mother struggling to make ends meet when her son’s birthday rolls around and his one wish is for a Good Guy doll to cherish as his companion. Karen picks up extra shifts at the department store she works at, uses spending money on the expensive doll, makes a back-alley deal, and is almost raped by bums for this god forsaken doll. Arnold Schwarzenegger searching for Turbo Man has nothing on Karen Barclay. This does not make her a stupid mother, but a good mother. Her son, Andy, is not spoiled and has little due to their financial situation, so she decides to treat him to that one special present he’s begged and wished for. The only downside is that the doll is possessed by a sadistic murderer who wants to possess Andy’s body, but to Karen’s defense that was definitely not on the Good Guy box’s disclaimer.
Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist (1973)
High profile actress might be stereotyped into being the cold, narcissistic, absent types of mothers, but that is furthest from the truth when it comes to Chris MacNeil in William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist. Chris is independent, talented, and hard working all the while being a present, caring, and very much in-tune parent to her adolescent daughter, Regan. She has her daughter on set with her, takes care of their family operations (including reminding her ex-husband to wish their daughter happy birthday), and maintains a truly strong bond with Regan. She does not let celebrity get in the way of her role of being a mother, heck, she won’t let the devil himself get in the way of her role as a mother. When Regan is slowly possessed it is Chris that takes action by getting her the help she needs immediately. Not only does she have Regan tested medically to great lengths, but she seeks help within the religious community even though she lacks faith herself. What’s truly great about Chris is that she knows there is something off with the problems Regan is experiencing. She knows that the person in her home looks like her daughter and acts like her daughter, but it isn’t really her daughter. No one else can have that same feeling, not the way a mother could. Chris ironically should be clueless and absent given her profession, but in the end she is the only one who can identify what is truly wrong with her daughter as she is the one that knows her best. Not even the devil is a match against a loving mother.
Amelia in The Babadook (2014)
A creepy, fictitious storybook monster in a top hat and the torment her brings upon a mother and her son serves as a fantastic metaphor for depression and how a single mother copes with her condition following the death of her family in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Amelia suffers greatly and, for most scenes, realistically while dealing with the loss of her husband and caring for her son, Samuel. For all intents and purposes with no insult intended, Samuel is for a lack of better terms, a very difficult child. She struggles to work, is emotionally drained, and has close to no support from her family. Being a single mom is hard enough, but when your son is Samuel and those around him cannot understand his demeanor nor his social skills, life can become bleak quickly. Amelia’s mental state slowly crack giving way to The Babadook taking over her actions completely. Amelia holds out for as long as she can before falling victim to his violent ways. I’d consider her attempt at murdering Samuel to put her on the Worst Mothers of Horror list, however when looking back Amelia is considered a non-traditional good mother for a number of reasons. The first one being that she deserved a go at him for that screaming tantrum he threw in the car. Other reasons come from the fact that she is compassionate and understanding toward her son and everyone else. When others criticize his odd behavior, Amelia never complains or put the blame on him. Her empathy and love for her son, the only piece of her husband she has left, allows her to overcome her Babadook troubles, trap it, and keep it on lock down the way so many people must do when it comes to depression and other mental health issues. Amelia is one of those real film mothers who resemble so many others we see every day and know in our own personal lives. She is the tragic single mom hiding an ugly part of herself for the sake of providing a happy home for her son, even if he is just a hair annoying.
Honorable Mention: Laurie Strode in Halloween H20 (1998)
Since the remake will be striding its way into the franchise soon, I wanted to add Laurie Strode of Halloween H20 to a list of some sorts before the film is catapulted into the abyss.
Following the events of John Carpenter‘s original Halloween, Laurie builds a life for herself and her 17-year old son, John in Steve Miner’s Halloween H20. Though she constantly lives under the shadow, literally, of her murderous brother, Michael Myers, has a slight alcohol problem (wouldn’t you?), and suffers from some PTSD, Laurie turns out to be a pretty idealistic mother. She’s made her way up to be the headmistress of a very “posh” prep school, raises her son to be respectful to the best of her abilities, and even connect with the sweet school counselor. Oh, poor Will. When her greatest realizations come to life and Michael returns for not only her, but for her rule-breaking son, Laurie does waver even once. She goes into full protective-mother-war mode, wipes off her fear, and stops at nothing to keep her loved ones safe from her purely evil brother. It’s this kind of gumption that makes Laurie the queen of all final girls and the reason we vie for her character to return again and again. Without a doubt Jamie Lee Curtis will hold on to all of Laurie’s strengths and carry them over into this new re-imagining of Laurie Strode. I’m sure she won’t be far off from the brave, ass-kicking mother she was in H20.
We can also hope her daughter’s character isn’t as infuriating as Josh Hartnett (swoon) was as her son. Maybe don’t pull your typical teenage shenanigans the one night of the year your family is cursed with a streak of murders committed by your uncle. Pick one of the other 364 days of the year to cut loose, just not on Halloween. Listen to your mother.
While these mothers are not perfect and certainly have their flaws, we can identify with at least one of them whether you see yourself in them or see one of them in your mother figure. What makes them so great is the realness that is added to their characters mostly through the love they have towards their family members. Keep these strengths, and weaknesses, in mind when you honor whomever you call mother.
Remember, so long as we have these women in our lives our asses will not be dragged away by the undead, or eaten by creatures, or butchered, nor possessed by a demon. We really should consider adding a day or two to the annual celebration of mothers. They really do do it all.