Kate Dolan’s debut feature You Are Not My Mother world premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, creeping out the unsuspecting Midnight Madness crowd. The film follows a young girl who suspects that her mentally ill mother might have been replaced by a monster. Set in Ireland, in the days leading up to Halloween, the young girl delves into the dark secrets of her family’s past in order to understand who her mother really is.
You Are Not My Mother is written & directed by Kate Dolan and stars Hazel Doupe (Float Like a Butterfly) and Carolyn Bracken (Dublin Murders). The Irish folk horror hits select theatres and VID today and we recently sat down with Dolan to discuss the Irish folklore surrounding her debut feature and what Halloween in Ireland looks like.
“You just have to give in to your Pagan ancestors and light the [Halloween] bonfire”
Jonathan Dehaan of Nightmare on Film Street: Just based on the movie, I’ve got to assume that you’re obsessed with Halloween
Kate Dolan: Yeah! I’ve even got [a] little jack-o-lantern tattoo. I’ve always loved Halloween. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always been obsessed with and initially in the first outline of the film it wasn’t set on Halloween, but then the more research I was doing into Paganism and folklore of Ireland, it kind of felt right. Samhain in Ireland is the time when you’re most likely to get [a] crossing through of other beings from the other world. And so, I was like, ‘I love Halloween, I have the power to write this film and make it Halloween, so I’m just going to do that’. [laughs]
NOFS: What’s Halloween like in Ireland?
Dolan: Well it’s not far from the Pagan roots, really. Samhain, in history and in Pagan history- you light bonfires as protection. They keep the spirits at bay because the dead would come back or the fairies could come through from the other world and the idea was that the fire would protect you from that, and also that’s kind of where trick-or-treating comes from, I think. You would leave out little gifts and food and things like that on your front door so that they wouldn’t cross the threshold into your house, and they would carve faces into turnips. The scary faces were meant to scare away the spirits as well.
So in Ireland, in the housing estates, you would still have bonfires in the middle of all the houses. There are hundreds of bonfires all over Dublin every Halloween, people lighting fireworks constantly. I’d say even from the start of September you start to hear fireworks. It’s almost like they get too excited so the fireworks start- and fireworks are actually illegal in Ireland, and also the bonfires are illegal, so you’re not really meant to do that but the Pagan roots, you can’t deny them. You just have to give in to your Pagan ancestors and light the bonfire for the day.
NOFS: Did you have a favorite Halloween costume growing up?
Dolan: I don’t know. My costumes were always very strange. My poor mom used to be so frustrated because, I remember, one year I wanted to be a police cat. She was like, “what is a police cat?” and I think I was about 6 or 7, and I was like “…a cat…but they’re also a policeman” [laughs]. So she had got me a cat mask and a policeman’s costume, and I was like “Perfect, you got it”. And then when I was about 8 or 9 I wanted to be a serial killer for Halloween. There’s this picture- she got me this really scary mask, and I had a knife, and I was wearing this camo jacket and a little hat- and it is really disturbing this picture.
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NOFS: That’s hilarious! Where do you think that idea came from? That’s such a strange costume for an 8-year-old.
Dolan: I don’t know, to be honest. Recently, people were asking me where I got my love of movies and I lived with just my mom growing up and I think she was just so worn out from working all the time that when it was bedtime and she’d be watching these very adult movies she’d just be like “fine, you can watch them with me”. So I think I had all of these references and I was like, “A serial killer! Of course”. I remember telling all the kids in my class and my teachers [asking my mom] “Can you tell Kate not to say that to the other children” [laughs].
“I was always the kid at the birthday parties that would bring a DVD of The Ring or something…“
NOFS: Do you remember the first horror movie you watched with your mom? Or the first one you really responded to?
Dolan: I loved sharks when I was growing up so I really wanted to watch Jaws because I had seen pictures of it so that was the first really scary movie that I was allowed to rent and watch with my friends. I think that was my 8th birthday, maybe, but then the one after that, that kind of scared me- we watched The Sixth Sense at a sleepover. And we watched it three times in one night because we were so bowled over by it, and by how scary some of the things in it were. That opened the floodgates and then it was just streams of horror movies constantly. I was always the kid at the birthday parties that would bring a DVD of The Ring or something and their mother would be calling my mom to be like, “Kate can’t bring these movies to the house!” [laughs].
NOFS: So where did the original idea for You Are Not My Mother come from?
Dolan: I was really drawn to folklore, and Irish folklore has kind of been depicted in some films but there was something that I felt hadn’t been captured about it before. All the stories are always told to you as if they’re real in Irish folklore. It’s not like it’s a fairy tale. And there are some people, older generations, very rational people who are like, “No, the night my brother died I did hear The Banshee scream,” and they’re dead serious.
Then when I was reading more about the real-world impact of that and how people actually thought their relatives were changelings up until 1895 I think was the last recorded case of that. But I just found that really interesting. People who really thought it was real, and just trying to make sense of why you would think that and what the actual explanation could be for what that was. A lot of the time people were physically or mentally unwell, just normal things.
So that really interested me and I was really drawn to the idea of inherited trauma in a family- and in society too- and how past events come back to haunt you. Particularly for those coming-of-age, how things in the past impact you as you are kind of figuring out who you are. The folklore just felt like a great way to tell that story because of the past of Ireland and how that informs who we are as people now as well. It just felt like it worked well together.
NOFS: Folklore and Folk Horror has had a big comeback recently. Why do you think these stories are so timeless?
Dolan: They’re so enduring, folk tales. In Ireland particularly, because we were colonized, we don’t have a lot of written history before a certain time because a lot of the text we have were destroyed. There was a real culture of storytelling. A lot of people couldn’t read or write so the stories were passed on verbally and I think that’s really interesting to me, just how enduring some folk tales or fairy tales are. That they stick with us in a way- I guess they just tap into a core human understanding of yourself. They’re just all-encompassing of things that capture what it is to be human. Who’s good or evil, or what it is to be bad. I’m sure someone smarter than me could explain it better but there’s a reason, obviously, that they’re still shared today and used today to tell stories still. They’re core texts that will never disappear, I think.
NOFS: How did you go about creating the atmospheric scares in your movie?
Dolan: The folklore that I was reading, in a lot of the stories- like the fairies, for example, they’re not good or bad. They’re kind of like the id, what they’re doing is for their own fulfillment. They love dancing and eating and they are kind of just out for themselves and I think when you’re a kid or your a teenager and you have a parent who’s just kind of out for themselves and they’re just doing what they want to do, it’s quite scary. But some of the elements, me and Carolyn worked on ideas together. Like what it is in mental illness, behaviors that are frightening sometimes, and how to depict that but [also] put a supernatural spin on it.
Everything came from a core of ambiguity. That idea that a parent would walk into your room in the middle of the night and talk to you in a kind of disturbing way. That was all kind of from real-life experiences or the things we had heard about people suffering from bipolar disorder. It all came from a place of authenticity but then we amped it up to make it more supernatural.
ADS ARE SCARY
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“[The scares] all came from a place of authenticity but then we amped it up to make it more supernatural.”
Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother, a Magnet release, is available in select theatres and on VOD today! Let us know if you’re excited to see this Irish folk horror and what you would do if you thought your mother was replaced by a changeling over on Twitter and Instagram, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord.
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