‘What Did Your Mother Do To You?’ The Grotesque, Abjection and Motherhood in The Others (2001), Mama (2013) and The Conjuring (2013)

by: & Shannon Power , September 12, 2018

© Screenshot from The Others (2001) dir. Alejandro Amenábar


Traditionally, the family has been central to horror film plotlines. As Tony Williams argues, horror films often ‘present the monster as originating within the family’. (1996: 15). Indeed, the family has featured prominently in many famous films, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and The Shining (1980). While the familial unit remains a common source of trauma across the horror genre, this paper focuses its attention on maternal horror films. We aim to contribute to discussions about gender in horror films through a feminist analysis of three contemporary films that feature both biological mothers and maternal figures who kill or attempt to kill children: Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), Andy Muschietti’s Mama (2013), and James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013). Horror is replete with bad seeds, demonic babies, and overprotective mothers, yet the maternal antagonist who kills or attempts to kill her own children is rarer, unlike films which feature abusive maternal figures.[1] The three aforementioned films are unique in their portrayal of maternal figures who kill or attempt to kill children and in the complexity of their portrayal of these mothers as both the monster and the hero of each film. Furthermore, each film was a box office success (ranked in the top five for domestic opening weekend theatrical release) and are in the top 25 highest grossing supernatural horror films. In short, viewers spent money to see these films in the theatre and they continue to be popular.

The aim of this paper is two-fold. Foremost, we analyse the films as complex sites of conflicting ideology; the maternal figures in each acting as both a threat to the status quo and a reinforcement of it. All three films can be defined as what Sarah Arnold calls ‘maternal horror cinema,’ films that centre on a maternal figure and perpetuate the ‘unstable ideology of idealised motherhood,’ or overinvested mothering in their use of two archetypes: The Good Mother and The Bad Mother. (2013: 4) These films challenge conventions and stereotypes identified with ‘idealised motherhood,’ or what Kathleen Rowe Karlyn calls ‘new momism,’ ‘a cultural trend that surfaced in the 1990s and purports to celebrate motherhood, but by making mothers subservient to their children rather than their husbands’. (2011: 3) This paper argues that the films conclude with a recuperation of the maternal and a reinvestment in traditional gender roles and the nuclear family. This is not to claim that the films are inherently conservative. Rather, what is of interest here is the tension that these films generate and represent between contradictory ideologies and each film’s ultimate inability to sustain its initial challenge to normative idealised motherhood. The films demonstrate uncertainty about the myth of idealised motherhood, evidencing ruptures within this myth by destabilising it. However, contradiction and instability ultimately sustain the myth, rewarding the ‘good’ mothers and punishing the ‘bad.’

The second question that this paper addresses pertains to representation: what makes the maternal figures in The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring scary? If, as George Ochua argues, viewers seek out horror films ‘to feel horror…fear, but also something else – the reaction one has at seeing something ghastly, loathsome, repellent or revolution, a reaction that dictionaries call ‘repugnance’ (2011: 5), how do the mothers in each film provoke fear and repugnance? In what ways do mothers function as the monster and what makes them monstrous? To locate the sources of ‘horror’ or the catalyst for fear in these films, this paper draws upon theorisations of the abject and the grotesque and specifically their intimate relationship with gender, femininity, and motherhood. (Betterton 1996; Creed 1983; Kristeva 1982; Russo 1995) The abject and grotesque nature of the maternal figures in these films is constituted in part by the cultural provocation issued by each character’s rejection or overzealous embrace of normative motherhood. In short, the films scare because the maternal figures are physically, psychologically, and culturally grotesque. In making the mother’s physical embodiment and psychological state grotesque or abject the films provoke fear by distorting normative ideas and attitudes about women, mothers, and motherhood.

Feminist Approaches to Horror Films

Horror films are an assemblage of ‘dynamic and contradictory relationships among social, institutional, economic, and creative discourses and contexts’. (Berenstein 1996: 11) As Cynthia Freeland writes, it is doubtful that there could ‘be any one ‘feminist theory of horror’. (1992: 751) Following Freeland and Berenstein’s statements, our analysis of these three films is indebted to several frameworks, including theorizations of motherhood, the grotesque, and the abject.

The first strand of analysis employs Freeland’s ‘feminist framework,’ scrutinising not only how these three films create horror through their representation of ‘gender, sexual, and power relations’ but also engaging in a reading of ‘certain naturalized messages about gender…that the film takes for granted and expects its audience to agree with and accept’ or ‘that the film itself is raising questions about’. (Freeland 1992: 752) This analysis hinges on the ideology of idealised motherhood and asks what conventions, stereotypes, or ideas about mothers are expressed in the films.

The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring all revolve around the dichotomy of the Good Mother versus the Bad Mother, ‘as constructed within dominant patriarchal culture’. (Arnold 2013: 4) According to Arnold, the Good Mother refers to a ‘particular and popular discourse of motherhood that valorises self-sacrifice, selflessness and nurturance’. (Arnold 2013: 37) The Good Mother does what is best for her children, even if it deleterious to her own welfare. The Bad Mother, on the other hand, is ‘a multifaceted and contradictory construction’ who either rejects motherhood and the traditional expectations associated with it – such as self-sacrifice — or who exhibits ‘fanatical conformity to the institution of motherhood’. (Arnold 2013: 68) The Bad Mother, like the Good Mother, will also do anything for her children, including die. However, the Bad Mother does not do what is best for her children, she acts in her own self-interest or out of an obsession with her children. As Molly Haskell demonstrates, self-sacrifice, or the ability to self-sacrifice, is ‘the mainstay and oceanic force, high tide and low ebb of the woman’s film’ (2016: 157) and is certainly a mainstay of the horror genre as well. As Paula Quigley points out in her analysis of The Babadook (2014), ‘while motherhood is now framed as a choice, the caveat is that the woman must choose to give herself over to the child entirely if the child is to succeed’. (2016: 65) Through close readings of The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring, this paper examines representations and ideologies of gender and motherhood, including the opposition of the Good and Bad Mother as well as their conflicting simultaneous presence, and asks if all three films cement rather or disassemble the myth of idealised motherhood.

The second strand of analysis brings this examination of the idealised mother into dialogue with the more psychoanalytically grounded paradigms of the grotesque and the abject. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘exaggeration, hyperbolism and excessiveness are generally considered fundamental attributes of the grotesque style’ (1984: 303). The grotesque body ‘transgresses its own confines, ceases to be itself. The limits between the body and the world are erased, leading to the fusion of the one with the other and with surrounding objects’. (Bakhtin 1984: 310) The grotesque body is not contained or isolated and the ‘confines between the body and the world and between separate bodies’ are breached or blurred. (Bakhtin 1984: 315) In addition to physical attributes such as body parts which protrude, or acts such as eating, drinking, defecation, or pregnancy, the grotesque body is not complete; it is always ‘in the act of becoming…it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body’. (Bakhtin 1984: 317) Seeking to understand the connection between gender and the grotesque, Mary Russo describes the grotesque as that which deviates from, undermines, or rejects normative constructions of behaviour and bodies, especially those pertaining to gender difference. (1995: 10) Keeping in mind the social construction of sex and gender, the ‘female’ body is grotesque according to this formulation if it deviates from norms or is viewed as disruptive. In the same way that horror films employ the grotesque in the form of non-human monsters or copious violence, breaches in the gender order are also grotesque. Through an examination of the grotesque as theorised by Bakhtin or Russo, we draw attention to the normative meanings and roles assigned to maternal figures. The maternal figures in The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring not only are or become physically grotesque, they grotesquely breach normative boundaries and expectations associated with idealised motherhood.

For Bakhtin, the grotesque relates to the breaching and blurring of norms. Julia Kristeva follows Russo’s line of thought in her theorisation of the abject as both relational and corporeal. Kristeva theorises the abject in psychoanalytic terms as the human reaction to the threat of a breakdown in meaning or a loss of distinction between subject and object. (1982: 5) Kristeva suggests that ‘an archaic relationship to the object interprets, as it were, the relationship to the mother…her being coded as ‘abject’. (1982: 64) Locating the source of horror in the ‘pre-oedipal stage of the infant’s ambivalence toward the mother as it struggles to create boundaries and forget its own ego identity,’ the maternal body is abject in Kristeva’s formulation. (Freeland 1992: 744) For Kristeva, the child’s first experience of abjection is in its separation from the mother. According to Barbara Creed, Kristeva ‘sees the mother-child relations as one marked by conflict: the child struggles to break free but the mother is reluctant to release it’ but the child is also tempted to remain with the mother in comfort. (1986: 49) Horror is created via the breach of this boundary between mother and child— ‘the threat of transgressing [the boundary], and… the need to do so’. (Freeland 1992: 744-745) The abject, then, is contradictory. Adapting Kristeva’s theory to the horror genre, Creed emphasises the ‘duality of our attraction/repulsion’ to the abject as both the object of horror and identification: abjection ‘by its very nature is ambiguous, it both repels and attracts’. (Creed 1986: 65)

Creed argues that borders and boundaries are ‘central to the construction of the monstrous’ in horror films. (1986: 49) Locating the experience of horror in what she calls ‘the monstrous feminine’ (Creed 1986: 44), Creed highlights how women are represented as being monstrous in relation to their mothering and reproductive functions. (Creed 1986: 54) For instance, in Alien (1979) the maternal figure who refuses to surrender her control over her child is constructed as the monstrous-feminine, or what Creed calls ‘the archaic mother’. (Creed 1986: 54) The archaic mother is the mother of early infancy, ‘horrific’ in the sense of being all-engulfing, primitive’. (Freeland 1992: 744) In horror films the archaic mother is uncontained, grotesque, and terrifying in her desire to maintain unity with her child.

The maternal body is abject because it represents the feminine body in its most terrifying form: ‘that which does not respect borders, positions, rules’. (Kristeva 1982: 4) Mothers that transgress the boundaries of a ‘good mother’ bring forth feelings of abjection and horror as they cross the boundary from normal to abnormal. The feminine-maternal body in its changing state is linked to bodily wastes, dissolution, and decay that signify the dangerous permeability between inside and outside and the threat to the individual subject. The maternal figures in each of these films is ‘scary’ as a result of viewer’s reactions to the breakdown of what has been constructed as acceptable motherhood. They disturb ‘identity, system, order’ and represent ‘the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’. (Kristeva 1982: 4) As Rosemary Betterton argues, ‘in horror films, the threat of the abject is displaced onto the monstrous or the alien, which must be expelled in order for the social body to be restored and psychic resolution achieved… at the cost of casting into darkness the terrors we cannot accept or tolerate’. (1996: 159) These frameworks have become foundational in feminist horror scholarship and this analysis aims to apply them to three successful and mainstream contemporary horror films. 

The Maternal Antagonist in Horror Films

‘It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes, don’t you?’ Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) 

Horror films that feature maternal antagonists conform to three patterns, all of which relate to the idealisation of a certain form of maternal identity. First, maternal antagonists are overbearing, overprotective, or abusive. Their physical embodiment reflects their lack of restraint or their vulnerability to evil, which damages their children irrevocably. Second, maternal antagonists are often single or abandoned women. Finally, it goes without saying that mainstream Anglo-European horror films lack racial diversity and privilege representations of white people. In some films, maternal transgressions can be resolved (single mothers are punished or brought back into the family structure, dominant mothers are killed). However, in the case of non-white mothers, such films have simply avoided representation altogether. These three patterns gesture towards the idealised maternal figure as white, middle-class, and married – mirroring Victorian ideals of motherhood — and maternal antagonists in horror films inspire fear (and are punished) when they eschew this form of idealised feminine motherhood. Examples of this are evident in several popular horror films.

In Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) single mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), is physically and emotionally abusive and attempts to murder her daughter. Carrie’s mother is particularly wrathful in her punishment of Carrie for her developing sexuality because, as Margaret explains, Carrie was conceived ‘in sin.’ Carrie’s sexuality, and anger, are so repressed that they are manifested in telekinetic powers brought on by her first menstrual period. Carrie is unable to establish her independence from her mother and the film concludes with Carrie killing her classmates, her mother, and herself. In David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), maternal antagonist Nola (Samantha Eggar) begins to parthenogenetically reproduce creatures from an external womb as a reaction to the abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her own mother and the attempts of her husband to take away her child, Candice (Cindy Hinds). The creature-children, her ‘brood,’ seek out and attempt kill anyone who Nola feels rage towards, including Nola’s mother and her own daughter (although they fail to kill her daughter). Nola is killed by her husband which extinguishes her psychic link to her brood, killing them all before their daughter is murdered. However, Nola’s daughter has not escaped the cycle of psychic abuse and begins to produce external wombs.

The most famous example of a destructive maternal figure, of course, is Norma Bates (Virginia Gregg) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Norma, a single mother, has overbearing and possessive tendencies that push her son Norman (Anthony Perkins) to kill her and her lover out of jealousy. Norman, guilt-ridden, exhumes his mother’s body and treats her as though she is still alive, dressing in her clothes and speaking in her voice. Years later, when Norman becomes attracted a woman (Janet Leigh) who suggests that his mother is ‘hurting’ him, his ‘mother’ kills her. Norma Bates’ personality was so strong in life that in death it consumes Norman, and at the conclusion of the film there is nothing left of him mentally. Margaret, Nola, and Norma are all grotesque figures whether it be physically (Nola’s external womb) or psychologically (Margaret and Norma’s overbearing and abusive relationships with their children). Intentionally or not, their grotesque failures are re-enacted by their children signalling the potential of further future horror. Mama, The Conjuring, and The Others are situated within this tradition and the maternal figures follow a similar pattern.


Mama (2013), The Others (2001), and The Conjuring (2013)

‘There’s a lady in a dirty nightgown that I see in my dreams, she’s standing in front of my mom’s bed.’ Cindy Perron in  The Conjuring

Screenshot from The Conjuring (2013)


Here we offer a brief summary of each film before moving on to our analysis. In the opening scenes of Mama, stockbroker Jeffrey Desange (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kills his business partners and employees before murdering his wife and kidnapping their children, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) (age three) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) (age one). Jeffrey plans to murder his children, however, after hiding out in an abandoned cabin, he is killed by Mama (Javier Botet). Five years later Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (also played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finds the girls, feral but alive. They are put under psychiatric care but are allowed to go home with Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), as long as they consent to move into a new house and allow the psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), to monitor the girls. Victoria adapts quickly but Lilly retains her feralness. Lucas is attacked by Mama and put in a coma, leaving Annabel to care for the girls alone. It is eventually revealed that Mama is the ghost of Edith Brennan, a mother and mental asylum patient from the 1800s. Edith was sent to an asylum while pregnant and her child was taken from her. She escaped and stabbed a nun to retrieve her baby. Edith fled and jumped off a cliff, but while Edith drowned, her baby became stuck on a branch and died. Edith, dead but unaware of the location of her child, searched for it until she found Victoria and Lilly. Annabel’s increasing closeness to Victoria enrages Mama, causing her to take the children. Annabel and Lucas search for the girls, finding them on the cliff where Edith jumped to her death, and is preparing to jump with Victoria and Lilly. Mama is briefly humanised when Annabel shows her the skeletal remains of her own baby, but reverts back to her monstrous form when Lilly calls out to her. Mama attempts to kill Annabel and Lucas, but Annabel maintains her grip on Victoria who asks to stay with Annabel. Mama accepts this compromise and jumps off the cliff with Lilly, the two are enclosed in a cocoon of sorts before they hit the branch and burst into a cloud of blue moths. Lucas, Annabel, and Victoria embrace as a bright blue moth lands on Victoria’s hand, concluding the film.

In The Others, Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) lives in a remote house in the Channel Islands in the aftermath of World War II with her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). Anne and Nicholas have a disease and are photosensitive, so the house must remain dark. After her servants disappear, Grace hires three servants who say they worked at the house many years ago. When unexplainable events begin to take place at the house, Grace believes the house may be haunted. Anne claims to have seen a group of people in the house: a family with a child and an old woman. Grace attempts to leave the property but is hindered by dense fog until she runs into her husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston), who was killed during the war. Charles asks Grace what happened ‘that day’ but Grace claims she does not know. Charles goes ‘back to the front’ the next day. Grace and the children discover that their servants have been dead for 50 years and they too are dead. The people Anne saw in the house were its new residents, who hired a medium to speak to the ghosts: Grace, Anne, and Nicholas. The medium asks Anne and Nicholas to explain what happened to them, and they tell her that Grace smothered the children the day ‘she went mad.’ Grace, in denial, rips the medium’s papers and shakes the table, scaring Victor’s family away from the house. Grace realises she is dead and recalls the end of the war: stricken with grief and isolated, Grace went mad and killed her children, then shot herself. Because the children are dead they are no longer photosensitive and the film concludes with their continued inhabitation of the house, now sunlit, while a ‘For Sale’ sign is put up.

The Conjuring is set in 1971. Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) move into an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. They have five daughters: Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver). Paranormal events begin to occur in the house: the clocks stop at 3:07 AM, their dog is killed, and the family hears strange sounds. One of the children, Christine, sees a spirit at night who tells her that it wants her family dead. Carolyn is chased and locked into the cellar by the spirit and Andrea is attacked by it. The family contacts Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who are demonologists. The Warrens investigate, determining an exorcism is necessary. Ed and Lorraine discover that the house originally belonged to Bathsheba (Joseph Bishara), an accused witch. Identified as a relative of Mary Towne Eastey (a real-life victim of the Salem Witch Trials who was executed in 1692 at the age of 58), the Warrens describe how Bathsheba sacrificed her newborn child to the devil and then killed herself in 1863, leaving a curse on her property. Lorraine has a vision of a woman who Bathsheba had possessed once and forced to kill her child. The Perron family flee the house and stay in a hotel while they wait for permission from the Catholic Church to have an exorcism performed. Carolyn is possessed by Bathsheba and attempts to kill two of her children. Ed decides to perform the exorcism himself and is attacked by Bathsheba/Carolyn who also attempts to kill April. Lorraine distracts Carolyn by reminding her of a special family memory, giving Ed a chance to complete the exorcism, saving the family and lifting Bathsheba’s curse.


The Maternal Grotesque

At first I couldn’t understand what the pillows where doing in my hands and why you didn’t move, but then I knew, it had happened, I killed my children. I got the rifle, I put it to my forehead and I pulled the trigger, nothing, and I heard your laughter in the bedroom, you were playing with the pillows as if nothing had happened, and I thought the Lord and his great mercy was giving me another chance, tell them, don’t give up, be strong, be a good mother but now, but now what does this all mean? Where are we?’ Grace Stewart in The Others 

Screenshot from The Others (2001)


The maternal figures in each film are, or become, physically grotesque. The grotesque body ‘transgresses its own confines, ceases to be itself. The limits between the body and the world are erased, leading to the fusion of the one with the other and with surrounding objects’. (Bakhtin 1984: 310) Each maternal figure embodies the grotesque in their limitlessness, transformation or capacity for transformation, and distortion.

In Mama, the titular maternal antagonist is an exaggerated version of a protective mother. Of the three films we discuss, she is the only maternal figure who is physically terrifying rather than becoming terrifying over the course of the film. Mama is a ghost. She appears tall – almost stretched – and her limbs, fingers, and face are elongated and bent out of shape. She is overly-flexible when she materialises, contorting her body, and spending much of the film in dark, almost liquid in form. Mama is not confined to a singular location or to the limitations of the physical body. She travels instantly to wherever the girls are, breaching the boundaries of time and space, through rotting portals in the walls that materialise. Mama’s voice is hoarse, she rarely speaks. She takes on a human form briefly at the end of the film, speaking in a woman’s voice and gazing longingly at the corpse of her baby before reverting to the distorted, formless Mama. Unlike The Others and The Conjuring, in which the maternal figures become grotesque, Mama is briefly relieved from her grotesque physicality before being claimed by it at the conclusion of the film.

Grace is the maternal antagonist in The Others. She is idealised white femininity embodied; beautiful, contained, and proper. As she interacts with, controls, and is controlled by her surroundings and emotions, her body shifts and changes. Grace becomes pale and nervous, her eyes constantly flitting back and forth. As the film progresses Grace’s composure breaks, her hair and dress become increasingly unkempt and wild. As Grace becomes more obsessed with what she believes to be ghosts in her home, she becomes more ghost-like herself. Grace’s most physically grotesque embodiment is insinuated but not shown: Grace and the children are dead, the children the victims of suffocation at Grace’s hands and Grace the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot. While the viewer only sees Grace and the children as intact, living humans, they suffered violent and disfiguring deaths.

The primary maternal figure in The Conjuring, Carolyn, is not the antagonist. Carolyn performs ideal motherhood. She protects her children while giving them their own space and agency. She also emotionally supports her financially floundering husband and puts both husband and children before herself. At the outset of the film, Carolyn begins to discover bruises on her body. As the film progresses, more bruises appear as Carolyn becomes increasingly tired and nervous. Carolyn is possessed by the maternal antagonist, the demon Bathsheba. Once possessed by Bathsheba, Carolyn’s body is twisted into dangerous positions, her face pulses with green veins, her eyes become black, and her voice is distorted. She displays superhuman strength, growling as she throws her husband across the room before she chokes her daughter.

While physically grotesque in different ways, each maternal figure becomes so after they reject normative motherhood: Grace goes mad under the stress of caring for her chronically ill children in isolation, Mama murders a nun to reach the child that had been taken from her, and Carolyn becomes possessed by a demon because she is the ‘most psychologically vulnerable’ member of the family. In all three films, the maternal figure defies what is considered natural or normal, physically transforming them in the process, and causing the familiar to become dangerous and uncanny.

The protagonist in Mama, Annabel, is an unlikely maternal figure. In contrast to Mama, Annabel initially rejects motherhood. For example, she celebrates when a pregnancy test comes back negative and exclaims to Lucas ‘guess who’s not pregnant!’ while she loudly chews cereal, ignoring his sadness over his missing nieces. Mama wants a child more than anything, while Annabel wants to maintain her freedom from children. Annabel and Mama are similar in that neither is typical of idealised womanhood, both women are unregulated and eschew stereotypical gender norms. However, both are defined by their relationship to motherhood, Annabel in her rejection of it and Mama in her unhealthy obsession with it.

Mama is defined by wild, unruly imagery. She lives in the forest, she gives the girls dolls made from twigs, feeds them moths and cherries, and makes them flower crowns. In play, the girls are rough with one another and with Mama and are covered with bruises. Mama represents an unbridled, uncontained version of motherhood and femininity that ultimately harms the children. In death, Mama’s maternal urges cross the point of normalcy into a complete obsession and she is not only willing to kill for Victoria and Lilly but to kill them rather than lose them. Everything about Mama is excessive, disorderly, and thus grotesque. Alternatively, as Annabel acquiesces to a domesticated life with Lucas in a suburban home, she becomes more emotionally invested in the girls and is transformed into a normative maternal figure. Annabel, in giving up her autonomy, independence, and desires, can fulfil the expectations of idealised motherhood. Like Grace in The Others, Annabel can only be a ‘good’ mother when she learns to self-sacrifice, unlike Mama, who is incapable of surrendering her desire for children and refuses to self-sacrifice. However, Annabel’s deepening attachment to the girls results in the death of one of them. In both cases, it is their transformation, or capacity for transformation, that is grotesque, although Annabel survives her transformation once her unfeminine dislike of children is disciplined out of her.

Maternal Abjection

‘How can a mother kill her child?’

‘It was never a child to her. She just used her God-given gift as the ultimate offense against Him. Witches believe it elevates their statues in the eyes of Satan’. Carolyn Perron and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring


Oral transgression in each film is presented as physically grotesque, as the grotesque is stressed through ‘those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world’. (Bakhtin 1984: 26) Oral transgression also inspires abjection via symbolic breaches of boundaries insinuated by the mouth. For Kristeva especially, the abject body is such because of its inherent liminality, neither subject or object, living nor dead, inside or out. She identifies sites of passage between the inside and outside of the body as inspiring abjection. For Creed, the mouth and orality inspire abjection and fear because of their potential for disruption, especially as a metaphor for the ‘female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up…the mouth of hell – a terrifying symbol of woman as the ‘devil’s gateway’. (1993: 106) For both, the mouth and orality are about control and the potential for its loss. The mouth and orality feature prominently in each film.

In The Conjuring, Bathsheba possesses Carolyn’s body through the mouth, forcing the audience to experience Carolyn’s symbolic consumption of and possession by the spirit itself. Once Bathsheba has vomited herself into Carolyn’s body, Carolyn herself begins to change: her movements, actions, and voice are not her own. In the throes of possession, Carolyn’s mouth leaks fluid and blood and she spews profanities. In The Others, Grace strictly polices the mouth as a gateway to God and Godliness, and punishes her children harshly when she disapproves of what they say. To teach her children the importance of being honest she makes them recite what they know about ‘children’s limbo, one of the four hells.’ She tells them that this hell is where lying children go for eternity, because they are damned. She forces them to close their eyes and imagine ‘pain, forever.’ There is conflict between Grace and her daughter, Anne, who refuses to censor what she says. It is through Anne’s mouth that the truth attempts to escape multiple times: she mutters to the servants about her mother hurting herself and Nicholas, talks to her Nicholas about the time their mother went mad, and she both speaks to and as a conduit of the ‘spirits’ in the home. As Grace’s attempts to silence Anne intensify, so too does the tension of the film. Grace is obsessed with keeping every door in the house locked, including doors to rooms where her children play or sleep. Grace is consumed by her desire to regulate what her children say and the doors can be read as symbolic mouths, portals from one space to another, which Grace regulates tyrannically. The children’s literal and symbolic silencing results in an interminable childhood, the stunting of their psychological and physical growth and development. They are bound to their mother, entombed in the womb-like home forever.

In Mama, abjection via orality diverges from the other films in its focus on food and eating. Two foods are represented as disgusting or inappropriate: moths and cherries. Moths materialise wherever Mama appears, and the girls eat them. When the girls are abandoned in the cabin in the woods Mama rolls a cherry to them from a darkened corner (even though it is winter). Five years later, the search team finds the girls and are met with a powerful odour and an enormous pile of rotting cherry pits. As the children transition into their new home, Annabel attempts to ensure they eat normally. The youngest child, Lilly, resists normative eating practices. During their first ‘family meal’ Annabel, Lucas, and Victoria are shown eating from plates at a table. As the camera pans back, Lilly is on the floor voraciously eating piles of cherries with her hands, her face and arms stained red. While visiting Lucas in the hospital after he is attacked by Mama, Victoria tries to show Lilly a drawing that he has given them but finds her behind the hospital bed, hands full of enormous moths, face smudged with dark dust from their wings. As Kristeva writes, ‘repulsion and nausea which separate and turn me away from the impure, from the cloaca, from filth. Ignominy of compromise, the in between of treachery…the distaste for certain foods is perhaps the most elementary and the most archaic form of abjection… and separates me from the mother and father who give it to me … ‘I do(es) not want it I do(es) not want to, I do(es) not assimilate it’. (1982: 126) Far from being ashamed or repulsed, Lilly joyfully consumes the symbol of Mama, the moths, rejecting autonomy from the mother. In addition to the affective disgust inspired by the consumption of the moths (their large, wriggling bodies that crunch in Lilly’s mouth) and the transgression of the boundary of the mouth (insects, or moths, are not necessarily acknowledged as an appropriate food source for certain children), abjection arises from the symbolic consumption of and merging with the maternal antagonist.

Screenshot from Mama (2013)


Abjection is further created through the construction of the maternal role as excessive, which is a fundamental attribute of the grotesque as well. (Bakhtin 1984: 303) The abject can be ‘located in the period of intense dependency on the mother during which the infant experiences itself with the maternal body’. (Betterton 1996: 144) In The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring, the mother or maternal figure is isolated in her caregiving role. In Mama, while Carolyn’s singular role as a mother is positive (as is Annabel’s forced motherhood), Mama and Grace’s relegation to an exclusive and isolated maternal role creates horror. The over-protective, obsessive mother impedes regular child development as the child cannot become an autonomous, independent subject. Abjection is created when the child cannot, or chooses not to, break free from the mother; threatening the boundary between the child’s sense of self and the outside word.

According to Creed, ‘we see abjection at work in the horror text where the child struggles to break away from the mother, representative of the archaic maternal figure, in a context in which the father is invariably absent’. (1986: 50) In Mama, Mama’s protection brings harm to the children and those who care about them and in The Others Grace’s isolation and attempt to protect her children from light drives her to kill them and herself. In both films the mothers become increasingly obsessed and violent the less their care and protection necessary and the children pull away from them. While Victoria is eventually able to detach herself from Mama, refocusing her attachment and affection on Annabel, Lilly is incapable of adjusting to normative life and chooses to remain merged with Mama. In The Conjuring, while Carolyn is possessed her attacks are focused on April, her youngest and most dependent child. Resolution occurs when Bathsheba fails to kill April, and therefore fails to sever her connection with her mother, keeping intact idealised motherhood.

According to Creed, ‘the possessed self or invaded being is a figure of abjection in that the boundary between the self and the other has been transgressed’. (Creed 1993: 32) From Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to The Witch (2015), horror movies depict witches as abject and female, while the Devil and the demons are usually male and often disembodied. The Conjuring is no exception. During the height of the witch-trials in Europe and some of its colonies, witches were accused of crimes that had a distinctly sexual and gendered nature. (Federici 2004: 179) For example, they were accused of copulating with the devil, who was coded as male, and allegedly castrated men and made them impotent. The inquisitor’s manual for witch prosecution, the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), argued that women were more inclined towards witchcraft than men because of women’s ‘insatiable lust,’ while Martin Luther and other religious writers emphasised women’s ‘moral and mental weakness’ as the reason for their vulnerability to witchcraft. (Federici 2004: 179-180) Echoing these historical constructions about women’s susceptibility to demonic forces, The Conjuring’s maternal antagonist Bathsheba targets Carolyn for possession. Carolyn is only able to overcome this gendered weakness through her overpowering maternal love for her children, which weakens Bathsheba and enables Ed to complete the exorcism.

Standing out from the rest, Bathsheba is depicted as being intrinsically, unambiguously evil. Hinging on problematic stereotypes of the witch as an unsuitable mother, Bathsheba chose her relationship with the devil over her own child and possesses mothers, forcing them to murder their children. Bathsheba is a ‘scary’ antagonist not because of her potential for failure, but because she rejected motherhood in life and continues to reject motherhood in death – going so far as to strip motherhood from others. This differentiates Bathsheba from the maternal antagonists in the other films we have discussed, who harm their children by being over protective or loving them ‘too much.’ At the climax of The Conjuring, Carolyn’s acceptable and normative maternity is contrasted with Bathsheba’s grotesque maternity, or lack thereof, and Bathsheba is defeated.

In all three films discussed here, none of the children escape unscathed. Nicholas and Anne of The Others are dead and must remain under Grace’s care for eternity, Mama’s Victoria must live a life shaped by the loss of her sister to Mama, and the children in The Conjuring, particularly the youngest, will probably never fully trust their mother again. Maternal horror films distort social constructions of normalcy through dysfunctional mothers and homes. Mothers, and ‘women’ more generally, have been socially constructed as intrinsically nurturing, caring, and empathetic. It is somewhat paradoxical that society expects women to fiercely embrace the maternal role, yet when taken to the extreme as a horror device it becomes horrifying. The films propose that the fragile veneer of idealised motherhood conceals an underlying malevolence or violence in mothers, insinuating that all mothers are at risk of failing. In other words, the films are warnings about motherhood that exists outside of socially (and patriarchally) defined ideals.

Patriarchy and Motherhood

‘A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself, time and time again until it rights the wrong that was done.’ Louise in Mama


While responsible for injury and death, the maternal figures are not all to blame. Rather than viewing the horror created via the mother as reinforcing normative gender roles and ideologies, the grotesque mother can also be read as a subversion of, resistance to, or a result of problematic gender dichotomies that assign domestic care and familial love exclusively to women. Each of the mothers are alone and burdened by maternity in isolation. In each case conventional institutions that supposedly ‘protect’ women, such as the family, fail. As Haskell argues in her study of the ‘woman’s film’ as a genre, a ‘persistent irony’ is that women are ‘dependent for [their] well-being and ‘fulfillment’ on institutions – marriage, motherhood – that by translating the word ‘woman’ into ‘wife’ and mother,’ end her independent identity. (2016: 159-160)

In The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring, men are catalysts for negative and grotesque maternal transformation. In Mama, Victoria and Lilly’s father murders their mother and attempts to kill the girls as well, although he is thwarted by Mama. Lucas is incapacitated and put in a coma by Mama, leaving Annabel alone to care for the girls. Dr. Dreyfuss, the psychologist charged with the care of the girls, leaves them in a dangerous situation to serve his own purposes: to study them for his book. When the truth is revealed about the death of Mama’s baby it is insinuated that she was abandoned because there is no paternal figure present. In The Others, Grace’s husband leaves her and the children to fight in the war, but when his ghost returns Grace accuses him of wanting to leave her and using the war as an excuse. Grace feels abandoned by men: her husband, the local priest, and even the postman. In The Conjuring, Roger leaves his family for long stretches of time to work and is absent for many of the terrifying encounters with Bathsheba that his family endures. The role of men, fathers, and patriarchy in the creation of the terrifying maternal figures in each film represent ‘conflicting meanings involving hegemonic contests that reflect social contradictions’. (Williams 1996: 16) [2] In all three films, the maternal antagonist is created, born out of a patriarchal structure that idealises an impossibly perfect mother. However, this tension is not maintained, and the films conclude with the ascendency of normative motherhood.

While each film has the potential to subvert not only idealised motherhood itself but also society’s reliance upon it, each film fails at this aim. In both The Conjuring and Mama order is restored at the end of the film with the destruction of the maternal antagonist and a reunion of the proper family: Annabel, Lucas, and Victoria embrace after Mama and Lilly disappear; and it is happy memories of family vacations that allow Carolyn to fight Bathsheba, weakening the demon during the exorcism. While there is no resolution with a paternal figure in The Others, and the nuclear family is not reinstated, Grace’s failure as a mother has stalled her children’s physical and emotional development, chaining them to her and their home forever. In its conclusion, Grace is forced to accept what she has done, seek the forgiveness of her children, and atone for her ‘sin.’ In each case the subversive potential of the film is undermined. Rather than sustaining a critique of traditional gender roles or institutions, each film thus affirms the patriarchal nuclear family as natural while simultaneously casting the errant, ‘crazy’ individual woman as the problem. What can be read as systemic critiques fade, making way for a more easily recognisable monster: the failed mother.


Horror as a genre is ‘neither inherently progressive nor reactionary’. (Williams 1996: 16) This ambiguity and in-betweenness are one of the prime reasons horror films are such fruitful terrain for feminist analysis: they remain both subjective and open to interpretation. However, when viewed together through the lens of feminist theory patterns emerge. The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring are terrifying precisely because they challenge deep-seated beliefs and conventions about the family, mothers, and motherhood. While each film teeters along the edge of subversion, forcing the audience to question whether hegemonic ideologies of motherhood cause harm, ultimately, they reinforce normative conventions of gender by rendering women who transgress idealised motherhood as abject and grotesque sources of fear and horror.


[1] Maternal figures and motherhood in horror films is not, of course, uncommon. Some examples include (by date): Ringu (1998) dir. Hideo Nakata (Japan), Dark Water (2002) dir. Hideo Nakata (Japan), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) dir. Takashi Shimizu (Japan), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) dir. Kim Jee-woon (South Korea), El Orfanato (2007) dir. J.A Bayona (Spain),  Lady Vengeance (2005) dir. Park Chan-wook (South Korea), Silent Hill (2006) dir. Christopher Gans (Canada), Dark Touch (2013) dir. Marina de Van (Ireland/France/Sweden), Lyle (2014) dir. Stewart Thorndike (U.S.A), The Babadook (2014) dir. Jennifer Kent (Australia), Lights Out (2016) dir. David Sandberg (U.S.A).

[2] It is worth pointing out that the directors of The Others, Mama, and The Conjuring are all male-identified. Furthermore, each film referenced in this paper was directed by a male-identified person with the exception of The Babadook (2014), directed by Jennifer Kent, and Dark Touch (2013), directed by Marina de Van.


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Alien, film, directed by Ridley Scott. USA: Twentieth Century Fox, 1979.

The Babadook, film, directed by Jennifer Kent. USA: IFC Films, 2014.

The Brood, film, directed by David Cronenberg. USA: New World Pictures, 1979.

Carrie, film, directed by Brian De Palma. USA: United Artists, 1976.

The Conjuring, film, directed by James Wan. USA: New Line Cinema, 2013.

Dark Touch, film, directed by Marina de Van. USA: IFC Midnight, 2013.

Dark Water, film, directed by Hideo Nakata. USA: ADV Films, 2002.

El Orfanato, film, directed by J.A. Bayona. USA: Picturehouse, 2007.

The Hills Have Eyes, film, directed by Wes Craven. USA: Vanguard, 1977.

Ju-on: The Grudge, film, directed by Takashi Shimizu. USA: Lions Gate Films, 2002.

Lady Vengeance, film, directed by Park Chan-wook. USA: Palisades Tartan, 2005.

Lights Out, film, directed by David Sandberg. USA: Warner Bros., 2016.

Lyle, film, directed by Stewart Thorndike. USA: Breaking Glass Pictures, 2014.

Mama, film, directed by Andy Muschietti. USA: Universal Pictures, 2013.

The Others, film, directed by Alejandro Amenábar. USA: Dimension Films, 2001.

Psycho, film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Ringu, film, directed by Hideo Nakata. USA: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 1998.

Rosemary’s Baby, film, directed by Roman Polanski. USA: Paramount Pictures, 1968.

The Shining, film, directed by Stanley Kubrick. USA: Warner Bros., 1980.

Silent Hill, film, directed by Christopher Gans. USA: TriStar Pictures, 2006.

A Tale of Two Sisters, film, directed by Kim Jee-woon. USA: Tartan Films, 2003.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, film, directed by Tobe Hooper. USA: Bryanston Distributing, 1974.

The Witch, film, directed by Robert Eggers. USA: A24, 2016.

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