The year’s series of Women in Horror Month articles focuses on horror icons – both real and fictional. Now we head to the fictional side, with my three articles this week will center around a recurring role many females in horror films play: mothers. As I see it, there are three “staple character” mothers: the timid nurturer, the evil mother, and the conquering mother. Today, let’s set our sights on the timid nurturer.
One hallmark of horror is that the characters are in danger. That’s the whole point. Without danger, there would be no horror. And the horror we feel as audience members, watching the horrific events unfold, is doubled when the main character is helpless. Thus, the timid nurturer is the type of character that makes audiences fearful just because they are fainthearted and we feel like, unless we can get inside the screen and help them, they are certainly doomed.
This is paradoxical when talking about mother characters, because they need to be strong for their children. Kids are the ultimate helpless character (unless they are evil). Nobody wants to see a child die (usually not even evil ones). When their mother or mother figure is helpless, there is no hope for escape. The fatal certainty we feel is awful.
I can give you two prime examples of horror films that star the timid nurturer: “The Innocents” (1961) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). Now, most timid nurturers will try to save their children, but in the end their personalities cannot overcome the obstacles they face.
Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens in “The Innocents,” a young governess for two children who becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted. Based on the novella “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, this film is regarded as a classic – and Miss Giddens is a classic timid nurturer. Left to care for two polite and friendly, though a little bit odd, children, Miss Giddens soon realizes that the ghosts of the previous governess and her lover are haunting the children. She does try to save them – I’ll give her that – but ultimately, she is too weak and proper to really defeat the evil. What she thought would save the children ultimately led to their undoing.
In “Rosemary’s Baby,” Mia Farrow is the titular Rosemary, a newly pregnant newlywed who comes to fear that her baby is in danger. Not only that, but her child is actually the son of Satan and she is being controlled by a coven in her apartment building. Pregnant women, though usually mentioned in literature and films as being in a “delicate state,” are actually quite resilient (anyone who has lived through 9 months of morning – or all day – sickness can tell you that). But Rosemary really is helpless. No one believes her when she says she is fearful because she lacks the fortitude to overcome her paranoia. In the end, even when it is revealed that she has, in fact, given birth to Satan’s child, she is too weak to kill him.
The timid nurturer is a staple character in horror films, but not used as often as the other two mother types. And for good reason. An audience can only handle so much, and it’s hard enough to live through watching a horror film, let alone a horror film where the main character and her children are doomed from the start.